Monday, September 10, 2012

RoboCop: The Greatest Critique of The Free Market Ever?

Half Man. Half Machine. All Metaphorical and Stuff. 

There are some things in this world that really go without saying. For example, it’s kind of hard to breathe underwater, unless you’ve had one of those newfangled oxygenating micro particles injected into your bloodstream shortly beforehand. Along that same vein (har-har), goddamn, was Marion Butts overpowered in “Tecmo Super Bowl.” These are the things that are essentially engrained in our cultural code - we know these things to be self-evident, as if such data was implanted in our genetic structure while we’re still growing appendages in the womb.

Among these Dawkinsian memes, there is also this universal truth: that “RoboCop,” the 1987 Paul Verhoeven-helmed masterpiece, is awesome. Well, not just awesome, but almost the exact DEFINITION of “awesome,” so much so that the terms are almost interchangeable today. So the next time you find a hidden five dollar bill in the wash, you could just yell “Man, that is so effing ROBOCOP!” and all of us would understand it.

Simply put, “RoboCop” is one of the greatest movies ever made. In fact, it’s probably one of the greatest pop-cultural texts of the last 30 years, a cultural pillar only marginally eroded by that piece of shit third movie where Alex Murphy grows robot wings and fights samurai-androids built by Mitsubishi. The fact that there exists people within Western civilization that don’t like this movie absolutely perplexes me; it’s like finding someone with a vendetta against brownies, or someone with an aversion to air hockey. I can accept that such opinions might exist somewhere, but for the life of me, I don’t know how anyone can think to the contrary.

Recently, two RoboCop related events hit me head-on. First and foremost, there’s the news about the upcoming RoboReboot, starring some guy nobody’s ever heard of, with a script that’s purportedly more in-line with “Transformers” than the 1987 social satire classic. And then, there was this:

A one-night only screening of the original flick at a local indie-theater, complete with an ass kicking mock-up of the film in the lobby. Trust me, if you haven’t been in the same room with about three dozen wackos screaming “I WORK FOR DICK JONES! DICK JOOOOONES!” you sir, have yet to experience this thing we call “living.”

There’s no denying that “RoboCop” is one of my top ten favorite movies of all-time. In my lifetime, I’ve probably seen it a good 20 or so times, and it’s one of the rare 1980s relics that STILL holds up rather well today. In fact, in today’s hyper-techno world, there are elements of the film that feel more relevant TODAY then they did back in Reagan’s America. It’s an extraordinarily well-written movie, and a flick that strikes the absolute perfect balance between good old fashioned, brain-dead American cinematic violence and subversive sociopolitical commentary. Yes, yes, “RoboCop” is a great place to go if you want to see Eric Foreman’s dad throwing hoodlums out of the back of moving vehicles and watch yes men get riddled with 9,000 rounds of ammunition by stop-motion animation robots, but it’s also a film with five very important statements about United States culture. Now, perhaps even more than we required them a quarter century ago, we would all be wise to take note of these five sociological lessons stemming from the celluloid classic.

Mass Consumption Is The Root Cause of All Contemporary Social Problems in America

The world of “RoboCop” is one almost indistinguishable from our own; policemen are on strike, municipalities are inadequate in meeting the needs of its citizenry, and economic stagnation has led to a tsunami of violent crime in densely-populated urban environments. There are many suspects that can be blamed here, but Paul Verhoeven points his Dutch index finger towards a culprit most Americans would never think about: mass consumerism.

Yeah, yeah, it sounds far-fetched…at first. But try taking a cue from one Edward Bernays, the advertising mastermind that co-opted psychoanalysis in the early 20th century and, effectively, created modern consumer culture:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind…”

With that little nugget in mind, let’s re-evaluate the film, shall we? In “RoboCop,” the citizenry is practically guided by mass media. It tells them what to drive, what to worry about, and completely alters their diction patterns. With the possible exception of Murphy and Officer Lewis, seemingly EVERYBODY in the film is driven by some sort of material desire. The OCP goons, the crooks, the deranged mayor; all of their wants stem from a yen for consumer goods, like cars with really shitty gas mileage and TJ Lazer action figures. It’s pretty clear what Verhoeven is getting at here; instead of striving for social progression or a more equitable culture, our primary desires as Americans is to consume and advance socially so that we can do even MORE consuming. In a Pavlovian sense, this “material motive” is really nothing more than social priming to the extreme, with individuals chasing consumer goods simply because that’s the message they’ve been bombarded by since birth. And since individual material accumulation takes precedence over the social collective, CEOs backstab, policemen are corrupt and thugs run around blasting the hands off cops because this consumption priority completely supersedes the idea of cultural cohesion altogether. Social disjunction, for the sake of personal consumption needs? We’d buy that for a dollar, most definitely.

