Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Harry Potter and the Labour Theory of Value

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. 
- Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto

In this post, I noticed that Star Trek portrays the society of the future as essentially capitalist (in all but name) despite the fact that the people of the Federation have 'Replicators' that can summon material objects out of pure energy. Such a development of the forces of production ought to have banished scarcity of any description, thus also banishing any need for the exploitation of labour, the extraction of surplus and the existence of class, along with many other features of capitalism which persist (open or half-hidden) in the Roddenberry/Berman utopia.  In short, given the technology it possesses, the Federation ought to look a lot more like 'the Culture' of Iain M. Banks' (though, actually, the Culture is as much a liberal vision as it is socialist or anarchist... with its dependence upon the benevolent dictatorship of super-smart AIs and its liberal imperialism... but that's a different essay).

There is a similar problem for the 'wizarding world’ of Harry Potter, for all Rowling’s hasty and hamfisted improvisations about it being impossible to magic-up food. We know that magic allows wizards to transform goblets into rats.  Why then do 11yr old wizards, preparing for their first year at Hogwarts, have to go to Diagon Alley and buy rats (or cats or toads or cutsey owls) from a shop?  In a world where magic washes the dishes, there can be no need for labour.

If one can make things without labour, why labour?  Why produce, distribute and exchange?  Why teach?  Why make or do anything?

Labour - making things, doing things, thus changing your environment - is perhaps the most essential aspect of human nature.  In the wizarding world, this essential human quality is degraded and potentially denied.  Maybe this is why so many of the inhabitants of the wizarding world seem to empty and sterile and dull... they are deprived of any real meaning and content to their activity as human beings.

Yes, I know it takes a lot of work to make a potion in Professor Snape's class... but the question remains: why not just magic-up a potion from thin air?  Or just magic-up the desired effect of the potion?  Is this impossible?  Okay... then the immediate next question is: why?  The wizards can magic-up light from nowhere by just muttering "lumos".  Light is material, remember?  Why is this material summonable ex nihilo while others are not?

The cynical answer is to do with J. K. Rowling being a lazy hack.

The cuddly answer is to do with it just being a bit of fun for kids (okay, fine... but somebody please remind Rowling, yes?)

The interesting answer is that there is no answer and cannot be.  In a world in which magic is possible, nothing could ever really make any kind of practical sense.  Such a world would be slippery to the point of being uninhabitable.  That's the tautological and anthropic (and true) reason why magic isn't real.  Any world that could produce real magic, couldn't actually be a coherent world capable of processes like, say, evolution.  Magic isn't real because it isn't... and any world in which it was wouldn't produce people who could even ask the question.

Less cosmically, the whole concept of rules and cheating becomes meaningless in a wizarding world.  Take Quidditch.  Wherein lies the skill that makes a Seeker?  How exactly does one exercise prowess on a broomstick?  You don't pedal it.  It doesn't move by physical laws.  You don't have to know about aerodynamics.  Aerodynamic laws would make it plummet to the ground immediately.  Your ability to be a great Seeker seems, in Rowling's world, to stem from two factors: whether you have it in your blood and how expensive your broom is.  Harry is a great Seeker because his Dad was (yes, a fucking family of tedious jocks - I know the types) and because various fawning adults keep giving him expensive brooms (spoiled little teacher's pet).

But this leads to the question of why is one brand of broomstick better than another?  What are the qualities of the expensive one that make it better than the cheap one?  It can't be anything technical, since there's no technique anywhere to be seen.  They're not 'operated'; they're sat on and commanded.  Moreover, it can't be to do with the quality of their design or construction, because their flying abilities do not stem from thence.  They're not like machines, i.e. efficient to the extent that they are well designed and constructed to obey and exploit the physical laws of the universe in the performance of certain tasks.  They fly because they're magic.  Magic, by definition, is the breaking of the physical rules.  Why cannot a cheap broom be endowed with greater magical properties than a pricey one?  Just twiddle your wand and impart some extra magic to the budget model!

