Joker: How neoliberal capitalism appropriates revolutionary discourse from the Left

By Anqi Chen, graduate student at the University of Cambridge. She was an exchange student at Sciences po during 2017-2018.

Poster of the film Joker (2019)

The storyline of the film immediately reminds me of a typical revolutionary discourse commonly seem in leftist films of the final uprising of a suffering masses, turning the hierarchy upside down. At the beginning of the film, we see how much the Gothem city where Joker lives looks as a lifelike reflection of the New York city: a highly developed capitalist system, skyscrapers rising alongside public housing slums, extreme inequality, gang violence against an impotent policing force, the middle class that has little empathy towards the less fortunate, and many others who struggle to live on the margin of the society, including Joker himself. Similar to what’s in the rhetoric of leftist films, the film used a very vivid and detailed language to depict how Joker suffered from social injustice and humiliation imposed by the people above him, to the extent that he could no longer turn his head away from them and embarked on a journey of violence vengeance, and stimulated a social uprising. The stereotypical revelation of the institutional violence embedded in a capitalist society, indifference between atomised individuals and the glorification of violent uprising is almost identical to the storyline of ‘the lowest class suffering from deep humiliation – violent resistance – topping down the capitalist/colonial regime’. However, with a closer look, we can find intrinsic differences between Joker and these leftist films when we conduct a more careful examination.

Unlike most leftist films, the struggle of Joker is purely individualistic. His life is lonely, and he would, and could only revolt after even his last social connection has betrayed him :his colleagues made him to lose his job; his adopted mother abused him, his neighbour turned out imaginary, his officer lost her job, and his possible father denied him. As he said ‘sometimes I feel I don’t exist. Even in the uprising that was stimulated by his killing act, he had no connection with his followers, nor did he want them in the first place. Rather than followers, his fans are atomised, fanatic copycats. In the film we could not see any network or organisation structure that links these people under the same banner of solidarity, in a conscious community. They were like zombies, tools that just appeared when they have to be there to show ‘anger against the state’. There was no thinking process, nor any new idea as the film portraited them. They are certainly rebellious, but they are not revolutionary agents.

The film the Battle of Algiers (1966) depicted how anti-colonial guerrilla organised insurgencies against the French colonialists. The movement was organised in the form of ‘revolution cells’ under the banner of FLN (Front de libération nationale). Solidarity between men and women, between local Algerian communities and the revolutionaries, was key to the fight and the eventual success of the movement.
The Chinese film the Tunnel Warfare (1965) described how the whole community of the Gao village participated in the guerrilla war against Japanese invaders through the means of Tunnel Warfare.
The Joker receiving his followers’ acclamation

The atomised protestors in Joker is exactly most revealing of the limit of understanding of the word ‘revolution’ from a capitalist perspective. Same as how the homogenous rioters did not need to know each other (and they can be quite violent to each other, as how a fight began on the metro; they can also be extremely crude, as how Joker’s colleagues made him to lose his job), it was impossible for Joker to initiate this violence vengeance without having all his hope disillusioned – not the other way round. In leftist films, solidarity and the power of the collective are key to the revolution’s success. Even more, the riot itself was just about destroying, there was no ideas, no leader in the rebels. Although left-wing films can have problems of over-politicising agents as, and almost solely as, the anti-colonial/anti-capitalist ‘revenger’, these films valuate the importance of ideas, especially those about how to build an alternative society based on the socialist/communist principles – a ‘social imagery’, which is none in Joker.

Everybody in the metro cabinet is a “joker”

The limited imagination of resistance in Joker also tells a prophecy of our possible future, that is when the omnipotent neoliberal discourse has completely eliminated its alternatives. This is also a point when human beings lose the capacity to imagine an alternative future outside of this constraint. Neoliberalism’s ability to legitimate extreme inequality, the loss of community and fierce competition replacing any organic linkages between atomised individuals is unprecedented – Inequality is an essential product of the open market, which is ‘good’ in itself because it produces better quality of goods with lower price through ‘fair competition’ and rational allocation of resources.

Joker is able to appropriate the revolutionary discourse from leftist imaginations, but the limit of internal criticism of neo-liberal capitalism – its inability to appreciate collective rebellion, solidarity and a legitimate, non-neoliberal future made Joker lose any real revolutionary significance. At the end of the film, maybe since the crew realised they have to weaken the intensity of resistance, they made Joker tell us that the whole riot only exists in his mind – this might be the worst part of the film. When we walk out of the cinema, we might sigh for how crude capitalism can be to the lower classes. Yet while Joker helped us to (virtually) conduct a moral protest, it did not tell us what a possibly different future looks like, an alternative route vis-à-vis neoliberalism – the deprivation of social imagination is exactly what makes neoliberalism most dangerous.

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