Neoliberalism is our 'Utopia': Criticism of contemporary Utopian cinema.
According to Frederick Jameson; “Even our wildest imaginings are all collages of experience, constructs made up of bits and pieces of the here and now…[This] suggests that at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment (something I have myself occasionally asserted); and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively.” This essay will argue that although mainstream utopian art may appear limited by the time and society which has produced it, messages of an alternative state of things can be read implicitly precisely within these limitations. The concept of neoliberalism will firstly be established in order to contextualise the world which produces such limited utopian art, film and literature. David Harvey’s Neoliberalism as creative destruction will act as a citation for this discussion. This will be followed by an analysis of The Hollywood film Elysium in relation to Frederick Jameson’s work in Utopia Now' in Archaeologies of The Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.
For David Harvey; “Neoliberalism has become a hegemonic discourse with pervasive effects on ways of thought and political- economic practices to the point it is now part of the common sense we interpret, live and understand the world.” Here, Harvey identifies the encompassing nature of neoliberalism that being its function as a “hegemonic discourse.” Neoliberalism is a stage of late capitalism in which the state reduces spending and exhibits free market capitalism. This means that the privatisation of services is administered, and state-owned public services are minimalised. If, as Harvey says, Neoliberalism is the common-sense view of the contemporary world, then this would suggest that alternatives to such a system become difficult to realise; if neoliberalism is the common-sense view, it is taken for granted and goes unchallenged.
Harvey goes on to say; ”A conceptual apparatus has to be constructed that appeals almost naturally to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires, as well as to the possibilities that seem to inhere in the social world we inhabit. The founding figures of neoliberal thought took political ideals of individual liberty and freedom as sacrosanct—as the central values of civilization. And in so doing they chose wisely and well, for these are indeed compelling and greatly appealing concepts.” If freedom and liberty become “sacrosanct” within neoliberal discourse then this would surely suggest that it is built upon the cornerstone of self-determinism. The state does not “rule you” you become a master of your own destiny. Herein lies what Harvey describes as concepts which attune themselves “naturally to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires.” It is desirable for man to be self-determined and free. It is “natural”, hence becoming common sense.
This view is taken at face value, and is not questioned, as after all, no man wants to be “ruled” all men wish to be free. But one must also consider the paradoxical nature of neoliberalism when one reads “TINA” the Thatcherite slogan; “There is no alternative.”
If neoliberalism is built upon “freedom” and the idea of there being “no alternative” then a paradox becomes apparent. It is within these inconsistencies that a true critique of this system begins to formulate. Despite neoliberalism being, as Harvey put it “common sense” this does not make the system flawless. One must question its intentions, for Biebricher and Johnson; “While many commentators asserted that the 2008 crisis of finance capitalism and its accompanying economic disaster would undermine neoliberalism’s promise[..] Neoliberalism remains unchallenged as the pre-eminent economic regime, and despite rampant social inequality, it appears to be here to stay.” This shows neoliberalism at its purest, and most “pervasive” level. Even though the financial crash of 2008 would appear to problematise neoliberal economic structures whilst also highlighting a scathing inequality between the rich and the masses, the reality is that the system was maintained; Instead of acting as an opportunity to displace neoliberal policies, such instances instead act as a justification for said system. Failures within this system of self-determined individualism could be pinpointed as failing because; they were not competitive enough, thereby setting the stage for even more neoliberal reforms. Increased social inequality was necessary to encourage entrepreneurial risk and innovation, and these, in turn, conferred competitive advantage and stimulated growth.”This suggests that neoliberalism transcends economic discourse. If it was simply a model of economics, then it had evidently failed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. This would mean that its purpose holds an aim of consolidation. The most apparent achievement for neoliberalism is that it has; “succeeded in restoring class power.”
The beforementioned quote suggested that this system benefits those at the higher echelons of society and acts to keep and grow further capital for said elitist members of society. Harvey asserts; “neoliberalism was from the very beginning an endeavour to restore class power to the richest strata in the population […] from the mid-1980s onwards, the share of the top 1 percent of income earners in the United States soared rapidly to reach 15 percent by the end of the century. Other data show that the top 0.1 percent of income earners increased their share of the national income from 2 percent in 1978 to more than 6 percent by 1999” Here, Harvey depicts within these findings decades-long increases regarding the growth of capital of a small number of people, the elite. The mantra “the rich get richer” becomes apparent in relation to these statistics. If neoliberalism is truly built on self-determinism, then surely the fact that a growing monetary gulf grows between the masses and the elite, with means of success of course, largely placed in the court of the elite, renders proclamations of self- determinism redundant. One would hold the capacity for freedom and liberty only if they were fortunate enough to be in the statistic which facilitates it. Otherwise, it seems that freedom and liberty become somewhat limited in comparison with those at the top in stark comparison; “The idea that the market is about fair competition is increasingly negated by the facts of extraordinary monopoly, centralization, and internationalization on the part of corporate and financial powers.”