Technology Has Officially Replaced Religion in U.S. Culture

Watching “RoboCop” for the first time in a couple of years, I was actually pretty shocked by the accuracy of the film’s vision of the “immediate future.” Characters drove around in cars with what appear to be GPS units, clubs play music that sounds suspiciously a lot like dubstep and what is Murphy’s data spike but a flash drive that doubles as an ice pick?

A lot of people have picked up on the idea that “RoboCop” is, potentially, nothing more than retelling of the story of Jesus. Like H. Christ, Alex Murphy, too, died for our sins, only to be resurrected so he could shoot would-be rapists in the testicles and chow down on baby food. But I don’t think you REALLY uncover Verhoeven’s intent with the picture until you put the two together; in many ways, the central “message” of the film is that, in contemporary society, technological infrastructure has officially replaced religion as our utmost cultural pillar.

How many churches do you see in “RoboCop?” Does anybody go to a confessional, at any point in the picture? Do you see any bibles, or doom saying fundamentalists on the streets of Detroit, or even any televangelists getting skewered on the idiot box? Remember, this is a movie that came out at the HEIGHT of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart - not only were pseudo-religious figures of the like ripe for the mocking, it was pretty much pop culture du jour to do so. The blatant lack of religious imagery or references in the film leads one to believe that Verhoeven was intentionally trying to downplay the iconography of Christianity, so that we, as an audience, were forced to draw parallels between Catholic ritual and technological ritual.

“RoboCop” is very much a film in which technological procedure has replaced religious practices. Note that while there are virtually zero direct references to Judeo-Christian doctrine, many visuals in the film seem to be oblique allusions to the bible, including the “celestial” elevators at OCP, Dick Jones’ Lucifer-like fall at the end of the movie and the rigid, mass-like “ceremony” that takes place when RoboCop’s batteries are recharged. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that all of that tapioca Murphy munches is supposed to represent the Eucharist, but is it NOT the manna given to him by his literal creator?

But seriously though, part 3 really was a piece of crap. 

Corporations, and NOT the Federal Government, are at Fault for Fostering Social and Economic Inequities 

For a moment, let’s revisit Robocop’s “Prime Directives”:

1. “Serve the public trust”
2. “Protect the innocent”
3. “Uphold the law”
4. (Classified)

Assuming you’ve seen the movie - and if you haven’t, what the hell have you been doing with your life, man? - you’ll know that the fourth commandment is that, under no circumstances is RoboCop allowed to arrest a senior ranking member of Omni Consumer Products…the massive, totalitarian organization seeking to build a corporatist utopia by razing Detroit and turning it into a futuristic Mecca. This is a fascinating little aspect of the movie, for a few reasons.

I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but “RoboCop” is kind of a violent movie. Lots of people get riddled with bullets, a whole bunch of stuff explodes, and if I had to venture a guess, I’d suspect that at least two mobile blood banks worth of fake plasma were spilt throughout the filming of the picture. Just about every violent crime you can think of is at least attempted in the film at some point - and almost immediately afterwards, the offending perpetrator ends up having his intestines scrambled on the ceiling. In the world of “RoboCop,” there’s such a thing as vindictive criminal justice, that is, sort of a Code of Hammurabi-like social mechanism in play that ensures that if you try to shoot a dude, some guy wearing 400 pounds of spare refrigerator parts will intervene and pop a bullet the size of a small phone book in your pleated leather ass five minutes later. The one area where such instant retribution DOES NOT occur, however, is the same area where justice seems to take a nap in the “real world,” too; white collar, corporate crime.

