How To BEAT the System (And Lose)

Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on How to BEAT the System (And Lose)!

Written by: Alec Opperman
Directed by: Chris Karwowski
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar

How To BEAT the System (And Lose) – Wisecrack Edition

Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. One of the most cathartic things about art, for me, is that it can give voice to our frustrations with the world. But while mocking the system is as old as art itself, in the 20th century, a version of this story became popular in which characters not only criticize the system, but actively escape it. “I can shut this whole resort down.” But recently, something a bit different has become popular. A hero rises up to defeat a degrading and exploitative system. “All we know is fake fodder and buying sh*t.” But, in no time at all, something happens. The system manages to win. In Black Mirror, at least, our hero’s rebellion against a system of compulsory exercise that is only redeemable for worthless forms of entertainment and digital swag gets… sold as a worthless form of entertainment and digital swag. Is this the perfect metaphor for the world we live in, where anti-capitalist insurrection one day gets sold en masse by a large corporation the next? Or have we all just become nihilists?

Join me, live from the system itself as we dive into classics like: Network, The Matrix, Fight Club, Sorry To Bother You, and a few others to ask the question: Is Resistance even possible? Oh – also Rick and Morty, because who can resist? And yeahn- heavy spoilers ahead. But first: how did we get here? In the US during the 1930s, factories dominated economic life. And while those were the days where many people could raise a family by tightening rivets or something, artists like Charlie Chaplin were showing the bleaker side of this. In his film “Modern Times,” Chaplin expressed anxieties about losing oneself to factory life. Chaplin spends the film struggling to stand out, express himself, or make anything meaningful of his life. The film really captures one central complaint about Fordist capitalism. Work was repetitive, meaningless and empty: you spent time on some assembly line, or doing paperwork for your boss, and there was no individuality, creativity, or authenticity involved at all. At the end of the film, he resists the monotony of his life by walking off into the sunset to find his brighter, more authentic future.

This fixation on the dehumanization of factory work and the escape to something “authentic” evolved as our economy did. If it wasn’t repetitive factory work, it was repetitive, pointless office work, like in Fight Club. The narrator rails against the emasculating, alienating nature of consumerism, — “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” — before rowdy Tyler Durden sets up a gladiator pit for men to express their authentic masculinity and occasionally engage in domestic terrorism. Or Office Space, which bemoans the drudgery of office work, TPS reports, and that goddamn printer. Or, whatever the hell is going on in Brazil. In the book “The New Spirit of Capitalism” Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello calls this Modern Times/Fight Club/Office Space-style criticism of capitalism the “artistic critique” – it focuses on the loss of autonomy, individuality, and creativity, as opposed to critiques that focus on things like poverty or wages.

But what if all this complaining is just making the system they rail against all the more resilient, like our protagonist from Black Mirror, or our second favorite Rick. And what if this isn’t just something limited to fiction, but the very real workplace? Well, we can answer this question with, something that’s more interesting than it sounds, I promise: management theory. Boltanski and Chiapello observe a specific shift in management literature of the 60s and 70s. They were all complaining about workers’ bad attitudes and lack of motivation. What they found is that your “modern times”-style artistic critique was actually affecting economic output. Workers, completely unstimulated by the lack of autonomy or creativity, were slacking off, or worse, not even bothering to show up. Furthermore, in France, at least, all the talented college grads were no longer interested in dull middle management positions. Boltanski and Chiapello named their book after one by sociologist Max Weber. Weber asked: how do you get people to buy into a new economic system?

Well, if your religion thinks you need to work hard until until you die otherwise you’ll go to hell, then it’s a pretty great partner for emerging capitalism especially if you gotta do this all day. “The Spirit” of capitalism, is what ENGAGES people with capitalism. In the 60s and 70s, that old spirit was failing. People wanted less fire and brimstone, or even good union jobs, and more free love and drugs. So, Boltanski and Chiapello ask, “what’s ‘the new spirit?” The New Spirit of our modern era engages people on the grounds of things like autonomy, creativity, and freedom – but it’s still the same system. The people are still biking all day living meaningless lives, but at least they have Bing’s show to express their frustration for them. “We’re all in this together, they say. Yeah, right!” Likewise you still have to work 12-hour shifts at Subway, but at least you’re now considered a sandwich “artist.”

