Impossible to defend
Andrew O’Hehir wrote:
Instead, I’d rather go beneath the surface to look at the structural function of these stories – the role they play in the cultural economy – where I think we can identify even more intriguing similarities. Both “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” are fundamentally works of propaganda disguised as fantasy or science fiction. They’re not propaganda on behalf of the left or the right, exactly, or at least not the way we generally use those words in America. They are propaganda for the ethos of individualism, the central ideology of consumer capitalism, which also undergirds both major political parties and almost all American public discourse. It’s an ideology that transcends notions of left and right and permeates the entire atmosphere with the seeming naturalness of oxygen in the air. But at least if we acknowledge that it is an ideology, we can begin to understand that it limits political action and political debate, and restricts the heated warfare between Democrats and Republicans to a narrow stretch of policy terrain.
To begin with, if we accept the maxim that all fictional works about the imagined future are really about the present, what do these works have to say? They contain no intelligible level of social critique or social satire, as “1984” or “The Matrix” do, since the worlds they depict bear no relationship to any real or proposed society. Where, in the contemporary West, do we encounter the overtly fascistic forces of lockstep conformity, social segregation and workplace regimentation seen in these stories? I’m not asking whether these things exist, or could exist, I’m asking where we encounter them as ideology, as positive models for living.
In the world modeled by Apple and Facebook and Google, the answer is pretty much nowhere. The organization-man stereotype is universally mocked, from corporate boardrooms to political debates to beer commercials. They serve the function Emmanuel Goldberg served for Big Brother. Every CEO who’s spent decades in the executive suite is told he must rebrand himself as a maverick; the entire drama of the 2012 election involved Mitt Romney’s hilarious efforts to make himself look like an outsider. Every right-thinking person in our age knows her survival depends on her self-branding; we are all meant to be entrepreneurs, innovators, rebels, free spirits. The insistent theme of the consumerist economy is that we are all “divergent,” the cool-sounding label that renders Woodley’s character an outcast, and that the mechanism of the market is calibrated to thrum to our unique personal frequency.
So, no, the oppressive future societies depicted in “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” are not allegorical representations of the present, whatever Tea Partyers may tell you. (Please observe: I am not saying there is no danger of fascism in America. But it will come in a prettier package.) Rather, they are exaggerated frames placed around works of social praise, or panegyric, to use the Athenian term, works designed to remind us how grateful we should be to live in a society where we can be “ourselves,” where we can enjoy unspecified and entirely vague freedoms. In both cases, this message arrives entangled with the symbolism of female empowerment, which lends a contemporary flavor and makes the pill go down easier. Whether that makes the pseudo-feminism of these stories an integral part of that message I’m not sure, but there’s little doubt that over its history feminism – once conceived as a social or communitarian philosophy – has acclimated itself to the individualist world order.
I appreciate but am not certain about this analysis. My concern would be that if people in mass can't realize that the people supposed to be divergent actually aren't; if it doesn't concern them that every other person reading the book and everybody to the side, back, and in front of them in the theater is convinced they'd be one of the rare-bird divergents as well; then these aren't a very healthy stock of people. I'm not afraid they're malleable; but that they're built to sacrifice themselves for a group-hug.
I appreciate the observation that we won't know fascism when it arrives -- if we want it, it'll have to overtly seem the very opposite of every form we're familiar with; it'll have to come with no guilt. Fascism came to Germany, though, with people turning on Weimar individualism, its spiritual emptiness -- I'm guessing its materialism. I'm wondering that we might actually be entering a time where something still worthy is going to look increasingly impossible to defend. Wouldn't it have been better if Weimar Germany, with all its ostensible decay, had just continued? That Germany didn't go down the path it did in the 30s and "evolve" into the Volk, where you didn't contribute to secretly distinguish yourself but to display an orientation you wanted to be commonly shared; and instead capitalist individualism continued its day until about the 1960s, where collectivism took a form we can totally get behind?
It concerns me that people like Chris Hedges has such a problem with the 1960s for its individualism -- it heavily qualifies his genuine appreciation for the progressive movements then. It concerns me that Thomas Frank has such a problem with the liberal professional class, making them seem so egotistical and greedy. I don't trust the public mood, nor that our most regressive couldn't switch on a dime to hardly caring a damn about austerity measures, nor keeping afloat a 1% -- neither of which the Nazis gave one wit about. Under their leadership, Germany recovered form the Depression first.
Thanks for the interesting review; the good prompt to think some.
I'll add that I'm certainly not making open-praise for individualism, just for people to be raised with sufficient love and nurturance that they possess a ripe, distinctive personality -- a well-developed soul. Only that the form of collectivism I liked in the 1960s seems almost hated by what's arising in the left for it's MEism -- these hippies were full of themselves, narcissitic -- gorged down on peace, happiness, and togetherness; and then when in the mood for it, coastal homes, expensive foreign cars, kids in distinguished private schools! It was always, mostly about them, the increasingly confident new "old left" is deeming them.
I listen to them and posit them as naturally oriented into that group in "Divergent" that everyone in the film has the sense to walk as far away as they can from -- the monkish, self-abnegating one, where people are afraid to temper their bare food with seasoning.