The Abolition of Umbrellas: Cinema in the Age of Individualism (and After).
By Bradley Tuck –
Imagine you are living in Boston in the year 1887. Unable to sleep, you take a rather extreme course of hypnotism. You wake to find you have over slept; it is the year 2000. You are taken in by the Leete family who tell you how much has changed since your rather long slumber. To your astonishment you find that the age of individualism is over. Services have been nationalized and centralised while a planned economy has taken the place of the competitive free-market. Money has become obsolete. Instead, credit is divided equally to each according to their share of the annual productivity of the nation. The credit is exchanged in the national storehouses which serve a wide variety of wants and needs. Labour has been replaced with national service, which lasts from the age 21 to 45, and now, due to a global absence of war, serves simply to provide the nation with its every need. Poverty has been eliminated; class abolished.
However, the umbrella, a common feature of your nineteenth century life, has also received an unexpected fate. The inhabitants of this strange new age appear to have no need for rubbers or umbrellas. Instead “a continuous waterproof covering has been let down so as to enclose the sidewalk and turn it into a well lighted and perfectly dry corridor, which is filled with a stream of ladies and gentlemen dressed for dinner.”i With the umbrella rendered obsolete and replaced by the pavement cover, it is the practice of umbrella carrying itself, which now, looking backwards, appears to be some kind of strange eccentric custom.
Dr. Leete, who is walking ahead, overhearing some of our talk, turns to say that the difference between the age of individualism and that of concert is well characterized by the fact that, in the nineteenth century, when it rained, the people of Boston put up three hundred thousand umbrellas over as many heads, and in the twentieth century they put up one umbrella over many heads. As we walk on, Edith says, “The private umbrella is father’s favourite figure to illustrate the old way when everybody lived for himself and his family. There is a nineteenth century painting at the Art Gallery representing a crowd of people in the rain, each one holding an umbrella over himself and his wife, and giving his neighbours the drippings, which he claims must have been meant by the artist as a satire on his times.ii
This is the fate of the umbrella in Edward Bellamy’s 19th century utopian novel, Looking Backwards. The strange perspective offered by the age of concert reveals an unwitting satire lurking in the art of yesterday. A lost symbolism; an unnoticed metaphor that is only revealed through the eyes of the new Bostonians. What would these new Bostonians make of the vast archive of twentieth century cinema? What unnoticed symbolism would they see in films such as Singing in the Rain, Mary Poppins, Foreign Correspondent, Resident Evil or Umbrellas of Cherbourg? And what would these films, in turn, have to say about them?
The Penguin in Batman
The villainous Penguin of the Batman comics, TV shows and films, viewed from the perspective of Bellamy’s Bostonians, would likely appear as an arch-satire of capitalist individualism; an almost Brechtian device to demonstrate the evils of class and corruption. The Penguin, otherwise known as Oswald Copplepot, is dressed in the clothing that would appropriately signify “gentry.” The monocle, the top hat, the dinner jacket, bow tie, tuxedo and, of course, the umbrella are more markers of wealth, than simply individualism, but it is telling that this aristocratic “uniform” would fit so perfectly with the understanding of umbrellas offered by Bellamy.
The Umbrella, therefore, is not only a metaphor for an atomising individualism, it is also its violent manifestation as a marker of status and superiority. This is why Dannie DeVito’s Penguin in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns continues to wear the markers of refinery even though, to all extent and purpose, he is the underclass. He has no obvious sign of income, he lives in the sewers and is a social outcast. His clothing, one would assume, would simply be the waste and refuge that had been washed into the sewers, and yet it speaks volumes. Oswald Copplepot is only an aristocrat by ancestry and ambition, but his attire speaks of his personal sense of entitlement. In this version, dispute being more accurately underclass than upperclass, Copplepot aligns himself with the rich (represented in the form of the ruthless multimillionaire Max Shreck) in his hunger for money and power. The umbrella, as part of his outfit, alludes to his ambitions.
However, the umbrella is more than a allusion to status. In the many incarnations of the Penguin, the umbrella also functions as a weapon. Gadgets are hidden within the umbrella which transform it into a gun or a propeller. For Bellamy’s Bostonians this would no doubt read this as the perfect satire of the misuses of science and technology, divorced from collective needs and used in the service of competitive individualism. Science and technology comes to work in the service of the umbrella (a symbol of both status and atomised individualism) and serve society only in accelerating its path towards violence and barbarism.
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
In Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent we encounter the umbrella in a strikingly Hitchcockian fashion, one which captures the umbrella’s strange semi-human, semi-monsterous evocation. The umbrella becomes a mask and a shield which hides the person. Here the individual is presented, viewed from above, as a simple disembodied umbrella.
The film, set just before the outbreak of the Second World War, tells the story of Johnny Jones, a foreign correspondent for a The New York Globe, sent to Europe to investigate the growing crisis there. For his first assignment he must attend a meeting of the Universal Peace Party in Britain, where he briefly meets, amongst other people, the Dutch Diplomat Van Meer with whom he shares a carriage on his way to the event.
