Like many who have been subjected to a long Turkish Airlines flight recently, I noticed the film “Money Monster” prominently offered among the film choices. The film was apparently not beloved by critics, which astounds me, because I have now watched it several times and continue to find it compelling. If you have not seen it, I strongly recommend doing so.
The film is directed by Jodie Foster and stars George Clooney. Both are Hollywood celebrities who have recently decided they wish to be “socially conscious” in their artistic output. I will return to the contradiction here momentarily, but for now let me just say that compared to some past attempts by Clooney, such as the politically meaningful but practically unwatchable mess that was Syriana, I think this is a massive improvement. Beyond that I enjoy watching it as a film, however, the film raises questions Marxists should be asking, although it naturally cannot provide the necessary answers. It would make a fine viewing for a Marxist group’s film night. Copious spoilers follow:
The Global Financial Crisis and Hollywood
Žižek proclaimed at one point that, particularly in an artistic and rhetorical sense, it was the easiest thing to do to be “anti-capitalist” after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. As a big film fan, I have noticed this in Hollywood films in particular: Many films are now coming out, including films not explicitly about the crisis, where the villain is a capitalist. Žižek’s point, as I understood it (and I’m not entirely certain Žižek always understands his own points), was that we are allowed to cynically hate an individual capitalist portrayed onscreen, but not to concretely organise against capitalism. In some sense, however, the contradiction is also reflected onscreen: Many films portray evil capitalists and corporations, but without a conception that these capitalists are the normative reflection of the system, or, even if they are, that justice is somewhat “automatically” delivered (by a brave journalist exposing them to the benevolent legal system, although the very need for such films is based on the widespread knowledge that the state has protected Wall Street’s pirate-like practices).
It may be that the lack of a connection between cinematic rage against a capitalist archetype and real-world struggle is predicated upon films which were cynically made to act as a pressure release valve for anger against the system. But it may just as well be that due to the class background of the majority of those involved in the production of Hollywood films, they are capable of little more than abstract moralising against a general sensation of wrongdoing “within” a system that by and large treats them well.
Having re-watched “Money Monster” several times, this question of how to portray the contradictions of capitalism and resistance to it onscreen stuck out in my mind. At the beginning of the film, we have the gun-wielding Kyle declaring openly that the CEOs who defraud ordinary people (“the people” in Marxist-Leninist terminology) are the same group that controls the media. This itself is a sort of tacit admission of the limitations of the film as an act of protest, as by the end of the film, we have CEO Walt Camby exposed in the bourgeois media, leading to criminal charges against him and a return to “business as usual” for our pro-market media heroes.
There is wish-fulfillment and reality at play here: It is reality that some CEOs are “punished” (and their punishment may result in less actual suffering than the reality of “normal” life under capitalism for many of us) for the laws they break (not the exploitation that results in constant suffering for millions even when it does not violate bourgeois law)… It is wish-fulfillment that this is a happy ending. Not only because so much “criminality” goes unpunished that these “victories” may ring hollow, but because “business as usual” is not a happy ending for most of us. “Business as usual” under capitalism does not erase the contradictions that result in massive suffering and death for millions, and constant alienation, stress, and depression for even many of the relatively “well-off” among us. The problem is not the individual villain, as much as Hollywood may want to portray it that way: The problem is exploitation, imperialism, alienation, oppression; the problem is the system itself, which the individual capitalist may also “suffer” from (as the “invisible hand” of the profit motive drives them through life without time to cultivate meaningful community or sense of self).
On the other hand, what’s interesting about Money Monster relative to some other films in which Wall Street or a corporation is depicted as the villain is how it does on some level manage to portray struggle of everyday people alongside a few “extraordinary” individuals at the centre of the plot… Of course, there is no “Occupy Wall Street” in the film, but there are the South African miners…
Imperialism and superprofits
Prior to seeing the film, if I were to summarise Hollywood’s “problem” with depicting “anti-capitalism” in cinema is that it portrays it entirely as a moralistic question of exposing capitalism, rather than a material question of mobilising against capitalism.
This film falls into this genre of “anti-capitalism” in general. However, there is a very important counter-posing of two proletariats in the film: It does not show the proletariat in New York as having any sense of organisation (on the contrary, “civilians” on the street are portrayed asininely cheering on either Kyle, the “suicide bomber”, or Lee Gates’s clownish television persona), but it does show quite direct proletarian struggle in another context: The South African miners’ strike, portrayed without an ounce of cynicism or question if the miners are anything but heroes, is a welcome political high point near the film’s cinematic climax.
The moment of cynicism comes from the villainous CEO Walt Camby, who declares that he is unfairly maligned, as if it were not him turning a profit by exploiting the weak, someone else would. This is in fact true and should not be ignored as an empty excuse by an antagonistic character. This is the nature of capitalism and it cannot be avoided. What’s interesting is how it is tied into international politics (per the Leninist understanding of imperialism): Camby does not protest that in his place just another CEO would have exploited South African miners, but that the US’s imperialist competition (“the Chinese” and “the Russians”) would. In effect, this is the inversion of Kyle’s call early in the film to blame the wealthy at the top of our local society (in Kyle’s case, the US) rather than the spectre of foreigners represented by “the Muslims” and “the Chinese”. “The main enemy is at home”. The conflict between different imperialist bourgeoisies is a false conflict, to be navigated between. The jingoistic rhetoric of one’s “own” bourgeoisie is to be opposed despite the accusations of “treason” (or “tankyism”, as is the fashionable cover for patriotism in English-speaking imperialist countries).
