Paul Victor Tims

Paul Victor Tims

Paul Tims is a writer, living in Consett. When he isn’t writing really weird stories, he practices sleight of hand and hopes one day to be recognised as the Magician King of Britannia.

The Doctor
Tuesday, 04 June 2024 08:35

The Doctor

While the Doctor became Ncuti Gatwa way back in The Giggle, Ncuti Gatwa only became the Doctor with the Saturday-night debut of this episode. The actor’s abilities have, up until this point, been more or less a matter of faith and guesswork, since the material he’s had to work with hasn’t given him the chance to shine. In Boom, however, he’s finally given the opportunity to make the role of the Doctor his own and he fucking nails it. We see the rage and intellect and compassion of a Time Lord for the first time since Gatwa got the gig and it was, I have to admit, well worth the wait.

Right, then. The premise: the Doctor and Ruby arrive in a futuristic warzone and the Doctor, rushing to help an injured man, steps on a landmine. It’s a single, easy-to-make mistake that defines the whole episode. The landmine works by turning the person on it into an explosive using a DNA-level chain-reaction. The Doctor, however, is a Time Lord, so if he blows up, he’ll take the whole planet with him. Thus begins Doctor Who’s answer to cult horror classic Landmine Goes Click (but with sci-fi taser murder instead of rural French farmhands committing al fresco sex crimes).

Now, this is companion Ruby Sunday’s first time on an alien planet and her grasp of the tech and stakes just isn’t quite there yet, so she gets to be brave and loyal and insightful, but only up to a plausible limit. The fact she didn’t step on a landmine doesn’t make her a convenient ex machina figure. Before long, the landmine is also surrounded by a couple of soldiers, a child looking for her father in the war-torn wasteland, a hologram of said father (who is, like, super dead by this point) and a for-profit AI ‘ambulance’ that can and will kill anyone whose treatment would be prohibitively expensive. And absolutely none of them are listening to the Doctor as he tries to explain what will happen if the landmine goes off with him standing on it.

I won’t spoil the ending, but we get to see the Doctor at his best here: trapped in an impossible situation and a de facto prison cell the exact size of his own body (he can’t even move without triggering the explosion), yet clearly the only person who can defuse the situation. We see him calculate the planet’s gravity in order to shift his mass and allow himself some movement. We see him gradually persuade those around him of the importance of not setting off the world-ending fucking landmine. We see him fighting the impersonal algorithm of the ‘ambulance’ in a way that I’m categorically not going to reveal and the trenchant stupidity of the military-minded berks around him at the same time. It’s great.

The evils of capitalism

Of course, all this would be show-offy, cerebral cleverness devoid of substance if the episode didn’t pivot on a compelling theme that serves to incite great emotion in its protagonists. To whit, Boom! is about the evils of capitalism. Yeah, it’s not exactly an original sentiment that arms dealers are the scum of the Earth (or universe) but the thought has rarely been expressed so viscerally, nor linked so directly to the logics of capitalist economics themselves.

See, the landmine was supplied by a company that sells to all sides in all conflicts. The ambulance and weapons were supplied by the same. And the horror isn’t just that someone is profiting from war: it’s that all these pieces of tech are part of the same system. A system that is specifically designed to kill people at just the right rate to keep them invested in the war and keep them buying new products. The guns and bombs and mines and field ambulances don’t serve the people using them. They serve the bottom line of a faceless, remote company that regards people as part of a fiscal equation: disposable and expendable so long as they turn a profit.

The Doctor gets a little speech about it, and it’s here we get to see the rage and pain of a man who has seen more war and suffering than anyone else in the universe. I’m normally against straight-to-camera speeches, since they’re basically the writer of an episode or film beating the audience over the head with their own personal viewpoint rather than leading them to it organically, but here it’s completely in character, beautifully acted and justified by context. Yes, the Doctor is talking to us, but in-universe, he’s talking to Ruby, and the questions she’s asking, coupled to the extremity of his plight, would provoke a bit of a rant.

Also, the speech itself shows more joined-up thinking than most straight-to-camera mouth-blarts. This isn’t a right-on, smash-the-[insert-oppressor-class] woo-hoo moment. This is a meticulously laid-out, carefully extrapolated explanation of evil that dares to look at the way it functions on the wider, systemic level instead of just picking a group of perceived perpetrators and yelling about how rubbish they are. It’s a hard-left message which will probably turn off a few viewers, but it’s proper hard-left, not fucking Hollywood-style, boneless wokeness. It’s true, and important and dark and bitter and, for once, as a dyed-in-the-wool lefty, I’m happy to say that ‘yes, this man does represent us’.

Boom!’s hard-left leanings are also a necessary bit of course-correction for a show that’s always had those implications but which has strayed away from them recent years in favour of insipid bandwagon-jumping. Let me take you back, gentle reader, to the loathed and despicable Chibnall/Whitaker era of Doctor Who. There were a lot – and I mean a lot – of bad episodes during Chris Chibnall’s time as showrunner. In fact, there was rarely a good one. But the episode that made the whole run completely irredeemable in my eyes was Kerblam!, the episode in which Whitaker’s ‘Doctor’ (a title she never really earned, hence the Inverted Commas of +10 Sarcasm) discovered a giant mega-corporation exploiting its workers and sided with that corporation over the freedom-fighter trying to blow it up.

It was morally disgusting, and revealed Chibnall for the rancid little corpo-Tory fucksponge he is. Now, what’s a synonym for Kerblam! (with an exclamation point)? Answer: Boom! (also with an exclamation point)! Both episodes are about capitalism; both have the Doctor making explicit commentary on the system itself; both have titles that denote an explosion appended with a certain piece of well-known punctuation. Boom! isn’t just a very good episode of Doctor Who: it’s an address to the fans of the show. It’s disowning, in no uncertain terms, the ideology of the Chibnall era. For in-universe purposes, it’s saying “These slimy, pro-corporate, pro-exploitation views were confined to the Thirteenth Doctor. She doesn’t speak for any other regeneration.”

Fuck, BBC. What are you going to do for an encore? Show up at my house with a letter of apology and a free sex robot that both me and my wife can enjoy? It’s interesting, of course, that Boom! wasn’t written by showrunner Russel T. Davies but by fellow Who alumni Steven Moffat. Now, Moffat’s tenure as showrunner back in the day was divisive in its own way, of course, but it’s nice to see that the man still has balls the size of fucking Jupiter. He might as well have called episode “Fuck You, Chris” and had done with it. Guess we know who wears the trousers in the Davies/Moffat Odd Couple Household that I just involuntarily and reflexively imagined (complete with theme-tune).

Don’t get me wrong, Boom! is not a perfect episode. Even confining ourselves to the current era, it’s not as fun as The Giggle or as conceptually interesting as Wild Blue Yonder, but it is a sign that the show is finally hitting its stride. It’s a lean, claustrophobic no-bullshit episode free of unnecessary cameos, gratuitous musical numbers and over-the-top Disney-esque villains. Happy ending aside, it’s brutal and vicious and doesn’t mess about for one gosh-darned minute. More of this, please.

Small Infinities
Wednesday, 16 August 2023 13:54

Small Infinities

Published in Fiction

Introduction
By Fran Lock

Small Infinities is an appropriate title for a book – and an author – so enamoured of outlandish juxtaposition, paradox, and contradiction. While one useful description of this collection is as a work of socialist science – or “weird” – fiction, another is as broadly metaphysical. Metaphysical, that is, in the early modern poetic sense of the term, knocking the square peg of one implausible idea (for example, a living chess game) through the hole of another equally strange, often wildly disconnected idea (neo-noir detective fiction); like the metaphysical poets, Tims' work is marked by philosophical speculation, ingenious conceit, and play with demotic and colloquial language. His short fiction revels in the unexpected metaphor, in the witty use of diction, and a fascinated inclusion of contemporary scientific advancements and theories.

