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Howard Beale died for your sins: the pitfalls of anticapitalism

Howard Beale is the fictional protagonist of Paddy Chayevsky's 1979 drama, Network. In this film, the Beale character, played by Peter Finch, is a network news anchorman who is slated to be retired by his network due to failing ratings. In the midst of a midlife crisis, Beale, his tv career coming to an end, which was the only focus of his life's energies, is plunged into a state of despondency. Having a nervous breakdown, he issues a surprise announcement in the middle of the news show that he will be closing his next and final appearance as anchorman by blowing his brains out on national television. His boss at the tv network decides that he is obviously deranged and should be yanked from the air, but by a curious chain of circumstances, the network decides instead to keep him on and he soon becomes annointed as "Howard Beale, the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, denouncing the lies and hypocrisies of our times." All goes well for Beale in his new role as the host of a top-rated new prime time tv show with a subversive, anticorporate and antiestablishment message, for a time...
[*spoiler alert*]

One day, the "mad prophet" Beale starts up a new rant denouncing his own tv network for selling out to a shady consortium of Middle East sheiks, and urges viewers to flood the White House with telegrams demanding the business deal be stopped. His viewers duly heed his call, and suddenly, the corporate bigwigs at his own network are running scared!

Arthur Jensen, chairman of the holding company that owns his network, calls Beale to a private, one-on-one conference, in which he takes him to task for "meddling with the primal forces of nature" (sic!). Jensen, in the film's most famous scene, tries to implant a new message for Beale to take to his viewers, a Wall Street approved, "corporate cosmology." Beale goes back to his show, but now his message is

Last night, I got up here and asked you people to fight for your heritage and you did and it was beautiful. Six million telegrams were received from the White House! The Arab takeover of CCA has been stopped! The people spoke! The people won! It was a radiant eruption of democracy! But, I think that was it fellas. That sort of thing is not likely to happen again, because at the bottom of all our terrified souls we know that democracy is a dying giant; a sick, sick, dying, decaying political concept riding in it's final pain. I don't mean that the United States is finished as a world power. The United States is the richest, most powerful, most advance country in the world, light years ahead of any country, and I don't mean the communists are going to take over the world because the communists are deader than we are. What is finished, is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourish of every individual in it; it's the individual that's finished. It's the single, solitary human being that's finished; it's every single one of you out there that's finished. Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals, it's a nation of two-hundred some-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-that-white steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods.

As the narrator of the film puts it, Beale's new message was "perfectly plausible." It was, however, "bad tv: no one particularly wanted to hear that his life was meaningless." The show's ratings quickly plummet, and the network executives want to axe his show. But Arthur Jensen, the company chairman, insists that Beale, with his "important message," be kept on the air. In desperation that Beale's sinking ratings threaten the network's entire primetime lineup, the network's corporate executives plot to have Beale assassinated. Thus Beale becomes, in the narrator's words, "the first man in television to be killed for lousy ratings."

The instructive aspect of Chayevsky's saga here is that Beale gets killed NOT for being "too effective" in his popular, subversive message. Rather, he actually gets killed for being "too irrelevant," for "killing the primetime lineup" with his now ineffectual and depressing diatribes.

Beale is caught on the horns of a dilemma. If his message plays well, the public tunes in, and the network is thrilled to have a profitable show with great ratings. His message is subversive, but until it becomes an immediate threat, it is no more than another profitable capitalist spectacle. If his message plays poorly, then Beale becomes a "nuisance" to the corporate system, but NOT because the message itself is any threat, but only because he's taking up valuable space and scaring away customers. Either way, he "can't win."

Beale's dilemma is much like the one that modern anticapitalists find themselves in. Defining oneself as "anticapitalist" positions one smack dab in the center of this "Beale-like" dilemma by aligning between two poles of a classic dichotomy. If one is "against capitalism," then one is at best "irrelevant," or at worst a threat or a nuisance. Thus, one is stuck in the unenviable position of inevitably being either coopted profitably (Beale at the start of his "mad prophet" trip), ignored (Beale at the downturn of the "mad prophet" shtick, after the lecture from Jensen), or plain rubbed out (Beale at the very end of the film).