I expect something like that would be considered to be in some way 'cheating'... like when Hermione thinks Harry has given Ron the luck potion just before the big match.  But what can 'cheating' possibly mean in this context?  Ron's 'cheating' because he's taken a luck potion?  But isn't that kind of 'cheating' THE WHOLE FUCKING POINT of potions?  Of all magic?  Isn't Qudditch itself ALREADY ENTIRELY DEPENDENT upon such magical cheats?  Magic broomsticks, for instance?  Magical being-good-at-Qudditch-family-blood?  Magic flying balls with wings?

And if rules and cheating are meaningless, why have rules at school?  Why have school?  Why learn?  Take a potion instead!  Why frown on those rule-breakers like Voldemort?  Why work the long way round for anything?  Why, as I was asking before, labour?

People do seem to work in Potter's world.  They have jobs working for banks.  Mums do housework.  And so on.

Incidentally... Mrs Weasley washes the dishes... by casting a spell that makes them wash themselves.  Okay.  But where do the dishes come from?  Are they magicked into existence?  Or are they physically produced, the way dishes are in our world?  Does that mean there are factories with people doing physical productive labour, despite having magic wands in their pockets?  In fact, we know that there are workplaces in Potterland, though they seem to be the kind where middle-class professions are pursued.  Teaching.  Banking.  Ministerial bureaucracy.  Etc.  Or they tend to be small businesses.  Petit bourgeois traders abound, with a panoply of pubs and shops.  We do see some people in lower status jobs.  There's a moronic bus conductor who later turns to evil.  Hagrid is a gamekeeper.  But notice something.  Even the lower status jobs aren't about manufacturing.  The only people in the stories who actually seem to make anything are... yes, you're ahead of me... the Elves.  And they're non-human slaves.  In other words, working-class productive industry has been, to a large extent, edited out of the picture... just way money has been edited out of Trek.

The answer to the question 'why work in a world where work is not needed' is that, in Potterland, work that is directly productive seems to either not happen at all, or to happen off stage.  It's hidden.  This is essentially because the necessity of productive work is being implicitly denied.  The answer is a denial of the premises of the question.  The only kind of work that is acknowledged and praised is distributive, bureaucratic or academic.  The need for production is endlessly deferred, like a dreaded chore.

And yet there is wealth.  There are commodities.  There is even conspicuous consumption... though it is viewed with a certain distaste, some of the time.  The emphasis upon the quality (expensiveness) of things like Harry's Quidditch kit clashes markedly with the professed moral disapproval of material wealth in the stories.  Draco Malfoy is constantly depicted as a despicable little shit precisely because he thinks he (or rather his father's money) can buy status, success, respect, power, etc... and yet Harry is also wealthy and also gets loads of unearned help.  He wins using a sooper-dooper broom and that's dandy.  Draco tries the same and we're meant to hate him.  The difference appears to lie in their social class.  Harry is a nice, middle class boy.  Draco is an aristo.  The implication is that Harry's money was earned by his parents (though not through production, natch) whereas Malfoy Snr's was inherited.

There are few examples of Harry using his stash of gold in Gringotts to benefit others, or even to benefit himself. The nicest is in the first book, when he buys the entire sweet trolley for him and Ron to share, simply because Ron doesn't seem enthusiastic about his sandwiches.  He gives away his prize money from the whole Goblet of Fire clusterfuck... but he does this because he feels that the money is tainted (by having been earned?).  It's telling that Fred and George use this money to become shopkeepers, hence the book's approval.  In short - the validity of using money to gain advantage is smiled upon only when the money has been not inherited, not generated by finance, not directly earned through work, but used in or created through small-scale enterprise and initiative... the petty bourgeois ideal.  Ironic, given what BIG business Potter became.

Actually, there are creatures in the stories who make things - the Goblins - but their productive activity seems to be entirely in the past.  They are said to have a peculiar and inhuman view of property relations.  To them, the person who makes something, owns it.  Quelle horreur!  They don't consider that somebody owns something just because they paid for it.  Now, can you imagine anything more threatening to the middle-class, petit bourgeois world (wizarding or otherwise) than doubts about the validity of property based on payment rather than production?  Essentially, what the Goblins doubt is the whole concept of the commodity.  And the commodity form is the basis of bourgeois society.

