Utopia, dystopia and communal alternatives
Thursday, 18 April 2024 15:17

Utopia, dystopia and communal alternatives

Dennis Broe, in the second part of his articles on how corporate media downplays climate destruction, writes about recent films and TV series with both dystopian and utopian themes. Image above: post-apocalyptic dreaming in Station 11 

It is worth recalling that the genre that culminates in post-Apocalyptic television began in literature as one describing Utopia – Thomas More’s book of the same name. Its “presiding theorist” is Ernst Bloch, whose three-volume archeology of The Principle of Hope was written in the darkest days of World War II.

Such a text in which “political institutions, social norms, economic systems, and ways of life are superior” to the present could serve to call attention to the injustices and oppressions of that present.” With Bloch also comes the idea that “imagination is forward directed, a call to action.”

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Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope 

Thus, as Fredric Jameson says, “the waning of the utopian idea is a fundamental historical and political symptom.” So in the ’70s, as fossil fuel companies were commissioning and then suppressing studies that showed that their continued drilling could cause planetary destruction, came the disaster films, limited but horrible images of natural or human constructed devastation, including Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno.

As the consciousness of this potential devastation began to grow, public opinion went through first a questioning and then a period of greenwashing, where it appeared technical solutions within global capitalism could work. In this era, roughly the 1990s to the early 2000s, the apocalyptic impulse tended to decrease, with the fear allayed, and with occasional dystopic series where the world is threatened as in the film 9/11, but where those fleeing the earth in Battlestar Galactica still retain the image of an abundant earth in which to return.

However, with the dawning in the last decade of the full weight of climate catastrophe, the rapid acceleration of the crisis over even the last year, and the tendency toward throwing up one’s hands and deciding there is nothing to be done but submit passively, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic series, many of which simply see the end as inevitable, have increased in tempo, and the apocalyptic imaginary has also penetrated other genres.

Surely it can’t be capitalism?

In these series there are several “endings” of the world focusing on the adaptive strategies of those who survive with little left but their own resourcefulness – The Leftovers, Jericho, The Rain, War of the Worlds, and Silo. Capitalism, and its part in global war, climate destruction and a relentlessly unequal economy, is barely cited as culpable in this situation. The genre itself is a combination of science fiction, fantasy and horror, with the latter now coming to dominate.

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Silo, the latest Apocalypse

The post-apocalyptic imagination is also projected into the past in AT&T/HBO’s Game of Thrones and Throne of the Dragon, set in a primitive dog-eat-dog world that could be read as “post-neoliberal” where all the boundaries and protections of the state have been overturned, and it’s also a world where the splitting of an employee’s consciousness between work and leisure in Apple’s Severance effectively denies the real-world struggle of Apple workers to organize. The series is more like workwashing than greenwashing.

So what was once an archaelogy of hope has transmuted into an archaeology of despair, dominated by what Jameson identifies as the chief postmodern emotion, irony, in the form of Elvis Costello’s “I used to be disgusted but now I try to be amused” – where “what hurts” is transformed into “what smirks.” Being above the fray and superior to it short-circuits the stage of activism but increasingly the smirk, the attitude du jour still of many academics, cannot conceal the hurt. 

An exception to these late-stage post-apocalyptic series is The Swarm, an apocalyptic series which takes place in the “near” present as the ocean is mobilizing its defence, that is at the onset rather than after the apocalypse. It can be read as a call to action before the oceans are destroyed, from the heart of what still remains of European social democracy, as the series is financed by public television stations in France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, as well as private streamers in Scandinavia and Japan.

These series are full of sentiments echoing this resignation. The Last of Us timidly claims, disavowing collective action, that as long as “there is one person worth saving” it is possible to live a fulfilling life”. In Station 11 the actress who survives a holocaust and finds a memoir of the time before that says: “I don’t care that the world was ending because it was the world.”

These views are endorsed in the press. The New York Times’ lead television reviewer, James Poniewozik, glibly described the latter series as “the most uplifting show about life at the end of the world you are likely to see.” He praises Station 11 as a series that celebrates humanity’s drive to create, with this neoliberal mumbo-jumbo about the indomitability of the human spirit concealing the fact that creation here is refashioned as a device not to save humanity but to divert it. Poniewozik concludes that this show is for you “if you want catharsis and a surprising laugh,”— the implication being that if you’re concerned with actually changing the world or forestalling the disaster this is not a show for you.

Apocalyptic alternatives

“If we…strip away the abundance and expansionism of the liberal capitalist order, we find waiting beneath the disguise of peaceful competition and meritocratic incentive the cruelty and repression to which modern liberalism has become oblivious.”  - Peter Y. Paik, in From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe.

Oddly, this statement could be the tagline for Season 11, the final season, of The Walking Dead. In it, the survivors take on their most deceptive opponent, the Commonwealth, a seemingly utopian community blessed with abundance and locked behind sturdy gates that walls its residents off from both the zombies and the viciousness of the bands that contend with them.

