Tag Archives: communism

Distortion and Stereotypes in Le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”

[As always—spoilers]

It’s been quite some time since I’ve read past midnight, but I had to see how John Le Carré’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” ended. It was published in 1963, but I found it to be surprisingly relevant in 2017. One of things things that I admire about Le Carré’s writing is that he is not wishy-washy, trying to please everyone. There’s a bite to both the words and the plot.

Le Carre says of his own book in the intro called Fifty Years Later:

The novel’s merit, then—or its offense, depending on where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old questions that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?(xiv)

He also points out that the negative parts of the spies’ culture were a reflection of the problems in the larger culture.  The plot of the book explores how easy it becomes to exploit the individual in the service of some “greater good.”  The sense of impending tragedy is palpable and grows throughout the plot. The pacing of the book is excellent. Leamas, the spy, has to give up much of his individuality and acts as a tool for his handlers to gain ground in East Germany. He willingly makes this sacrifice of himself.  Another character isn’t a willing participant in the scheme.

However, the thread that I found the most relevant to our current politics was the section where Liz Gold, a U.K. Citizen and a member of the communist party, is brought to East Germany before the wall came down. When she interacts with the people there, she realizes some of the distorted beliefs that they had about the British. For example, they informed Liz that the working class was treated horribly in the U.K. In one scene, after Liz has been involved in something disturbing and exhausting, she doesn’t feel like eating the food offered to her. The wardress and she exchange:

‘Why don’t you eat?’ the woman asked again. ‘It’s all over now.’ She said this without compassion, as if the girl were a fool not to eat when the food was there.

‘I’m not hungry.’

The wardress shrugged: ‘You may have a long journey,’ she observed, ‘and not much at the other end.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The workers are starving in England,’ she declared complacently. “The capitalists let them starve.’

Liz thought of saying something but there seemed no point (204).

It didn’t occur to them to ask Liz what her experience was as a citizen of the place, albeit of member of the Communist party there, because they already “knew” the answer.  Certainly, there were hungry people in that era as there are now, but most of them were comfortably fed, as demonstrated in an early scene, in which Liz is generous with another character, buying him a variety of food. Yet, Liz was also mistaken in her beliefs about what Communism was like. Le Carré was likely speaking to governmental propaganda.

In many ways, when compared to when this book was written, we have more exposure now to what other people’s lives are like in other places.  On the other hand, there are still distorted and stereotypical views.  Even within a country, people of different categories and political beliefs may not have exposure to how other people actually live or what they believe.

And yet, Le Carré also shows how both governments shared similarities in the prices they were willing to pay for their ideologies, despite having different ideologies. Both were willing to sacrifice the individual to win the “game.”

I’d highly recommend reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s an excellent spy novel that is also thought-provoking.

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Filed under Book Reviews, capitalism, Sociology, Uncategorized

A critique of capitalism in “Jupiter Ascending”

[Jupiter sized spoilers ahead: Beware]

Last Friday, my spouse and I went to see Jupiter Ascending for Valentine’s Day. Due to its poor reception by critics and the public in the US, I hoped it’d be a fun “bad” movie. However, I found it to be a beautiful movie with an intriguing plot. This brief preview will give an overview of the movie. Abrasax Industries “seeded” the Earth one hundred thousand years prior, although people on Earth are unaware of this fact. The three Abrasax heirs inherit their wealth from their mother and are the villains in the movie. Each sibling corresponds with a particular problem relating to capitalism. (For a quick, cute overview of Karl Marx’s view of capitalism, communism, alienation, and utopia, you can view this short Super Mario Brothers 8-Bit Philosophy video.)

The protagonist from Earth is Jupiter Jones. Her mother immigrated  to the US while pregnant with Jupiter. Jupiter works as a maid with her family in Chicago and hates her work. She wants to buy a telescope and decides to go along with a plan to sell her eggs at a fertility clinic. This plan is developed by her cousin who intends to get more of the money from the transaction than Jupiter. It is obvious that Jupiter is being exploited by her cousin. At first, this appears to be a Cinderella-like tale where Jupiter will be able to leave her challenging life as a laborer behind.