And yet, these days, the Goblins are not productive workers but bankers.  They are presented as ruthless, acquisitive, greedy little hoarders.  Their near-communistic failure to understand and appreciate the human truth of the commodity form doesn't translate into a refusal to engage with money... indeed, if money is, as Marx said, the 'universal equivalent', then this makes a strangely perverse kind of sense.  If the Goblins do not comprehend the nature of the commodity (i.e. the concept of the exchange of value) then they see the world of commodities from an - as it were - money's eye view.  Money is fundamentally unreal.  It is the commodity that stands in for all others, that can represent all others, that can be equivalent to all others.  It undermines the reality of distinctions between commodities.  From the point of view of money (so to speak) all commodities are the same... so the idea of exchanging one for another looks meaningless, irrational, even insane.

However, I think Rowling's reasoning is cruder than this.  I think hers is a classic, confused, petit bourgeois distrust of 'finance' as being, in some way, conspiratorial... while also attributing an unhealthy cast to any failure to understand and embrace the eternal validity of trade.  It's interesting.  I seem to recall another group of people - real people in history, I mean - who were accused, nonsensically, of being both communists and conspiratorial capitalists and bankers.  It's worth remembering that, to the extent that it was a mass movement, fascism was always a movement mainly of the middle classes and petit bourgeoisie.  Hitler had good machiavellian reasons to target Jews - he could sell them to disaffected workers as evil capitalists and to irritated businessmen as evil Marxists - but he genuinely believed his own vile piffle... and his vile piffle was heavily influenced by classic middle class / petit bourgeois distrust of financiers and bankers and bigshots.  The European petit bourgeois distaste for finance goes all the way back to the idea of moneylending and usury as a kind of unnatural procreation (money auto-breeds)... and the association of this kind of thing with Jews goes right back too.

This is a bit of a tangent... so let's loop back to what we were talking about earlier: the inconsistent but unavoidable way that things in the Potterverse seem to acquire value literally by magic. If we take 'magic', in Rowling's model, to be equivalent to what Marx called use value (i.e. the actual ability of the commodity to satisfy some need or desire) then, in the wizarding world, value ceases to have its basis in physicality and becomes something idealist rather than materialist, something that humans can imagine into existence, that they can create and confer at will out of thin air.  Use value collapses into a blobby sameness with what Marx called exchange value (i.e. the quantity of value imparted to the commodity by humans) except for one vital distinction.  For Marx, exhange value was created through labour; it was the amount of socially necessary labour time that went into the creation of the commodity.  In the wizarding world, labour is unnecessary and nobody is ever seen doing any productive labour... or the place of productive labour is taken by magic wand waggling.  Exchange value vanishes into use value and use value is magically generated.  Labour gets no look in.

If the Goblins are the guardians of money, they become the arch-representatives of exchange as a magical process.  (Marx, by the way, was profoundly hostile to the commodity form, of which money is the ultimate example, precisely because it is so immaterial, so unreal, so anti-sensual, so 'magical'.)  This is probably why the Goblins no longer produce anything, despite once having been makers of artefacts.  Aside from the way Rowling draws on old petit bourgeois anxieties about 'big finance', it's probably why they also have this threatening lack of comprehension of the validity of exchange.

In other words, Harry Potter is bourgeois to the core.  It's central premise - of a world which has commodities that are bought and sold for money after their one value (utility) is created out of nothing without the involvement of work - is essentially bourgeois. It denies the role of labour in the creation of value, thus degrading humanity by removing their essential nature as productive creatures.  It sees value as one blob - utility - that comes from needs externalised rather than work crystallised.  It treats the commodity form as eternal and squares the circle of the immateriality of the commodity - especially money - by treating all value as immaterial.  It fetishizes commodities (swanky broomsticks, invisibility cloaks, etc.) while editing labour out of the picture, or showing it only as either willing serfdom (the elves) or as petit bourgeois enterprise (Diagon Alley) or middle class professional activity (everyone else).  It recycles old shopkeeper fears and prejudices about finance and aristocracy.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of humanity at the heart of all this.  What's missing is an awareness of humans as, essentially and fundamentally, producers rather than simply 'actors'.  Arguably, this same mistake is at the heart of many reactionary views of the world, including the bourgeois economic theories that the metaphysics of the wizarding world mirror so amusingly.