A cohort of 17th century poets might seem like an odd place to start for a collection of future-facing sci-fi, but Tims' approach to genre is omnivorous, eclectic and wilfully strange; throughout the collection he moves deftly between conventions and tropes, alternately playing to and against the roles and imperatives they engender. For example, while 'Enlightenment for All!' follows the outward trajectory of a classic quest narrative, Tims subverts the conventions of that narrative to socialist ends by presenting enlightenment not as a goal obtainable within a single lifetime, vividly concentrated within one heroic subject, but as the effort of centuries, an imperative and a mission braided through the long threads of intergenerational memory.

The malignant rapidity of late-stage capitalism

In other words, enlightenment is slow. Really slow. A process so glacial as to be imperceptible within the span of an individual life. Yet enlightenment is also cumulative, built on the steady, incremental progress of those who went before. Tims weaves these lives into a compelling narrative arc so that we, as readers, can see what individual Stack Walkers may only just dimly discern: their contribution toward a momentous coming change. To enter into the slow-time of the Stack Walkers entails a way of seeing violently opposed to both the malignant rapidity of late-stage capitalism, and the narrative-imperative of its mainstay fictions. We must accept that 'resolution', 'escape', 'success', or any other form of narrative satisfaction will not be forthcoming for individual protagonists. We must accept gratification – ours and theirs – as both imminent and deferred. While each individual life is meaningful and meticulously painted, it is as a continuum and a collective, working for others, that the quest is finally completed and – as a result – revolutionary praxis is activated.

If all this sounds heavy, then I am doing Tims’ writing a great disservice. 'Enlightenment for All!' is an engaging, often humorous work of Gypsy-futurism in which lively characterisation and persuasive world-building is never subordinated to Tims bold and idiosyncratic socialist vision. In this, the writer he most resembles is H.G. Wells – like Wells, Tims seems interested in breaching our 'limited number of pigeon-holes for our correspondence with an unlimited universe of objective uniques' (A Modern Utopia, 1905), an idea he applies to the thematic concern and narrative thrust of stories such as 'What Atoms Really Want', but which also represents a way of meeting and manipulating language.

For Wells, we encounter a world of immense multiplicity that our language tricks us into thinking of in terms of identity or patterned regularity. For both Wells and Tims it seems that political (capitalist) reality is as much a failure of imagination and linguistic verve as it is of economic and mechanistic tyranny. What science fiction can do – at its best – is create for us the limitless space of the Otherwise, a world in which new linguistic conjunctions, political possibilities, and forms of social relation can come into play. For both authors, but especially for Tims, this use of language is a radical precursor and constituent part of these Other Worlds. His baroque imaginaries require new ways of saying in order to fully articulate and imagine their difference.

Let's put in another way: we can certainly picture what a boring work of genre-fiction might look like. A bad sci-fi story can take place on the furthest-flung planet, populated by the most bizarre and frightening of species, yet if the language doesn't take us there, it might as well be set amongst disgruntled office workers, on a retail park in Leeds. Tims' combination of daft puns and deft verbal parries, his invented portmanteaus and repurposed archaicisms, work purposely towards creating his Other Worlds, even when that world is a simulacrum of our own – Slagton in 'Cubed', written with truly superb Dickensian flourish, is unmistakeably the South London borough in which the author lived for many years. It is not merely a case of finding an appropriate language for the stories he wants to tell or and civilisations he wants to bring to life, but of using language so as to estrange us from our familiar (material, political) realities, and from the habituated ways of seeing and feeling those realities engender. Where Tims' language is at its most florid, strange or surging our attention is reoriented, we read – and think – afresh. 

All of which is to say that Tims is a writer deeply concerned with both the possibilities and limitations of language in shaping our intellectual operations, our imaginations, and our political realities. In this, another significant forerunner is the late Gene Wolfe, an author equally fascinated by the etymologies and odd affinities of words, seeding rare, archaic and invented words throughout his fiction, most notably his four Sun Works. In a 1988 interview Wolfe spoke about trying to press against 'the limits of prose, [...] trying to write something genuinely different from what's come before' and being 'constantly aware of these paradoxes about language's power and its limitations. Because language is your medium, you become aware of the extent to which language controls and directs our thinking, the extent that we're manipulated by words – and yet the extent to which words necessarily limit our attention and hence misrepresent the world around us.'

If this was true in 1988, it takes on far greater urgency in our 'post-truth' era, under the all-seeing eye of neoliberal surveillance culture, at a time and a place where joined up speaking and thinking feels increasingly threatened. Here we are, performing our opinions in prescribed language within a limited number of characters, wading daily through social media's myriad expressive acts – high in subjective emotional experience, low on detailed factual content – and their fleeting yet incessant demands upon our attention. Here is language co-opted to walk at corporate heel, a smoothly scrolling torrent of undifferentiated data, disappearing down our feeds into the bottomless limbo of expired 'content'. Tims’ writing often feels like a two-fingered salute to this kind of passive content-imbibing. Reading his work, I'm reminded of the poet Joyelle McSweeney who describes her practice as a 'maximal, dandified, camp, ill-gendered, millenarian text'. Tims is a writer who traffics in complexity and excess, hyperbole and panache, in all the formal and stylistic tics that 'proper' socialists and good proles shouldn't have and cannot master. He writes this way, we sense, not only for the joyous fuck-you of the thing, but against the deadening of ethical and political nerve that results from reductive linguistic prescription.

Good science fiction, as Darko Suvin notes, is neither an escape from reality nor a description of it. Rather, it can be read as a ‘a developed oxymoron, a realistic irreality’ (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, 1979). Suvin’s point is that science fiction is the only genre that facilitates (and demands) a change to the whole literary universe, one which forms a tension with the reader’s world, dislocating her from it, making it strange. Sci-fi oscillates between the shared world of author and reader, and this Other mode, this Other place, this o/Other perspective. In the gap between the two new ideas and ways of being emerge, criticism is broached, knowledge gathered, insight achieved.

Rude, crude and raunchy

Which doesn't mean Small Infinities isn't funny. In places it's hilarious. In 'A Small Story about a Large Misunderstanding' the (dangerous) limits of language are explicitly yet humorously explored when the human incapacity to see beyond our own behavioural and linguistic defaults leads to a unnecessarily terrifying encounter with an alien race. Throughout the collection quantum mechanics, obscure chess theory, philosophies of consciousness and schlocky pop-culture are variously incorporated, riffed on and signalled in charming, inventive and frankly weird ways. It feels important to stress that this isn't high-concept sci-fi as some kind of bloodless show-offy intellectual bludgeon. It can be rude, crude and raunchy. It can be bloody. It's not Harry Potter. It is perfectly possible to enjoy the stories without a firm grounding in the ideas and theories they reference, but Tims' omnivorous array of inspirations and the pleasure he so obviously takes in playfully mixing and merging them combine to layer and texture his worlds. As a result, we care about his imperilled protagonists, we sympathise with his doomed or oppressed civilisations, and most of all we want to see where the next slice of oddity will take us: a cinematically inflected Cronenbergian nightmare? A cut-throat world of cardsharp magicians, organised into warring guilds? 

Or perhaps the reader will enjoy, as I did, Tims' treatment of the Gothic conceit of the sinister menial in 'Returning the Screw'. The story exposes the often classist underpinnings of that particular genre convention, even while Tims' narrator delivers his creepy and incendiary monologue, a monologue which in turn beguiles, amuses, galvanises and chills. There's humour there, and some silliness, but it operates to a purpose, questioning whose voices and perspectives have been erased or miscast within literary canons. Was Quint's threat ever to life, limb or spiritual cleanliness, or did he represent a far greater menace – to the established social order? How does it feel to be the staple of someone else's nightmares simply because you are poor, or in some way o/Other? Quint 'haunts' in the same way that class itself is a haunting, a spectral presence underpinning both our deep social structures and the literary tropes that sustain and express them. Tims nails this, and he makes you laugh while he does it.

