Taking the red pill – Marx Reloaded review

16 March 2012

Simon Hardy reviews Marx Reloaded by Jason Barker (2011)

MARX IS back, but are his ideas still relevant? That is the basic theme of this documentary by Jason Barker.

Having a documentary about Marx with such luminaries as Slavoj Žižek, Antonio Negri, and Nina Power is certainly worthwhile if it gets these ideas back into a wider audience. It is not often you can go to the cinema and someone talks about the labour theory of value.

However, Barker’s documentary, while initially promising, does not really succeeded on its own terms. It can’t seem to decide what level it is working at. Coming in at only an hour long, it deals with a number of serious issues, topics, debates and thinkers without producing a satisfying whole.

Getting philosophers and economists to sit in front of a camera, and giving each one less than five minutes screen time, inevitably leads not only to a truncating of ideas but to some strange not-quite-connections of debate. It was almost as if Barker had to go with whatever ideas Negri and Jacques Rancière talked about and then struggled to make some kind of narrative.

In brief, the documentary deals with the crash of 2008, then goes straight into a very incomplete debate about the relevance of Marxism today. Negri explains his concept of immaterial labour, Alberto Toscano critiques it, Žižek talks about his theory of rent (that we rent Bill Gates’ ideas when we buy Microsoft products), and then it cuts back to classical Marxist theory.

The explanation of exploitation was quite good, but it quickly skips to the idea of commodity fetishism, which, in my opinion, it explains badly, largely confusing it with consumerism and how we find our souls in the things we buy. It all sounded a bit more like Herbert Marcuse than Karl Marx.

The documentary jumps to a short piece on ecology, before heading into a section about overpopulation, which I found slightly unsettling. Barker’s general idea seems to be that there are now too many people for capitalism to absorb as workers. The images accompanying this section were what seemed like shantytown dwellers somewhere in Africa, which I felt conceded too much to right wing arguments about over-population and “too many black people”, even if this is not what Barker intended.

The arguments of the pro-capitalists were also dealt with unconvincingly. Eamonn Butler from the Adam Smith Institute was offered a chance to explain what his solution would be, and he offered up the example of the Suffolk Bank model from the days of the American Revolution. The idea is that each bank can pay what it wants for another bank’s currency based on how solvent it thinks the other bank is.

His proposal is certainly something is I have not heard before, and it not mainstream within pro-capitalist circles. What about the more straightforward proposal to reform banking by separating high street retail banking from the investment banking business? This idea has credibility because it claims to overcome the problems that led to the 2008 credit crunch. John Gray dismissed the Suffolk Bank idea as a right wing fantasy, which got a laugh from the audience, but I thought it was too easy a target.

The idea of Communism

The final section turned back to philosophy, Ranciere and Negri’s ideas were given the most screen time. Negri put forward his theme from Goodbye Mr Socialism (recently taken up by Žižek in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce) that “socialism” is simply a way of managing capital rather than destroying it, that what is needed is a vigorous discussion about the communist future. Ranciere disagreed, introducing useful criticisms counter-posing the “idea of communism” (Žižek, Alain Badiou) to actual work to build equality now.

Žižek gets his chance to explain communism near the end, and ruins it in that way that only he could. His argument is communism would be like a surrealist painting, people dressed as chickens doing what they wanted, a carnivalesque montage of different lifestyles. His appeal to individual freedoms after the revolution unfortunately draws laughter from the audience, leaving the whole thing feeling a tad anti-climatic.

The hook of the documentary comes from the first Matrix film: will you take the Blue pill and go back to the bourgeois world knowing nothing of the class struggle, or will you take the Red pill and fight for revolution? The different philosophers answer this question in different ways. Žižek had already done so in his documentary series The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema: “I want a third pill!” Some of course chose Red, while Peter Sloterdijk said neither, as both had already been swallowed and were poisonous.

The real problematic at the heart of the documentary should have been around the criticism that Gray put forward at the end. He argued that there was no longer a historical agency for revolution, no mass communist parties, no more working class revolutions and that the kind of leftist debates that had featured in the documentary were hermetically sealed in the lecture theatres.

Whilst there was much to disagree with there, this discussion would have made for a more fruitful documentary, showing the ways in which communist politics could really break out of the universities and tiny groups of Marxists and gain a hearing amongst the millions of workers fighting austerity. Instead the documentary stayed firmly in the realm of ideas, failing even on its own terms to deliver a coherent and consistent debate, or to give a useful presentation of where we are now.

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