It is, however, in a second meeting of the Universal Peace Party, this time in Amsterdam, that the umbrella comes to play an instrumental role. Heavy rain plagues the streets. The citizens, viewed from above, appear only as black umbrellas as they struggle in its tumult. These umbrellas come to line the steps to the grand hall as a crowd comes to watch the dignities enter the building. The dignitaries themselves are holding umbrellas, but without the strange anonymity of their onlookers. They meet and greet each other as they enter the building. As Van Meer scales the steps to the conference hall, Johnny Jones notices his new found friend and goes to greet him, but Van Meer appears not to recognise or remember their encounter. Amidst the confusion, a photographer comes to photograph Van Meer, but he is holding a gun next to his camera. He shoots Van Meer in the head and flees into the crowd, all holding black umbrellas. Viewed from above, the black sea of umbrellas mask and hide him, the only thing mapping his path is the strange twitch of umbrella which charts his passage through the crowd to his getaway car.
What is encountered in this scene is not the competitive individualism of The Penguin, but instead an anonymous collective, which could be rendered as “The Public.” This is not the collectivism of Bellamy’s age of concert. There is no general covering that would protect all against the harsh rain and winds. Instead each struggles together as individuals. In this scene the collectivised “public” is produced by the mere uniformity of individual umbrellas acting in concert. The umbrellas do not produce individualism in the sense of individual differences. Here, individualism renders all the same.
One acts out of one’s own self-interest (by carrying one’s own umbrella), but in doing so, one becomes part of a homogeneous whole. Could this scene not be read, at least by a keen new Bostonian, as yet another satire of the age of individualism? In the age of individualism all are taken up in their own struggle against the wind and the rain. Their lives, occupied with self-preservation, have little time for the richer individualism and the variety of choices that Bellamy’s Bostonians boast of. In the age of individualism all are rendered individuals, but in an abstract and atomising way. The individualism that perpetuates the struggle for existence, the drive towards profit and the path towards war does little to enable the flourishing individual.
It produces, rather, a survival of the fittest that renders all the same. This homogeneous individualism reproduces each citizen as a cloaked and muted chorus, who, represented only by dignitaries and the media, whose faces are visible to for all to see, watches behind the black umbrellas as their countries match to war. This mute spectator bares the mask of anonymity. For the criminal, as for the political assassin, this anonymity serves a purpose, to hide himself. Within the crowd of atomised individuals everything is rendered the same and therefore even the greater transgressions are concealed as simple twitches on a parasol.
Bellamy’s Bostonians would no doubt likely tut, the umbrella held so tightly above the individual’s head makes little room for true individuality or genuine difference. In contrast, the collective umbrella, lifted high, makes room for each to breath. In the age of individualism, individualism functions in the service of the a crude, homogenised concert. In the age of concert, collective action serves the flourishing of each individual.
Mary Poppins (1964)
If Foreign Correspondent shows the way in which the umbrella (and thus competitive individualism) can lead to homogeneity, Mary Poppins and her black umbrella, with a personalised green parrot handle, suggests an alternative heterogeneity. Capitalism contains within itself two opposing tendencies. One is centred around uniformity and discipline, this is represented the figure of Mr. Banks whose motto is “Tradition, discipline and rules” and whose umbrella is equally uniform, black and much like everyone else’s. The other tendency is represented by Mary Poppins, whose motto is “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” and whose umbrella, along with its talking parrot handle, is a source of magic (it enables her to fly).
It should be noted that Mary Poppins is certainly no utopian or socialistiii. Like Banks, she believe we must swallow the harsh “medicine” of capital (inequalities of the chimney sweeps, harsh labour conditions, hard work etc.). However, unlike Banks, she believes that this “medicine” needs a bit of “sugar” (playfulness) to help it go down. If Bank’s capitalism finds it model in the figure of the stern strict father; Poppinsian capitalism finds its model in the imaginative play of the child. Poppins and Banks embody two tendencies which we can find throughout the history of capital. If we are to find traces of Banks in the order of the Fordist assembly line, the authoritarian structure of the workplace and state authoritarianism of contemporary Russia and China, we also see traces of Poppins in the emergence of the nuclear family under Fordism, the birth of the teenager, consumer capitalism, the playfulness of the googleplex and the anti-authoritarianism of Silicone Valley. Poppins represents a magical capitalism, a capitalism of fun and play, despite the harsh inequalities and hard labour conditions that may continue to exist therein.
