Monday, December 14, 2009

2012, 2025

Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.
(Fredric Jameson)

If you see a representation of the biblical Flood and there appear to be survivors outside of Noah’s immediate family, you can be assured that their safety is but temporary: they huddle, they try to keep each other warm, but the rising seas are going to get to them in the end. Michelangelo’s example above takes the unusual form of a character study of those momentary survivors, but in the more recent iconography - the subject was especially popular in the 19th century - it is more common for the event to be represented on a larger scale in which the helpless humanity is relegated to the bottom or to a corner of the image, like in the following renditions by Messrs Géricault, Turner and Danby,

The Deluge by Théodore Géricault. 1818. Louvre, Paris.

The Deluge by J. M. W. Turner. 1804-1805. Tate Gallery, London.

The Deluge by Francis Danby. 1837-1839. Tate Gallery, London.

while the human element all but disappears in this painting by the English Romantic John Martin:

The Deluge by John Martin. 1834.

Martin rather enjoyed painting scenes of destruction (Sodom and Gomorrah, God’s wrath on Judgment Day and the Seventh Plague of Egypt are notable examples), but he also knew that catastrophes can only be understood in a temporal sequence that includes the moment before, a sharp image and sense of the order about to be ruptured. Hence the remarkable Eve of the Deluge, a painting whose meaning is precisely mapped by its title.

The Eve of the Deluge by John Martin. 1840. Royal Collection, Windsor

Enter disaster movies, in which the spectators are invariably expected to sit through an elaborate and lengthy lead up to that which they already know will happen, for it was foretold in the trailers and in the posters outside the theatre. Yet this first act is essential, for it constructs and populates the world or microcosm that is going to be destroyed. And if this world has people in it - which it always does - their morality is laid bare, for after all disasters in movies, even when they purport to strike at random, are inextricably linked to quasi-biblical ideas of sin, redemption and retribution.

Having read a handful of reviews, it seems that the common complaint regarding Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is that it fails precisely in establishing a credible frame, and it’s hard to disagree: bad science, plot holes so big you could fly a giant Russian cargo plane through them, a gallery of cliché-laden characters and what is quite possibly the worst last line in the history of cinema ('No more pull-ups') are the stuff of unwitting parody, nor is the film anywhere near smart enough to graduate to actual parody, or do so consistently enough. At times it feels as if one is invited to laugh along with the filmmakers at a less sophisticated sector of the target audience, which is never very appealing. So why bother? For me personally, it’s that Mr Emmerich and his backers can be relied upon to offer the latest and most powerful in the industry’s apocalyptic imaginings. That they fail to ground them in a coherent narrative or to produce what anybody in their right mind might be persuaded to call good films is largely inconsequential, for that is the overriding frame, the interpretive key: images of the end of days that are produced at enormous cost and with great accomplishment to entertain a mass global audience, within a mode of representation that claims immediacy and transparency, that is, a direct and unmediated cross-cultural appeal. As if to say: when the time comes, whomever you are and wherever you might live, this is what the end of the world will look like.

The painters of the flood made a similar claim to a universal vision and to an a-human point of view hovering outside of the catastrophe, but it was grounded in tradition and divine authority, not primarily in the deployment of the technology of representation itself. Here Emmerich is unabashedly iconoclastic, and deals a couple of clever if a little ham-fisted blows to the forces that used to claim a monopoly on the apocalyptic, namely religion and the military. I’m talking about two sequences included in the movie trailers: the destruction of the White House by the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, propelled inland on the crest of a colossal tsunami, and the crumbling of Saint Peter’s and the Vatican, beginning with a crack across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that neatly severs the connection between God and Man.

Thus cinema emerges alone - not primarily in the sense of an art, but as an industry at the heart of contemporary capital flows - in charge of representing and therefore making possible the end of the world. For although the catastrophe in 2012 is due to solar activity and a whole heap of rogue neutrinos, hence emphatically not man-made, it is quite impossible to conceive of a terminal event without plugging into the imaginary of the latest economic crisis of our late, late capitalism.

But of course a crisis in capitalism is never a crisis of capitalism, quite the opposite: anything that threatens and erodes political and social institutions pushes us closer to the neoliberal brink, as the local example of the monetary crisis of 1984 or the share market collapse of 1987 both serving as launching pads for the Rogernomes makes very clear. Now the old trolls are at it again, in the form of former Labour finance minister David Caygill, and former Reserve Bank governor Don Brash, the two most recognisable names behind the 2025 Taskforce, and it’s even more painful to watch their contortions in light of the conspicuous absence of impending doom.