The suits at OCP do some pretty nasty stuff throughout the film, beginning with the fact that they plan to completely demolish a major metropolitan area so they can construct some stratified, utopia state on its ashes. To achieve this goal, the guys at OCP pretty much buy out as much public infrastructure as possible, culminating with the privatization of Detroit’s police force. Later on in the film, we learn that OCP is trying to GET the cops to go on strike - and even encouraging hyper-violent criminals to commit as much mayhem as humanly possible - to make it easier to facilitate the leveling of Detroit. Interestingly enough, when “RoboCop” was programmed, his prime directives seemed to be anchored around a collective social trust - that is, a communal goal, in this instance, striving towards a safer community - which was cemented in place by the conditional that OCP officials were, quite literally, above the law. To make society more civil and secure, the OCP suits decided that it would be for society’s best if THEY had complete and utter control over the society itself, writing themselves a literal blank check to rule over the masses via consumption and municipal manipulations.

So yes, Detroit pretty much sucked while it was under the control of the government, but under the control of a private entity, it turned into a post-apocalyptic negative utopia. As shady and crooked as the feds are, they at least have SOME checks and balances, whereas with privatized firms, there’s really no such thing as “transparency” to be found at all. In that, the survival of the corporation as SOLE dictatorial force of society directly led to the increase in violent crime and civil unrest, since the best interests of the PRIVATE FIRM were placed above the collective needs of the city. I suppose what Verhoeven is trying to say with the film is that, as long as private corporations are in charge of “serving the public trust,” there’s really no such thing as true “order” or “law” - primarily because social improvement isn’t a concern when you look at people as “consumers” as opposed to “constituents.”

A True Democracy Simply Cannot Exist in an Anarcho-Capitalist State

While George Orwell’s impossibly socialist-Republican ass warned us of a hypothetical “Big Brother" in "1984," Paul Verhoeven instead warned us of “Big Business" in 1987's "RoboCop."

Clearly, the true villain in “RoboCop” is Omni Consumer Products, a massive conglomerate that has essentially “conquered” Detroit by privatizing everything. Remember Dick Jones' comment about how OCP has “"gambled in markets traditionally regarded as non-profit: hospitals, prisons, space exploration?” His immediate follow-up is a the rather succinct “I say good business is where you find it,” and obviously, that’s not a place where authentic democracy likewise resides.

“We practically are the military,” Jones utters at one point in the picture. There isn’t a single pot the execs at OCP do not have their hands in, from the media to the police force. In fact, a prominent plot point in the film is that OCP engineers a police-strike so that they can false-flag their way to establishing an even more privatized security force than what currently exists. Fueled by expansive net profits, OCP is a fascist entity reforming society via the almighty dollar. Whatever vestiges of citizen freedom that exist are eaten away by rampant criminality…a criminality, I might add, that is literally supported by the suits at Omni Consumer Products.

If you closely analyze the film, you'll note how Verhoeven draws many parallels between the street-level criminals led by Clarence Boddinger and the OCP criminals led by Dick Jones. At one point in the film, Emil says something to the effect that all of the dog-eat-dog violence that has ravaged Detroit is the direct result of the "free market," and Clarence himself even parrots a phrase from the OCP second in command when, during a deal with some Italian coke runners, he likewise indicates that "good business is where you find it." Perhaps the best line in the film comes in a seemingly throwaway moment where an "unemployed person" on the street talks about the "law of the jungle" enveloping the city streets just before the city police's big strike. While consumerism has effectively sapped the citizenry of an adult intellect (leaving the population in a pop-culture addicted, perpetually infantilized state) the unfettered free market has left Detroit in a state of civil regression, where people are viewed more or less as products as opposed to living things. In an anarcho-capitalist society, Verhoeven seems to be indicating, the only truly free individuals are the wealthy and already-empowered and the antisocial cretins that have no qualms about butchering, mugging and stealing in order to "advance" their ways up the social ladder - or, at the very least, making themselves a few dollars closer to owning all of that worthless crap they really don't need, like Yamaha branded artificial hearts and Butler Brothers board games. In a state where the free market is greater than the society itself, the middle-class remains nothing more than brainless shoppers or target practice for hoodlums; which, of course, brings us to the ultimate lesson of “RoboCop”…


…especially when Red Foreman is cruising around the intermediate area in a sports car. I mean, for real.

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