Magazine August 27, 2018, Issue

Farce as Tragedy

(Universal Pictures)
How a 1980s sci-fi flick became an inspiration for Marxist tracts

‘I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

It’s one of my favorite movie lines of all time, but there are other reasons I love John Carpenter’s sci-fi action movie They Live, which celebrates its 30th anniversary later this year. Starring the 1980s professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, it is one of the best B-movies of the era. Kurt Russell was supposed to play the lead role, but Carpenter felt that after directing so many Russell vehicles, he should go with someone else. When Carpenter, a wrestling fan, saw Piper’s bravura performance in Wrestlemania III, he had found his man.

I have watched They Live many times since it first came out. But it was only a few years ago that I learned it’s also a timeless piece of Marxist propaganda.

This is not the observation of a cranky right-winger seeing Commies under every bed. This is the considered opinion of numerous Marxist, neo-Marxist, and coffee-house-Marxist commentators. Even the famous Marxist intellectual Slavoj Zizek, the so-called Elvis of cultural theory, hailed it in a New York Public Library lecture as “the neglected masterpiece, maybe, of the Hollywood Left.”

A legendarily awesome five-minute, 20-second fight scene, according to Zizek, captures the struggle to escape bourgeois capitalist ideology. “Ideology is not simply imposed on [us],” he explains in the documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. “Ideology is our relationship to our social world. We, in a way, enjoy our ideology. To step outside of it is painful.” As painful as an elbow pile-driven into your solar plexus or a repeated knee blow to the groin, WWE-style, apparently.

Writing in Dissident Voice (“a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice”), the Communist writer Christos Kefalis dubs They Live “the Marxist movie par excellence.” He adds that it is “one of the most devastating and sharp criticisms of American imperialism ever made,” representing “in exemplary fashion the process of neo-conservative barbarization in American society as well as the dynamic of its revolutionary overthrow.” The novelist Jonathan Lethem, author of a book on They Live, says it is “probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject” (though “also probably the most fun”). Lethem may be right about the stupidity, though the field is so rich one is reluctant to be definitive on the point.

The relevant part of the plot for our purposes is as follows. Piper plays a decent everyman, a Joe Sixpack named “Nada,” struggling during hard economic times. A bit of a drifter, he finds construction work in Los Angeles. While sleeping in a shantytown called “Justiceville” — basically a Great Depression–style Hooverville — he’s woken up by a brutal police raid. He barely escapes, and in the process he discovers some sunglasses.

It is soon revealed that those sunglasses — and others like them — were the reason for the raid in the first place. That’s because they’re special, a crucial tool of a brewing rebellion, in fact. When Piper puts them on, the world-behind-the-world is revealed. The reality he sees through the glasses is in black and white, which is an ironic twist because he learns that the gaudy colors of the everyday world are actually seductive lies. Before the glasses revealed the truth, the world seemed rich, rewarding, and full of hope. With the figurative scales lifted from his eyes and the color washed away, Nada sees the stark monochromatic truth of it all.

The name “Nada” (Spanish and Portuguese for “nothing”), we are told, is suggestive. Our bourgeois everyman discovers that in the brutal world of capitalism, he really is a nothing, a dehumanized cog. Nada discovers that advertising is loaded with subliminal messages. A billboard for a Caribbean vacation with a bikini-clad model actually reads “Marry and Reproduce.” A shingle for a men’s-clothing store really says “No Independent Thought.” A sign for a “Close-Out Sale” sends the true message: “Consume.” “Obey,” “Work,” “Buy,” “Watch TV”: These commands are embedded in every magazine cover and newspaper headline. (The “Obey” command inspired the artist Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” artwork.)

As the story unfolds, Piper discovers that the glasses don’t merely reveal the true nature of our greed-soaked capitalist system run by Reaganite yuppies, they also expose the true nature of the 1 percenters (to borrow a more contemporary term). They are hideous aliens, parasitic puppet masters who fill our heads with lies about progress and happiness, turning our frivolous wants into deeply but wrongly felt needs. But it’s not just the media; every aspect of our lives is orchestrated and manipulated to satisfy the desires of our hidden overlords.

As befits this cartoonish understanding of capitalism, the vision of the film is a caricature. The true nature of society isn’t complicated, but stark. When Piper puts on the glasses, that truth “is seen in black and white.” “It’s as if the aliens have colorized us,” Carpenter explained. This flourish was aimed at Ted Turner, who at the time was being vilified for colorizing classic black-and-white films for profit. “That means, of course, that Ted Turner is really a monster from outer space,” Carpenter joked (or did he?).