For what’s a shock doctrine without a decent shock? The global financial crisis notwithstanding, New Zealand is doing relatively well - the first taskforce report, released earlier this month, says so itself:
[…] for many people life in New Zealand is good, and our material living standards have increased enormously – in the last decade alone, real wages have increased substantially and overall living standards of the average New Zealander (at least as proxied by real GDP per capita) have increased by 21 percent.
Hence the need to manufacture a crisis, which taking the cue from our ambitious Prime Minister is formulated as follows: we must catch up with the per capita income of Australians by the year 2025. And how are we going to do that? Why, but by enacting more neoliberal reforms in the mould of the ones that brought us to our knees and opened up that gap in the first place.

A number of mainstream commentators have understandably focussed - much like the reviewers of 2012 - on the disarming stupidity of the proposition. I give you Messrs Rudman, Armstrong and Gaynor, heck, I’ll throw in Garth George for the same low, low price. But far fewer have remarked, with the notable exception of Tapu Misa, what an intensely vicious document the report is. Just exactly how vicious? I bothered to read it cover to cover, and I have had to ask John Cusack to portray my reaction.

The core recommendation of the report is to all but dismantle our welfare system and the public provision of social services: deregulate, privatise, drastically reduce spending and enshrine in legislation the requirement that all future increases in spending be subject to the prior approval of Treasury, much like the setting of the interest rates has been taken out of the hands of politicians in line with the dominant monetarist orthodoxy. Now the authors of the report will tell you that the idea that these reforms are designed to benefit the rich is ‘a pervasive myth’:
This is a programme to improve substantially the lot of the ordinary New Zealander. We all have a huge stake in its adoption, but none more so than the least skilled, least able, least mobile among us. New Zealanders care about those people.

The outcome of all this intense caring will be familiar to the New Zealanders who lived through Rogernomics, or alternatively to those who have access to a library and to Alister Barry’s heart-rending documentaries. But even if one were to somehow concede the point that the reforms failed to benefit the working class and the unemployed because they weren’t implemented boldly enough, the authors spell out in very precise terms what they mean by benefit under their New Economic Order, mark 2. Here’s an excerpt from the section on pensions:
Mean-testing of age pensions is a fraught issue, and something of a double-edged sword. There is a risk that poorly done means-testing could further discourage private savings by middle income people. A better outcome all round would be achieved if the pension was to once again be regarded by all concerned as a safety net: there for those unable to provide for themselves in times of infirmity, but with most people taking pride in their ability to support themselves through work, private savings and the assistance of family.
The same "every man for himself" logic applies naturally to the benefits for the disabled and the unemployed:
Ambitious welfare reform measures should be undertaken as a matter of priority to reduce the very large number of people of working age currently receiving welfare benefits.
Note that the authors don’t suggest reducing the need for those benefits, just their provision. As if cutting government spending alone created jobs or opportunities for meaningful social participation, or as if the country hadn’t abandoned its cornerstone policy objective of securing full-employment precisely as a result of neoliberal reforms. But beyond that, nowhere does the document address social equality - not just in terms of income, but also of access to opportunities - as a public good worthy of being protected. Quite the contrary: in the name of the sad-arse, greedy nonsense that we must catch up with the income of Australians, the taskforce demands that we further reduce whatever safety nets and welfare provisions we have left, without pausing to consider that, if we had to pay for things that across the Tasman they get for free out of those same incomes, then the metric would be meaningless in the first place.

Yet it’s not the collapse in logic that is most striking, but rather the deep affective dissonance at the heart of the taskforce's claim to be thinking of the most vulnerable members of our society when they promote ‘greater self-reliance and greater use of family, community and market mechanisms for support’.

It's easy enough to dismiss the report as the token concession to a coalition party whose support stands at less than two per cent and as such is unlikely to ever be implemented, but it's an appealing narrative, and in marginally less benign times we might soon find it foisted upon us again - for it's such a persistent, convenient lie. And besides there's that a-human point of view hovering outside of the catastrophe again, outside of society and the number of those affected. Like Emmerich, Brash et al. cannot tell the whole story, or demonstrate any measure of compassion or understanding of the social, because they lack the means of expressing it. They can only think and speak in large, cleansing tableaux of shock and discontinuity, mock-revolutions that give the already rich and powerful an even greater share of money and power.

As it happens, both projects are slated for sequels. In 2012's case, a television series charting the fortunes of the survivors to be entitled 2013, whereas Taskforce fans can look forward to two more reports, presumably on the not unfounded basis that a lie told often enough might just start to sound true. But it's a reminder too of how fiercely contested that piece of our history is that goes under the name of the New Zealand Experiment. We'll need to keep telling each other those stories if we don't wish to become someone else's country - theirs.