Friday, 28 October 2011

Behind the Times

Doctor Who was (and is) frequently racist in its representations.  Probably no more or less than most other cultural products of our society, but nonetheless...

Now, to deal with the banalities first, I don't accuse anybody involved in making the show of being deliberately racist.  I don't generally know much about their opinions.  When you hear about their views, you tend to hear that they were liberals or soft-lefties.  People reminiscing about working with Hartnell tend to raise his right-wing opinions on race (and other things) as though they were considered unusual.  And that's not the issue anyway.  I'm not interested in making personal attacks on this or that writer or producer. 

The show started nearly 50 years ago... so a lot of it is old, dated, the product of vanished days.  This is often raised by fans who see the problems in certain Who stories but, understandably, are eager to defend them.  Nobody wants to feel that something they love is tainted by racism - that terrible bogey word that stops people thinking clearly because, like so many important words, it's been systematically stripped of its context and has become a Bad Thing that menaces society from without.

I 'get' this desire to explain away racist representations in stories we love.  I get it totally... but I'm against the giving out of passes on the grounds that something is 'of its time'.

E. P. Thompson - in a very different context... in his book The Making of the English Working Class - coined the phrase "the enormous condescension of posterity", to refer to the oblivion into which the struggles of ordinary people get consigned by bourgeois history.  It's a great phrase (which I have previously and idiotically attributed to Christopher Hill!) which expresses something about what is arrogantly forgotten when you invoke 'the times' to excuse reactionary representations.


In the Hammer film, The Mummy, George Pastell plays the sinister Egyptian who brings the Mummy back to life, which chimes with his role in 'Tomb' (and also with the character Namin in 'Pyramids of Mars', another story in which genre semiotics transmit a representation of 'foreign' cultures as sources or vehicles of sinister, uncanny forces which threaten white Westerners).  As I've argued elsewhere, 'Tomb' is racist largely because it is a reworking of the 'Curse of the Mummy's Tomb' type story.  Klieg is the guy who tries to resurrect the Mummy in order to use it.

Those kinds of stories - gothic colonialist fiction of the 19th century which found its way into 20th century pop-culture via movies - carry certain kinds of baggage with them because they stem from British imperial engagement in Egypt. They're about Brits breaking into Egyptian tombs, finding Egyptian mummies, being cursed by Egyptian curses as punishment. They express - quite unconsciously I'm sure - a certain anxiety about colonialism. Beneath the surface they seem to whisper 'we're barging around where we shouldn't be and we're gonna pay for it'. But inherent in such anxiety is fear of the colonised people and their culture. They and their culture becomes a vehicle for the uncanny, the inexplicable, the terrifying, the punishing. As in so much hauntology, it's 'the return of the repressed', repressed guilt in this case, transfered or projected onto the victims. This is the essence of imperialist fiction. Blame the victims. The Indians attack the wagon train, etc.

Now, if you give 'Tomb' a pass for its implicit racism, how then do you praise 'The Tenth Planet' for having an entirely competent, senior, unstereotyped character who just happens to be black? You have to keep 'the times' in mind, but they don't negate contemporary judgements.

Secondly, the usual assumption is that the "times" in which we need to judge things were worse than ours, less enlightened, etc... which is pretty tricky. True in some ways, unwarrantably self-congratulatory in others. And much of the radical struggle of the past is forgotten (or subjected to something like that "enormous condescension" that Thompson was talking about). So, we should be wary of assuming that 'the times' would provide an excuse anyway.

'Tomb' was broadcast in 1967.  To give it a pass on the racism charge because it's 'of its time' is to make the assumption that people in the past were less morally or intellectually sophisticated than us... that you can characterise 'the times' as (ha!) 'dark ages' compared to ours. When you consider the huge strides being made, through the struggles and protests of millions of ordinary people, in 1967, the idea that we have to make allowances for 'the time' starts looking pretty arrogant of us.  We have to effectively cede 'the times' to people like Enoch Powell, whose 'Rivers of Blood' speech was made the following year, rather than claiming 'the times' for the people fighting bigots like him.

There was lots of casual racist stereotyping when 'Tomb' was made, but there was also the civil rights movement, Black Power, Martin Luther King Jnr., Malcolm X.  There were also millions of people fighting racism, protesting against various forms of institutionalised discrimination, struggling for equality and dignity.  So maybe, looked at another way, 'Tenth Planet' was a little more "of its time" than 'Tomb'! We should give 'the times' their full credit, which is to say that we should give the people of 'the times' their full credit.  This also helps us avoid the smugness inherent in shows like Mad Men, which looks upon the past as a time of crude backwardness compared to our auto-putative present-day olympian liberal enlightenment (while also, by the way, hypocritically sniping at old-style sexism while constantly using its actresses to titilate the audience).

'The Tomb of the Cybermen' is a cultural artifact from a declining imperialist society which represents vaguely-defined Eastern and/or dark-skinned generic 'foreigners' in a negative way (i.e. as fanatical, calculating, deceptive, callous, megalomaniacal, violent, ruthless and/or stupid) in contrast to a host of Brits and Americans who are depicted as essentially well-meaning and some of whom end up the victims of the foreign baddies.  But, just as we'd be wrong to glibly label the 'time' which produced it as backward, we'd also be very wrong to think that our own 'time' is that superior.  Britain is still, after all, a declining imperialist culture with a society massively deformed by racism of various kinds.

Disliking the Unlike

Who frequently challenged - or thought it challenged... or set itself the task of challenging - racism.  It first explicitly set itself such a task in only its very second story, 1963's 'The Daleks'.

