Titanic events are taking place all around us. Trade union leaders in Britain are talking about the possibility of a general strike. US workers are unionising in previously unorganised sectors. And the masses in Sri Lanka have ousted their president as part of an insurrectionary mass movement.
In this context, discussion about films and TV shows may seem unimportant and trivial; a distraction from the revolutionary explosions breaking out across the planet.
But an examination of modern culture reveals much about the epoch we are living through.
Throughout history, art has always reflected – in a more or less distorted way – the mood, contradictions, and dominant ideas within society. We can look at films, plays, and music to understand whether the time in which they were produced was one of progress or stagnation; one of stability or struggle.
And when historians look back at the current period, examining even the most mainstream art and culture, it will be clear that this was a time of deepening crisis and class conflict.
Radicalisation and commodification
In general, when it comes to TV, movies, and music, the ruling class is keen to blinker the working class, feeding ordinary people a cultural diet of escapism and inoffensive content, devoid of any political message or deeper meaning.
But the crisis of capitalism is provoking a radicalisation in society, which finds its reflection in a new generation of directors, writers, and artists who want to use their creativity to say something about the real state of the world.
In this context, individual capitalists will opportunistically and cynically co-opt such moods and movements, promoting more radical filmmakers and musicians in order to appeal to younger audiences, whilst turning their creative output into a harmless, profitable, mass-produced commodity.
Against the bosses
Even large media corporations can be swept along by this changing consciousness.
Take the newest minions movie, Minions: The Rise of Gru, for example. You might be asking yourself: what anti-capitalist content can there be in a movie about animated, dungaree-wearing helpers to a fictitious cartoon villain?
Luckily for the minions-loving Marxists amongst us, however, the crisis-ridden era we live in creates some ridiculous realities.
Those in the corporate world might love the minions for showing workers that they should be quiet, hardworking, and loyal. But based on their own experiences, workers today know better, and are increasingly getting organised and fighting back. This new film therefore has to admit that these big boss villains are not as lovable as they once were.
As a recent review in the Guardian says, the latest minions film “asks if there is a place in today’s world for a morally compromised but lovable boss supported by a legion of subservient, amorphous workers.”
Another example of this change in attitude is the new Spanish film The Good Boss, in which Javier Bardem plays the slimy capitalist, Blanco.
Bardem’s character fits into the well-known, all-too-accurate trope of a company boss who pretends that ‘we are all family’, only to act in a corrupt and morally ambiguous manner towards his employees behind closed doors.
It seems, then, more and more, that people want to see – in the media presented to us – a boss that they can hate: a reflection of the real world indignation towards the capitalist class.
Mainstream media is increasingly going further than this, expressing outright class anger. This phenomenon can be seen with popular shows like Superstore and Bojack Horseman.
Superstore, which started off as a light sitcom, shows the realities of working for huge retail conglomerates, especially in the US. The characters make efforts to unionise and strike, and even face the issue of scabbing.
The protagonist, Jonah, is given the most telling story line. Jonah’s introduction to working life shows him the error of his liberal attitudes. Radicalised by his experiences, he sees that simply appealing to the bosses is not good enough, and is forced to take matters into his own hands.
Along the way, Jonah learns that conditions inside massive companies – like his employers ‘Cloud 9’ – are completely rigged against workers in every way. This storyline must have felt all too familiar to those currently attempting to unionise in Amazon warehouses.
Similarly with Bojack Horseman: a cartoon that follows the depressing life of a washed-up television star. This TV series also deals with strikes in show-business, as well as dedicating an entire episode to two characters discussing the question of monopolisation, which includes the exchange:
“He’s not evil; he’s just a capitalist.”
“They’re the same thing.”
It is notable that this show was produced by Netflix, who have themselves just faced a strike by workers over casualisation and low pay.
Both of these shows, it is important to remember, did not begin with a political edge to them. But over time, mirroring the world around us, and tapping into the mood amongst working people, writers have ended up addressing class-based issues.
Driven by profit
What is very telling, is that media and culture like this would have felt hugely out of place even just ten years ago.
Why then, we must ask, are today’s capitalists willing to allow such content to be created and aired?
The media industry, like the rest of the capitalist system, is driven not by a far-sighted, conscious plan, but by the anarchic forces of the market, and the drive for ever-greater profits.
The super-rich is composed of myopic opportunists – people who do not think in terms of the interests of capitalism overall, but only for their own short-term gain.
Those looking to make a quick buck do not think through the consequences of their actions: creating media that exposes capitalism; that laughs and sneers at the bosses; and that sings songs about monopolisation.
We are therefore seeing changing attitudes and radicalised consciousness being expressed in films and TV shows, albeit in a confused, limited way.
At the same time, a wing of the ruling class – including certain billionaires in Hollywood and media monopoly moguls – realise that they cannot stop the rising tide of class struggle and mass movements, and instead focus on channelling the anti-establishment anger in society down harmless channels.
We therefore see a number of movies and series with an ultimately liberal take, which offer nothing but hopelessness and despair to a new generation of activists. See, for example, the cynical Don’t Look Up, or the pessimism of Hunger Games and Squid Game, which provide no positive outlook or perspective for genuine change through militant struggle.
The essence of these films and programmes is to tell workers and youth that there is no point in fighting. The status quo will always be with us. Mass movements will only ever end in defeat.
Marxism, by contrast, offers revolutionary optimism. Where the liberals and reformists see only the negatives of doom and gloom, we see a new society struggling to be born; the potential for the working class to take its destiny into its own hands, and transform society along socialist lines.
Only on this basis will art and culture be liberated from the shackles of private ownership and profit, allowing human creativity to reach its full potential – and enabling movies and music to reflect the real interests and desires of workers, instead of being yet another vehicle for capitalist money-making.