Monday 23 January 2012

Skulltopus 5: Fair Exchange, No Robbery

Erato the Tythonian in 'The Creature from the Pit' doesn't much resemble an octopus, but nevertheless he/it is a shapeless, amorphous creature that extends a probe which is (briefly) a bit tentacular... though this tends to be obscured by the fact that it also supposedly resembles a cock:

If this picture reminds you of your genitals,
seek immediate medical advice.

Neither seems to have been the writer's intention.  Indeed, in the novelisation, it is specifically stated that "you couldn't call it a tentacle".  The probe is repeatedly described in terms of hands, fingers and fists.  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Erato is meant to be a kind of giant, disembodied brain.

However, the probe is a long, flexible, green, non-humanoid limb... so let's not fear to call it a quasi-tentacle, whatever Fisher says.

In any case, the Tythonian is - at least until it starts talking - reminiscent of the Weird... if only via its unstable and amorphous blobbiness.

In this post, I suggested that 'Spearhead from Space' erupts into tentacles at the end partly as a way of obscuring something else that is going on in the story, namely a convergence of various themes towards a potential critique of modern British capitalism as a system of hierarchy, racism, imperialism, sexism and exploitation.  (Click the link and read it if you think I've gone mad.)

I'm planning, in forthcoming posts, to suggest that Doctor Who in the 70s adopts the tentacular as a recurring way of simultaneously fleeing from and signifying capitalism.  There is a prelude to this: the Weirdish ab-crabs in 'The Macra Terror'.  There's also a transitional story at the other end, just before the semiotic connection largely dies out in the 80s.  This transitional story is the final story of the 70s to feature the tentacular even as a suggestion.

Transitional Form

Philip Sandifer, at his TARDIS Eruditorum blog, has described 'The Creature from the Pit' as "a proper anti-capitalist screed".  He describes Adrasta as "a selfish arch capitalist who is perfectly happy to thrive while everyone else suffers" and notes that Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles are wrong to write off as anachronistic the idea that Adrasta could've been intended as a Thatcher figure (the story was written during the election that she went on to win).  However, his argument is considerably more sophisticated than this and rests more especially on something he identifies in the script: the subversion of the (by now) standard Doctor Who 'evil ruling class vs. rebels' trope.  Sandifer identifies this story as coinciding with the great shift in the 'centre ground' of British politics that more-or-less coincided with the advent of Thatcherism.

The key thing is… the way in which both sides of an apparent political debate were in one sense indistinguishable because they both adhered to the same premise... [For example] the way in which the trade unions, Callaghan, and Thatcher all took for granted that maximizing profit was the right thing to do. The idea that they were opposing sides in many key ways serves more to cut other perspectives out of the debate entirely than it does to actually describe a fundamental philosophical difference between them. And this sort of false opposition is exactly what Fisher is trying to do with the culture of Chloris...

As Sandifer develops it (ruing all the time the way that the production team managed to miss it) this relates to the way that Adrasta (evil ruling class) and Torvin (rebels) are both obsessed with getting and keeping metal.  Their priorities are the same, despite their other drastic differences.  Sandifer also raises the issue that, once it becomes clear that Erato isn't a 'monster', the audience might immediately suspect that the story will turn out to be about a failure of communication... but, as it turns out, Adrasta and Erato's initial communication went just fine.  She didn't fail to understand him because he was a scary, huge, green blob.  On the contrary, she understood him perfectly.  That wasn't the problem.  The problem was that his message was unwelcome to her because, as Sandifer puts it, she "was only willing to look at the world from her own capitalist perspective...  Adrasta did misunderstand, but not because she didn’t recognize Erato’s individual subjectivity, but rather because she didn’t recognize that there was another way for the world to be".

I'm sympathetic to the idea that Fisher's story might, in its reduction of the obligatory 'rebels' to a bunch of thieves every bit as greedy as their planet's evil ruler, be mirroring cultural shifts in the Britain of its day.  These were, after all, the early years of neoliberalism.  Monetarism was on the rise (with Thatcher only its most aggressive mainstream standard bearer rather than an innovator).  Keynesian certainties had dissolved.  Thatcher would prove to be the gravedigger of a 'social democratic consensus' that was, by this point, already wounded and tottering.  This was the broader symptom of a big downturn in working class struggle and resistance (the Miner's Strike of a few years hence would be a last roll of the dice).  If post-war liberal ideas seemed a long time dead, the radicalism of 1968 seemed (paradoxically) even deader.  Thatcher would go on to acquire the nickname 'Tina' for her habit of proclaiming that "There is no alternative!"  She meant that there was no alternative to her Hayekian brand of class war.  More broadly, the consensus seemed to be that there was no alternative to capitalism anymore.  This 'capitalist realism' (as Mark Fisher has ringingly called it) is with us still... though, thankfully, in these days of Occupy Wall St., it seems to be much less hegemonic.