On the other hand, the Abrasax family is a dynasty that owns planets (and their inhabitants) as property. When the head of the dynasty dies, her three children, Kalique, Balem, and Titus, begin plotting and fighting over their inheritances. This family seems similar to the power elite discussed by sociologist C.Wright Mills. If inheritance laws exist without controls, then more and more wealth will concentrate in the hands of a few.  Those few will eventually be like royalty, even if they do not technically have titles. The movie asks and attempts to answer the question, what if inheritance remained and laws didn’t keep the wealthy in check?

Balem will inherit the Earth unless the his mother’s genetic reincarnation appears. He sends assassins to murder the genetic reincarnation, which is revealed to be Jupiter. On the other hand, Kalique and Titus both want her alive to use her. Caine, whose DNA is a splice of human and wolf DNA, is an excellent tracker and is sent to track down Jupiter. He becomes a romantic interest. However, he also represents alienated labor.

As Jupiter finds herself drawn into the battle that she knows nothing about, she realizes that these siblings see no problem with owning a whole planet and harming its inhabitants. Furthermore, she discovers that the family harvests a youth serum, but it takes many lives, or rather human deaths, to create it. The first of the siblings she visits is Kalique. Similar to a fairy tale villain, Kalique, values her own eternal youth and beauty at the expense of others. In modern global capitalism, people extend their own life chances and beauty, while breaking the backs of others without access to the same goods and services. Kalique demonstrates this to Jupiter by entering a pool of water and emerging younger. The elixir is extremely valuable. It benefits Kalique to help Jupiter gain her title for Earth in that it decreases her brother’s wealth and power.  (In one of the part of the movie that I felt was the most humorous, Jupiter has to go through a long, bureaucratic process to gain her title. She notes that she’d never complain about the DMV again.)

Next, Jupiter winds up in the hands of Titus, who wants to steal the Earth (and its valuable elixir) from both his brother and Jupiter. Titus notes to Caine when alone that he, himself, is a liar. I think that this represents the fact that capitalism leads people to becoming unethical. When profits and power are the ultimate goals, it justifies all kinds of heinous actions. Titus, a hedonist, tricks Jupiter by saying that he wants to end the trade that will harm the Earth. He convinces her that by marrying him, she will be protecting Earth and its inhabitants. He sends Caine out the airlock but lies about it to Jupiter. Caine comes to rescue her just in time, which reminds me of the marriage scene in Princess bride. Titus is willing to lie and murder for gaining the means of production (e.g., the planet Earth.) Likely, he wants to keep fueling his grandiose, hedonistic lifestyle.

Finally, Jupiter ends up in the hands of Balem. Balem would rather harvest the Earth immediately than let Jupiter take ownership of his property. He kidnaps her family from Earth and offers her a choice.  If she signs her title over to him, he will spare her family. Furthermore, the Earth won’t be harmed while she lives. This is actually an excellent analysis of capitalism. Often, in modern capitalism, resources are plundered and the costs are placed on the next generation.  The capitalists and workers may not even lived to see the horrible consequences that have been deferred to later generations, including environmental consequences.  Therefore, Jupiter can choose to save those she loves, but she’d have to delay the suffering to billions of people in a later time period.  Jupiter, in the end, makes the right call in terms of saving all the people on the Earth, although it means sacrificing those she loves most. She realizes the importance of the lives on the Earth, not just the ones in her own in-group. While she was willing to make the sacrifice, she manages to fight Titus and escape with Caine’s help. Essentially, the ends of capitalism are not to benefit people. Instead, the goal is to maximize profits, which is what all three of the Abrasax siblings wanted, although they had different motivators.

In this movie, human beings aren’t just machinery, our lives and deaths literally become the commodity itself. We are the product. In the end, Jupiter owns the planet, but she does not exploit that fact.  She stands in solidarity with other humans; she continues her productive labor as a maid.  Her labor as a maid is valuable, and she appreciates returning to being part of the proletariat. This movie does not have a true Marxist utopia at the end.  Abraxas Industries and the family are still at large in the universe. And the people on earth excluding Jupiter and Caine have no idea that they are a part of a much larger system of oppression, similar to how many people do not realize how they are being exploited in global capitalism due to hegemonic ideology.  Eventually, we will be vulnerable again when Jupiter dies. Just like in “The Matrix” people have to wake up before they can start to save themselves.

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Filed under capitalism, Fantasy, Movie Review, Science Fiction, Space Opera