I can't help but wonder if the humour in Tims' work is one of the key components of its socialism. If there is a form of coterie address at work in Small Infinities, it is not that of the specialist or of intellectual abstraction, it's that of a commons bonded by an ability and a willingness to laugh at even our most cherished tropes and serious ideas. It is a sensibility that says nothing is above scrutiny or beyond ridicule. It lives in the detritus of pop and pulp culture as much as the elite realm of ideas, and it claims all these places for a border-stepping cohort of working-class readers and imagineers.

Returning the Screw
Saturday, 27 May 2023 09:02

Returning the Screw

Published in Fiction

Returning the Screw

By P.V. Tims

After Henry James

Have you got a match?

My name is Quint. And no, growing up with a name that sounds like a cross between “cunt” and “squint” didn’t do me any favours. You might have heard of me. If you’ve ever read The Turn of the Screw, or seen the film The Turning, or watched that rambling bloody Netflix thing, you’ll have heard of me. I’m the bad guy, see. In some versions of the story I’m the ghost that haunts the manor. In others, I’m just a bad memory, with my long-lost life sitting like a poison in the veins of the old place. Whatever way you slice it, I’m the one they pinned it all on. When the governess killed herself, it must have been because Quint broke her brain during their torrid affair. When the kiddies started going mental, it must have been because of old Quint’s influence.

The governess – Jessel, if you must know – was a lovely girl, and we did have a little fling, but she also had a history of problems and a chip on her shoulder. Not a great combo for people wanting to live long, happy lives. I should know, since I fell into roughly the same category. Once upon a time. The kids… well, I’m not a child psychologist, but I reckon the sudden death of your parents will mess you up pretty bad, especially if you’re raised by their bowin-and-scrapin’ servants ’cause your actual relatives can’t be bothered to show up and put in the work. I’m not what you’d call a “responsible adult”, let alone a “great role model”, but I tried my best with those poor sprogs, I really did. Especially the boy. Reminded me of myself at his age. Only posh. It wasn’t me who cracked their impressionable wee skulls open and poured all the horrors of the world in. The world did that all on its own.

Of course, the reason I’m the bad guy is simple. My real crime wasn’t corrupting the oh-so-pure governess or telling the bairns that booze and gambling existed. My real crime was wanting a chunk of that old money – that unearned, inherited money. Wanting a little piece of luxury for myself; daring to think I was as good and deserving as the rich fuckers who employed me because – here’s the truth – it wouldn’t take much. I mean, all they ever did was own land and cultivate gout. Pretty sure that doesn’t require a rarefied heart or even a particularly taxing skill set. But they had everything, and I had nothing. So, since they were never going to notice anyway, I made no bones about helping myself to the wine cellar, borrowing the odd tuxedo and tails or overpriced watch, and pumping my little governess over their snooker – sorry, billiards – table.

While we’re on the subject, who actually uses snooker tables for snooker? Fucking nobody, that’s who. Snooker is, by a considerable margin, the most boring game ever invented. Those are fuck-tables: that’s what they are. Rich people buy them so they won’t have to shag their mistresses in bed and then explain the stains to their cleaners. If a stain shows up on a snooker table, it’s just chalk from the cue, grazed baize, and nobody has to get suspicious about anything. Fucking genius.

The point is, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And if you can’t join ’em, work for ’em and help yourself to their crap. And people hate that. Britain’s still a classist toilet. If anyone spots a working-class fella taking the same liberties that the rich do – or even just failing to tug the ol' forelock – they lose their minds. Especially a certain type of working-class person – the ones who are oh-so-happy-to-serve ’cause they haven’t got the imagination to do anything else. The trouble with being brought up to lick somebody else’s boots is, well, you get used to it. Some people can’t imagine a world without the taste of shoe-leather on their tongue, and they’ll bite you if you try to take it away. They’ll also bite if you don’t want any yourself, ’cause if there’s one thing they hate more than someone trying to fill in their comfortable little rut, it’s being reminded that there’s a world outside the rut. Sorry, I know my metaphors are mixed. It happens when you’ve been dead as long as I have – language as the living understand it starts to slip and blur.

Yeah. Maybe I should clarify. I am dead. Not as dead as Elvis – that guy’s majorly dead – but pretty fucking dead. If I’ve still got a body at all, it’s just a bloated husk somewhere, eaten up by maggots and fungus. Mainly fungus. Fun fact: mycelium will get into literally fucking anything if it’s dark and squishy enough. Being dead ain’t so bad. It’s not like I have to sit around in my body while it decomposes, and there’s no class system to put up with in death. All ghosts are equally fucked. The only thing I mind is being here. Not this plane of existence, think more specific. I’m talking about the manor house where it all happened. Where my governess killed herself; where the fine lord and lady died leaving a distant prick of an uncle to manage two kiddies; where those kiddies went mad; where another governess nearly killed one of them and got carted off to the nearest loony bin; where the fucking housekeeper of all people decided to make me the bad guy, just because the idea I’d lived and laughed and screwed one of her colleagues on a snooker table that I didn’t personally own offended her Victorian sensibilities.

I really don’t want to be here anymore. Especially not when I’m trapped here with her and poor Jessel. One won’t stop talking and the other won’t stop crying. I want to save one and rid myself of the other. But I need your help, whoever you are. Whoever’s reading this, let me ask you, as a fellow human being, for just one thing. This property’s owned by the National Trust. I don’t know what they’re calling it nowadays, but it can’t be too hard to find out from your side of the veil. Go to the blasted place and bring kerosene. Burn it down. Burn it until there’s not a stone left uncharred; until this symbol of pointless wealth and English feudal deference is just a blackened crater. Maybe then I can move on.

Have you got a match?

Enlightenment for All!
Thursday, 29 December 2022 17:26

Enlightenment for All!

Published in Fiction

Fran Lock introduces a 'Gypsy Futurist' science fiction story called 'Enlightenment For All!', available to download as a pdf below. Image above courtesy of Jack Varnell

Realistic Irrealities: On ‘Enlightenment for All!’

An Lucht Siúil or ‘the walking people’ is the Irish name for those of ethno-cultural nomadic heritage. I mention this in relation to a work of rich and profoundly strange science fiction because Traveller identity itself is strange: uneasily bracketing notions of racialised difference, sets of diverse cultural practices, and potentially radical forms of social relation.

While sedentary communities have traditionally ensured their survival through competition, acquisition and conquest, the building of walls and the maintenance of boundaries, the lifeways of nomadic peoples turn on continuous movement and negotiation, across territories and between networks of cooperation. Venon – the protagonist of ‘Enlightenment for All!’ – is both a traveller and, I’d venture to suggest, a Traveller. He is – in the nomenclature of Tims’ meticulously realised fictional universe – a ‘Stack Walker’. A denizen of the lowest ‘disk’ or rung of society, literally existing on the ‘excrements of consumption’ cast down by those above him (Marx, Capital, Volume One, 1867). His physical appearance, we are told, would excite revulsion in those same citizens of the higher disks, and he breaks the taboos of both his own caste and those of his betters in choosing to ‘seek enlightenment’ and to begin his journey upwards. Venon embodies both an affront and a challenge to the norms and logics of his society.

This story, then, is already striking. While exceptional outsiders might be considered a staple of genre fiction, Venon’s social – and class-based – abjection seems unusually explicit. In him we meet the aggressively marginalised Other, those persons and peoples disenfranchised to such an extent they are ‘disinherited [from] the possibility of being human’, omitted so thoroughly from the usual processes of representation as to render them paradoxically classless – existing at the outer edges of social and political recognition, existing at the limits of imagination itself (Georges Bataille, ‘Abjection and Miserable Forms’, 1934). Venon’s journey is not motivated by a desire to escape the harrowing conditions of his life, but to understand the forces that create and contour those conditions. Travelling, then, is both the narrative motor of ‘Enlightenment for All!’ and the mechanism by which knowledge is produced, ‘enlightenment’ achieved, and – most importantly – praxis activated.