If the dialectics of Poppins and Banks serve to keep the chimney sweeps sweeping chimneys, a similar dialectics cannot go unnoticed by their enemies who seek the emancipation of the chimney sweeps. It is here worth imagining a hypothetical sequel where Poppins, blown into the future, comes to aid the chimney sweeps in their path to revolution. Poppins, evoking the spirit of Emma Goldman, declare that if she can’t dance it is not her revolution. For Poppins the revolution must be fun, but where Poppins sees fun, Mr. Banks, the radical union organizer, evoking the spirit of Vladimir Lenin, sees only left wing infantilism. For Banks, a keen awareness of workers history, discipline and rules are the only path to securing worker victory. For Poppins, such formalities appear to sacrifice the revolution from the start, for if the revolutions greater aim is that the system of exploitation be transformed so that happiness and joy be granted to everyone, then it cannot but lose its way through its sacrifice of such joy in the meantime. It is the act of joy that glistens with utopian potential and illuminates what the workers are fighting for. But for Banks this is, at best, a distraction, at worst a recipe for disorganised collapse. What is lost in the Apollonian spirit of Banks is compensated for in the Dionysian spirit of Poppins and what is lost in the Dionysian spirit of Poppins is found in the Apollonian spirit of Banks. Poppins without Banks is impotent, Banks without Poppins is blind. Whatever criticisms can be directed to either Poppins or Banks, one cannot reject the important role played by both in a many sided dialectics that garners the path of social change.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Jacques Demy’s 1964 film Umbrellas of Cherbourg opens with a shot of a street scene from above. It starts to rain and the streets are filled with many different coloured umbrellas. Like the scene in Foreign Correspondent, we again encounter disembodied umbrellas viewed from above, but unlike Foreign Correspondent, this does not produce a bland uniformity. All umbrellas are unique. What we encounter here is closer to the fun and play of Poppinsism than the uniformity of Banks. This 1950s Cherbourg is a place where the postwar welfare state has enabled the improved living conditions of the working class (Car mechanics discuss Bizet’s Carman and debate the benefits of opera versus the movies), there is upward mobility (the workers can amass savings enough to start their own business) and a consumer culture which allows everyone to express their individuality through unique colourful umbrellas and wallpaper. Cherbourg is full of uniqueness, style and beauty. Viewed from the perspective of the other films mentioned herein (although not from the perspective of the new Bostonians) this Cherbourg appears almost utopian in its evocation of luxury, equality and individual expression.
Despite this colourfulness, not everything is perfect in Cherbourg. Economic woes and class anxieties still frame their existence. Madame Emery runs a small boutique selling umbrellas with the help of her teenage daughter, Geneviève. Despite having many relative luxuries Madame Emery and her daughter are struggling with debts. These turn out to be a salient pressure in Geneviève’s search for a suitor. Genevieve must choose between Guy Foucher, a car mechanic who lives with his sick Aunt, and Rolland Cassard, a wealthy diamond dealer. Geneviève is in love with Guy, he is the father of her unborn child and someone who makes her feel loved and happy, but he lives within modest means and has been conscripted to fight in the Algerian war. In contrast Geneviève appears to have little romantic interest in Rolland Cassard, but his wealth, status and ability to write off their debts means he is her mother’s preference. Her mother places pressure on Geneviève. She must choose between a future of love and mutual happiness, and a future of wealth and security. The new Bostinians would no doubt note that even in a society with relative equality and consumer choice individuals are subject to the pressures to sacrifice their dreams.
Singing in the Rain (1952)
There are, however, less appealing consequences to the collective pavement covers and one of these is the way it might prevent the pure delight of singing and dancing in the rain. We can imagine Bellamy’s Bostonians watching Gene Kelly’s famous dance sequence, not from the perspective of an arrogant superiority, but with a genuine fascination and intrigue. If collective covers prevent the misery of the rain, they also prevent those joyful moments where we revel in it. What is done in the interest of the collective may limit the interests of those who do not conform to their norms.
Don, from Singing in the Rain, would be such a person. As we walks Cathy to her house, she tells him “take care of that throat. You’re a big singing star now, remember. This little California dew is just a little heavier than usual tonight.” However Don, filled with joy, tells her “Really from where I stand, the sun is shining all over the place.” Don feels good and therefore the misery that should be induced by the weather is replaced with elation. It is not simply that his happiness acts as a barrier to the rain, but the rain itself becomes an accomplice in his delight.
I’m singing in the rain
Just singing in the rain
What a glorious feelin’
I’m happy again
He may be happy for other reasons (love), but this change of attitude alters his mindset and he takes delight in the feelin’. The umbrella is rendered superfluous, not, however, because of any collective coverings, but because Don has learnt to love the rain. The umbrella that he holds no longer performs its utilitarian function and is used instead as a kind of dancing cane as Don sings and dances through the street.
Don enacts a transgressive individualism. He is not, of course, transgressing any laws or moral standards, but he is transgressing social etiquette and expectations. This is enough to rouse the interest of the policeman (a partial collective covering of sorts). Don walks off, as he does he hands his umbrella, now superfluous for him, to a stranger walking the other way.
We can imagine the Bostonians looking on with envy. Maybe after being introduced to this film they might seek to set up special uncovered theme parks where they too can sing and dance in the rain. They too might find a transgressive delight in the rain.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange could be read as a commentary on the above sequence from Singing in the Rain. Throughout the film, Kubrick makes use of a miasma of cultural reference, seemingly suggesting an eclectic consumer culture with some parallels to the France presented in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the Hollywood idealised in Singing in the Rain and the counter-cultural individualism of the 60s and 70s. As Greg Scorzo notes,
[…] this society is not a typical Orwellian dystopia that consists of a helpless population terrorized by some totalitarian government. This is a society that manifests a degree of social freedom that realises a good deal of what 60’s counter-culture wanted to see in mainstream society.[…]
The society depicted in A Clockwork Orange contains a thriving and stylish youth culture. Not only do hang outs for young people contain variations on the most interesting and stylish decor of the late 60s, they also contain paintings and sculptures of sexually explicit, erotic art. Such explicit imagery goes far beyond what was considered a socially acceptable form of decorating a public space in 1971. The music played in the film’s shops, street windows, night clubs, and government films ranges from psychedelic rock to pre-20th century orchestral music and avant-garde electronic music. The taste of mainstream youth in this future society is, in some ways, more daring and eclectic than the taste of the actual youth of the late 60’s and early 70’s.iv
The world of A Clockwork Orange is, in some respects, more progressive than the post-war conformism of the 1950s presented in Singing in the Rain or even potentially more progressive than the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s. Cultural experimentation has even gone further than what the inhabitants of Hollywood or Cherbourg could have imagined. In this respect, A Clockwork Orange can be read as a satire of consumer individualism gone wrong. In this context we encounter Alex as a kind of Don pushed to the next level. Like Don, Alex and his gang of droogs take delight in what others would see as bleak. They are also, like Don, transgressing social etiquette, expectations and rousing the interest of the police. However, unlike Don, Alex and the Droogs are also transgressing laws and moral standards.