The serious point here, the thing that should worry us, is not that Harry Potter is reactionary... it's that bourgeois economics is based fundamentally on magical thinking.  In this worldview, advantage and success and moral superiority flow from utility, which comes from the conjuring skill of the economic actor... from the 'wealth creator', you could say.  It doesn't make any difference that economic structures like that would actually be as impossible as natural selection in a world where magic was real.  For capitalism, economic miracles seem to be just that: miracles.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Dark Knight Propagandizes

I see the first big trailer for the next installment of Nolan's Batman franchise has been leaked.  It looks consistent with the previous films.

Remember in Batman Begins, the League of Shadows claim to have caused the recession that crippled Gotham when Bruce was a kid. So recessions happen not because capitalism is inherently prone to them but because nefarious Europeans and Orientals come over from outside and artificially create them.

Of course, recessions are something that happens to capitalism, not something that capitalism can't help itself causing... we know this because Bruce's Dad is a noble, wise, kindly man who happens to be hugely wealthy and own a massive mega corporation, so wealth and corporations must be just fine and dandy per se. Papa Wayne has even helped the city... by building a massive elevated train system. Hmmm, that'll help the people who can't afford tickets (or homes) anymore. And naturally it was all done at his expense and he made no profit... something that is even less likely in reality than flying bat-costumed ninjas.

Sure enough, we later learn that corporations are only bad when run by unscrupulous individuals like Rutger Hauer (in probably the single most irrelevant film role in cinema history) who wants to take the company public and manufacture weapons... and all that icky stuff that nice capitalists never do 'cos they're just so socially responsible and unconcerned with profits.

The victims of the recession that get most screentime and sympathy are, natch, Bruce's wise and noble Dad and his silent blonde Mum, ie the rich people who are the victims of the filthy poor.

In the next film, we learn that it's necessary to take extreme measures that might (briefly) offend principled liberals like Lucius Fox, in order to defeat the unreasoningly hostile terrorists who just wanna watch the world burn and hate us because of our freedom, etc. So that lets President Bush off the hook, don't it? When faced with insane and wanton aggression from terroristic nihilists, what can the responsible people do but take the law into their own hands, torture people for information, spy on the populace, peddle propaganda to keep the sheep feeling hopeful? The guy with the strength to do what has to be done will find himself morally compromised and unpopular, but he's doing it all for the greater good, shouldering the burden for the weak and squeamish. 

Of course, the public hero who will inspire the people, Harvey Dent, is not averse to abducting suspects and threatening them with guns... but he's still a noble, heroic white knight... and when the villainy of al Qaeda... sorry, I meant the Joker... drags him down, this fact must be concealed from the plebs for their own good.

If Batman Begins is pure neoliberal propaganda, Dark Knight is pure neo-Conservative propaganda. By the trailer, Dark Knight Rises - in which Selina Kyle taunts Wayne at a party about how his lot have "lived so large that there was so little left for the rest of us" and then cuts to Bane leading what seems like a revolt of the unwashed - looks set to be the film equivalent of Fox News commenting on Occupy Wall St.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Skulltopus 3: Yes, We Have No Macra

If any monster in the history of Who was ever a gothic, hauntological thing embodying the 'return of the repressed', it was the Macra.

All the ostentatious happiness of the Colony is there to cover unease.  They know there’s something wrong, otherwise why deny it so desperately?  Why would the Colony go to such lengths to contain and silence Medok unless he was speaking the unspeakable truth that everybody else wants to deny?  The Macra haunt the Colony, scuttling around at night, hiding in the shadows, unseen then glimpsed and then disappearing.  They haunt the people, who all know about them (even down to having a name for them) but claim to disbelieve in them.  They represent repressed knowledge that is insisting upon being remembered.  This is pure gothic.

