An "Equilibrium" in MarxismWhenever someone is asked what Marxism is, the general response usually seems to be something along the lines of “Oh yeah, that stuff about Stalin.” What people don’t realize is that while Joseph Stalin can be tied to Marxism, there is so much more than that tiny aspect of such a huge theory. Karl Marx came up with a theory that allows people to apply politics to literature. This actually angered a lot of people in literary studies because they believed that “politics was not in literature in the first place and that literary criticism, even when limited to a concern for form, style, theme, and the like, is not implicitly shaped by political choices” (Rivkin 643). In the 1970’s politics took a huge step back into literature due to World War II. According to Rivkin, “Marxism was critical of capitalism, and during that era, the ‘West’ defined itself in terms of the defense of capitalism against the egalitarian aspirations of Marxist socialism” (643). Now although they are plenty of different political approaches to literature, “one of the most enduring forms of political criticism is Marxism” (644). The theory has many aspects that can be applied to literature, but the middle and main part of Marxism is its “critical analysis of capitalism, and a theory of social change” (Wikipedia). Three important features of Marxism are the conflicts between social classes, Karl Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism, and his idea of a possible revolution. While Marxism can be applied to a lot of films, one that really exemplifies this theory is the 2002 science fiction/action film starring Christian Bale, “Equilibrium.” Examples of the three main characteristics of Marxism mentioned above are prevalent throughout the film, “Equilibrium”. This essay will explore the movie “Equilibrium” mainly through Marxism, but will also apply Greek Antiquity, Structuralism, and Post-Modernism when appropriate.
In the “Communist Manifesto” Karl Marx pays close attention to the idea of the oppressed and oppressor in society. He claims that society is splitting up “into two great classes directly facing each other – bourgeoisie and proletariat.” The bourgeoisie is the ruling upper class, while the proletariat is the lower, working class. In the film “Equilibrium,” society is run by a ruling class, called the Tetragrammaton Council, that enforces unity and conformity among all of its citizens. Each of the citizens is forced to take a dose of medicine every day that suppresses their emotions, or feelings toward anything. This society loosely represents the classes that Marx studies. While the Council represents the bourgeoisie, the Resistance, or the sense offenders represent the proletariat. For the sake of understand this society better, the Clerics represent the middle class. The Clerics are those who are trained in Gun Kata, a fictional martial art that teaches them to predict the actions of opponents during firearm combat. Their job in the movie is to keep the society under control just like a middle class would do in Marx’s society. The Resistance, or the sense offenders (those who don’t take their medicine), loosely represents the lower class because they are the ones being oppressed by the oppressors (the ruling class). If any of the members of the Resistance, or any of the sense offenders are found, the Clerics are sent to destroy them for not following the laws of the Council. Clearly this society in the film is a loose representation of the Capitalist society that Marx studies in the beginning of his “Communist Manifesto”.
Karl Marx also suggests that the proletariat will eventually lead a revolt against the bourgeoisie, which will lead into Communism. Because the proletariat is fed up with being run by the ruling class, they lead a revolution against the bourgeoisie and their society progresses into a Communist society. What happens at the end of the movie “Equilibrium” is exactly a revolt. It has been suggested by many theorists that the proletariat couldn’t actually go through with a revolt without the help from the middle class, or someone from the bourgeoisie who understood their reasoning for a revolt. When Christian Bale’s character, John Preston, a member of the Cleric, forgets to take his medication for the day, he starts to become this exact person that the proletariat needs. When John Preston learns how to feel and meets with the Resistance, he decides to lead the revolt against the Council. They eventually kill everyone standing in their way and start their own society where emotion is accepted again.
Where a Communist society is what is suggested to have a peaceful society, the beginning of the movie proves otherwise. Because of a third World War, it was decided by a small group of people that if they had a communist society where everyone was treated equally and no one had emotions, they could avoid that of a fourth World War. In the end it is proved that the society is in fact not all treated equally. At the end right before John Preston kills “Father” (the leader of the Council), he finds out that “Father” does in fact feel and doesn’t take the same medication. The audience then learns that the society was in fact still being commanded by emotion. Although emotion was banned from this society, “nevertheless, in the classless society, with the disparity between social and artistic development removed and the emphasis taken off specialization, art could again flower naturally as it had in the primitive past” (Hyman 548). This is exactly what happens and the audience learns that emotion cannot be suppressed and neither can art.
