The Real Broken Society

In homage (and ‘linkage‘) to the irrepresible Variant, and as Scotland apparently aims to base its economy on Pandas (‘Panda Bonanza’) and RBS boss Stephen Hester pockets £9 milllion (‘Tough talk on bankers comes to nought’) we publish an extract from Tom Jennings ‘The Real Broken Society’. We are delighted to have found someone who hates The Secret Millionaire as much as we do:

Beyond flurries of current affairs sound and fury, the regressive scale of the UK coalition government’s austerity programme is clear. Massive cuts in state social spending posed as a balance to the banking sector bailout may marginally inconvenience the relatively well-off, but significantly accelerate the attack on the conditions of the working-class begun with Thatcherism and refined under New Labour. Withdrawal of welfare and support infrastructure risk destitution for millions facing punitive sanctions for avoiding starvation wages and quasi-slavery conditions in neoliberal workhouse society. Meanwhile social cleansing in housing and education will leave the respectable poor nowhere to go, their precarious positions propping up the service economy usurped by children of the new middle-classes trading in cultural capital accumulated during Blair’s debt-fuelled consumer growth. And as intensifying proletarianisation and downsizing of insecure professions erodes petit-bourgeois security, status distinctions congenial to flexible affective labour represent one remaining bulwark against ruin.

Structural adjustment’s pitiless downward pressure on the majority’s living standards could conceivably threaten the prevailing commonsense of competitive individualism as preferable and inevitable. Yet the various strata targeted for increasingly intimate disciplining and value extraction remain segmented by market imperatives – ‘good citizenship’ demanding hysterical self-commodification and the infinite infantile acquisition of material trivia. But this collective psychosis can only masquerade as tolerable lifestyle if its corrosive existential consequences are mystified – accomplished most readily by externalising anxiety about the sustainability of the self and personal relations via the denigration of others. So the recalcitrant underclasses retain residual mass-cultural utility as cautionary tales – their projected vulgarity and irresponsible comportment exemplify an inability to properly adapt to whatever shifts in the privatised status quo promise quick profits for someone this year.

Mainstream moral fascism, forensically dissecting and punishing failure to thrive, is mirrored in Reality TV’s gratuitous sadism. Humiliation heaped on willing supplicants subjected to shaming exhortation and judgement echoes the miserable dishonesty of alienating employment and institutional relationships. Trailblazing Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, the sub-Darwinian lottery logic peaks in Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire – worthy survival under compassionate capitalism depends on fitting the shallow prejudices of charitable predators, with the majority left to rot. Throughout the genre, though, fashionable counselling-babble about inadequate bodily and interpersonal health conceals morbid fascination with regimenting women in traditional caring, nurturing and parenting roles. Myths and fairytales of a ‘Victorian values’ bourgeois nuclear unit assuage fears by way of reinforcing forlorn hopes for an advancement that has stalled – hence being benchmarks for contemporary gloss across popular documentary and dramatic entertainment. However, a range of recent, less commercially obsequious films buck the trend, scrutinising personal and family dysfunctions among the middle- and upper-classes – whose trials and tribulations it’s perhaps timely to dwell on, as the Old Etonians cover up the failings of the rich by hammering the poor with renewed gusto. A brief survey below sketches some contours in these rather nebulous realms of cinematic endeavour.

I. Family Values

In Loco Parentis

Pungent purgatives for romantic fantasies of family integrity feature isolated couples and offspring whose complacent coherence, based on carefully cultivated codes of conduct, crumbles in the face of sundry real or imagined threats to self-sufficiency. Michael Haneke’s typically vicious Funny Games (Austria 1997; remade in America in 2008) twists home invasion horror motifs in an escalating ballet of bland pleasantries between teenage interlopers and victims unable to adjust to the psychopathic translation of civilised manners. Elsewhere, contradictions of internal motivation, explicit rationalisation and external ramification are less simplistically Manichean. Lucia Puenzo’s XXY (Argentina 2007) postulates a teenager’s polysexuality as an abomination her guardians must exorcise, for her/his own good given society’s intolerance, but the child’s insistence on uncertain autonomy leaves their benevolent authority in tatters. Expanding manic protectiveness to surreal proportions, Ursula Meier’s Home (Switzerland 2009) shatters a static rural idyll as a motorway opens on its doorstep. The adolescent daughter sensibly hits the road as mum, dad and her siblings breezeblock the cottage into a fortress repelling the outside world, whereupon they immediately start suffocating and sheepishly deconstruct their own handiwork. Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (Greece 2009) then balefully revives paternalistic omnipotence in a grotesque tragicomedy of ad hoc home miseducation, including nonsense language and forced incest, with self-harm the only sane rite of passage. Parallelwise, in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (Denmark 2009) a liberal marriage literally self-destructs after an infant’s accidental death, in a physical and emotional bloodbath of mutual recrimination and disgust. Read the full beautiful article over at Variant here.

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