Tims’ protagonists are often ‘border-steppers’. They are exiles, aliens, men at odds with or painfully excluded from the world in which they find themselves. Venon’s journey up the Stack is marked by provisional forms – sometimes cooperative, often fraught – of social entanglement. It is a journey driven by relentless questioning, and it is a journey that does not end so much as subsides, handed on to his descendants when he is no longer able to climb.

This generational aspect of Tims’ story is its second arresting feature, and it subverts the conventions of the traditional quest narrative towards socialist (and Traveller) ends. By the time Vymok begins his climb we already understand that the work of enlightenment will not be complete in a single lifetime, vividly concentrated within one heroic subject. Rather, it is the effort of centuries, an imperative and a mission braided through the long threads of intergenerational memory.

In other words, enlightenment is slow. Really slow. A process so glacial as to be imperceptible within the span of an individual life. Yet enlightenment is also accumulative, built on the steady, incremental progress of those who went before. Tims weaves these lives into a compelling narrative arc so that we, as readers, can see what individual Stack Walkers may only just discern: their contribution toward a momentous coming change. To enter into the slow-time of the Stack Walkers entails a way of seeing violently opposed to both the malignant rapidity of late-stage capitalism, and the narrative-imperative of its mainstay fictions. We must accept that ‘resolution’, ‘escape’, ‘success’, or any other form of narrative satisfaction will not be forthcoming for individual protagonists. We must accept gratification – ours and theirs – as both imminent and deferred.

None of which is to say that the individual lives of the Stack Walkers are without meaning. The opposite is true. Tims’ lively characterisation ensures that we feel deeply for each Stack Walker from Venon, Vymok, Mikona and Konvar, through Varnatine, Nyrin, Somyn, Mynal, and Melrob. We sympathise with the particularity of their struggles; we are invested in the outcomes of their plans and schemes. This is not the individual life subordinated to the dictates of collective survival, but the single self suffused with and strengthened by a long chain of ancestral connection. This is Tims’ note of socialist hope, and a kind of Gypsy Futurism.

Good science fiction, as Darko Suvin notes, is neither an escape from reality nor a description of it. Rather, it can be read as a ‘a developed oxymoron, a realistic irreality’ (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, 1979). Suvin’s point is that SF is the only genre that facilitates (and demands) a change to the whole literary universe, one which forms a tension with the reader’s world, estranging her from it, making it strange. SF oscillates between the shared world of author and reader, and this other mode, this other place, this o/Other perspective. In the gap between the two new ideas and ways of being emerge, criticism is broached, knowledge gathered, insight achieved.

‘Enlightenment for All!’ privileges the perspective of the Other as a necessary agent of revolutionary change. Travellerness is not merely subject to or the result of grinding inequality and social abjection, but the way in which these things are survived, then ultimately overthrown. In Tims’ final rousing passage, Melrob/ Venon returns to the lowest disk from 20,000 years of wandering, flipping once again the linear trajectory of traditional quest or ‘enlightenment’ narratives. He returns carrying the accumulated wisdom of his ancestors, the visons and voices of tribal connections stretching back centuries, and the result of that wisdom is the liberatory imperative of rising with, not above, his class.

‘Enlightenment’ in this tale is not a bland ‘inner peace’ that allows the protagonist to accept the grim conditions of material life with a new-found sense of equanimity. It is, rather, the incandescent lightning-flash that signals a long-overdue smashing of the social order. It is active, collective, incendiary and selfless. And it is brought into being by a walker, by a traveller, by one of our own.

Culture Punch: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and righteous anti-capitalist violence
Tuesday, 08 October 2019 15:35

Culture Punch: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and righteous anti-capitalist violence

Published in Films

Paul Tims argues that Tarantino's assertion of the value of violence in his latest film has a message for anti-capitalist activists

I’m a huge Tarantino fan. You’re shocked, I can tell. Sarcasm aside, regular readers can probably infer from my writing style and thematic preoccupations that I’m equally enthused by his violent, grind-house sensibilities and the surprisingly astute and nuanced social commentary of his meatier films. Case in point, The Hateful Eight wasn’t just about eight people in a room trying to murder one another, it was a meditation on the way the oft-romanticised values of the Old West arbitrarily legitimated some types of amoral sociopath while condemning others. Likewise, Django Unchained was (obviously) a film about the evils of racism and the historic slave trade, but it was also a portrayal of complicity in that trade by people we usually think of as victims, or at least uninvolved bystanders.

Often, his films are underpinned by a shared theme of vengeance or personal outrage (which you can read more about HERE and which will be important later). My point is that Tarantino films aren’t just entertaining exercises in stylised sex and violence (although they do contain those things in wondrous abundance, thank goodness). They’re also reflections on the state of culture or the history that lead to that culture. Few, however, have felt as relevant and significant as his most recent effort, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Spoiler Alert

In order to discuss the cultural import of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and what it means for those of us on the left, I need to spoil the ending completely. Throughout the majority of its run-time, the film follows two minor (and entirely fictional) figures in the Hollywood eco-system who used to act in old-fashioned, two-fisted, morally uncomplicated Westerns until they started to become unfashionable and who just happen to live next to Sharon Tate. Clearly, the film is building up to the events of August 8th, 1969, when Tate and four other people were murdered by the Manson family. However, Tarantino being Tarantino, that’s not what happens in the film’s universe. Instead, the Manson family try to attack our fictional protagonists first and end up getting beaten to death themselves, set on fire and (in one case), partially eaten by an adorable pit-bull terrier.

Now, ostensibly, the reason for this is personal and pretty obvious: catharsis. Everyone (including Quentin Tarantino) hates the Manson family, yet as a culture we can’t help but accord them a level of importance and keep their legend alive because of the emotional impact Tate’s murder had. By showing them as a bunch of blundering, easily-eviscerated incompetents, Tarantino robs them of this posthumous power and, in fact, gives us licence to laugh at them. It’s the ultimate and final ‘screw you’ to a group of people who, in the director’s view, did something unforgivable to a cohort he strongly identifies with.

However, this analysis is far too simple. What’s much more interesting to me is the film’s tacit acknowledgement that something is wrong with our culture. The overriding theme of my Culture Punch articles thus far has been that the superficially cheery and harmless cornerstones of our modern western culture are built on a foundation of corruption and decay. The BBC and Facebook share an insidious right-wing bias that affects the type of content they deliver through their different mediums. Disney (whose films define so many childhoods) uses slave labour to make its merch. Even the videogames industry is built on the backs of underpaid, overworked, exploited developers. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is obviously specifically concerned with cinema, not society in general, but it seems to share my underlying belief that something is very wrong with the shape of modern culture. For Tarantino, this something is connected intimately with the way we, as a culture, process violence.

Let’s briefly unpack the film’s ideology and find the evidence for those assertions. Our first clue to the director’s thesis comes from his choice of main characters. Both of them are intimately connected with (but not defined by) a specific type of masculinity in which violence is a central pillar. DiCaprio’s character, Dalton, carved out a niche for himself playing rough-and-ready gunslingers in TV shows and films, even though he’s clearly a soft, sensitive guy in real life. Pitt’s character is a real-life badass who proves to be lethally effective in threatening situations but who, in his day-to-day existence, is content to potter around doing odd-jobs. Considering the wide array of Hollywood archetypes available, I think it’s telling that Tarantino chose to zero in on two men who were familiar and comfortable with violence but who weren’t obsessed with or imprisoned by it.