However, I have issues with the rest of Sandifer's account.

At the most basic level: in what way is Adrasta a capitalist? She doesn't pay any wages, produce anything, market anything, sell anything, pocket any surplus value, invest in production, etc.  Meanwhile, she has serfs!  Adrasta seems much more like a feudal seigneur (lots of seigneuries were run by women, especially in France) who is desperately trying to contain the encroachment of capitalism, in the terrifyingly modern shape of the shapeless monster.

Adrasta used to own a viable mine (plenty of mining went on in feudal Europe) but she purposefully shuts down that operation by shutting Erato up in it, thus preserving her monopoly on metal by retarding her own ability to produce any. This is interesting, given that one factor which went into the transition from fedualism to capitalism in Europe was to do with mining. As in other fields, the technology available to miners in feudal Europe (i.e. the development of the productive forces) became a barrier or drag factor on further development. This story might just covertly acknowledge an assumption of Marxist history: that the conflict or contradiction between the forces of production and the social superstructure is part of what drives historical change. Adrasta - and, by extension, the whole of feudal system on Chloris - is caught in such a contradiction. The 'free trade monster' comes to develop the productive forces and she has to lock him away in her mine (which she has left unused and undeveloped in order to keep hold of her social power)... this is like the decadent feudal aristocracy fighting the oncoming revolution to a bourgeois mode of production. Look also at how the story associates the downfall of Adrasta with the end of the "dark ages". Everyone will be happier once the new social order changes the economic base!

I posted the above (pretty much) at Sandifer's blog and he took issue with me (and Alex Wilcock, who'd already raised similar points) on the grounds that, without money being involved, there seems to be no 'exchange value'.  Rather, there is just exchange.  The trade between Chloris and Tythonis seems more like barter.  Ergo, this looks more like socialism (i.e. co-operative, planned production and distribution on the basis of mutual satisfaction of need) rather than 'free trade'.

These are good points.  However, I think they rest upon the idea that exchange has always been as central to human societies as it is under capitalism, which isn't right.  Exchange has always gone on, but was relatively peripheral to feudalism and previous modes of production.  Capitalism, by contrast, is by definition a system of generalised commodity production.  In other words, it is only under capitalism that most things are produced to be exchanged.  The very notion of trade, intruding into the 'closed system' of feudal Chloris, carries with it the inevitable suggestion of capitalism.

What is also lacking in Sandifer's account (and, to be fair, it's almost entirely lacking from the story) is the matter of labour.  Someone, somewhere, at some time, will have to work to cultivate, harvest, refine, package and ship the chlorophyll.

It's inevitably going to be the erstwhile serfs who end up doing this... and none of them are to be seen at the end, let alone in power.  Even Torvin's band has disappeared.  We're left with the Guardmaster and Organon apparently running things.  Socialism isn't on the agenda.  There is no sense in the story that class has disappeared.  There's no cooperative society of free producers in evidence, or even on the cards.  Even if we ignore all other considerations, and imagine the trade between Tythonis and Chloris is pure barter on the basis of mutual satisfaction of need, the idea that this would constitute anything like socialism is still inadequate, because socialism is the collective ownership and democratic control of the means of production, and so no such social condition obtains on Chloris when the Doctor leaves.

For the Chlorisians, the process of production will radically change.  It will cease to be mainly about subsistence and payment of tributes to the landowner.  It will become production for exchange.  This is irresistibly suggestive of the whole process of 'enclosures' and what Marx called the "primitive accumulation of capital", i.e. the historical moment when feudal property relations are forcibly destroyed, common property is appropriated, the peasant is expropriated, the concentration of property into the hands of a rising bourgeois class begins and a new proletarian class begins to form.

There is also the matter of the status of metal.  In Adrasta's feudal set up, the metal was valuable because it was mined and used to make useful things (i.e. blades for holding back the jungle, plough bits for cultivating the land). But this old system is changing.  Crucially, there is no hint in the story that Adrasta has been producing metal for trade before the arrival of Erato.  She's been producing it for agriculture, horticulture, military uses and the luxuries of the seigneur.  By putting a stopper in her own mine she manages to confine Erato (and the new economic order he represents) but also sets her own system on the road to decline.  When the Doctor arrives on Chloris, metal has become valuable regardless of what kind of metal it is, regardless of what shape its in, regardless of what it's used for.  Everyone wants it, from Adrasta to Torvin.  But why?  Presumably it is being used to buy things... increasingly scarce food, perhaps, from people who need metal in order to scratch some rump agriculture and/or farming together.  Metal has thus acquired not just use value but also exchange value.  It has become, in effect, a modern bourgeois commodity, arising from the decline of the feudal mode of production!  Moreover, it has (or so I deduce) started to behave like money, the 'universal equivalent', the commodity the equals all others.  Erato's new economic order will fit into and develop these nascent tendencies.  He will buy chlorophyll with metal.  If the new trading arrangement leads to a surplus of metal on Chloris, the value of metal will become increasingly detached from scarcity and take on even more of the features of the currency as commodity.