In one highly pertinent scene, Alex and the Droogs trick a couple into allowing them into their house. They attack the couple, beating the husband and making him watch as Alex rapes his wife. During this, Alex re-enacts the above dance sequence from Singing in the Rain, singing the lyrics during this brutal attack. In some sense, this can be read as a dark ironic juxtaposition in which Alex mockingly toys with his victims and ridicules the playful innocence of the original film. However, it is also revelatory. Alex and Don both engage in transgressive acts of individualism, but where Don simply sings in the rain, Alex rapes and murders. In this respect A Clockwork Orange is a satire of a consumer culture that enables a transgressive individualism to go too far. The self expression of the counter-cultural individual comes to work against the collective as a whole.
However, A Clockwork Orange also explores the dangers of certain collective covers used to combat excessive individualism. This collective cover emerges in the form of a state intervention known as The Ludovico Technique. This Pavlovian technique aims to condition criminals so as not to commit crime. The technique developed is in its early stages and rather crude. Rather than rehabilitate Alex it renders him a vulnerable pawn in other people’s games. If Alex represents the dangers of extreme counter-cultural individualism, the Ludovico technique represents the dangers of state interventions to curb it. Here the Poppins-Banks dialectics resurfaces. Alex’s Poppinian-Dionysian spirit crashes against the Banksian-Apollonian spirit of the state’s Lodovico technique. A Clockwork Orange is a kind of Mary Poppins reversed, instead of Mary Poppins coming to rescue Banks from “tradition, discipline and rules” with the aid of a little sugar, the Banksian state comes to rescue Alex from his untamed Poppinsian delights, but the project fails and instead of a higher synthesis, Alex reasserts himself in the throws of undiluted Poppinsism.
The Resident Evil film series
In the Resident Evil film series, the umbrella appears as the logo of the Umbrella Corporation, a corrupt multinational corporation that trades in, amongst other things, biological weaponry. Due to its breadth and scope the Umbrella Corporation forms a kind of “collective umbrella”, but one that works, not in the service of all, but rather in the service of their own profits. Everyone lives under it and is effected by its decisions, but it has no interest in them. In this respect, the history that led to the world presented in Resident Evil bares striking resemblance to the history presented in Looking Backwards.
The records of the period show that the outcry against the concentration of capital was furious. Men believed that it threatened society with a form of tyranny more abhorrent than it had ever endured. They believed that the great corporations were preparing for them the yoke of a baser servitude than had ever been imposed on the race, servitude not to men but to soulless machines incapable of any motive but insatiable greed. […] Meanwhile without being in the smallest degree checked by the clamor against it, the absorption of business by ever larger monopolies continued. In the United States there was not, after the beginning of the last quarter of the century, any opportunity whatever for individual enterprise in any important field of industry, unless backed by a great capital. During the last decade of the century, such small businesses as still remained were fast-failing survival of a past epoch, or mere parasites on the great corporations, or else existed in fields too small to attract the great capitalists. Small businesses, as far as they still remained, were reduced to the condition of rats and mice, living in holes and corners, and counting on evading notices for the enjoyment of existence. The rail roads had gone on combining till a few great syndicates controlled every rail in the land. In manufacturies, every important staple was controlled by a syndicate. These syndicates, pools, trusts, fixed prices and crushed all competition except when combinations as vast as themselves arose.v
Unchecked, capitalism often puts money and power in the hands of the few and drives towards a oligopoly or monopoly that produces, not the freedom and competition, but a monolithic authoritarianism. A new authoritarianism emerges comparable to the richest 1% who form the overriding target of the Occupy movement. In Looking Backwards, this drive towards monopoly is averted through a collectivism that works in the interest of all. Resident Evil presents us with the apocalyptic future where all attempts to avert it fail.
The Umbrella Corporation has been experimenting with biological weaponry making dangerous decisions that put human life itself at risk in order to amass greater and greater private profits and thus greater and greater global control. They do, of course, take many safety precautions, but these are not enough to prevent an incident in one of their secret underground plants, where a chemical leak leads to a mass outbreak of zombiism, which gradually, throughout the film, spreads throughout the world, largely wiping out life on Earth.
In the fourth film in the franchise, Resident Evil: Afterlife, the film opens in a manner reminiscent of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The scene is Tokyo and we see multicoloured umbrellas viewed from above. As with Cherbourg, this is a consumer culture where individualism is expressed via consumer choices. Yet despite evidence of individual consumer choices, each citizen has little choice over the big decisions that determine their fates. They may each be able to buy unique umbrellas, but a largely unregulated multinational corporation makes all the decisions that affect their future. Behind the surface of this consumer culture lurks a general absence of choice (i.e. to determine the direction and protect the future of life on Earth.) Furthermore, despite the evidence of consumer choice and prosperity, there is a general sense of anonymity, and each life seems atomised and cold. The presence of prosperity does not seem to have produced any communitarian warmth or empathetic togetherness: All appear to struggle with the elements alone as individuals.