The second piece of the puzzle comes from the film’s near-constant references to its protagonists’ obsolescence in American cinema. Tarantino constantly reminds us that the world these men represent is on its way out. It’s a world where violence is a tool available to comparatively ordinary people; a tool that can be used to affect positive as well as negative deeds. Indeed, even a passing familiarity with cinematic history bears this out. After the 1960s, Hollywood’s relationship to violence changed profoundly. Throughout the seventies and eighties, it became the province of the exceptional and the inhuman. If you don’t believe me, think about the best-known violent action films of that era. In Terminator and Robocop, violence is enacted primarily by superhuman machines, with lesser violence accorded to society’s outsiders and to specific, exceptional human beings. In the Rambo films, violence is the province of specially-trained individuals who just happen to embody the American military ideal (even though they might have a complicated relationship with the military itself). Then, from the 1990s to the present day, violence became increasingly cartoonified. Supernatural and superhero movies turned it into a stylised affair with very little connection to reality and (in many cases) no visible blood or loss of life beyond that necessary to keep the audience invested.

Finally, Tarantino shows us a version of the Manson family massacre in which the presence of ordinary people who are used to violence leads to a radically different outcome. Instead of the Manson family murdering Tate and her friends, they are defeated completely and totally by an out-of-work actor and his stunt double, one of whom is heavily stoned at the time. Aside from framing the massacre (as it occurred in real life) as the point at which Hollywood turned its back on mundane violence (because it was used against its stars), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also stating that, actually, the type of violence embodied by its lead characters has a right to cultural acknowledgement and can actually serve as a bulwark against the type of violence embodied by the Manson family.

Righteous violence and capitalist exploitation

Now, that’s all very interesting, but what on Earth does it have to do with socialism and cultural democracy? The answer is simple: the film’s model of acceptable and even righteous violence is exactly counter to what capitalism wants us to believe about violence.

No oppressive regime or social structure has ever been dismantled without violence. The 26 Counties of the Republic of Ireland didn’t free themselves from British rule with well-practised tutting: it took an armed uprising (you can read about the Easter Rising and how it turned the tide of public opinion against British occupation HERE). The suffragettes didn’t win the vote for women by peaceful deeds alone: they did it by blowing up private property, putting their own lives on the line and taking other forms of violent action (which you can read about HERE). 

Capitalism is a system of exploitation. Atrocities are perpetrated in its name every day. Around the world, people are worked to death in sweatshops. People with treatable conditions die because they or their healthcare providers can’t afford the exorbitant prices charged by Big Pharma. Governments are too afraid of corporate powers to charge enough tax, and as a result welfare budgets are stretched to breaking point and people die in poverty because they don’t qualify for benefits their governments can’t afford. The global capitalist economic system is a plague whose symptoms are inequality, strife, misery, physical sickness, poor mental health, economic slavery and death. And the point is this – you can bet that the people who benefit from this system don’t want ordinary folk realising that it is within their power to commit violence against the apparatus of their system.

Now, I don’t think that there’s a conscious conspiracy in Hollywood to disconnect fantasies of violence from any sense of real-world applicability. I also don’t think that Tarantino is using his latest film to seed an anti-capitalist uprising. However, mainstream Hollywood’s usual refusal to engage with plausible violence is beneficial to capitalism, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not. Likewise, Tarantino’s unexpected assertion of the value of violence is relevant to the struggle, even though he clearly didn’t intend it as a coded message to diehard lefties.

I’m not saying that it’s good or appropriate to go out and physically attack the first venture capitalist or banker that you see. For a start, you’d be arrested and, for another, in a world of impersonal systems, any effective violence would have to be enacted against infrastructure not people. I’m not even calling for a violent uprising against capitalism right here and now. My point is merely that it behoves us to remember that we are capable of fighting back on the physical level as well as the cultural one – and this is something our oppressors would do well to bear in mind.

Culture Punch: reforming the videogames industry
Wednesday, 17 April 2019 17:16

Culture Punch: reforming the videogames industry

Published in Sport

Paul V. Tims looks at the games industry from a socialist perspective

It probably won’t surprise my regular readers to learn that I love videogames. What better way to escape the turgid, late-capitalist nightmare-world we all inhabit than by stepping into an entire other life where you’re an infinitely-customisable mass murderer. At their best, videogames are great works of art. Red Dead Redemption II is the story of a brutal outlaw slowly developing a conscience as he confronts his own mortality. Portal 2 is a jet-black and utterly surreal comedy that rivals God Bless America or Thank You For Smoking for both belly-laughs and heart-rending poignancy.

Videogames crafted with love and care by passionate people can be truly transcendent experiences. Unfortunately, videogames crafted by soulless profiteers to make a quick buck are the exact opposite, and encapsulate the very worst excesses of capitalism. Sadly, the evils of many so-called ‘Triple-A’ games companies are often overlooked by otherwise left-leaning, decent people, for the simple reason that interactive media are still new and baffling things, that defy a lot of folks’ understanding. Because I’m both a hard-left pseudo-Marxist type and a massive nerd, I’d like to think that I’m ideally placed to talk to about the problems of the mainstream games industry. Consider this article a primer on those issues.

The Crunch

If you haven’t heard of ‘The Crunch’, be very, very grateful, for you have lived a better life than most games developers. It might sound nothing more menacing than an edgy new breakfast cereal, but The Crunch is actually an appalling and exploitative bit of workplace practice the blights the lives of people working in the modern games industry. You see, game development studios are basically beholden to publishers, and game publishers are unfeeling, lizard-monster-bastards.

These publishers mandate the release dates of the games before anyone knows how long the project might actually take to finish. As a result, as a game’s release date approaches, the game is usually blatantly unfinished. Consequently, developers have to work 20-hour shifts and often go without sleep or adequate nutrition for days at a time in order to make sure the game is ready on time. In many cases, their physical and mental health is seriously affected. You can read a full article on the effects of ‘The Crunch’ in the New York Times HERE. The bottom line, however, is that the Crunch damages and even destroys ordinary workers in the games industry, just because big publishers refuse to factor actual humans into their scheduling, and therefore set grossly unrealistic release dates.

Micro-Transactions

Simply put, Micro-transactions are the method by which game publishers turn games into self-contained market-places, while trampling on the narrative experience they’re supposed to represent. Micro-transactions ‘allow’ – by which I actually mean ‘force’ – players to purchase in-game items with real-world money after they’ve already bought the game. They effectively create a system whereby players can only succeed in a game (or fully experience it), by spending additional money.

That prices a lot of people out of the game and creates a virtual environment that enshrines consumerism and privileges those with the most spending capital. Micro-Transactions are particularly onerous when paired with ‘loot boxes’. Loot boxes are used in a lot of games to randomise the items that players receive. Many games then allow players to pay for loot boxes using Micro-Transactions, meaning that they’re forcing players to waste money on random gear in order to unlock the items they do want through repeated purchases. Obviously, this is scummy and manipulative, but if you want more details I recommend checking out the Youtube channel of games journalist and comedian Jim Sterling. His video-essays on Micro-Transactions are lucid and deeply compelling. They can be found here, along with all his other videos. I particularly recommend this video about how loot-boxes and Micro-Transactions essentially force underage players to gamble to gain access to in-game equipment and bonuses.

The Price Point

If you’re familiar with videogame outlets, you might have noticed how suspiciously uniform the pricing is. Almost all new ‘AAA’ games retail for between £49.99 and £60. It might seem like a minor gripe, especially compared to the exploitative ‘Crunch’ or manipulative Micro-Transactions, but the price of games is a problem for a number of reasons.

Firstly, in most cases it’s too high. If books or films were so expensive that they priced enormous swathes of the population out of the market altogether, there’d be an outcry about how the poorest in society don’t have access to important parts of the culture. Because games still aren’t viewed as legitimate cultural artefacts , however, nobody kicks up a fuss about the obscene overpricing.