Now, 'The Daleks' is a weird one. Looked at one way, the Daleks are Nazis (as externally crippled as they are internally), irrationally trying to destroy the Thals simply because they're different. This is very simplistic. We can't, for instance, equate the Thals with the Jews because the Thals really were the armed and violent enemies of the Daleks, whereas the idea of Jews as hostile persecutors of Germans existed only in the febrile Nazi fantasy world.

Also, as a diagnosis of racism it is very stupid. Racism isn't just fear of the different or the stranger. Indeed, 'The Daleks' makes it clear that it's more than that, despite Ian's speechifying. For instance, as well as making the Daleks and Thals opposing sides in a war that virtually destroyed the planet, the story also has their mutual welfare impossible because of the Daleks' need for radiation.

Besides, the deeper causes of racism (i.e. slavery, imperialism, social inequality, divide-and-conquer policies by elites) remain untouched by the story.

On the other hand, you can look at 'The Daleks' as a story about the evil troglodytes (the Daleks are very deliberately made into diminutive underground dwellers) who persecute the virtuous, noble, enlightened, tall, Nordic types.. i.e. as the Wagnerian, anti-semitic version of Norse mythology. Unpleasant as it may be, the story makes much more sense that way (purely as a text, I mean).

How did this happen? Perhaps because the story is so indebted to Wells' The Time Machine, which is itself indebted to this fusion of Norse myth and Wagnerian opera. (Well, I think the story is more indebted to the George Pal movie than to the actual book... but the movie carefully removes Wells' subtext about the class struggle, thus making the Blondes-persecuted-by-evil-trogs side of things even more obvious.) 'The Daleks' even makes the nasty underworlders into scientists and technicians, which is an Age-of-the-Atom/B-movie reiteration of the Niebelungen/Morlocks as industrious villains, working at fiery forges.

I think it's rather telling that an attempt at a moralistic allegory about racism, from a liberal perspective, degenerates into (at best) a silly parable about inherent xenophobia or (at worst) an accidental social-Darwinist tale with quasi-fascist undertones.

Sacred Bob, 'Talons' and Fish

It's essential to understand that a story can be racist in its representations without either containing any explicit, ideological racism, or being deliberately written with a racist message. Hence, 'Talons' and 'Two Doctors', both of which are problematic texts for anyone bothered by racist cultural representations.  (Parenthetically, I've recently encountered someone who manages to remain unconcerned by racist cultural representations via the simple expedient of disbelieving in their existence... which would be admirably bold if it weren't so obnoxious and idiotic.)

I don't think Bob Holmes set out to do anything but play around with genres, stock characters and familiar associations... but the fact that he could play around with stock characters and familiar associations that carry racist implications (from things like Fu Manchu and Bulldog Drummond and popular stereotypes), possibly without ever realising how some of this stuff could be interpreted, says something about the culture that he was living in, and in which we still live. The stuff we take for granted and see as harmless can be as revealing as the stuff we revile.

We simply take it for granted when evil is depicted as emanating from Asian or African culture in 'Talons' or 'Pyramids of Mars'. We simply take it for granted that the base, impulsive, cruel, primitive Androgums are depicted in terms of racist stereotypes about heavy-browed, big-nosed, red-haired people. I don't think it means that Holmes was a racist, or that we are... but it does mean that we live in a culture that propagates and implicitly tolerates racist representations. But then, this is an imperialistic society, with a cultural inheritance from colonialism. What else can we expect?

I don't think the team who made 'Talons' deliberately sat down to take the piss out of the Chinese. Nor do I think they were ignorant. These are self-evident trivialities and one shouldn't have to even bother to say them.

I think the production team created a story that, like many stories during their era, was a reiteration/adaptation of classic, gothic genre fiction. They'd done Mary Shelley and Rider Haggard (via Hammer) and now they were doing Sax Rohmer/Conan Doyle (again, via Hammer). Thing is, the Fu Manchu novels are racist in their depiction of Chinese culture as a source of criminality, fanaticism, the uncanny, the decadent, the perverse, the sensual, etc. Orientalism; the cultural interpretation and representation of the East as defined by such alien traits, as antithetical to the West in sinister or enigmatic ways. This is a cultural facet of imperialism (and we are still an imperialistic culture... albeit not one generally involved in direct colonialism anymore). And you don't have to be a racist in a straightforward, ideological, explicit way in order to have imbibed some of these assumptions.

In fact, Holmes seems aware that he is skirting around racism in 'Talons'.

Chang is a 'yellow peril' villain, an embodiment of the guilty transference which leads to white colonial cultures creating nightmares about being preyed upon by evil orientals.  Chang abducts loads of young white women and takes them to be murdered, never expressing any remorse.  Moreover, Chang's abductions carry hints of the sexual.  There seems to be no reason, on the face of it, why he and Greel must acquire girls, still less "plump, high-spirited" ones.  Chang abducts a woman who is clearly implied to be a prostitute.  And so on.

But Chang  at least seems like a proper character, which is more than can be said for any of the 'foreign' villains in 'Tomb', or Namin in 'Pyramids'.  Chang is a man of personal dignity and great intelligence who plays the stereotypical 'Chinaman' and replaces his 'r's with 'l's for the delectation of an audience who are enjoying exactly the same 'othering' of the Chinese that the story trades in, with Chang's own collusion. Unlike Kaftan (Kaftan!) and Klieg, Chang has an origin, a context, a background, an identity. His racial predicament is contextualised within the British imperial system, with all the references to "punitive expeditions" and his veneration of "the Queen-Empress".