Despite the colourfulness of the umbrellas, what is true of Bellamy’s account of the age of individualism, is true of this Tokyo scene: Everybody lived for himself and his family. In this setting a single solitary woman with no umbrella standing stationary in the crowd appears to go unnoticed. One could compare her to the homeless and the destitute, who have little recourse to rubbers and umbrellas, and go unnoticed as a familiar yet regrettable element of modern living. Such figures go unnoticed, not simply out of coldness of the passers by, but out of their impotence and guilt, which only apathy or charity can quell. But whilst this figure may share the anonymity of the homeless, she herself appears draped in cultural finery. She is closer to Don in her embrace of the rain, but unlike Don who rouses the interest of the policeman, her transgressions appear to go largely unnoticed in this crowded street. Eventually she snaps, transitioning as it were, from Don to Alex and biting a man on the neck. Her minor transgressions are transformed into a genuine threat. She is a Zombie.
It is hard not to find in the zombies an ever-rich metaphor that take us from passive consumer to suicide bombers; from biological warfare to homelessness, poverty and other negative externalities of the Umbrella Corporation’s drive to profit. As with nearly all zombie films, the Resident Evil series explores questions of who gets to count as human and who gets to determine this. It is hard not to see the Agambenian undertones here. If the Umbrella Corporation acts as the sovereign, who not only determines the law, but also decides when to suspend it and enact a state of exception; the zombies can be seen as the homo-sacer, or holy man, who in Roman law could be killed but not sacrificed. The Homo-sacer have no recourse to law or rights for protection. They exist beyond the law as mere bare life. Agamben finds modern parallels to this Roman institution in the concentration camps of the Second World War and the prisons on Guantamino Bay, but his analysis is often extended to the theory of zombies. Discussing the relationship between George A. Romero’s “Dead” series and Agamben’s theory of the Homo-sacer, Simchi Cohen tells us:
The blurring of the boundary between human and zombie is epitomized in the very final line in the final film of the series; Riley, a soldier, stops a tank from shooting the zombies left in the city, saying, “they’re just looking for a place to go. Same as us.” The blurred line between Romero’s humans and zombies is the predecessor for the blurred line between Agamben’s conception of the sovereign and the Homo Sacer. At first glance it would appear the sovereign and the Homo Sacer, like the zombie and the human, stand on opposite sides of the legal fence. The Homo Sacer is abandoned. The sovereign is instating the abandonment. The Homo Sacer is a wolf-man, already dead. The sovereign is human, and alive. However, the sovereign and the Homo Sacer are paralleled in that both exist inside and outside of the law. For Agamben, “the paradox of sovereignty consists in the fact that the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order”. The sovereign both has the legal power to decide the law, and precedes the law in suspending it; thus he exists inside and outside the law. The Homo Sacer is abandoned by the law. Outside the law, he may be killed, like the zombie, with impunity in a Zone of Indistinction. Yet, it is the law itself that imbues the Homo Sacer with an identity. Only through the law, the designation of a Zone of Indistinction, is the Homo Sacer recognized as a Homo Sacer. vi
Likewise within the Resident Evil series the dividing line between the Umbrella Corporation, Zombies and the citizens blur in three distinct ways.
- First, there is the blurred line between ordinary citizen and Zombie. For whilst many ordinary citizens are not yet zombies, they may still be contaminated and this leads the corporation to engage in acts of containment where whole cities, whether Zombie or not, are treated as if they already are enzombied. Their simple potentiality to Zombiism is enough to sacrifice them. Whilst this might seem understandable given the crisis situation, such sacrifices are already implicit in the corporation’s actions prior to the outbreak. The corporation is aware of the risks prior to the outbreak and is, in this respect, prepared to make sacrifices even before it happens. In the mind of the corporation, with its general disregard for human life, all life takes on a kind of zombie status. Something that could be sacrificed if the means serve the end.
- In the second blurring, members of the corporation are reduced to the status of the average citizen and as average citizens too can be reduced to the status of zombie even if they are not zombies. This is certainly true of the lower-level employees, but also extends, at times, to more higher paid specialists, CEOs and directors. As these members attempt to save themselves and their family, they find themselves turning to the corporation in order to secure their survival. But the corporation is persistently willing to make sacrifices. As the struggle for survival intensifies and turns all against all, such members can only ensure their survival by binding themselves, or proving their usefulness, to the corporation. What emerges in the corporation itself is a struggle for survival in which all are turned against all, but where the corporation continues to provide an umbrella for this struggle. This second blurring produces two kind of Zombie. Like the citizens, individual members of the umbrella corporation are also Zombies-in-waiting. They, when they are no longer useful, are like the rest of civilization: bare life that can be discarded. But they also become Zombie in a different sense, genetically modifying themselves to become a higher, rather than lower, form of the species. Certain members of the corporation themselves become zombie to ensure their status and importance within the corporation.