But... they’re also a bit Weird, in the sense of the ‘Weird fiction’ of early 20th century horror (something I've discussed in previous Skulltopus posts).  William Hope Hodgson, one of the greatest Weird writers, used giant crabs a lot in his peculiar and deeply unsettling maritime tales.  As previous noted, the author China Miéville has written that the Weird (at least classic, 'haute Weird' of the late 19th-early 20th century) was an attempt to express the meaningless and unrecognisable, and that it thus stands in "non-dialectical superposition" to the gothic (or  the ‘hauntological’), which is about the buried secret, the thing we recognise but refuse, that which we know but wish (need) to deny.  The tentacled thing is the quintessential Weird monster type… a type unprecedented in Western fantastic fiction before the Weird.  But Hodgson's tentacled things co-exist with giant crabs.  I'm not sure how precedented giant crabs were in the Western uncanny.  Certainly, people in the West had seen crabs before... but then, as Miéville acknowledges, they'd seen tentacled things too.  It's not about unfamiliarity so much as literary unprecedentedness, as an absence of semiotic baggage and any tradition of previous meanings.  In any case, whereas the haunting thing is frightening because we recognise it, and recognise that it means something, the Weird thing is frightening because it is something meaningless and incomprehensible, stalking us for no reason that we can ken.

The Macra are TV monsters from 1967... and this is very different to literary monsters in 1917... but that's a minefield I'll try to traverse in another post.  But, shunting that massive problem to one side just for now, the Macra genuinely do seem to me to be Weird, but also to be hauntological.  They haunt because, as noted, they are recognised and not recognised, seen and denied, fled from because of the repressed knowledge that they represent.  On the other hand, they are not spectral or phantasmic, for all their elusiveness.  They're giant crabs for heaven's sake.  Or are they?

Because here’s the really strange thing: the Macra don’t really seem to be giant crabs at all!  The original titles of this story were 'The Spidermen' and 'The Insect-Men'.  The characters in the story are uncertain what the Macra are, even – especially - when they see them.  They don’t call them crabs.  Nobody actually says the word “crab” during the story!  The characters ask: “are they insects?”  They ask: “are they some monstrous form of bacteria?”  The Doctor thinks they’re germs.  It’s unclear how literal he’s being.

Okay, they look like crabs in the few pictures we have left… which is perhaps why this story is, after all, better (or Weirder) heard but not seen: not because the monster props were bad (though, in all honesty…) but because they were too recognisably one type of thing.  Unseen, the Macra retain an indefinability, a categoric indeterminacy.  Mind you, seeing the giant crab while the characters don’t recognise it as crablike but instead suggest other descriptions… this might be even Weirder.  The giant crab may have precedents in classic weird fiction, but the giant quasi-crab or un-crab or ab-crab (it is both crab and not-crab) is even more in the style of the Weird.  The creature of unstable form and type, the creature that is overdescribed using incompatible terms (it’s an insect and a germ, it’s a bacterium and it’s huge, it’s a crab but it also isn’t), the creature that is indeterminate and protean and incomprehensible… that’s genuinely reminiscent of Lovecraft’s radically unrecognisable, incoherently over-described, unknowable ‘Old Ones’ and Shoggoths.

This effect is heightened by the experience of listening to the audio, having the crab image in your head from the CD case and the stills you've seen, but hearing the characters unable (or unwilling) to perceive what the bloody things are.  It's enough to make you hope they never find the footage.  It's certainly enough to make you abjure the recons (though I've never been a recon kind of guy anyway).  'The Macra Terror', by being unseen, becomes a bit more literary... or acquires something of the non-visual, descriptive, imaginational (yes, that is a word - I should know, I just invented it), hallucinogenic quality of literature that demands of us that we should visualise the fantastic and unreal.

Also, the Macra’s mentality and psychology is almost as opaque as their form.  They seem to be both rational and irrational.  They speak, as the voice of Control… but this seems like a ‘normal’ human voice.  It’s an untreated voice.  There’s no audio effect in use, no vocoder, not even after the voice has been revealed as the voice of the Macra.  We have to imagine that voice emanating from one of those Volkswagon-sized un-crabs, sitting behind a mic, skulking out of view around a corner.  The incongruity provokes derision and unease simultaneously.  The voice is plummy and pally, sometimes authoritative, sometimes sneaky… sometimes hilariously over-emphatic, evincing terror and irrational hysteria.  This chimes with their behaviour during the story.  They seem to be utilitarian, machiavellian, ruthless, exploitative, secretive, furtive… but also communicative, dependent, oddly reluctant to order killing, bad planners, bad improvisers, beneficiaries of an unnecessarily fragile set-up, etc.  And they are scared: of being discovered, of being defeated, but also of themselves, of their own existence, of being.  Oddness of oddnesses, the Control voice (the voice of the Macra) is at its most frantic, its most insanely frightened and irrational, its most screechingly emphatic, when it is denying the existence of the Macra.  It denies its own existence, again and again, in an escalatingly loud series of increasingly unhinged, pleonastic reiterations.  It sounds desperate to convince everyone, including itself, that it does not exist.