Holmes makes Chang decidedly more intelligent than many of the Westerners, uses talk of the Chinese being "mysterious" and "enigmatic" as a sign of Lightfoot's silliness, has an explicitly racist policeman, has Chang knowingly and covertly mock the racism of the music hall audience, has the Doctor asking if Chang is Chinese a few moments after Chang has said, drily, "I understand we all look the same", etc.

Also, the central evil in the story is a Westerner, a war criminal from an imperialist European power defeated by "the Filipino Army". The Filipinos are a people devastated by almost forgotten Western imperialist aggression. And Greel is implicated in war crimes common to both European and Asian variants of fascism.

It's a complex matter in 'Talons', unlike 'Tomb' which is really quite crude; but there are similar background reasons for the racism in both stories. Racial tropes piggyback their way in on the backs of the literary and cinema sources being raided and pastiched. In 'Talons' its largely 19th/20th century gothic/colonialist pop fiction, as in 'Tomb'.  But still, the story has no Chinese character who isn't a nunchuk-weilding thug, a snivelling dupe or a white girl-abducting svengali.  And the (very inauthentic) representations of Chinese culture make it clear that it's a source (or at least a vehicle) of the alien, the perverse, the cruel and the vicious. This isn't because Holmes was a racist but because he is creating a pastiche out of genre fiction that was written in the context of racist, imperialist cultural assumptions.

A lot of perfectly nice, liberal/lefty people can be found doing the same thing. Monty Python end The Meaning of Life with a legend asking for all "fish" to live together in tolerance, peace and harmony. The Pythons are/were all nice guys, liberals, etc. Yet take a look at some of the representations of black people in the TV series. There's one sketch in which the 'Batsmen' of the Kalahari play cricket against England and massacre the entire English team. Now, the actual 'Bushmen' are not murdering savages who slaughter white men with spears. The Pythons created that sketch out of racist associations (i.e. black tribesmen are primitive cannibals, etc) that they probably imbibed with the kind of fiction that they all grew up with, and which Palin and Jones later mercilessly parodied in Ripping Yarns.

Barabbas and Bananas; Shockeye and Shylock

In 'The Two Doctors', the Androgums are depicted as an irredeemably inferior and savage people. And this is also represented in racist terms.

For a start, there's the line about monkeys.  This is probably intended to tie in with the story's evidently-deliberate subtext about animals and meat; more broadly, the control of species for use by other species.  However, the line takes on different valences in a tale that slides into saying something about more or less 'advanced' races.  The intent is to push an anti-meat message - one could hardly call it a 'subtext' - by making the Androgums into the embodiment of that aspect of humanity that preys upon other living things.  But, as with 'The Daleks', while the intention is to create a finger-wagging moralistic message, the effect is reactionary.  The business with the monkeys is very clumsy, since it evokes very well-established and hugely unsavoury racist slurs.  The wider implication of the story is to imply that the Androgums are, by their very nature, incapable of moral or intellectual equality with superior peoples like Third Zoners, Time Lords, or even humans.

In light of the way they are characterised, it's all the more unfortunate that the Androgums are depicted as impulsive, base, reflexively cruel, red-haired, heavy-browed, big-nosed, warty, etc. These are racial stereotypes that have been used against many groups, most especially the Irish and the Jews.

Marlowe's Barabbas, for example (the well-poisoning, nun-slaughtering, machaivellian Jew from The Jew of Malta), would probably have been depicted on stage with a big, comedy false nose and a ginger fright wig... as would Shakespeare's considerably more complex and sympathetic Shylock, disconcertingly enough.

Interestingly, Marlowe's play can also be read as an incipient critique of the new, emergent capitalist society... and, in the course of the story, Barabbas' villainy lays bare the hypocrisy of the Christians around him... which chimes with 'The Two Doctors', in which the behaviour of the Androgums has the effect of highlighting the cynicism of the Third Zoners and the Sontarans... and even of the Time Lords!

So, do we see in Shockeye the re-encoding of the stage 'machiavel' of the English Renaissance theatre?  The 'Vice' who is relished for his own villainy but is also a kind of dramatic highlighter, showing up the (often less than pure) moral condition of the other characters?  Is, then, the unfortunate hint of partly-archaic anti-semitic stereotypes a kind of echo of Barabbas and Shylock?  I can't help noticing that 'Shockeye' does actually sound a bit like 'Shylock'.

Nobody seems willing to defend 'The Two Doctors' on the grounds that it's 'of its time'.  No racist TV conventions in the 80s then?  I think you'll find otherwise.  However, what's potentially more interesting is that one might be able to mount a 'defence' on the ground that, rather than being 'of its time', it's actually sorta 'of another time', namely the time of Shakespeare and Marlowe.  Of course, this doesn't ultimately excuse the production team of clumsiness in not noticing what they were saying, but it might just contextualise Shockeye enough to make him interesting again.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Bad Rep

"They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented."
- Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

I like it when people rip this quote from Marx out of context to prove he was an authoritarian who thought the little people had to be ruled from above... because in so doing they demonstrate their own ignorance and/or dishonesty (I give Edward Said a pass, for various reasons).

Marx is talking about a specific group of people: French 'small holding' peasants in the mid-19th century.  He's not saying they're too inherently dumb.  He's saying that their way of living (small, self-sufficient, private agricultural property) makes it hard for them to be a unified class, to assert united interests, etc.  He's saying they've had revolutionary demands beaten or bribed out of them by the bourgeoisie.  Consequently, they end up ready to be represented by an Emperor.