The aliens are depicted as ghoulish, skinless skulls because Carpenter believed the real-world Ted Turners were sapping our humanity, forcing us to “sell out” to the system. “The creatures are corrupting us, so they themselves are corruptions of human beings.”

But the critics find something far more profound. “When Roddy Piper dons his sunglasses he sees an unsettling and terrifying world — one which he initially runs from, in shock and denial,” explains the left-wing writer Chauncey DeVega. “At first, Piper believes he must be insane because the brutal reality of hegemonic power is now laid bare in front of him, with its organs of control through the media, surveillance, advertising, casino capitalism, the corporation, and the police state.”

The “human traitors” who work with the exploiters, DeVega writes in AlterNet,

are agents of neoliberal governmentality, where profits trump human dignity and value, who seek to destroy the social safety net, eliminate the “useless eaters,” believe that corporations are people, and live an ethos of robber baron gangster capitalism. The aliens may rule the Earth, but they are only able to do so because they are helped by unethical and immoral human beings.

In case you didn’t know, all this praise of They Live amounts to cultural Marxism. Now, “cultural Marxism” is a loaded term these days, because a number of figures on the far right use it to describe their own conspiracy theory about how “cultural Marxists” are secretly manipulating society for their own ends. In this telling, the aliens of They Live would be hiding subliminal messages in the media that say, “Be gay,” “Stay woke,” or some such. I’ll return to this in a bit, but for now, just know I don’t mean it in that sense. Rather, I simply mean that the lavish praise of this obscure sci-fi movie stems from a mode of analysis that stretches back to the Marxist writers associated with the Frankfurt School.

Frankfurt School Marxism was born out of a psychological need to explain why Communism had failed to take root, initially in Germany but more broadly in the West. The answer that Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and others settled on — after borrowing some ideas from Freud and Nietzsche — was that the structure of capitalist society (which they perversely and ludicrously equated with Fascism) was even more totalitarian than they had realized. In other words, Communism couldn’t take root because Fascism already had.

Reading the Frankfurt School Marxists today is a bit like waiting in line at the DMV, an exercise in tedium punctuated — if you’re lucky — by rare moments of absurdity or even hilarity (“Why is that guy wearing a bathrobe?”). When Robert Downey Jr. explains in Back to School that football is nothing more than a “crypto-Fascist metaphor for nuclear war,” he is arguably being more reasonable than cultural Marxists.

For instance, on the topic of American capitalist (i.e., “Fascist”) oppression, Adorno’s thoughts echoed Madge from the old Palmolive ads: You’re soaking in it. According to Adorno, the windows of American homes, which had to be thumped shut — unlike civilized European crank windows — pulsated with tyranny and “the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment.” Car and refrigerator doors were oppressive because they demanded to be slammed. Adorno and his colleague Max Horkheimer explained in The Dialectic of Enlightenment that “cartoons . . . confirm the victory of technological reason over truth. . . . Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.” Meanwhile, the most successful Frankfurter in America, Herbert Marcuse, explained:

The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a “biological” need. 

The key trick to Frankfurt School Marxism is that it, like all conspiracy theories, is unfalsifiable. The absence of proof that the conspiracy exists is evidence of its success. “The fact that we cannot point to an SS or SA here,” Marcuse insisted, using the shorthand for the Nazi paramilitary organizations, “simply means that they are not necessary in this country.” The more successful and prosperous that society seems to the glassless Nadas, the more complete is their victory.

But here is the riddle. John Carpenter, who wrote and directed the film, was not a student of Marx. He was not conversant in critical theory, cultural theory, post-colonial theory, or any of the other brand names that have spun off from Das Kapital or Dialectic of Enlightenment. The film is actually an adaptation of the 1963 science-fiction short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, by Ray Faraday Nelson, whose greatest claim to fame wasn’t his deep explications of Marxist theory but his status as the inventor of the propeller beanie. Neither the story nor the 1986 comic book based on it seems any more inspired by Marxist theory than the film itself.

And yet, by the Marxists’ own account, Carpenter nailed it.