The kingdom is ruled over by Pamela Milton and her family. The dynasty is headed by this blonde ageing leader, with a physical similarity to Hilary Clinton, whose words proclaim that she only wants what is best for her people. Above ground, the mood is calm and tranquil, but below ground are the prisons for those who resist the Commonwealth’s abundance. Pamela tells an underling, “Not that it isn’t, but it can’t feel like a police state,” in perhaps a nod to the patrolling in the contemporary U.S. of black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The same old deplorable class distinctions

The Walking Dead survivors find that beneath this utopian veneer of a new world lurks the same old class distinctions, as two of the survivors are sent to a labour camp. They’re told that their “work will benefit those better than you,” while Pamela’s son, a little Hunter Biden or Eric Trump, betrays the truth of the place: “The reality is the poor stay poor so the rich can do whatever we want.” All of which reminds us of Clinton’s characterization of the working class as “deplorables” in the 2016 election.

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Season 11 of  The Walking Dead 

The foreign policy of the Commonwealth is one of dominance not benevolence, as its security forces attempt to turn the other camps outside their purview into outposts or labour camps operating for the good of the Commonwealth. It reminds us of Clinton’s destruction of Libya, the oil-rich African country with the most developed healthcare system and the highest literacy rates in Africa – and then boasting about it.

Anecdote: the weekend before the bombs started to fall, the Financial Times ran a detailed map of where oil was drilled, processed and shipped in Libya to remind NATO to bomb schools and hospitals but take care to leave the oil routes alone. Ten days before NATO took over what had been more sporadic bombing the FT ran a story about how Western oil companies were fearful that the leader Gaddafi would nationalize the oil.

Finally, Milton reveals her true self as she exiles her people outside the gates of the Commonwealth as the zombies approach, in oreder to save herself and a small cohort of her associates. After she’s overturned, the final shot of her in prison is a shot which compares her – though she still has an aura of reasonableness – to the imprisonment of the most vicious monster the survivors had faced, Negan, after his more openly brutal order was defeated.

Communal Alternatives in The Last of Us 

More problematic is another zombie apocalypse, The Last of Us, adapted from the game with its showrunner Craig Mazin having visualized the real apocalypse of Chernobyl.

The series, after it quickly jumps 20 years beyond the onset of the virus or fungus, posits first in the North in Boston Fedra, a broken-down police state, after a mycologist has proposed as a solution, since there is no vaccine, to “bomb everyone in the city.” Joel (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal) and the teenage Ellie (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey) then go on a cross-country tour to find a group of scientists since Ellie, who survived a bite, may hold the cure.

On the tour they encounter in St. Louis populist fascists who hunt their African American guide who explains that their viciousness is the product of the police state government’s “torturing and killing people for 20 years,”. It’s an admission that the brutality of these Trump-like survivors is partly caused by a system in the U. S. that for years has continually attacked their wages and lifestyle.

Finally, Joel and Ellie find an alternative in Wyoming, in a collective where leaders are democratically elected and ownership is shared. It is here that they are offered hope, a chance as Joel’s brother says to “figure out what they want to do with their lives.” But this actual utopia is simply a resting spot they might hope to return to because they must press on to get Ellie to a hospital where she can be examined, which proves again to be part of the nightmare of modern science, where curing and killing are synonymous.

Snowpiercer and the return of the utopian impulse

“It will then turn out that the world has long dreamt of that of which it had only to have a clear idea to possess it really.” Karl Marx

The most class-conscious apocalyptic series, and ultimately the most hopeful, is Bong Joon-ho’s adaptation of his film of the same name. Bong Joon-ho, the most class-conscious director working in film and television today, is currently adapting his Academy Award-winning film Parasite for television.

In Snowpiercer, the train that the survivors of a nuclear winter cling to as it circles the earth is “a fortress to class” with the “tailies” at the back in cramped quarters, called “unticketed passengers” to stress their illegitimacy, while the ultra-rich in the front of the train enjoy fine dining. “The Revolution” of the tailies, led by a stalwart leader Andre Layton, prevails in season 1 but is beaten back in Season 2 by the return of the train’s “engineer-entrepreneur” founder Mr. Wilford, a Richard Branson/Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk type whose contempt for equality drips from every corner of his mouth onto his fur coat.

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Off-loading the capitalist in Snowpiercer

Season 3 ends in a truly startling moment. Mr. Wilford has lost control of the train and is imprisoned, but attempts to regain power when the train’s original leader Melanie Cavill and Layton disagree on how to proceed over the possibility that there may be a spot on the earth warm enough to sustain life.

Imagine a world shorn of capitalist billionaires!