It's a sound analysis that inherently recognises the ability of ordinary people to represent themselves under conditions other than the ones Marx is describing, and which puts those conditions in historical context rather than attributing them to any unavoidable destiny.

As usual, Marx is accused of doing and saying the exact opposite of what he actually did and said.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Reithian Values Meet 'The 60s'...

The old show was frequently highly reactionary but it also did better than most shows when it came to challenging establishment, bourgeois ideology and/or imperialist assumptions.

This division is the 'ethos'. Frequently reactionary but with a proportionately greater tendency to buck this trend.

The hero of the show is a white male with a professional title, a line in Edwardian clothing (which retains a formality despite veering between scruffy, dandified, bohemian, etc.) and who travels around in a symbol of the British state. The odd Jacobite aside, his companions are usually thoroughly respectable types.

So, even when he takes a moral line against exploitation, it can seem like the civilized Englishman taking it upon himself to explain ethics to the barbarians.

However, while it may be possible to characterise this as an "overall or originating ethos" (as a poster at Gallibase put it) it's one that has also been challenged from within.

At the start of the classic series, the Doctor is adamant that he cannot and must not intervene in history... including the religious practices of the Aztecs, a people destroyed by imperialism.

Then again, in that very same story, we also get a dose of condescension towards the Aztecs, portraying them as generally backward (i.e. "Autloc is the extraordinary man here!") and suggesting that their religious practices will shock Cortés into attacking them. 'The Crusade' attempts a very sincere portrayal of Arabs as human beings... but also includes orientalist stereotypes.

When the first Doctor intervenes in the future history of aliens, etc., he very often takes a stance that seems very anti-imperialist, i.e. in 'The Sensorites'. But, again, in that same story, the aliens are presented as encoded Asian stereotypes, and the human infiltrators are driven mad by their exposure to an inscrutable alien culture... which is pure colonialist self-pity.

But you also have to consider that, in the kind of fiction from which Who springs, the scientist figure, the lone inventor, was an ambiguous and untrustworthy figure who could not always be relied upon to toe the line. In Wells’ The Time Machine, the Time Traveller (clearly a forerunner of the Doctor) is explaining time travel to a group of friends when one of them imagines jumping forward in time to collect massive interest on a long-term investment… “…to arrive in a society run on strictly communistic lines perhaps?” suggests the Time Traveller.

All the same, the Doctor often assumes the right to intervene, which can seem imperialistic… but, having said that, the Doctor’s right to intervene does itself become the subject of some uncertainty within the show itself, several times. The Doctor has to justify himself to the Time Lords, firstly by claiming that power must be used to help those in need (and this in a story that forecloses on an imperialistic interpretation of that remark by being a forthright condemnation of imperialism), then by claiming during his second trial that he usually waits for a request for help from a local authority figure!

Times change and there was a shift in political discourse between the eras of the old and new shows.

Of course, political discourse was shifting - drastically - even during the run of the original series.

In ’63, before what we call “the sixties” got going, the show embraces the ethos of the post-war liberal consensus filtered through the tropes of the fiction which it draws upon. As the decade progresses, we get more attempts to engage with increasing social radicalism… getting more forthrightly radical as they go along, i.e. from the ambivalence of the anti-authority/pro(ish)-colonial ‘Macra Terror’ (there's a valid reading of this story that sees the Doctor as defending colonialism… though I’d point out that there’s no reason to assume that the Macra are the aboriginal inhabitants of the Colony… and that they also assume metaphorical valences that don’t really seem to include race) to the all-out assault on imperialism in ‘The War Games’… though, again, we see the divided ethos in the way even that story collapses into a weak reformism when the Doctor calls in the Time Lords and sends the humans back to their real wars.

The reactionary backlash is seen less than one might expect in the Pertwee era, possibly because of the left/liberal politics of Barry Letts… though he and Dicks inherit a framework in which the Doctor has become an adjunct to the military establishment. They cope with this by making the Doctor an infuriating maverick ecology-buff who scoffs at the Brigadier and assorted government types. Of course, the third Doctor is also very bourgeois in surface appearance. But he’s as likely to claim friendship with Mao (who, aside from his real odious historical character, was the emblem of a sizeable chunk of the European radical left at the time) as he is to claim friendship with Tubby Rowlands.

The show tends to trail behind the times a bit. There’s a time lag. So anti-Vietnam protests only faintly show up in the form of the Doctor’s peace sign in ‘Frontier in Space’. And the crescendo of strike action and union power of the early seventies only shows up in ‘The Sun Makers’ in ’77.

To just jump back a tad, I think it’s important to remember that the left was incomparably more influential in the mainstream during most of the original run than it is now. Thatcher and the rise of neoliberalism, together with the fall of what was called communism, dealt an enormous blow to left-wing politics in the late 80s and early 90s. The left is only really beginning to rally now. For most of the classic series, there was a rough ‘social democratic’ consensus in the country that progress was tied to social liberalization and a certain governmental role in investment and in curbing the power of business. Even the pre-Thatcher Tories accepted a form of this argument. However… and this is the key point… what we might call ‘social democracy’ was never really all the great on race and imperialism. A lot of Labourist thinkers assumed the inherent progressiveness of the spread of Western (white) civilisation. Liberalism was no better; often it was worse. Even Bertrand Russell was terrible on what used to be called ‘coloured people’ and colonization.

