Todd Phillips’ and Scott Silver’s film “Joker” is probably one of the most controversial films of the last decade. The film’s controversy started as a concern for causing violence, referring to “The Dark Knight Rises” mass shootings in Aurora in 2012, resulting in 45 deaths. But it doesn’t take much time to realize that the polarized views about the film and its controversy stem from much deeper pathologies within our society. The Film might reflect a political dead, resulting from the post-1980s neoliberal political restructuring within our societies. A dead-end that results in a cynical political outburst within our contemporary political reality that is seen in Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism.
In the film, Arthur Fleck is a poor, working-class man that suffers from a neurological disease that causes him uncontrollable laughter when he becomes nervous. His idealistic and benevolent character at the beginning of the film is gradually turned into a cynical, amoral one as the movie approaches the end and as he gets more and more marginalized. Gotham City is an inhospitable, decadent, and corrupt place, run by “rich,” corrupt politicians, and “Wall Street” types. It is also characterized by a climate of sick rivalry, amorality (not immorality), and social isolation.
It is hard to notice that all the elements used in the portrayal of Gotham City by Todd Phillips and Scott Silverwork can also function as a metaphor for the contemporary neoliberal economic model adopted by the majority of the so-called western states. The case that the plot takes place in the 1980s, the decade characterized by many as the decade that the “neoliberal revolution” started, strengthen such speculations about the film functioning as a metaphor. In Gotham City, and our contemporary cities, public discourse is dismantled, political dialogue is about “saving the banks” (a reference to the extreme measure of bail-in that “troika” took in 2013 in Cyprus), and nearly everyone struggles in a working environment that is adapted to dynamics of rivalry, and a kind of sick antagonism. Through the adoption of neoliberal politics, public institutions, political institutions, schools, even universities became economically dependent on funding by corporations. In other words, the public either serves the interests of the few, or it becomes poor, weak and “useless.” It is no accident that where neoliberalism has been enforced the more, public institutions were the most characterized as useless, wasteful and forced to shut down. Here I refer to the shutting down of the Greek public radio and television, “ERT,” by the “troika.” It works as a kind of unsaid – occasionally outspoken – blackmail.
According to these policies, we “ought” to adopt neoliberal policies that would benefit the public through helping the corporate machinery to expand. Some would argue that the interests of corporations are identified with the interests of the people; besides, it is people who buy the services or the products provided by these corporations, and partly this is true. Except in cases where you need an active state to provide for non-negotiable social benefits and rights, such as the right for health, education, food, housing, work, etc. An absent (for the public, but present for the corporate world) state fosters a climate of rivalry because the fundamental civil rights become “negotiable.” And because it is through the structures of the state that the public has access to its rights, it is inevitable that the individuals internalize this rivalry on a psychological level as well as on a communicational level.
In the face of a neoliberal state, you are a worthwhile individual when you adhere to some abstract criteria pointed by the “invisible hand” of the market. And the criteria are abstract, at least for the most of us (the public), because they are alienated from any real public interest, such as providing the abovementioned non-negotiable rights without getting something in return.
But, the most confusing aspect of the neoliberal ideology is that it turns the public to cynical outbursts when it is threatened. In the case of Fascism, for example, you had clear ideological propositions that you could reject, confront, and fight against them. In the case of neoliberal structures, the ideological proposition is not clear. Instead, the ideological proposition works as an underlying, abstract mechanism that takes the form of different, and at many times contradicting, ideological positions on the surface. On a superficial level, this is celebrated as an indication of polyphony and multiculturalism. But if you dig deep enough, it becomes clear that all the different, pseudo-ideological propositions evolved within the neoliberal framework serve the same telos, which is a nearly metaphysical need for “profit.” That forms a condition where any option or counter-option you express, is already given by the establishment. In other words, all doors lead to the same end. It is the ultimate form of cynicism. You cannot escape the system through any “positive” ideological propositions or statements. The only “authentic” reaction you are left with, is nihilism, apathy, and cynicism, and as such, a disregard towards any values; in other words, a political manifestation of amorality.
It is hard to ignore that the Film “Joker” works as a criticism not only against the neoliberal policies of our times, but also to the political, and existential dead-end that neoliberal politics has brought us in. Specific references in the script point to that conclusion. It is for this reason that for some it came as a surprise that the film was mostly criticized by some “progressive” cycles and organizations. In my opinion, this unmasks the systemic quality of many social bodies aligned with the so-called progressive political front that serves the most cynical role in preserving the status quo. These “progressive” cycles represent what I call the “conservative progressive” part of the establishment. They are the faculty of the system to maintain its established order through pseudo-progressive statements, rules, aesthetics, regulations, demonstrations, etc., but does it so from a position of power that is threatened to lose if, and when an actual change comes. They are the corporations, the politicians, artists, academics, and the media that adopt a “progressive persona” by promoting certain “progressive values” but they are, in fact caught up in the same neoliberal structure. That also seems to confirm the existence of the abovementioned ideological dead-end in our times.
This double-bind mechanism works as a useless release of potentiality for actual change. It operates through a superficial identification of the “progressiveness” with specific identities, or “lifestyles” that work as the end instead of the means. “I am an environmentalist,” “I demonstrate for inequality,” and that is… enough for today. Political discourse becomes an empty vessel filled with superficial “progressive” lifestyles that not only maintain the status quo but also alienate us from the true meaning of actual “change,” or actual politics.
The political public domain becomes a platform for lifestyle disagreements that include or exclude political opinions on the base of superficial appearances, instead of a creative space where collective political knowledge is evolved.
Joker is the individual caught in the middle of these dynamics. He is identified with the lower strata of the socio-economic framework. He desires change, but he doesn’t believe in it. The only “authentic” action he can take is to become the very cynicism of the system itself. This Oedipal identification with the system is seen everywhere in our times; people vote for clown presidents, clown prime ministers, the American alt-right, the European populists. Their vote represents a collective cynicism as a result of the dismantled political public domain. When public discourse is mediated by the oppressor what remains as “truth” is an amoral, outburst of populism. It represents the cynicism of this double-bind, schizophrenic, post-modern that lower strata of the socioeconomic structures are struggling with. The very “dual nature” of the character, he is sad, yet he feels compelled to laugh, he is child-like, yet evil, point to the same double-bind, cynical nature of our contemporary neoliberal ideological framework. People want change, but the collective dialogue and action is dismantled. All that remains is an amoral revolution of clowns.