- Finally we encounter a third blurring between the corporation itself and the zombie. The corporation cannot be reduced to the activities of its individual members. Whilst certain members may act upon its behalf, the corporation cannot be reduced to any single individual. The Umbrella Corporation symbolises the collective, but transcends every individual as a kind of Frankenstein monster that turns against all in its soulless drive towards profit. In this respect it acts as a kind of Zombie, seeking profits and power completely detached from human values and flourishing.
What would Bellamy’s Bostonians make of these conjoined metaphors: Umbrella and Zombie? In the world of Resident Evil all umbrellas, even big multinational ones serve merely a crude individualism: everyone lives for themselves and their families. The rain that falls on other peoples heads is no issue for them. Despite its scope, the Umbrella Corporation only serves its own interest, it only protects itself from the rain. Likewise the citizens in Tokyo are wrapped up in their own struggles and the anonymous umbrella-less figure goes unnoticed. The world embodied in the Resident Evil series is an age of individualism, as Bellamy’s citizen’s would define it. Through its lack of concert this society moves towards a process of becoming zombie. This process of zombification can already be found in the writings of Karl Marx.
In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who become the living appendage. ‘The miserable routine of endless drudgery and toil in which the same mechanical process is gone through over and over again, is like the labour of Sisyphus. The burden of labour like the rock, keeps ever falling back on the worn-out labourer.’ And at the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the utmost, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity. The lightening of labour, even, becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the labourer from work, but deprives the work of all interest. Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour-process, but also a process of creating surplus-value, has this in common, that it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workmen. But it is only in the factory system that this inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality. By means of its conversion into automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the labourer, during the labour-process, in the shape of capital, of dead labour, that dominates, and pumps dry, living labour power.vii
Through the capitalist’s drive towards surplus and profit, the workers finds themselves bound to the machine as a kind of living dead appendage and work is drained of all possible enjoyment and meaning. The workers, like the citizen’s of the Resident Evil films, deprived of any control over their lives and its direction, are consigned a process of becoming Zombies. Likewise the Umbrella Corporation, like Oswald Copplepot and the owners of capital more generally, become monstrous in their own way, exerting a “were-wolf’s hunger for surplus-labour”viii and seek to quench, “the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour”ix. One part of the population loses their humanity in the pursuit of labour, the other in the pursuit of profit. The age of individualism makes monsters out of everyone.
Looking Backwards (1887)
Edward Bellamy saw a path beyond the Umbrella Corporation’s global monopoly only through the creation of a different monopoly, a counter-monopoly one could say. In Looking Backwards we are told that,
The movement towards the conduct of business by larger and larger aggregations of capital, the tendency towards monopolies, which had been so desperately and vainly resisted, was recognised at last, in its true significance, as a progress which only needed to complete its logical evolution to open a golden future to humanity.
Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conditioned by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were entrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were abolished; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared.x
For Bellamy, the monopoly capitalism of the Umbrella Corporation must be overcome by a new monopoly. To present day readers this is no doubt evocative of Lenin’s claim that, “State capitalism would be a step forward.”xi Lenin, who was no utopian, saw state control as essential for the transition from capitalism to socialism. According to Lenin, “the term Soviet Socialist Republic implies the determination of the soviet power to achieve the transition to socialism, and not that the existing economic system is recognised as a socialist order.”xii
To achieve this transition Lenin sought to appropriate “The shell of state capitalism (grain monopoly, state-controlled entrepreneurs and traders, bourgeois co-operators).”xiii Lenin, like Bellamy, sought in state capitalism a path towards an egalitarian socialist society. By the time Stalin came to power Lenin’s transitional aspirations seemed to fade and were simply replaced with a rigid hierarchical bureaucracy. It is in this sense that we can read the Soviet Union, especially under Stalinism, as a dark dystopian realisation of Edward Belamy’s novel. Bellamy’s utopia, whilst abolishing the competitive individualism of the market, retains or even totalises the authoritarian and bureaucratic structure of the workplace. Erik Fromm draws out the problem of
the hierarchical bureaucratic principle of administration which governs in the society of the year 2000, There is no effective democracy; only those over forty-five and not connected with the industrial army have the right to vote. The administration is organized according to the principles of an army, While it is true that skill, education, and proved capacity are the conditions for advancement in this hierarchy, it is nevertheless a society in which the majority of the citizens are subject to the commands of industrial officers, and have little chance to develop on their own initiative. Bellamy’s state is a highly centralized one, in which the state not only owns the means of production, but also regulates all public activities.xiv
In Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, as in Soviet Russia, the state structures and regulates society in a similar way that the employer structures the workplace. The labourer finds himself dependent upon the state in a similar way to how the labourer found himself dependent upon the employer or capitalist. They are deprived of greater decision making over their collective direction and alienated from the objects of their production, themselves, their community, and their ideals. It is primarily in this respect that we should construct the terrain of emancipatory universalism today: rejecting the decentralised authoritarianism of the capitalist market and the centralised authoritarianism of the totalitarian state and pushing towards a participatory and egalitarian democratisation of our institutions and lives. The Soviet Union, for all its noble ambitions, produced an exploitative and oppressive feudal system that failed in its path towards emancipation and disalianation. Here the Soviet State perversely realises Bellamy’s utopia.