Considerations of this kind must be made when one wishes to read the utopian genre. If art is an imitation and r of the world which produces art, then this would suggest that a utopian film which is made in a society which holds “no alternative” would hold within inconsistences. Jameson, in many respects compliments the work of David Harvey, however he talks of utopian genre directly in relation to themes of history. For Jameson utopian genre; “is itself a representational mediation on radical difference, radical otherness and on the systemic nature of the social totality, to the point where one cannot imagine any fundamental change in our social existence.”
The film Elysium aims to represent the problems of our contemporary world by presenting them to its audience by means of allegory. The film shows Earth in the year 2154 as almost uninhabitable. The wealthy bypass the adverse effects of Earth’s impending demise by building a space ship off world. This outer world “Elysium” itself a reference to the realm of paradise in Roman and Greek mythologies. In the narrative of said mythologies Those blessed by the gods went there after living out a righteous life. The explicit message here is that riches will bring you to salvation. However, on an implicit level, the fact that there exists wealthy people on Elysium whom were able to save themselves literally through the accumulation of capital would suggest that a lack of said capital would place this salvation in jeopardy, ultimately suggesting that there exists a surplus of human life which does not hold enough capital to save itself and occupy Elysium. If one considers Elysium as an allegorical tale on the effects that neoliberalism has had on human society, then this exemplifies how the rich ‘rich get richer.’ they live on Elysium, and the ‘poor get poorer’ they remain on Earth. The notion of neoliberalism benefitting only those in the higher echelons of society has already been established by Harvey. But if Jameson asks the question; “can culture be political, which is to say critical and even subversive.?” Then it can; highlighting these real issues through the medium of cinema as is the case in this instance.
Of course, this would be a very linear outlook considering the problematic nature of the film. As another key difference between Elysium and Earth, is the fact that Earth’s poor are presented primarily as Hispanic. The connotations here, being that there is a racial difference between those at the top and at the bottom of course, this could further develop the idea that culture can interrogate society “critically” and “subversively.” This is until one meets the white, quasi-messianic protagonist of the film played by Matt Damon. Damon’s character represents a ‘white saviour.’ To be truly subversive, the film should have employed a Hispanic actor to hold the torch against the white upper class on Elysium, instead they chose a personification of the elite to present the oppressed. Damon himself is an A list celebrity who is often type casted as a hero in films. If one looks at the film beyond the text, then this is problematic as this choice perpetuates the idea that Harvey discloses of the hegemonic nature of neoliberal ideals.
In the words of George W Bush; “freedom is the almighty gift to every man and woman in this world… [The united states] has an obligation to help spread freedom.” For bush, the united states must intervene in order to bring its ideals to others. the Americans are the ‘heroes’ within this the narrative Bush proposes. Freedom in this film, then is granted on the actions of an American subject. The connotations this brings are that freedom can only be reached by the actions of the wealthy, white male, ultimately exemplifying this film as an agent of neoliberalist “hegemonic discourse.” The films hero is the neoliberal ideal. The American ‘action-hero.’
Damon’s character further problematises the utopian notion presented in this film by the fact that he essentially gains access to a computerised self-doctoring system known within the film as a “med-bay” and places stolen information in to a computer system which essentially allows everyone on Earth access to said med-bays. Prior to this, only those on Elysium could use them. Being that one of Earths major problems is that it is overpopulated, then this makes the films resolution somewhat contradictory. This contradiction should make one question whether the film is truly “subversive” as surely an ending by which the white saviour ultimately fails when trying to make these med-bays accessible to everyone, instead he succeeds, but this leads to his demise. This instance exemplifies what Jameson describes as; “Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment…and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively.” For Jameson, this text would exemplify “bad” utopia as it ‘succeeds.’ This success is symbolic in that a white man has brought “freedom” yet the great irony is that this will only deepen the issue of overpopulation within the film. Elysium makes its viewer aware of their “ideological imprisonment” yet offers no feasible resolution, For Jameson, this is because; “the future seems to be nothing but a monotonous repetition of what is already here …”
Jameson here echoes what Harvey previously discussed regarding the limitations of neoliberalism, except he uses utopian art as an example; as neoliberalism has become “the common sense view we interpret the world” then anything else is difficult to imagine, this has already been argued. Jameson proposes that “the future seems to be nothing but a monotonous repetition of what is already here” precisely because there exists no obvious alternative to neoliberalism and thus, the art produced within neoliberal societies cannot imagine anything else beyond the realms of its creator, hence it becoming “a monotonous repetition of the here and now” it can only portray neoliberalism. When Damon’s character “reboots the system” those on Earth ‘win’ and achieve their ‘freedom’ only by reintegration in to the neoliberal society; “there is no alternative.”