So, if the show evinced a divided progressive ethos (which I think it did) then that could be said to have stemmed from the divided, rising and declining social democratic consensus of the society that produced it. (As such, we’d expect it to be frequently reactionary, because social democracy was frequently reactionary on all sorts of issues from unions to race.)

The new show, of course, is a product of the wretched age of New Labour, of the rightward-shifted mainstream left behind by Thatcher, and neoliberalism triumphant… and yet, it produces episodes that are clearly ripostes to, say, ‘humanitarian interventions’… and even manages to correct its own lapses, with ‘Turn Left’ readable as a riposte to ‘The Unquiet Dead’ on the issue of asylum seekers, and ‘Planet of the Ood’ deliberately revisiting a moral lapse on the part of the Doctor regarding slavery and, in the process, becoming a parable about commodified workers that supports violent revolution!

So why the unusual degree of ‘bucking the trend’? Even up to recently, this was still happening (though less often and less reliably). So why?

I think its partly to do with the show’s roots. Take Wells, for example. He was a socialist, by his own definition. By the standards of his time he was a radical progressive. His templates for speculative fiction – The Time Machine and War of the Worlds – are, respectively, an allegory about class exploitation and a through-the-looking-glass parable about imperialism. And yet, he was (by our standards) a racist and a eugenicist (see what I was saying before about ‘social democracy’ being terrible on issues like race).

So, a divided ethos in embryo?

I think the subjective factor becomes important. Robert Holmes seems to have been an instinctive radical, at least in his writing - which is interesting given that his life shares some similarities with that of Orwell (i.e. Orwell was a policeman in Burma, Holmes was in Burma with the Army and then was in the police). RTD is also given to quite strong liberal/lefty critique in his writing... though he also seems influenced by the culturalism of, say, Dawkins and Hitchens and frequently flirts with a view of people that is pessimistic to the point of being reactionary. This is the left in the age of neoliberalism and the 'war on terror'.

These two figures in themselves - both apparently given to lacing their writing with liberal/left critiques but one working in the age of 60s counter-culture, a strong left, union power, etc.; the other working in the age of neoliberal triumph - may account for the different tone of the same 'divided ethos' in the classic and new series': the former leaning towards the left, the latter leaning towards the right.

Moffat, in my opinion, is a de facto reactionary by virtue (if we can use that word) of his sheer political disinterest and complacency, by his ironical raiding of political history for icons and motifs and nothing more. That could be why the show is now getting more and more reactionary, despite the fact that we are now moving - slowly and hesitatingly - into an exciting time of growing struggle.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Anxiety Satellite

The indefatigable Mr. Oliver Wake has put together and released the latest issue of the print fanzine Panic Moon.  It can be ordered here.

It contains (amongst other things) a judicious appraisal of the 'Day of the Daleks' Special Edition, a look at the way Hartnell's shade has taken to haunting the recent series, a clever thing about the way Daleks always seem to get some new physical ability in first episodes, an interesting look at the pre-Who 60s Pathfinders serials which are now out on DVD and an excellent analysis of 'The Sun Makers' which identifies some of its roots, going beyond the usual stuff about Bob Holmes being annoyed by a tax bill.

Once again, I've contributed two articles.  In one, I identify a blind spot in the lefty-liberal creds of 'Colony in Space' and try to tease out some of implications of this, leading me to briefly consider something badly amiss with liberalism itself.  In another article, I have a good old ramble about the various ways Doctor Who has creatively misrepresented evolution, often using it was a way of re-encoding mythic themes or addressing political concerns... though there is, I argue, one story that really is about evolution itself.

It's good, so... umm... buy it.  Please?

(No career in advertising awaits me, I know.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

It was such a massive task to establish the Roman race

"The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre.


Colonial system, public debts, heavy taxes, protection, commercial wars, &c., these children of the true manufacturing period, increase gigantically during the infancy of Modem Industry. The birth of the latter is heralded by a great slaughter of the innocents. Like the royal navy, the factories were recruited by means of the press-gang.

With the development of capitalist production during the manufacturing period, the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience. The nations bragged cynically of every infamy that served them as a means to capitalistic accumulation.  ...[I]t is trumpeted forth as a triumph of English statecraft that at the Peace of Utrecht, England extorted from the Spaniards by the Asiento Treaty the privilege of being allowed to ply the negro trade, until then only carried on between Africa and the English West Indies, between Africa and Spanish America as well. England thereby acquired the right of supplying Spanish America until 1743 with 4,800 negroes yearly. This threw, at the same time, an official cloak over British smuggling. Liverpool waxed fat on the slave trade. This was its method of primitive accumulation.


Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.

Tantae molis erat, to establish the 'eternal laws of Nature' of the capitalist mode of production, to complete the process of separation between labourers and conditions of labour, to transform, at one pole, the social means of production and subsistence into capital, at the opposite pole, the mass of the population into wage labourers, into 'free labouring poor,' that artificial product of modern society. If money, according to Augier, 'comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,' capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt."

- Karl Marx, Capital vol.1, Chapter 31.  My favourite bit.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Enterprise & Initiative

Star Trek is liberal bourgeois to the bone.