The leaders of the communist party in the Soviet Union interpreted socialism in the same purely economistic way. But, living in a country much less developed than Western Europe, and without a democratic tradition, they applied terror and dictatorship to enforce the fast accumulation of capital, which in Western Europe had occurred in the nineteenth century. They developed a new form of state capitalism that proved to be economically successful — and humanly destructive. They built a bureaucratically managed society in which class distinction — both in an economic sense and as far as the power to command others is concerned — is deeper and more rigid than exists in any of the capitalist societies of today. They define their system as “socialistic” because they have nationalized the whole economy, while in reality their system is the complete negation of all that socialism stands for — the affirmation of individuality and the full development of man. In order to win the support of the masses who had to make insufferable sacrifices for the sake of the fast accumulation of capital, they used socialistic, combined with nationalistic, ideologies, and this gained them the grudging co-operation of the governed.xv
Despite all the inventive and insightful elements of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards it fails to see (or at least pay enough attention to), what we, aware of the history of the twentieth century see all too readily: the importance of individual initiative and democratic participation. In this respect there is an element of naïvety to Bellamy’s book.
Bellamy did not see that a society in which the individual does not act as a responsible participant in his own work lacks the essential elements of democracy, and is one in which man loses his individuality and initiative; that the bureaucratic system eventually tends to produce machines that act like men and men who act like machines.xvi
The same fear of a base servitude to soulless machines which so terrified citizen of Bellamy’s fictional 19th century and seemed so horrifically realised in the Resident Evil films, was also realised in a centralised monopoly representing the people. Part of making people responsible and engaged actors requires participation in the decisions that affect their lives. It means that they must choose whether to sing in the rain or huddle under the brollies, choose between colourful and black umbrellas, but most of all participate in decision making that affects their lives.
The Umbrella Movement (2014) and News From Nowhere (1890)
In contrast to the centralist and statist left of the 20th Century, new movements have tended to be populist movements which eschew centralisation and authoritarianism in favour of dynamic self-management and participation. Towards the end of 2014 a popular democratic movement grew in Hong Kong that shared much in common with the Occupy movement from 2011 and the Tienanmen Square occupation of 1989. Set in Hong Kong, it centred more on democratic freedoms whilst using many of the horizontal and creative methods of democratic organization. The movement became known as The Umbrella Movement because when police attempted to clear the crowds occupying Civic square using water canons, tear gas and pepper spray the protesters innovatively used umbrellas to protect themselves. It is this image of the umbrella that provides us with a metaphor for an engaged participatory democracy. This is a far cry from the Bostonians’ critique of the umbrella as a symbol of the age of individualism, the penguin’s class uniform, the atomised concert of Foreign Correspondent, the consumerist individualism of Mary Poppins, Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Singing in the Rain, the violent counter-culture individualism of A Clockwork Orange and the crude collectivism of both the Umbrella Corporation and the 20th Century communist experiments. In The Umbrella Movement we are offered a symbol of the individual umbrella as an emancipatory force. Sebastian Veg notes how this movement emerged as a kind of mirror opposite to China’s authoritarian state.
Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement brought together disparate themes in an original way: it combined Occupy Wall Street’s critique of economic hegemony with a form of legal-constitutionalist resistance against an authoritarian state; a call for democracy with an aspiration to a post-modern, post-national identity, going beyond a politics of recognition. It could be argued that these features mirror China’s own contradictions, as a nominally socialist country practising unbridled crony capitalism, and as a cultural empire dressed up as a jingoistic nation-state. Hong Kong’s simultaneous embrace of democracy and post-national identity and its critique of crony capitalism stand in opposition to China on all counts.xvii
The use of the umbrella in the umbrella movement offers us a metaphor for a new collective formation that makes room for individual differences. In The Umbrella Movement each carries their own umbrella, but in doing so they act in unity using their individual initiative in a collective act of resistance to the economic hegemony and the authoritarian state.
However there is a limit to today’s horizontalist tendency. When Looking Backwards was originally published it was greeted with a mixture of excitement and criticism, ushering a wave of optimistic utopian novels exploring possible futures. One such response was William Morris’s News From Nowhere, which whilst similar in structure to Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, imagines a substantially different future. In stark contrast to Bellamy’s focus on bureaucratic social planning, Morris imagines a society where bureaucracy and social planning are no longer needed. Education no longer exists, those with a passion for knowledge simply engage in it and share their knowledge. Markets stalls require no transaction, people make things simply for the joy of making things and people simply take them if they like it. Very little organization is needed, people, on the whole, do what they want and it contributes to the greater good. Morris even seems to avoid bottom up forms of organization. Planning itself seems suspect. Morris’s utopia rests on the dream that freed from the perversions of competition and domination mankind will organise society in the interest of all. Aside from that little more is needed. If Bellamy suffers from a tendency to turn organization into hierarchical bureaucracy, Morris suffers from a tendency to not to organize at all. The worry here is a bureaucraphobia takes hold producing, not Morris’s utopia, but an impotent anarchy where the greater aspirations of mankind are not realised.
It is easy to search for a totalitarian scapegoat, to see in either the Umbrella Corporation, the oligarchy of the 1% or the state an oppressive evil, which, whence abolished will cause all our major problems to whither, and return mankind to their natural path. It is easy to have this mindset when we watch films like Resident Evil. It is harder to hold this view when engaging with films like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003). In A Clockwork Orange we encounter a capitalist society, with traces of welfare (social workers, support for juvenile delinquents), advanced counter-culture, revolutionary socialists, along with certain forms of state repression. This is certainly not an Orwellian dystopia and it is difficult to pin all the responsibility upon one singular totalitarian source. No doubt many of the evils of A Clockwork Orange have social-structural origins, but it is hard to reduce these to one singular totalitarian entity.