All this, by itself, isn't capitalism... but it all looks highly reminiscent of the historical transition between feudal and bourgeois modes of production.  Adrasta's efforts to prop up her old system involve an attempt to retard the emergence of a new set of economic arrangements based on commodity production and exchange rather than on the feudal cultivation of land by serfs.  So we end up back where we started.  With the Tythonian as heralding the break up of feudalism and the onrush of capitalism.

Of course, much of the above is improvisation on the basis of scant information in the text and, as such, cannot really be used to work out what the text itself is 'saying'.

There is so little extraneous information in the text itself that we must fall back onto essentials.  Let's quote Sandifer again.  This story is about

two planets that have an imbalance of resources are rectifying the imbalance through cooperation. It's not just an economic arrangement, but an arrangement between two planets with the wrong populations for their resources to redress a natural balance.

But isn't that the liberal capitalist argument to a tee? Free trade is a natural, harmonious, optimal way of addressing natural imbalances and ensuring the maximum happiness (and utility) for all... once obstacles like obstinate, reactionary local elites have been swept aside. That 'The Creature from the Pit' fails to see the flaws and hypocrisies in this way of looking at things only shows that this is a story in which the basic ideological arguments of free trade are taken as the central moral truth of things.

This was an extremely fashionable delusion that was rising to a new status of cultural hegemony when 'Creature from the Pit' was made and aired.  The fetishizing of the market, of trade, of money... the pretence that free trade was the way to liberalize society, bring down old elites, end the 'dark ages'... the notion that the logic of the market applied to society was the way to bring harmony where there was discord, truth where there was error and hope where there was despair.

The Creature from Grantham

This story is where Doctor Who resolves and ends its association of the Weirdish and the tentacular with capitalism, an association that recurred several times throughout the 70s (and which I'll go into in further detail in a forthcoming post). 

In 'The Creature from the Pit', capitalism is not a systemic generator of modern nightmares.  It is not something that the show wants to flee from noticing or acknowledging.  It can be signfied without any evasion or danger of condemnation.  So, the quasi-tentacle resolves into something uniform, coherent, a jelly with a voice, a mind (it is a giant brain), a high-status personage with a prestigious official job that is represented as laudable and well-meaning.  The free trade monster starts out as apparently incomprehensible and becomes something comprehensible, loquacious, affable, helpful... something the heralds a new and better order based on an idealised view of commodity exchange.

This story is Doctor Who apparently making peace with capitalism in the form of a panglossian view of free trade vs. reactionary old forms of obsolete feudal elitism, with the market as the road away from serfdom.  That this characterisation of Thatcherism is spurious (Thatcher was nothing if not a statist and a protector of ossified old privilege) makes no odds.  It's a self-characterization that is an inherent aspect of Thatcherism as a brand of conservatism.  Look at Murdoch, who characterized himself as anti-elites, attacking unions on the grounds of breaking up restricted practices.  Look at nationalization promoted as a way of democratizing and increasing efficiency.  All that bunk.  'The Creature from the Pit' is Who buying into that consensus that Sandifer was talking about, not critiqueing it.

The old tentacle connection is finally vanquished when the show, in tune with its times, starts to feel able to represent capitalism as a social good rather than a source of unease.


  1. I’ve often thought much the same as your caption, but rather disturbingly you do seem to have found the most cock-and-balls-shaped Erato picture I’ve seen…

    Oh, and thanks for the name-check, though in this post above all you might have noticed that my name ends in “cock” ;)

  2. Sorry about the cock-up with the name. Or should that be 'cox-up'? I feel a a right dick now. Etc, etc, etc.

    I've amended it now.

    Hey, being called 'Wilcock' must've been fun at school.

  3. Absolutely. I usually just say "thanks, but there's only one of me" when people introduce me wrongly, but if ever there was a time for cock, this is it (well, once in a post-watershed speech:

    Hey, being called 'Wilcock' must've been fun at school.

    I can't see anything in that for a young gay loner to be bullied in that for... No, I'm wrong! Fortunately, my brother, who in a moment of madness my parents went for the hat-trick and named Richard, was the straight one who mixed well, which left him better off than otherwise.

    Whereas these days I'm less fussed by cock jokes than anyone who might send them the other way.