Jameson establishes that prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, that there was an alternative to neoliberalism, and this was communism. The Soviet Union in the communist ‘red corner’ and the USA and UK in the neoliberal capitalist ‘blue corner.’ However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no other ideology to threaten the neoliberal discourses of capitalism. This would suggest how neoliberalism became “hegemonic.” Without any real alternative, neoliberalism cemented itself. Without any real opposition this for Jameson is why Elysium ‘fails and by what he means when he says; ; “Even our wildest imaginings are all collages of experience, constructs made up of bits and pieces of the here and now” Elysium then is problematic due to its timing in history; there exists no real oppositional force against neoliberal capitalism in the world today, and herein lies the root of the film’s limitations. The ending being that those on Earth should view their health care, or med-bay, and their citizenship as victory. Those on Earth cannot want for anything else because the film is unable to offer anything else; it can only offer the conditions which have produced the film itself as Hollywood cannot look beyond neoliberalist notions as they do not exist at a high enough level in the real world.
For comparative purposes, Consider George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 which was written three years after the fall of Nazism, and during the height of Stalinism in 1948. In the novel, Orwell describes an imagining of what the future would hold for humanity under a totalitarian regime. The protagonist of the novel, Winston, decides to go against the government and is ultimately taken to “room 101” a place said to contain the worst thing imaginable for him. In order to quash his revolutionary tendencies. This ultimately leads him to surrender his oppositional perspectives and accept the will of the state. This would exemplify what Jameson states as “failing comprehensively” as Winston tries to resist the system but fails in his efforts and is then reintroduced into the totalitarian society by means of fear. This is possible due to the time and place that 1984 was released, a time in which there was an alternative to neoliberalism; it may not appear better, but it did exist, and this allowed the piece to exhibit itself as it does without inconsistences.
To cite Orwell on “newspeak””; The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” Here, Orwell depicts how language is utilised by an hegemonic system in order to not only render other thought “impossible” but to also convey how language is used as a means of expression; consider how neoliberalism utilises instances of “liberty” and “freedom” as “sacrosanct” on the one hand, whilst also proclaiming there to be “no alternative” to such freedoms and liberties . Herein lies the dystopian nature of contemporary of utopian culture. It is grounded by limitation due its “pervasive” almost ‘double-thinking’ qualities.
In conclusion, if one is to consider the quote; “Even our wildest imaginings are all collages of experience, constructs made up of bits and pieces of the here and now…[This] suggests that at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment (something I have myself occasionally asserted); and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively .” Then during the basis of this discussion, then Jameson would be correct. Elysium is a film littered with problematic reasonings, but whilst considering the work of Harvey regarding neoliberalism and Jameson on why contemporary Utopian fiction is limited, one can reason why this is the case. With the theoretical perspectives of these two theorists considered, one may read between the lines so to speak when considering the genre in the contemporary world in order to better understand these limitations as well as what can be read by what is “not said” on an explicit level and why this may be the case.
Biebricher, Thomas And Eric Vance Johnson, What's Wrong with Neoliberalism? In New Political Science (2012) Vol.34, P.203
Blomkamp, Neil Elysium ,( Sony Pictures Releasing,2013)
Bush, W.George in Text of President Bush's Press Conference, transcribed by eMediaMillWorks Inc
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Jameson, Frederick, Archaeologies of The Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions(London: Verso, 2007)
Jameson, Frederick, ,, Future City, New Left Review, (2003)
Munck, Ronaldo, Neoliberalism, necessitarianism and alternatives in Latin America: There is no alternative ( tina )? In Third World Quarterly Vol 24, (2003)
Orwell, George, 1984 Appenix: The Principles of Newspeak (1949) First published by Secker and Warburg, London in (1949.)
 Frederick Jameson, Archaeologies of The Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions(London: Verso, 2007) p.xiii  David Harvey, 'Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction' in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 610, NAFTA and Beyond: Alternative Perspectives in the Study of Global Trade and Development (Mar., 2007), pp. 22 URL:https://moodle.mmu.ac.uk/pluginfile.php/3679955/mod_resource/content/1/Harvey.pdf [Accessed:27/12/2019]  Ibid. p.24  Ronaldo Munck, Neoliberalism, necessitarianism and alternatives in Latin America: There is no alternative ( tina )? In Third World Quarterly Vol 24, (2003) URL:https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0143659032000084438 [Accessed:27/12/2019]  Thomas Biebricher, Eric Vance Johnson, What's Wrong with Neoliberalism? In New Political Science (2012) Vol.34, P.203 URL: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07393148.2012.676398?journalCode=cnps20 [Accessed:27/12/2019]  David Harvey, p.34  David Harvey, p.29  David Harvey, p.29  Ibid. p.42  Frederick Jameson, p.xii  George W Bush, quoted in Text of President Bush's Press Conference, transcribed by eMediaMillWorks Inc (2004) URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/13/politics/text-of-president-bushs-press-conference.html [Accessed:27/12/2019]  Elysium, Dir by Neill Blomkamp ,( Sony Pictures Releasing,2013)  Frederick Jameson, p.xiv  Frederick Jameson,, Future City, New Left Review, (2003) URL: https://newleftreview.org/II/21/fredric-jameson-future-city [Accessed:03/01/2020]  Jameson, Archeologies of the future  George Orwell, 1984 Appenix: The Principles of Newspeak (1949) First published by Secker and Warburg, London in (1949.) URL: https://orwell.ru/library/novels/1984/english/en_app [Accessed:03/01/2020]