Secondly, the price-point remains the same regardless of the length, content and overall quality of a game. Certainly, one could argue that about £50 is reasonable for a game like Red Dead Redemption 2, which takes hundreds of hours to fully explore, features one of the most beautifully detailed and well-realised worlds in game history, and is built around a winding, morally complex tale of a man confronting his failings at the end of his life. One might, however, have a harder time arguing that Marvel’s Spiderman should cost the same price, considering it is possible to breeze through it in about eight hours, the game world is pretty but also completely generic, and the plot involves people in tights beating seven bells out of one another for increasingly silly and melodramatic reasons.

What Is To Be Done?

The games industry is easy to overlook when you’re trying to build a socialist cultural democracy. The word ‘games’ makes it sound frivolous. However, the problems that beset the industry are real and are the result of unfettered, capitalist greed. As such, they have to be addressed, and here are a few proposed solutions.

There’s an argument to be made that, in the grand scheme of things, the videogame industry isn’t particularly important. If videogames ceased to exist tomorrow, the loss to culture would be large but not insurmountable. However, the industry is important to the people that work within it and those who engage with its products. Part of cultural democracy is surely about acknowledging concerns that only affect fringe groups, and taking those concerns seriously.

The games industry may be easy to overlook when you’re trying to build a socialist cultural democracy, but the problems that beset it are real and are the result of unfettered, capitalist greed. As such, they have to be addressed, and here are a few proposed solutions.

‘The Crunch’ is a horrendous, sadistic and exploitative work practice that treats people like machines and it should be banned completely. Games publishers who whip their employees to the point of exhaustion using this practice should face prosecution, and I’d like to see a Labour government pass the laws that would make this possible.

Micro-Transactions turn customers into exploited users who have to pay over and over again to properly engage with a product that they already own. Ideally, they should be banned in paid titles. They’re arguably acceptable in so-called ‘free-to-play’ games where players aren’t expected to buy the game outright and can access the main bulk for free. After all, those games have to make their production costs back somehow. But Micro-Transactions have no place in games that people have to pay for upfront.

The Price-Point of ‘AAA’ games is absurd, but sadly there’s no easy way to make it fairer. No state or government can objectively judge a game’s quality and legislate on how much it should cost. However, funding and grants could be set up for independent studios developing less overblown games with lower price-points. This might make the ‘AAA’ industry think twice about its own pricing, while opening up the games industry to less corrupt newcomers.

Facebook and why we should all own it
Wednesday, 06 February 2019 10:09

Facebook and why we should all own it

Paul Tims, our regular Culture Punch columnist, sums up the problems with Facebook and calls for an end to private ownership of such an important means of human communication

I think it’s fair to say that Facebook is now a ubiquitous means of communication. In the western world, it’s used as widely as phone calls or emails. It’s used to contact business associates, friends, family members, sexually alluring strangers, people you met once at a party and completely failed to connect with - and the occasional hitman. Okay, probably not that last one. The point is that Facebook has, since its inception, grown into one of the most widely-accepted communication platforms in the world. Which would be fine, if it was completely neutral, like an email service, a telephone network or a carrier pigeon. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Facebook has an agenda.

The term ‘agenda’ tends to get thrown around a lot in political discussions, usually in rather vague ways designed to make the accused party sound as sinister as possible. I’m talking about a set of specific biases and preoccupations that have the net effect of turning Facebook into a site that favours a right-wing status quo. The main function of this article will be to examine some of Facebook’s most obvious and pernicious biases, explain them, and propose what to me is the blindingly obvious remedy of ensuring the common good by taking such companies into some form of common ownership.

The most explicit and easily-demonstrated example of Facebook bias dates back to 2011, when the site deleted, on mass, hundreds of anti-monarchist profile pages. The official reason was that the pages didn’t comply with some of the site’s minor rules. For example, because they were pages devoted to a cause rather than to individuals, the profiles didn’t show the owners’ real names. This excuse doesn’t, however, hold a great deal of water. The pages had been ignored by Facebook until 2011. They were deleted just in time for the royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Facebook waited until the exact point when the anti-monarchist, anti-establishment message would have been most relevant, and then abused its position as a communications platform to cripple that message. You can read both sides of the story here. To my mind, the timing is deeply suspicious... in much the same way that a dog sitting beside a large pile of dog crap on a recently-cleaned living room carpet is deeply suspicious. There might be several explanations for the state of affairs, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one is most likely.

More recently, Facebook has allowed itself to become a platform for the far right to spread disinformation. Because Facebook is used as a media outlet by various content creators, one might think that the platform has a responsibility to police lies, threats and disinformation spread on its platform. It does… it just doesn’t act on that responsibility, at least not in the case of right-wing output. According to this article on Crooked.com, the website’s algorithms don’t differentiate between legitimate political analysis and far-right propaganda content such as ‘Infowars’ (if you haven’t heard of Infowars, it’s a lunatic, neoconservative web-series thingy that specialises in the kind of conspiracy theories that would make David Icke raise a dubious eyebrow).

Despite containing outright lies and threats of violence against leftist politicians, Infowars' video and textual content isn’t restricted by Facebook and is presented alongside less deranged political pages. One might assume that this is simply Facebook enacting perfect neutrality by not interfering with the content it is used to distribute. However, the same hands-off approach doesn’t seem to apply to more left-leaning output. For example, a Pod Saves America video posted on Facebook was recently flagged and given an 18+ rating. It contained no threats of violence, no aggression, no actual disinformation: it was a pretty dry analysis of an investigation into some political misconduct by the Russian state. On Facebook, you have to be over 18 to watch a potentially educational political video. However, impressionable youngsters can watch the abusive, violent crypto-fascist ravings of Alex Jones. I think that seems a little unbalanced.

Cambridge Analytica

However, the most spectacular and irrefutable piece of evidence against Facebook is its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For those of you who don’t remember the scandal, here’s a quick recap: in 2014, Cambridge Analytica used data harvested from literally millions of Facebook profiles to create software that could analyse voters and influence decisions at the ballot box. The software was used to aid Trump’s electoral campaign in the US and the predominantly right-wing (and very racist) pro-Brexit campaign here in the UK. You can find a detailed summary of what happened here.  The point is that Facebook allowed this to happen. Over 50 million profiles were malappropriated by election-rigging rightist software sociopaths, and the platform did the square root of bugger all to stop it. I’d go so far as to say that it was cheerfully complicit in Cambridge Analytica’s activity.

But what does it all mean? We’ve established that Facebook has a monarchist bias, a Trump-y bias and (possibly) a pro-Brexit bias, but why has the platform allied itself with these random pieces of rightist ideology? Facebook is still run, more or less, by Mark Zuckerberg, and we may never know what goes on in that dude’s head. He is, after all, a mumbly pseud with a seemingly infinite capacity for talking bollocks without offering the slightest whiff of insight. The same guy who played him in The Social Network recently played colourful comic-book sociopath Lex Luthor and I think it’s telling that the latter was vastly more sympathetic.

However, even though we can’t penetrate the cloud of self-aggrandising Silicone Valley guff that wafts from Zuckerberg’s every pore, we can come up with an explanation using my all-time favourite philosophical tool: Occam’s Razor! All other factors being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In this case, the simplest explanation is that Facebook is a business first - an advertising paltform - and a communications platform second. Businesses like the British monarchy because they attract weepy, gurning monarchists with disposable incomes and a lot of time on their hands… time that can, for instance, be used gawping at Facebook and the adverts that appear thereon. Businesses like Trump because he’s totally okay with them paying almost no tax and exploiting their workers. Tech businesses such as Facebook even like Brexit, because it means they won’t have to worry about enforcing the EU’s online copyright laws. 