It is also noteworthy that the subject of Kyle was chosen in spite of the lack of portrayal of struggle on the part of US citizens in the film: He is not only the citizen of an imperialist country, but a member of the oppressor nation (the “Yankee” nation). As such, he represents a proletariat which has been disproportionately “bought off” by US imperialism. He is not our expected revolutionary subject given a relative amount of privilege compared to many of the victims of US imperialism, and the film even alludes to this matter through the aforementioned speech by Camby in which he accuses this “labour aristocratic” subject of, in effect, getting out of line by objecting to imperialist practices now that he is suffering.
But they do begin to object now, although the film does not show this so much as tell this (through Kyle’s angry rants). They do begin to object now, and that is why we had a Sanders, though he was weak and though he lost. They do begin to object now, and that is why there is increasingly a Hollywood genre of “anti-Wall Street” films. Though the cynical Camby may not like it, and though we must not exaggerate it, there is hope in the oppressor nations as well, unfortunately because the reality of capitalism is beginning to hit them directly: Where FDR’s “new deal” promised a “labour aristocratic” life complete with home ownership, the younger the oppressor nation proletariat gets in the US, the more their struggle begins to mirror that of the Afro-American proletariat, who in turn are closer to the “foreign” victims of US imperialism and its superexploitation.
It was the superprofits generated by the actions of characters like Camby which created the apathy depicted in an exaggerated fashion among the US proletariats at large, and the oppressor nation proletariat in particular. It was the extraction of those superprofits which makes the buying off of oppressed nation proletariats in places like South Africa so much more difficult, and keeps their explicit labour struggles so much more in the centre of politics in that country than in countries like the US, which are home to powerful labour aristocracy.
There is a dawning realisation in the scene where Camby tries to defend himself to Kyle. Kyle is shocked when he can’t name what is specifically illegal about Camby’s practices, but he quickly realises it doesn’t matter what the law is: “Doesn’t make it right”. The problem is not that capitalism can infringe upon bourgeois law, but that it is simply not fair. It is a new realisation, perhaps, for much of the oppressor nation proletariat in the United States and the United Kingdom just how unfair capitalism is, but it is not a case of “too little, too late”. Were this not a Hollywood film, it ought to have ended on Kyle’s sacrifice for this truth, the closest to a deep philosophical breakthrough for its target audience, rather than emotional recovery for the prophets of finance portrayed by Clooney and Roberts, absolved of their sins by helping expose one specific legal infringement in an overall unethical system.
Violence and death
On the other hand, there is something instructive in Kyle’s death being swept aside so easily: When Kyle dies, the television viewers who had been on the edge of their seats resume their normal activities. They walk away. The flashy display of guns and bombs may have grabbed momentary attention, but without a foundation of broad struggle beneath it, it was just so much spectacle. The centre of the spectacle dies, and the television production team plots its next spectacle, unmoved by the hard questions about capitalism that were raised. The viewership at large have to return to their own lives, their own struggles, their own sacrifices.
Midway through the film, Lee Gates attempts to question the rationality of Kyle’s use of violence. Waving a gun around, threatening him with a bomb, these are supposedly out of touch with Kyle’s concerns about getting by. But merely getting by is an act of tremendous resilience in the face of huge psychological violence by a completely unfeeling system. The urge to respond with violence, to use any means to make oneself heard, is quite relateable to those of us who have really considered the monumental cruelty of the system we inhabit. For Kyle, years of alienation and exhaustion have culminated in the realisation that he won’t be able to take care of the child he created, and he wants to scream in the face of the society that won’t even let him have his such victories, to fire on it like the enemy it treats him as. Kyle is attacked for being “irrational”, but what he is is the face of victimhood without an apparent outlet. Without unity in struggle, and struggle in unity, we will all of us commit a kind of irrational suicide, even if not with a gun, but just by quietly going into the night as life grinds us down more and more.
Conversely, physical death does not have to truly “kill” us. When revolutionaries in Turkey say that a martyr “lives in our struggle”, we are suggesting that this immortality is the sublation of their life into the collective consciousness, even though they have of course literally passed on. Exemplary comrades live on in the ways they touched those around them, even if they die a violent death at a very young age. This is all the more reason not to fetishise death and violence, of course. Dying like DHKP-C cadres do, in senseless attacks, is a shame on those who give the orders. Kyle’s character dies for something that could have been exposed a thousand other ways and changed thousands of people. There are many who don’t die who help the world and those around them far more than Kyle did simply by yelling the truth for a brief moment with a gun in the air.
But if the film had gone on to show what I expect was to be Gates’s future, how meaningful a life would it have been? Would he have returned to making uncritical predictions about market fluctuations? Would he have died old and wealthy, but having not pushed humanity one inch closer to a truly liberated common future? Did Gates’s actions matter any more than Kyle’s did, in the grand scheme of things?
Whether we die old and in bed, or young and in a hail of bullets, we must make sure that the time up to and including that moment is spent fighting against the death beyond the physical death, bringing people together to fight for the life beyond the physical life. Meaning in life is not to be found in the spectacle Gates or Kyle found, but in building a meaningful place in society, and in helping that society fight for its very future.