Show me more of this Earth thing called "shopping" 

The Federation is supposedly post-capitalist, post-money, etc., yet it has many of the important hallmarks of advanced capitalist social organisation. A highly organised and stratified division of labour, a deep separation between workplace and home life, work shifts, career promotion, private nuclear families, a socially-separate education system providing training and qualifications, a professional liberal media, massive military expenditure (of resources if not money), hierarchical political and military arrangements combined with liberal ideology, a separate political class, etc. In one of the films, someone even mentions "opinion polls".  So, the Federation clearly has what looks like a capitalist state, capitalist superstructure and capitalist social arrangements.  What of the economy?  Well, they still have privately owned and run restaurants, for example, though supposedly people run them for the love of it… and in DS9, the Federation people mesh perfectly into the economy of Bajor, with its Ferengi businessmen, etc… to the point where you have Federation officers trading goods and paying credits for booze. When they want to make a ‘darker’, grungier version of their utopia, they take characters from the utopia and cast them amongst the money-using barbarians on the frontiers. But the Utopians have little difficulty dealing with the money-users in a natural way, whatever their occasional disdain.  The facile nature of the pretence that the Federation is post-capitalist is revealed by the ease with which the Federation types merge into Quark’s bar. 

Meanwhile, capitalism is turned into a kind of quaint pathology, espoused as a blatant and impudent ethic of acquisition, by a race that it’d be easy to mistake for a bunch of submerged Jewish stereotypes (even down to ballbusting mothers). The utter misunderstanding of capitalism – indeed, of all human history – is best expressed in the scene where Quark, tired of being endlessly patronized and insulted by the holier-than-thou humans, compares his culture with the culture of Earth, pointing out that Ferengos (or whatever the silly place is called) has no history of things like concentration camps.  The implication is that humans must blame their own species-nature for the horrors of the 20th century... which fails to notice the role of competing capitalist imperialisms and fascist reaction (against socialist challenges to capitalism) in creating the wars that lead to concentration camps.  Capitalism itself is absolved, since it has been practiced by the Ferengi and lead to no comparable horrors, merely social eccentricities.  Even the sexism of Ferengi culture is seen as a mere cultural malformation, with DS9 repeatedly showing female Ferengis achieving liberation through their equal ability to participate in ruthless trade, etc., whenever they manage to trick or force the men into giving them a chance.  Capitalism is thus so entirely acquitted of any involvement in patriarchy that it is instead offered as a way of defeating it.  This is entirely consonant with the heavily peddled ideas that free markets will eventually result in populations of free individuals, that the liberty of trade is the liberty of people, that liberalisation of market economies brings liberalisation of societies, that personal self-promotion is the best way to overcome cultural disadvantages. 

This inherent strain of bourgeois liberal ideology running through Trek is the secret inner reason why consumption and exchange on the bourgeois economic model still work in a technological culture that can produce via things like replicators. The writers are forced to imagine that, in a few hundred years time, it’ll be possible to create technology that makes production as we know it obsolete… yet they are unable to imagine a genuine post-capitalist world. They are so aware of the contradiction that they have to hide all the money and make all the characters claim it no longer exists.  The result is that the Federation seems like a collection of people in denial.  One senses the money, the inequalities, the trade, the wage-slips, all off to one side, off camera.

The liberal writers of 90s Trek were able to dream of a Utopian liberal paradise yet unable to conceive of its nuts 'n' bolts functioning without bringing in overtones of capitalism. 

The Berman Ideology

The hero/protagonist characters behave like the ideal of how people should behave, conceptualised within an entirely bourgeois framework.  Hard work, dedication to career, specialisation and professionalism, separation of private time from work, love of the private nuclear family, considered obedience to the state, respect for private property, self-advancement, enlightened self-interest, etc.  And, when the crunch comes, the individual hero/captain conquers the baddies or embodies the moral lesson.  Trek is liberal bourgeois, of course, hence the emphasis on culturally progressive virtues like tolerance for other lifestyles, equality of opportunity for women and minorities, lack of racial prejudice, lack of emphasis on nationalism, a questioning attitude to authority (within circumscribed limits, i.e. following orders, the rule of law, duty) and so on.

Of course, whatever radical edge this may once have had in the 60s (female, Russian, black, Japanese officers... all treated as almost-equals by their white, male superiors - imagine!), has now almost entirely dissipated.  Profession of cultural liberalism (in most areas) is now considered baseline normal in the media and political cultures in almost all Western democracies, with only fringe hard-conservatisms challenging the (admittedly largely specious) dedication to women's rights, equality and tolerance.  These days, even the spittle-flecked denouncers of gay marriage have to either pretend it isn't an issue of discrimination or, in the US, invoke a supposedly disinterested obedience to Biblical literalism, framing their hatred as part of a struggle for the civil rights of Christian bigots, for their freedom to discriminate.

Indeed, in the discourse of modern Western capitalist democracies, such liberal tolerance is equated directly (implicitly or explicitly) with the supposedly liberating qualities of trade and commerce and capital flow.  Capitalism is the bedrock of prosperous modernity, in this view.  This is why culturalist liberalism is so obsessed, these days, with comparing modern, secular, liberal, tolerant Western democracy (i.e. "civilisation") to the putatively backward, medieval, intolerant, sexist, homophobic horror of Islam and the Arab countries.  90s Trek rejected the hardline version of this (i.e. the version that would find its ultimate expression in Hitchens, et al) but, nevertheless, it isn't hard to see this worldview embedded within the depiction of many of the alien races that attacked Picard, Sisko and Janeway. 

In this way, Trek - especially 90s Trek - expresses a deep ambivalence towards capitalism in 20th century liberalism; an ambivalence that - as an integral part of liberalism - is itself entirely bourgeois.  On the one hand, it'd be nice to do away with money and all the grubby business that goes with it... and, of course, the past contains much evidence of distressing things like discrimination (it's always in the past)...  On the other hand, capitalism is - so the thinking runs - obviously the best (or, in the soft version, the least bad) economic system that we, as a species, can devise.