Dogville illuminates this insight further. Dogville tells the story of a small close-knit American town who offer refuge to Grace, who is on the run from the mob. Her refuge is granted in return for labour and on condition that each member of the town accept her. As the dangers of harbouring her grow the townsfolk become increasingly exploitative and cruel, depriving Grace of all autonomy, enacting harsh punishment, rape and hard labour. Like Oswald Copplepot and the Umbrella Corporation, Dogville is capable of deep cruelty and disregard for humanity and, like Copplepot and the Umbrella Corporation, Dogville functions in a capitalist society, but it is also a small town with a high degree of participatory democracy and, on the whole, an absence of state or corporate control. Nonetheless small town conservatism and a suspicion (and as a result actual exploitation and oppression) of the outsider is rife here. This may be a product of scarcity and poverty, but, again it is harder to pin on some alien totalitarian force. It is in light of these two films that we should be cautious of a crude horizontalism that merely substitutes radical democracy and participation for important questions of strategy and organisation, or even assumes that because it is democratic and participatory it cannot go awry. Whilst finding new forms of dynamic self-management will be integral to a socialism of the future, this self-management will still need to be strategic, pragmatic, organised and engaged, whilst fostering open discussion and self-critique. Furthermore we need to think through new forms of planning and organization based on what Erik Ollin Wright calls “real utopias,”xviii imaginative practical solutions to the problems we face today. These must not become dogmatic and stagnant, but constantly critically engaged. This is necessary, because, whilst we may seek a society without the Umbrella Corporation, the Oligarchy of the 1%, or the totalitarian state, nothing guarantees that without them that we will simply arrive at Morris’ utopia.
It is tempting to refer to the communist experiments of the twentieth century as a breed of Bellamyist-Leninism; a strange synthesis of Bellamyian bureaucracy and Leninist pragmatism that resulted in rigid authoritarian state control. From Occupy Wall Street to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement the experiments of the 21st century have taken a more participatory approach that has more in common with William Morris than Edward Bellamy and more with the left-wing Communism that Lenin scorned than Lenin himself. Yet whilst there is something positive about this move, we should not overlook what is admirable in Lenin and Bellamy. Both Bellamy and Lenin provide important ways for thinking about organisation and planning. Lenin was a strategist par excellence, one that didn’t shy away from difficult compromises, but always approached them with a theoretical vigour that married theory and practice whilst maintaining an alertness to contemporary international struggles way beyond the confines of Russia. Likewise, Bellamy’s Looking Backwards achieves a level of insight precisely because of his willingness to subject ideas of social planning to a literary thought experiments. Bellamy’s utopian dreams offers a plethora of practical solutions and innovative ideas upon which to build a future. We cannot accept everything that the book proposes. The history of the 20th century means that we can no longer adopt a naïve Bellamyism. However, by engaging with these ideas we are forced think through potential solutions to many problems that still face us today. Engaging with Looking Backwards is an education in thinking practically about utopian ideas. The failures of socialism in the twentieth century make it all the more pressing that the socialist experiments of the twenty-first century are grounded in participatory democracy (both within and outside of the workplace) and cultural individualism. Yet this should not be done at the expense of socialist planning. It is precisely through planning that we can facilitate new forms of participation and individualism. In a strange way what is needed today is somehow, metaphorically speaking, collective coverings alongside individual umbrella’s for everyone; the planning, organisation and strategy of Bellamyist-Leninism alongside the participatory horizontalism of Morris and Occupy; and the spirit of Poppins alongside the spirit of Banks.
i Edward Bellamy, Looking Backwards (New York. Dover Publications, INC. 1996) pp. 33-4
ii Bellamy, Looking Backwards p. 34
iii See my article “A Spoonful of Sugar: The Dialectics of Work and Play in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins” (One+One Magazine http://www.cultureontheoffensive.com/just-a-spoonful-of-sugar/) Originally published in One+One Filmmakers Journal in Issue 6. Published 1/04/2011
iv Greg Scorzo, “Re-Interpreting the Violence of A Clockwork Orange” (One+One Filmmakers Journal Issue7. Published 9/12/11)
v Bellamy, Looking Backwards pp. 25-26
vi Simchi Cohen, “The Already Dead and the Dying: The Zombie as Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power, Bare Life, and George A. Romero’s ‘Dead’ Tetralogy” ( JGCinema: Cinema and Globalisation. http://www.jgcinema.com/single.php?sl=zombie-as-homo-sacer-romero Sourced 20/3/2015)
vii Karl Marx, Capital (Hertfordshire. Wordsworth Classics. 2013) p.292
viii Karl Marx, Capital p.168
ix Karl Marx, Capital p.178
x Bellamy, Looking Backwards p. 27
xi Vladimir Lenin, Tax in Kind (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/apr/21.htm)
xiv Erich Fromm, “Forward” (From from Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. New York: New American Library, 1960. v-xx.) (http://www.oocities.org/c_ansata/Looking.html)
xvii Sebastian Veg, Legalistic and Utopia: Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movemnt (New Left Review. 2/92 March-April 2015) p. 72
xviii See Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, (London. Verso. 2010)