The fact of the matter is that one doesn’t have to look very far to uncover the rationale behind Facebook’s multifarious biases: profit. The company is simply doing what all companies do: maximising its profit margins and baulking against legislative threats. It’s an obvious truth, but we tend to forget it far too often: all corporations are inherently selfish institutions, and Facebook is no exception. It’s agenda is nothing more grand or impressive than the grubby pursuit of money and users. Capitalist companies are under a fiduciary duty to maximise the returns to the shareholders who own and invest in the company. it would be against the rules of the game for Facebook to pursue the common good rather than the good of the small number of rich and powerful shareholders that own it.

Instagram

So, Facebook is obliged by the capitalist system to pursue profit. I suspect that this factoid surprises precisely nobody. But can Facebook be redeemed? To answer that question, let’s take a look at a related scandal that broke in the news recently.

As some of you may be aware, Instagram is on the verge of integrating with Facebook so that the two platforms can trade data more effectively. Unfortunately, it also may have killed a few teenagers. Instagram has been accused of hosting content that actively encourages self-harm and suicide. You can read the cold, hard facts (and some heartbreaking testimonials from parents) here. Of course, we can’t expect platforms with literally millions of users to check every single piece of content that they host, and there’s no legislating for the random malice and psychosis of web-users themselves.

However, Instagram seems to have made almost zero effort to control content with self-harm and suicidal imagery (which is detectable by algorithm, in case you were wondering). What’s more, it’s worth remembering that Instagram, like Facebook, has algorithms that are designed to harvest information about its users and then throw them content that it thinks they’re likely to click on. These algorithms obviously aren’t specifically designed to show suicidal teens suicide-encouraging content, but Instagram doesn’t seem to care that it’s a likely side-effect. Its business model as an online advertising platform requires it to seek and keep the attention of the maximum number of potential consumers - how it does that is of secondary importance.

Like Facebook, Instagram is motivated by profit and that’s what the blind pursuit of profit does: it turns companies into slathering monsters quite willing to create hillocks of self-mutilated corpses, just so long as the corpses can be monetized first. 

What is to be done?

How do we apply the principles of cultiural democracy - shared ownership and democratic management - to Facebook? There are several things that could be done, preferably by an incoming Labour government. Although the company is based in the US, it still has to maintain servers in the UK. There’s no reason why executive-level Facebook employees in Britain shouldn’t face charges for their complicity in the platform’s manipulation of the political landscape. After all, Facebook has influenced elections and referendums while pretending to be neutral: at the very least, it’s committed consumer rights offences by not being upfront about its biases.

Some legal action has already occurred surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but a more generalised case could and should be made against the site’s malpractice. It would also be useful to introduce new laws that specifically pertain to the neutrality of online communications platforms. You’d be shocked if your telephone company started cutting off your calls because you expressed a political preference for Jeremy Corbyn or socialism, yet it seems that online communications networks can cheerfully censor some content while promoting other bits. At present, this behaviour is legally dubious, but new, clearer laws could make it completely and unequivocally illegal.

Of course, these legal steps are half-measures. If we want to maximise the common good, why not take Facebook into some form of social, common ownership? With democratic management by our elected representatives? I don’t mean broken up into smaller platforms, or more heavily regulated: I mean actually, completely owned and managed by us - see here.

Alternatively, an incoming Labour government could close down Facebook's operations in the UK, and create publicly-owned online multimedia communications platforms. Sites like Facebook are immensely profitable, partly because of their advertising revenue and partly because of their ability to harvest and monetise data. You can read a Marxist analysis of how such sites turn data-surveillance into profit here. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of that revenue went into, say, our diminishing Welfare State - education, housing or the NHS? Plus, deciding what data to keep, what content to show and how to manage to political pages would be a job for public servants with a remit to protect users, not profiteering sociopaths.

Taking Facebook - and Google, Amazon, and Twitter - into public ownership, or simply closing them down and creating or adopting publicly-owned equivalents, could also encourager les autres, as they say. It could show the world the benefits of socially owned enterprises and be a major plank of a comprehensive programme of cultural democracy by an incoming Labour government. It could be the flagship of a fleet of detailed policy measures designed to reclaim the cultural commons - to take back into common ownership all of our culture around communication, the arts, sports, and all the other activities and practices which give us enjoyment, promote our happiness and well-being, and help us flourish as human beings.

Culture Punch: The Many Horrors of the Disney Corporation
Saturday, 27 October 2018 18:02

Culture Punch: The Many Horrors of the Disney Corporation

Published in Films

There is a certain self-satisfaction to our popular culture which I find nauseating. TV and film are used to tell more styles and types of stories than ever before. At any given moment I can boot up Netflix or Amazon Prime and find a hundred sci-fi series, horror flicks, romances or documentaries. On any given day, I can walk into a cinema and satisfy my craving for any genre I choose.

And yet, I find myself discontented. For all the superficial variety of modern cinema and television, almost everything on offer suffers from the same vague, ideological squalidness. The underlying ideas and concerns of most of the stories in our visual medium are as tawdry as they are homogeneous. And just to be clear: they’re very homogeneous.

This problem finds its purest and most troubling expression in one company: the Disney corporation. I despise Disney. Don’t get me wrong: like everyone else in the universe, I like some of the films they’ve bankrolled. They own Marvel Studios, and a surprising number of that studio’s films are very, very good. My issue with Disney has nothing to do with their ability to produce entertaining content: my problem is that they own just about everything. Well, that and the use of child slave labour to make their merchandise. We’ll come back to that.

It’s Disney’s money behind the Star Wars franchise (and every other LucasFilms franchise), the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the animated films of Pixar, Touchstones Pictures, the ABC (aka the American Broadcasting Company), A&E and Lifetime (two lesser-known US cable channels), and, for some mad reason, the Muppets. And that’s not even a comprehensive list! Disney owns shares in various news and music distributors as well (including Vice, believe it or not).

The point is that this one corporation owns most of the film studios generating our most influential cultural myths, along with a vast network of lesser studios and TV channels. Its ideas, values and ideologies therefore dominate the cultural landscape. Yes, it’s true that most of their interests are in America, but we still consume the same content here in Britain. If you regularly watch movies of any description, your mental landscape is being shaped by Disney. If you have kids who watch films or TV, their value systems are being moulded by a company that got caught using sweatshop labour as recently as 2012. And no – I don’t think they’ve stopped just because they haven’t been caught again since.

You can find a complete history of their malpractice and abuse at the Corporate Research Project. Disney is a company that’s happy to subject its workers to slave-like conditions whenever it thinks it can get away with it. It also grossly underpays its western-based workers outside of sweatshops. You can find an interesting summary of just how wealthy Disney is and how little it pays its workforce in the essay Disney Corporation Through the Eyes of a Marxist. The essay also discusses Disney’s function as an ‘opiate of the masses’, which makes it a perfect companion to this article.

This single, exploitative company is in charge of the most influential cultural franchises on the planet. Yet despite the evil of the company itself, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the values and ideas that Disney-backed films promote… at least on the surface. Those films seem pretty big on friendship, diversity, self-sacrifice, etc. – all the usual positive values that help our society function. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that there’s quite a lot of weaselly and self-serving messages hidden in Disney’s output.

Consider, for instance, the villains of the Marvel studios films. If you’re familiar with those films, you may have noticed that a surprising number of the villains are motivated by outrage over injustices they have suffered at the hands of America in general, or its fictional superhero community in particular. My favourite example is probably the terrorist from Captain America: Civil War, who turned ‘evil’ in response to the fact that American superheroes and villains nearly destroyed his eastern-European home city.

Villains

Meanwhile, there’s The Vulture, from Spiderman: Homecoming, who’s actually just a working-class dude who loses his job to a company owned by Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), and is driven to a life of crime as a result. Hmm. I wonder why a company like Disney that routinely exploits the impoverished and people from less affluent nations might be keen to portray them as unhinged psychopaths-in-waiting. Maybe I’m paranoid, or maybe Disney has a vested interest in limiting our sympathies with the people and demographics it regularly screws over.