But, going beyond this, what can we make of resistance in The New Spirit of Capitalism? Do we, culturally, need a critique of the artistic critique? Let’s go to one of my favorites: Network. It’s like 15 Million Merits the movie. After learning he’s about to be fired, news anchor Howard Beale announces his on-air suicide — “I’m going to blow my brains out, right on this program, a week from today.” — which he cynically remarks will make his dwindling rating go through the roof. “You ought to get a hell of a rating out of that! 50 share.” Then, in a psuedo-apology, he says he just “ran out of bullsh*t” and rants about the horrid state of the world. “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” His public meltdowns become so popular, he’s reinstated, bringing unprecedented ratings, and therefore money, to an otherwise small network. The Network also creates the “Mao Tse Tung” hour, where a bonafide member of the Communist Party preaches revolution, — “I’m Laureen Hobbes, a badass communist n****.” — culminating in one of my favorite lines in cinema: “The communist party is not going to see a nickel out of this goddamn show until we go into syndication.”

The producers in Network rightly perceive that the capitalist model is no longer about conformity a la Modern Times, but about rebellion and disillusionment. Those are the things that sell. “They turned off, shot up, and they f**ked themselves limp, and nothing helps. The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them.” For Boltanski and Chiapello, existential rebellion, Marxist critique, and revolutionary ideas have basically become the official style of contemporary capitalism. And you thought I meant that figuratively. Perhaps nothing encapsulates this better than the Rick and Morty episode “The Ricklantis Mixup,” where a bunch of Ricks toil away in a dehumanizing factory, only for an act of rebellion to be repackaged into wafers that give you the taste of “the unique flavor of shattering the grand illusion.” We might consider media like Network, 15 Million Merits, and Simple Ricks as the critique of the artistic critique – why bother railing against the alienating nature of the system, when it’s just going to help someone else’s bottom line?

Sometimes it’s not just cooptation, some media imagines a world where the alternative to the system is just as bad as the system itself. In Fight Club, for instance, men who complain about the degradation they face in their daily lives, “My two grown kids don’t even return my phone calls,” eventually go on to join an organization where they have no names,— “In Project Mayhem, we have no names.” — are called maggots, — “Listen up, maggots. You’re not special.” — and routinely run the risk of getting their balls cut off. “These guys are gonna take your balls.” Why do the men in Fight Club go from being emasculated under capitalism to being literally emasculated by their new dictator? “If anyone ever interferes with Project Mayhem, even you, we gotta get his balls.”

Because sometimes, even our ideas for resistance come from the system itself. Other times, the resistance is literally created by the system to ensure its survival. Consider everyone’s favorite trenchcoat jesus, Neo. The first Matrix makes it seem like Neo is a classical savior, come to liberate the humans from their enslavement to the machines, and awaken them from their illusions. But we eventually learn, in one of the most pedantic monologues of all time, that Neo is just a product of the very system he wants to undo. Morpheus, Zion, even the prophecy are just part of the way the system tries to tame the human capacity for free will and use it against them. “And we have become exceedingly efficient at it.” So, free will doesn’t help folks find ways out of the system: the system accounts for free will and channels it to the machines benefit. So, pretty bleak, right?

We can’t escape the system, some resistance actually comes right from the system, and The Matrix sequels still suck. “Well, that didn’t go so well.” Shouldn’t we be crying in a corner and NOT consuming more media about disillusionment? If we fetishize Durden’s face on t-shirts, haven’t we missed the point entirely? “Things you own end up owning you.” Well, there are some movies that move to address this problem. In Snowpiercer, survivors of Earth’s new Ice Age live on a train organized along class lines – the richest in the front, the poorest in the back. The poor stage a rebellion and reach the front, only to discover that the revolt was orchestrated by the train’s leader to thin the population and ensure sustainability. At first, it seems not unlike our previous examples. But the rebels decide, “f**k that.” They would rather crash the train and start all over, than settle for the simple taste of shattering the grand illusion.

Does this mean the only way to escape the system is to burn the world down? Well, not necessarily. In the recent comedy, Sorry To Bother You, we see a third option. In this film, Star telemarketer Cassius Green inhabits a darkly familiar world where not even leaked footage of human/horse hybrid slaves can prompt revolution, it instead earns a first-bump from the stock market and praise from scientists and investors. Get it? Capitalism is literally dehumanizing folks by turning them into equine people and that’s still not enough for a wake up call. In some ways, maybe this holds a mirror to us: do we respond any better when we hear about Amazon workers pissing in bottles?? Not always. The film ends with a successful union strike that makes our protagonist’s life markedly better. Even though the film is VERY skeptical about escaping the system entirely, it seems to place a lot of hope in the slow struggle to incrementally improve it. So, what do you think, Wisecrack? Should we crash the train, is there room for slow change, or do simple rick wafers taste too good to risk it?

And for a prime examples of not being able to escape the system, consider this…

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