Of course, with the tapes junked, the Macra have achieved a kind of spectrality.  They don't exist anymore, except as a voice, as the incomprehension in the minds and voices of the characters who encounter them, as depthless CGI reincarnations in another story, and as moment when pulp kid's TV seems to have genuinely approached a belated and partial merging of the Weird and the gothic.

NOTE, 11/04/13:
It's been pointed out to me that the assertion made above that "Nobody actually says the word 'crab' during the story!" is incorrect.  Polly calls them "crabs"... though she does couple the word with "or insects", retaining the air of indeterminacy I was remarking upon.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Surplus Population

It's getting near Christmas.  Christmas means Dickens.  Doctor Who has 'done' Dickens twice in recent years... on both occasions, the show has travestied Dickens' most famous Christmas story A Christmas Carol.  Last year we were given that Moffat-penned obscenity that shared its title.  He transmuted the tale into a gleefully cynical celebration of hubris, casual sexism, complacency and hypocrisy.  But Moffat was following a trail already blazed.

Back in 2005, Mark Gatiss riffed on the same story (which is about a selfish man who is made to realise that he owes the world a debt, only to find himself transformed by that knowledge) and turned it into a parable about how helping the apparently needy is dangerous folly stemming from thoughtless guilt... because the apparently needy (even 'foreign' refugees, running from the devastating effects of a war they didn't start) will probably want to swamp you and steal your world.

Once I'd realised (with help from others more immediately perceptive than myself) what 'The Unquiet Dead' was actually about, I became very critical of it.  However... as time passes... I begin to think I've been overly critical of Gatiss.  Perhaps even a tad unfair to him.

Don't get me wrong, I still loathe 'The Unquiet Dead' (together with just about everything else Gatiss has ever done in his career, to be honest), but I think I've been on iffy ground when I've implied that his tale of gas sprites in Victorian Cardiff went against the spirit of Dickens.  Yes, 'The Unquiet Dead' directly contradicts the stated message of A Christmas Carol, and uses Dickens to do it, but Dickens himself did that too.

In response to the eruption of revolt against Britain's unremittingly cynical, cruel and ferocious imperial domination of India (the event that the Victorians dubbed 'The Indian Mutiny') Dickens collaborated with Wilkie Collins on a story called 'The Perils of Certain English Prisoners'.  It's a classic imperialist text.  It is a fictional story about pirates and treacherous natives in Belize, but the story is unavoidably about India.  It makes the imperialists into the victims of the natives, as such texts always do.  It belittles a character who is probably meant to refer to Lord Canning (Governor of India during the revolt) who earned himself the contemptuous nickname of 'Clemency Canning' for daring to suggest that some discrimination should be used in reprisals, rather than the indiscriminate and bestial torture and mass slaughter actually employed by British troops.

"I wish I were Commander in Chief in India," Dickens told a correspondent, "I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested... [he refers to massacres committed by the rebels... in response to British massacres that predated and dwarfed them] and raze it off the face of the Earth."

We can take into account the fact that he was responding to very one-sided media coverage and government accounts.  Lord Palmerston had written a popular pamphlet in which he detailed atrocities of the rebels... needless to say he didn't contextualise them with details of British imperial cynicism, ruthlessness, murder and torture.  He didn't, for instance, say anything about how the East India Company used torture routinely as a method of enforcing sales.

However, it shouldn't surprise us that Dickens would side wholeheartedly with his government, Queen, empire and 'race'.  He could bring himself to pity a poor child in London, but he considered "a savage something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth".

He evidently felt - at least rhetorically - that "the face of the Earth" would be much prettier 'wiped' clean of various other races.

God bless us, every one.