How did Carpenter manage such a feat? Several possible explanations come to mind. The first is that Carpenter is a genius. As a fan of Carpenter’s work, I’m open to that idea. But if you watch They Live, even with all the Marxist theory in mind, it’s still a B-movie starring a boisterous professional wrestler. And the fact that Carpenter didn’t make the film while reading from a dog-eared copy of Adorno’s Minima Moralia suggests that any direct intellectual influence was . . . minimal.

Which brings us to a second, more plausible explanation of why Carpenter’s vision fits so neatly into this highfalutin folderol: Carpenter was standing on the shoulders of Marxist giants without even realizing it. So profound and deep is Marxist influence on American culture, this argument goes, that artists and intellectuals absorb its radical indictments of American society as if by osmosis, without knowing how it got into the groundwater in the first place. This is a more subtle version of the inverted cultural Marxism I referenced above. Just as the Frankfurters argue that bourgeois ideology is embedded in our institutions and customs without our realizing it (“governmentality,” in Michel Foucault’s phrase), some conservatives argue that radical ideology is embedded in many of the institutions that control the commanding heights of the culture.

This jibes with a much-beloved idea about how intellectual history unfolds. Philosopher A says something. A hundred — or thousand — years later, Intellectual B says something similar; ergo, A influenced B. “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist,” John Maynard Keynes famously said. “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” It is indisputable that this dynamic does occur. For instance, I assume that every Christian theologian alive today would concede that his or her influences stretch back to the Church Fathers or to Jesus himself. No doubt Marxist ideas have gotten into the bloodstream.

Still, it seems rather obvious that Carpenter would have made this movie even if Marx had never been born. The targets of his film weren’t the industrialists of the last 200 years but the yuppies of the 1980s. He detested what he saw as the rank commercialism of the Reagan era. “I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something. . . . It’s all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money,” he told Starlog magazine.

So while we cannot rule out the osmosis theory, there is another, more obvious answer: This stuff isn’t that clever. After all, if Carpenter can stumble into making the perfect Marxist film without even trying, how complicated can it be? Carpenter made a fun, left-wing action movie about a construction worker with unnaturally good wrestling skills fighting alien invaders. The fact that a bunch of Marxist eggheads read so much ideological brilliance into the movie doesn’t prove that the movie is ideologically brilliant; it demonstrates that its critical fans aren’t.

My own view is that the heavy use of jargon that marks the various schools of Marxism isn’t proof that Marxism is “scientific” or even insightful. It is proof that there is an academic guild or priesthood that needs to invent complex, impenetrable language to protect not just its authority but its trade secret: that its ideas are not very deep. This phenomenon isn’t new. The haruspices of ancient Rome no doubt had ornate and complex explanations of why pigeon guts foretold the future. Most probably even believed those explanations. But that didn’t make them any less of a fraud.

Consider, for example, this nugget of prose:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline, soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality. 

Fear not: I have no idea what this sentence — that’s right, it’s a single sentence — means, either. It comes from The Location of Culture, by post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha. Mr. Bhabha is a wildly acclaimed professor of English. The reason I cite this famously good example of bad writing is to illustrate how so much academic theoretical writing serves as incantation. Like the abracadabra words offered by the ancient Roman priests, Marxist theory and its offshoots put rhetorical meat on the bones of remarkably simple ideas, sentiments, and phobias that are less the product of meticulously developed, reality-tested theories and more the expression of anti-rational grievance, alienation, and paranoia. In short, they are the adornments of romanticism.

“Romanticism” is a messy word, but what I mean by it is fairly straightforward: the tradition of rebellion against the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, as launched by Rousseau and a variety of poets, artists, and political theorists. In the eternal battle between facts and feelings, romanticism is the battle flag for the forces of feelings. In its myriad ideological manifestations, romanticism holds that abstract rules — of science, the market, even constitutional democracy — are a ruse, a form of exploitation that denies our true humanity for the benefit of those who have rigged the system. A romantic ranks feelings, instincts, passions, and intuitions above cold and unlovely dictates of reason and rules. “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” proclaimed Rousseau. Moreover, external restraints are not only unjust, they are personal. The evils — real or perceived — of “the system” are the result of human agency or design. Thus the cultural theorists’ obsession with power: Those without it are always the victims of those with it.

I must admit that I do not think this view lacks all merit. People do use power to rig the game in their favor. Indeed, the Founders understood this better than any English-department ideologist. But they also understood that this was unavoidable. The real threat to freedom isn’t merely power, but unchecked power yoked to the state.