In Trek, the Utopian strain in liberalism (and I'm not the sort of person who axiomatically uses the word 'utopian' as an insult) is represented by the attempt to portray a post-capitalist future in which people co-operate socially and strive for betterment without material gain as an incentive.  The deeply ingrained strain of reactionary pessimism in liberalism is unable to imagine any such future, so Trek simply presents an idealised version of our own bourgeois epoch but with the money edited out of the picture.  Also, Capitalism the Deliverer must be absolved of its crimes by 'facing up to' the cultural defects of the past (sexism, racism, etc.) so that we may choose to leave them behind as we sail onwards to the happy free-market millennium.  What Fukuyama called 'the End of History'.  In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which topically retold the just-happened fall of communism with Klingons standing in for Russians, Kirk is given a line which repudiates this 'end of history', yet the world he lives in has, by this point, become a doggerel realisation of Fukuyama's vision.

So, the utopia is of a recognisably bourgeois nature.  It might postulate the end of war, poverty and discrimination as baseline requirements (impossible under capitalism, which relentlessly and systemically generates all these blights)... but it also draws its conception of the highest achievements possible for humanity from bourgeois ideas.  Discovery, exploration and migration are inextricably bound to self-advancement, self-realisation, status, achievement, the respect of intellectual superiors and the loyalty of lower ranks.

Meanwhile, the bourgeois mindset of the programme shows us meritocracy, representative democracy, social mobility – all those things that are supposed to be inherent boons of capitalism – functioning pretty much perfectly, almost all the time.  Poverty, nationalist xenophobia, racism, sexism, depression, addiction, alienation, rape, domestic violence - all of which are widespread blights upon advanced capitalist cultures in the real world - are things of the past in Trekworld.

In the Roddenberry/Berman joyous future, humanity has supposedly left such things behind, apparently as an act of pure will (remind me why its always us Marxists who are accused of having unrealistic expectations of human nature?).  Those judgemental enough to accuse humans of having changed very little - like Q, for instance - are roundly defeated in debate by Picard and his band of enlightened, bourgeois, democratic, humanitarian militarists.

When, occasionally, the Federation utopia wobbles in its high-minded devotion to ethical, legal, beneficent expansion, along comes Kirk/Picard/Whoever to the rescue.  Thus Trek fulfills another duty of bourgeois ideology: the idolizing of individual heroism.

I, Captain

The Federation is thoroughly individualistic: that’s why the ultimate horror is when Picard gets made into a drone. And Trek’s championing of individualism is why Picard’s assimilation ultimately leads to the Federation victory. Yes, the rest of the main characters help… but they’re all, like Picard, individualists who have achieved their authority status through self-advancement within a meritocratic hierarchical command structure.  Data is on a quest for personhood through success in his career.  Worf seeks personal honour through success in his career.  Riker seeks success in his career through... well, through success in his career.

The episode where Picard gets assimilated even features a conflict between Riker and a thrusting, ambitious young, up-and-coming Starfleet hotshot who wants his job.  We’re allowed to be appalled by her outright ruthlessness about trying to cut-in in front of him… yet they end the story as the best of friends, with her ultimately judged as an excellent, effective officer who’s just been a bit overly-attitudey.  Liberal bourgeois ideology has rarely been so perfectly expressed in sci-fi form.

There are different kinds of individualism. There’s MacMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – irrepressibly himself, resisting authority and control and repression at every stage because he can’t help himself. The little guy, battling the Big Nurse and the Combine.  There's Yossarian in Catch-22.  Such individualists in American fiction, whatever their context in the radical anti-establishment scepticism of the 60s and early 70s, probably trace their lineage back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who claimed that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members”. 

There’s also the Captain. Kirk and Picard are classic bourgeois hero figures, though of different types.

Picard is the liberal bourgeois establishment hero, par excellence. He nestles in a bed of prestigious cultural capital (classical music, Shakespeare, etc.), is both aristocratic AND a product of meritocratic self-advancement. The people he respects are the people who work within the system and submit themselves to it, yet he retains his individuality by his eccentricities and private interests. He saves the day via his personal intellect and bravery, even combating his own establishment structure when it errs in its commitment to individualism or to liberal values (assumed in Trek to usually be the basis of law).

Kirk has something of MacMurphy about him… they’re both lustful, self-gratifying, unscrupulous men of appetite.  Kirk is often said to have a rebellious streak, a tendency to disobey orders and buck authority... though this is more talked about than actually seen.  But Kirk's disobedience can also be seen as evidence of his individualism.  He has more than a touch of Emersonian 'Self Reliance'.  He's the libertarian who refuses to be bound by the pronouncements of the state when he knows what's right and what he has to do.  He is like the rugged frontiersman of American folk myth, albeit seasoned with democratic sentiments (the retrospective liberal justification). He's the 'rough diamond' who leads the wagon train and carves civilization into the face of the wilderness.  Whereas MacMurphy (more of a 60s radical) is explicitly shown to ally himself with the Chief (the silent Indian patient who narrates the novel), Kirk (a 60s authority figure seasoned with a rebellious streak) has to fight and tame the barbarians.

One Person's 'Frontier' (Final or Not) is Another Person's Home

Both Kirk and Picard confront various orientalist stereotypes, re-imagined as aliens, who block the slow and peaceful advance of liberal civilization into the empty wilderness where no man has gone before (though there are plenty of people living there, they just don't count since they're not 'men')... but Kirk's bunch are more straightforwardly swarthy and cruel and decadent and inscrutable and villainous.  Picard encounters the Klingons as noble savages with whom a civilised man can negotiate, whereas for Kirk they were generally just Machiavellian baddies of a kind so generic that they could be commies one week, Arabs the next.