Of course, not all Disney’s Marvel films are propaganda for capitalism and western colonialism. It’d be hard to argue that there’s anything ideologically suspect about the Guardians of the Galaxy films for example. But then again, those were directed by James Gunn, who was fired by Disney at the first opportunity, so I’m not sure if that counts for anything.

Lest you think the disturbing propagandist trend is confined to just one of the studios that Disney owns, let’s examine another one. LucasFilms is the Disney-owned studio that makes Star Wars. Now, who can tell me what’s wrong with Star Wars? That was a rhetorical question – put your hand down.

Part of the problem is the simple lack of depth. To say that the modern Star Wars films are about as deep as puddles would be an insult to puddles. I once stepped into a puddle in Wales and sunk up to my waist. I wish Disney’s Star Wars had that kind of surprising depth (and that I’d been wearing waterproof clothes, but that’s off-topic).

The Empire’s holdouts in the new trilogy are clearly meant to be an allegory for the rise of the far Right, but they seem less villainous than the real thing because they’ve been airbrushed into a saleable form. They’re a stylised form of evil designed to shift themed merchandise, and they make that type of evil look almost appealing, which is kind of irresponsible when its real-life counterpart is on the ascendant across Europe and America.

Also – and I admit this is a comparatively minor gripe – the new films actually endorse the mindless following of orders, even if they don’t make sense. In The Last Jedi, there’s a military General on the good guys’ side who keeps giving really, really stupid orders that keep putting people in danger and nearly getting them killed. Some of the other characters nearly mutiny… but it turns out the General had a super-secret plan all along and should have just been trusted!

The moral of the story seems to be to trust high-ranking military officials, even when they’re clearly nuts. I think the film’s writers and producers expected to get away with this little subplot because the General is a purple-haired woman who looks like a Liberal Arts major rather than a moustache-twirling Kitchener type. Newsflash, Disney: smuggling a message of militarist conformity in under the guise of diversity and progressivism makes it worse, not better.

Disney also has a… complicated relationship with sexism and racism. In fairness to the corporation, there’s actually very little direct sexism or racism in their recent films. Their classic output, on the other hand, is rife with it. Remember that, until recently, Disney was primarily known for its animations based on fairy tales and the ‘Disney Princesses’ contained therein. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White – that whole fictitious milieu. None of these characters had any real agency.

racism 2

Of course, in the modern age, Disney has made a show of subverting and even mocking this trope from its earlier films. Films of that era also contain quite a few racist stereotypes (Dumbo, one of their non-fairytale films from that era of animation, contains a racist caricature in the form of a crow named Jim Crow, after the segregation laws that America used to discriminate against people of colour). There is a discussion of Disney’s sexist and racist messages here.

The problem isn’t that the Disney company made sexist and racist movies years ago. I can’t legitimately attack the modern incarnation of a company for things it did before most of its current executives and employees were even born. The problem is that Disney continues to profit from these movies. It regularly releases and re-releases DVDs and Blu-rays of them. It continues to sell them to uncritical children and nostalgia-blinded adults.

I’m not saying these movies should become inaccessible. I don’t think any cultural artefact should be put beyond reach, no matter how repellent it might be. However, there’s something sleazy and toxic about the way Disney continues to peddle them (and therefore the ideas they contain) for profit. Really, they should be in a public archive, instead, with annotations explaining their historical context. But they’re not. They’re in supermarkets, utterly devoid of context.

By now, you should have a sense of how huge Disney is and how comprehensive its impact on our culture truly is. The point is that one of the largest media companies in the world – a company whose content almost all of us consume – is perfectly comfortable with skewing the underlying ideology of its current output to the right while selling even more retrograde content from its past. And that’s a problem, because the messages are ubiquitous and therefore play a gigantic role in shaping the thought processes of anyone imbibing them. Worse, they’re also subtle. They enter the brain as background information and aren’t subjected to the critical and analytical processes that would greet explicit ideological message-mongering.

Any cultural and ideological monopoly is bad, because it means a single source is distorting and mutating the mindscapes of entire populations. A cultural and ideological monopoly that happens to be in the hands of a right-wing, morally-bankrupt mega-corp is so, so much worse.

Disney is engaged in a constant project of acquiring more studios and controlling more and more of the cinematic and cultural landscape, which should worry anyone who values the polyphony of ideas and viewpoint that exist in a real cultural democracy. And they have a history of using sweatshop labour.

In their article Culture for the Many, Not the Few, Mike Quille and Chris Guiton state that “Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity against divisions of class, gender, race and other divisions caused by capitalism”. The Disney corporation controls an enormous swathe of our media culture, and the ideologies that it pushes are antithetical to those cultural ideals. It enshrines division, particularly between different nationalities and classes of humanity. As such, it is as an enemy of cultural democracy.

Do I think a company like Disney can be reformed? Frankly, no. I think the culture of exploitation and right-wing bias is so deeply ingrained in Disney’s corporate DNA that its incapable of meaningful, lasting reform. However, that doesn’t mean that the individual writers, animators and artists trapped within the company are beyond redemption. In an ideal world, I’d like to see the talented people working for Disney break away and set up their own small, independent studios, which would be owned by their workers, not external shareholders. Smaller studios that aren’t answerable to profit-motivated capitalists can put out content with a healthy range of ideas and viewpoints.

Believe it or not, you can encourage individual creators to break away from their masters and Disney in this fashion. All you have to do is find out the names of individuals who have worked on films that you’ve enjoyed, and support their independent projects. You can also be open in your criticism of Disney in order to make creators and film-goers aware of the depravities of the organisation.

However, individual action is never enough on its own. It’s also worth considering what governmental and legislative steps can be taken to break the cultural dominance of the Disney corporation and improve conditions for its workers. As you probably guessed, I have a few ideas.

Crucially, I think we need to see a new kind of anti-monopoly law aimed specifically at media corporations. This law would limit the number of studios and creative teams that any one company could have under its corporate umbrella. A key part of the problem with the Disney corporation is that it owns too many studios and creative teams and therefore dominates our cultural landscape. Any law that prevents it from acquiring new studios would be a positive first step. If the law could also force Disney (and companies like it) to sell off some of their studios to the people who already work there, that would be even better. It would create a polyphony of worker-owned, independent studios practically overnight.

Theoretically, an incoming Labour government could introduce such a law in the UK, but Disney is an international company primarily based in the USA. In other words, other countries (particularly America) would have to adopt versions of the law for it to have a serious effect. However, the UK has an opportunity to lead the way by being the first company to apply anti-monopoly laws to the cultural landscape itself, and thereby encourage cultural democracy.

An incoming Labour government could also do something about the way Disney treats its workers in this country by raising the UK minimum wage for individuals employed by corporations above a certain size. It could also help combat Disney’s use of sweatshops by requiring that all companies have documented proof that their goods are not being manufactured in sweatshops.

None of this would result in the destruction of the Disney corporation. However, they are practical steps that can be implemented within our lifetime and – hopefully – within the lifetime of the next Labour government.

I’m not saying you should never consume media put out by Disney. Aside from anything else, that would be almost impossible, particularly if you’re into genre films. However, Disney has been given a free pass for far too long. Large swathes of the population laud the company for the creative risks that it supposedly takes with its movies and for its superficial (and entirely false) progressiveness. It’s important to bring its faults, failings and evils to light. Discuss them with other people who watch the movies. Make people aware that they’re putting monsters on a pedestal. Heck, talk about it on the Internet if you’ve got the stomach for the inevitable backlash, courtesy of emotionally fragile fans.

Above all, when you consume their content, don’t do so uncritically – be aware of general and current issues.

Vice