Rousseau despised the Catholic priests of the ancien régime who represented “themselves as interpreters of things incomprehensible and as ministers of the Divinity,” and who substituted “Gods of their own fashioning for the true God who did not suit their turn.” But Rousseau turned this indictment of the duplicitous “priestcraft” (James Harrington’s term) of the Church and visited it upon the philosophes as well, arguing that they were the “great imitators of the mode of proceeding [marche] followed by the Jesuits.” They “govern minds with the same imperial control [empire], with the same dexterity that these others employ in governing consciences.” (These translations come from Paul Rahe’s brilliant essay “The Enlightenment Indicted: Rousseau’s Response to Montesquieu.”)

Rousseau was a truly brilliant, personally despicable, paranoid acolyte of the cult of himself. He saw conspiracies — a few real, many imagined — against him everywhere. “Sir, I have no liking for the world,” Rousseau told the Scottish writer James Boswell. “I live here in a world of fantasies and I cannot tolerate the world as it is. . . . Mankind disgusts me.” In his solipsism he believed that all personal inconveniences, setbacks, or slights were proof of a rigged system. In short, his political philosophy was well downstream of his feelings.

It is highly controversial in some quarters to claim that Marx was a romantic. After all, he claimed to be a slave to science. But the truth is that he bent the language of science to his thoroughly romantic vision. Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world,” writes Paul Johnson, “was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.” Deirdre McCloskey observes, “For all Marx’s brilliance . . . he got the history wrong. Whatever the value of his theories as a way of asking historical questions, you cannot rely on Marx for any important historical fact: not on the English enclosure movement, not on the fate of the factory workers, not on the results of machine production, not on the false consciousness of the working class.” She adds: “No serious Marxist historian writing in English, such as Hobsbawm or Christopher Hill or E. P. Thompson, has relied for historical facts on Marx.”

In short, political romanticism — the wellspring for 18th-century nationalism as well as Marxism and all its “modern” offshoots — always manifests itself as a form of “motivated reasoning,” a psychological term for the way we bend facts, observations, and reason itself to fit our emotions. Conspiracy theories are among the purest forms of motivated reasoning because they not only yoke disparate and often unconnected facts to an overarching theory, they even invoke the absence of facts as further evidence. Marxist indictments of liberal-democratic capitalism — including those of the Frankfurt School but also critical legal studies, post-colonial studies, etc. — can be stripped of all their complicated priestly jargon and reduced to fairly simple emotional states. “The Man is keeping me down” isn’t a complicated idea, no matter how many adjectival nouns the Homi Bhabhas of the world use to enliven their word salads.

That is why John Carpenter, the director of Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from New York, could make “the Marxist movie par excellence” without intending to do so while so many more-learned auteurs have tried and failed. But the problem with making a film that lends itself so easily to the motivated reasoning of romantic conspiracy theorists is that it might end up attracting romantic conspiracy theorists you don’t like. So it should be no surprise that neo-Nazi groups have tried to enlist They Live in support of their own version of a global conspiracy, this time against white nationalists. Over the last decade, white supremacists have claimed the movie as their own. “This is, by far, the best pro-white movie ever,” proclaimed a contributor to the neo-Nazi site Stormfront. “The Jews really are the aliens controlling everything,” another Stormfront user insists. “Living among us and we don’t even know it.” For these trolls, Nada’s sunglasses were the forerunner of the reality-revealing “red pill” from the film The Matrix, which has become a leitmotif in neo-Nazi and alt-right writing. It got so bad last year that Carpenter felt compelled to proclaim on Twitter, “THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie.”

I have nothing but sympathy for Carpenter, who has always been clear about the intended message of his film. Still, it is interesting how vast amounts of work have been put into celebrating its deeper Marxist meaning without much controversy or objection, yet it shocks the conscience when another sinister ideology is read into it along almost exactly the same lines. I do consider anti-Semitism a particularly sinister evil — one that, true to my theory, keeps popping up all around the world almost ex nihilo. And if Carpenter had intended his movie to be an indictment of the murderous, soul-sucking Jews who secretly run the world, most of us would condemn him for it. But when he indicts successful “capitalists” as murderous, soul-sucking oppressors, the response from the left is, “That’s brilliant!” No, it’s not. But a lot of people want it to be. And that’s all you need to know about them: They come to movies to chew bubblegum and confirm their priors. And they’re all out of bubblegum.

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