However, the traditional method of control, divide and conquer does not prevail, as Melanie and Layton agree to disagree on what path to follow but then together oppose the capitalist retaking the train. He is offloaded with enough supplies to survive but has lost his place in this now more equal class structure. The two factions make a mutual agreement where each takes a principled stand, which sees them dividing the train. The point is clear – with the capitalist gone, they are able to thrash out a compromise for what’s best for the train and for what’s left of humanity as a whole.

The final lesson of Snowpiercer is that if the world is shorn of its capitalist billionaires, its various and diverse peoples will find compromises that can yet save humanity. So, working from the presupposition that the world has ended, this series suggests a way forward that begins with the overthrow of the controlling leader who puts his own interests ahead of everyone else on the train and the planet. 

The reward for this bold proclamation? Warner Bros./Discovery, still ruled by the very conservative Texas company AT&T, refused to air the final season – shot and ready to go – on TNT. The company preferred a tax write-off to airing a show whose season is about how groups cooperate to learn how to retake the planet. It’s a grim scenario but we are in a grim place right now.

Culture for All: Why Television Matters
Thursday, 18 April 2024 15:17

Culture for All: Why Television Matters

As part of the Culture for All series, Dennis Broe introduces another short film made with the support of the Communication Workers Union, on Why Television Matters.

 

Why Television Matters

by Dennis Broe

Hi I’m Dennis Broe, I write about film and television. I’m now writing a book about television watching in what for some is a lockdown and for others in a dangerous time where because of the virus just going to work can be risky, especially the kind of work, like that done by postal workers and engineers, that requires facing the public.

Previously I wrote a book on something you’re probably all familiar with, binge watching TV series. Where you watch the whole series in a weekend or a day.
Of course, part of this is pure addiction and you feel terrible afterwards, feel like the show just manipulated you into watching episode after episode, and that’s partly what it’s trying to do.

The satisfaction then may not be intrinsic to the show, that is a part of it, but rather the satisfaction is to have accomplished the feat of getting to the end of the show. Netflix was the first to design shows in this way, where they could be consumed all at once with shows such as House of Cards and the current addictive series The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit.

But there is another kind of satisfaction that for me comes from watching Serial TV Series, which is what I call this form, that have an actual point to them and teach some truths about the society we live in. I don’t know about you but when I have discovered one of these series, which are actually few and far between, instead of feeling empty afterwards I feel that my time was well spent, that I learned something or had my view of the world challenged in a way that allowed it to expand.

Most of these series deal either directly or symbolically with everyday struggles. A series from last year that was surprising in how it dealt directly with the struggle of black people in the U.S. with a criminal justice system that is always waiting to entrap them was For Life, produced by the rapper 50 Cent and based on a true story, available on YouTube and Hulu. The first season has the man imprisoned unjustly, framed by a District Attorney who used the defendant’s trial to climb the ladder to success. Rather than simply wallow in prison, the man becomes a lawyer and then takes on the attorney in court and in the media. The show then uses one of the oldest genres, or types of shows, the courtroom drama but updates it with the struggle for justice of a black prisoner who every week demonstrates his brilliance in court in front of judges, having each time to change out of his bright orange prison outfit into a business suit to plead his case and that of his fellow inmates. In the second season the show has become even more topical, taking on in one episode, prisoners dying of Covid and in another bringing a brutally violent cop to justice.

Snowpiercer

Another series, available on Netflix, is Snowpiercer. This series is set in the near future, which gives it some latitude in creating a metaphor for today’s situation. The characters are trapped aboard a train keeps travelling an earth frozen and uninhabitable because world leaders decided, a la Trump, that the way to prevent global warming was to fire nuclear weapons into the earth’s atmosphere.

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The train itself has three cars, the one in the front is peopled by the rich, in lavish clothes and served meals grown in the other sections. The middle section is workers also dedicated to serving the rich but perform jobs necessary to the train’s functioning. The back section is inhabited by “the tailies,” those left to die when the train took off who stormed the train to carve out their own place in it.

The first season charts the rebellion of the tailies who subsequently take over the train and make it a more equal place for all, while the second season is about the return of the owner of the train, Mr. Wilford, who wants to reinstate the old order and put everyone back in their place. This is a big budget action series but with a point to it, deliberately making a comment on the organization of today’s world and on today’s workers. We are watching more wealth, power and more of the world, here the train’s, bounty going to satisfy their lifestyle, with those in the middle cars, who in today’s world are still needed workers like engineers and the technical and communications workforce, shrinking and with those in the last car, who must degrade themselves merely to survive, expanding.

The producer of the series is the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho who directed the 2019 Oscar winning film Parasite, which you might have seen. It tells a similar tale, about contemporary Korea divided between a poor family living in a basement where they have to “steal” internet service and which often floods and a rich family who they go to work for and who live in a mansion surrounded by acres and acres of green lawn and a gate to keep others out.

What I wanted to show is that series can be both addictive and instructive and that it is important if we want to see more of an emphasis on the latter to watch and talk about those series which can be useful in shaping contemporary struggles.