By the way... it's astounding that apparently intelligent people can tout Star Trek as a great example of progressivism in popular culture, given just how many racial stereotypes the various captains meet out there in space.  Yes, Kirk kissed Uhura (well, they turned their faces to one side as though they were kissing, in case the sight of a white man's lips actually touching those of a black woman caused a wave of suicides and heart attacks amongst the viewing public) but Uhura was only allowed to be black woman because she was, essentially, manning the switchboard.  (One might wonder in passing what would've happened to a script which called for a white woman to kiss a black man.)

Inalienable Rights

The problem with all these rugged individualists is that they tie in to one of the most persistent ideological notions of capitalist society: that the individual subject is the locus of human life. The individual strives and fights and wins… or goes under. That’s the professed morality of business because it expresses the ruthless competition of the market, and it finds its way into every corner of social life under capitalism.  Even liberal tolerance has been co-opted by neoliberalism via libertarianism, which - in its full form - ties the freedom of the individual to the freedom of the market.

Individualism lends itself to reactionary socio-cultural politics. Bad individuals are to blame for complex social problems. Britain is ‘broken’ by benefit cheats and deadbeat dads and kids with no respect.

Individualism is a readymade tool for those who wish to defend an economic system that impoverishes billions while loading the wealth upon a tiny minority who are parasitic upon the many who actually do all the work producing value.  Wealth is created by thrusting entrepreneurs, self-made men, brilliant businessmen and economic geniuses. Such people must be rewarded for their commercial heroism in order to make sure they keep on spewing out the ambrosia of wealth, which will then trickle down upon the lesser mortals.  The most sustained attempt to systematise the basis of such ideas in philosophy - Objectivism - ended as a personality cult around its founder, Ayn Rand.

If we have problems with how our government behaves, we can blame individual baddies and vote for individual saviours. Failed in life? You should’ve tried harder. Depressed? Pull yourself together. Don’t like the government? Vote for a different Prime Minister. Etc. It's a multi-purpose, one-size-fits-all idea.

In genre and fantasy, the individual hero is omnipresent. Holmes, Bond, Batman, Potter, Skywalker… the Doctor.  Even MacMurphy and Yossarian are individualists. Maybe such figures sometimes oppose Power, but there’s still something ambivalent about the way they do so by themselves and for themselves. There’s something in the radical idea of the brave individual who opposes conformity and obedience and injustice which tessellates with the reactionary libertarian bourgeois obsession with individual ‘self made’ men, fighting and succeeding through their own strength.

The Final Promotion

When in mystical mode, the show tends to imagine that "the next step in our evolution" will be the achievement of a kind of quasi-mystical, post-physical godhood through the acquisition of sufficient scientific, technological and moral knowledge or power.  The moral superiority is usually supposed to come from a fusion of human emotions (just the good ones) with technological advancement.  This fuses:

i) the idealised view of science as Promethean and progressive, a motor/guarantor of modern liberal civilisation etc., all evidence of a certain confidence in technology stemming from the long post-war boom;

ii) a form of mysticism which prizes personal transcendence and self-realisation... very 60s-70s;

iii) a sort of benignant, sanitised Social-Darwinism which sees evolution as an upward progression.

It will be noticed that the linking threads here are 'progress', individualism, success.  Godhood is usually achieved by individuals as a kind of reward for their superior bravery, morality, love, etc.  It's like the 'First Earth Battalion', melding the martial virtues and the rise up through the ranks with detumescent 60s-70s mystical self-actualisation.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Logic of the Work

"Interested parties explain the culture industry in technological terms. It is alleged that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods. The technical contrast between the few production centers and the large number of widely dispersed consumption points is said to demand organisation and planning by management. Furthermore, it is claimed that standards were based in the first place on consumers’ needs, and for that reason were accepted with so little resistance. The result is the circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger. No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself. Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardisation and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system.


But any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programs of every kind selected by professionals. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. The attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favours the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it. If one branch of art follows the same formula as one with a very different medium and content; if the dramatic intrigue of broadcast soap operas becomes no more than useful material for showing how to master technical problems at both ends of the scale of musical experience – real jazz or a cheap imitation; or if a movement from a Beethoven symphony is crudely “adapted” for a film sound-track in the same way as a Tolstoy novel is garbled in a film script: then the claim that this is done to satisfy the spontaneous wishes of the public is no more than hot air.

We are closer to the facts if we explain these phenomena as inherent in the technical and personnel apparatus which, down to its last cog, itself forms part of the economic mechanism of selection. In addition there is the agreement – or at least the determination – of all executive authorities not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all themselves.

In our age the objective social tendency is incarnate in the hidden subjective purposes of company directors, the foremost among whom are in the most powerful sectors of industry – steel, petroleum, electricity, and chemicals. Culture monopolies are weak and dependent in comparison.


The dependence of the most powerful broadcasting company on the electrical industry, or of the motion picture industry on the banks, is characteristic of the whole sphere, whose individual branches are themselves economically interwoven. All are in such close contact that the extreme concentration of mental forces allows demarcation lines between different firms and technical branches to be ignored.

The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organising, and labelling consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasised and extended. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification.

Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type. Consumers appear as statistics on research organisation charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda."

- The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, 1944