How to square this circle? Is there no escape from this depressing trap?

No, but the solution cannot be found in the terms that the problem has been posed. So long as the "problem" is "capitalism," and the "solution" is either to be "capitalist" or "anticapitalist," then there is no escape. One has to line up at one pole or the other of this axis. And, like rubbing two magnets together, it becomes impossible to break free from the magnetic plane of one's opposite. So an anticapitalist feels obliged to oppose capitalism by assuming the opposite position. But due to his magnetic alignment, he cannot operate free from the capitalist sphere. He discovers, in despair, that everything is "contaminated," and only uncompromising frontal assault can free him. This, however, would be suicidal. The default "potential well", ie, stable low energy state, into which the anticapitalist inevitably finds himself falling is one of bleak, utter despair.

The scenario described here for anticapitalism holds true generally for any seemingly impervious obstacle in human affairs: The more one positions oneself against it, the more hopeless one's battle becomes. For it is a curious truism of the human condition that one can never actually "solve" any really great problem by a straightforward act of will. By "truly great problem" I mean one that characterizes a sizable chunk of history, one that is reinforced by a sizable chunk of ingrained conditioning, and one that fits into numerous well-worn grooves of human behavior. The "problem" of capitalism conforms to all these characteristics. And obviously not just capitalism. These observations hold equally for numerous other "great problems" of our times: the "problems" of our relationships with the natural environment, with other species, and with each other, etc.

Mao's "Great Leap Forward" was a classic, historical textbook case of mankind running up against this conundrum. Mao thought that the Chinese people could, by a single titanic act of will, "leap" right out of feudalism and into a brave new socialist world. The result was, despite its boundless idealism, a monumental catastrophe that effectively ended Mao's experiment in Chinese communism once and for all (even though he himself did not yet know it).

The takehome lesson of such a catastrophe, though, need not be either an attitude of smug complacency nor despair (the default poles that one might align with, from either the "capitalist" or "anticapitalist" positions). Rather, the reality is that change DOES happen, all the time, sometimes even "revolutionary" change. Even within the capitalist system itself, massive upheavals are constantly occurring, and are largely outside the control of anyone. One minute you can be "king of the world," but the next, forced to give up your "kingdom for a horse." In fact, capitalism has accelerated and exacerbated change and insecurity for EVERYONE, even the capitalists! Irony of ironies.

In a world of such ceaseless turmoil, however, what "safe position" is there? Are there no more certainties at all?

In fact, there are a few stable observations we can make. One is that, while conditioned behavior cannot be changed instantaneously by a single, titanic act of will, willful acts and intentions still do MATTER, just not in the ways we commonly imagine.

So, for example, it is not by "revolution" as commonly conceived that changes in human affairs actually come about. True and lasting "revolutions" in human affairs, while they DO occur, resemble natural phenomena like earthquakes much more than they do acrobatic acts. Long periods of tectonic shift, of mere millimeters of movement over generations, leads to a buildup of pressures, which can release themselves in seemingly sudden and massive earthquakes of large-scale motion and upheaval. Such upheavals can be both destructive and constructive, and often utterly unpredictable.

To the extent that one chooses an "activist" stance towards this phenomenon, the best one can hope for is to "plant seeds." It is like being in the position of a geologist trying to predict the movement of a glacier. If the glacier moves in such-and-such a direction, it might expose a glacial moraine of potentially fertile soil. If one plants enough of one's seeds in that direction, then they may have a better chance of germinating in the future.

So one is largely stuck with inspired guesswork, hope, faith, and creativity. The reward for one's efforts is always tentative and uncertain. But within this framework, there is still plenty of scope for imagination. The most challenging thing is to be sufficiently flexible, undogmatic, joyful, and industrious in the face of this uncertainty, that one can spring to action when one sees clearly which way the glacier might be headed, and hopefully plant one's seeds in time.