Staying along the lines of poetry arousing emotions, this can be directly linked to Plato’s Republic. Plato had a very strong hostility toward poetry and felt “determined to resist its spell” (Classic Literary Criticism xxiii). He felt the want to ban poetry due to its ability to arouse emotions in people that should be kept inside. He wanted the society to be able to use poetry and singing, but only if it were turning “the soul towards virtue” (xxv). In Plato’s opinion because poetry was able to stimulate the emotions of people it is “psychologically damaging, for it appeals to an inferior element in the soul, and encourages us to indulge in emotions which ought to be kept firmly in check by the control of reason” (xxv). Because of this very same thought process, the Council that put together the society of Libria, the name of the city in “Equilibrium,” had to ban the citizens from feeling emotion. They thought the only way to continue living without the possibility of a fourth World War that could potentially ruin mankind, would be to forbid everyone from having emotions and to get rid of anything that could cause emotion. All art and music was outlawed and was titled “EC 10,” which stands for emotional content. If any form of art was found, it was burned.
The Council of Libria had the same ideas that Plato had and figured it’d be best for society to ban all forms of poetry. While this idea is highlighted in “Equilibrium,” it is also sheds light on Marx’s “German Ideology” when he wrote, “In a Communist organization of society there are no painters. At most there are people who, among other things, also paint.” In other words, for a communist society to work, emotion needs to be secondary to necessity. For example, wanting to spend time with a loved one should come second to going to work. But in the movie, the best way to make sure that work and just breathing are the two most important things in life, is to prohibit emotion altogether. That way the country couldn’t even possibly be at risk for war again.
While thinking about this idea of starting a new society based on no emotion, we come full circle to the idea of whether or not Communism could work. Because of human emotion, it could not. Even if human emotion were suppressed, there would still be that possibility of the one who would rebel. This idea is also prevalent in the novel, “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley when the main character yearns for a life outside of what is supposed to be a Utopia. In reality, when an attempt at creating a utopian society occurs, it seems to turn into a dystopia because of human emotion. In the beginning of “Equilibrium,” they tried to create a utopia by forbidding its citizens from feeling emotion. But the truth is that if people are being forced to not be able to feel emotion, they are being deprived of their freedom. And this in itself defeats the purpose of a utopia, or in Marx’s idea, a Communist society.
Along with Marxism and Greek Antiquity, the film “Equilibrium” has a few small hints of Structuralism and Post-modernism. In Structuralism, According to Saussure, semiology is “a science that studies the life of signs within a society” (60). In this study of “language [as] a system of signs that express ideas,” a sound-image is referred to as a “signifier.” When a group of people who share the same language read or see a signifier, they immediately have a common or similar response/meaning to that word or sound-image. This meaning, or what is implied by the word, is known as the “signified.” Signifiers depend on these meanings, made up by society, to be able to function. There is also the idea of binaries is present as well: you can only know one thing by knowing what it is not. There is an arbitrary relationship between these signs because there is no natural connection. This idea is present in one of the last scenes of the movie: the fight scene between John Preston and the leader, "Father".
In this fight scene it is a battle between bad and good. We know this from the colors that the two fighters are wearing. While Preston is wearing white, and fighting for freedom, "Father" is wearing black and trying to kill Preston to avoid a revolution against the ruling class. Our society has created this binary through the relationship of the signifier and the signified. When we see the color black, we immediately associate it with darkness and evil. And white is often associated with purity and goodness. Staying along this line of Semiotics, we come to the idea from postmodernism that we are born into a world of signs and that “post-modernism has to answer or critique modernism” for it to be post-modernism (Post-modernism Group Project). In other words, we can’t have one without the other. So, in the movie “Equilibirum,” we couldn’t have the Resistance (the lower class) without the Council (the ruling class), or the bad without the good. We wouldn’t be able to identify one as long as we didn’t have the other. Furthermore, without Capitalism we couldn’t have Communism. Which once again brings me right back to the very beginning.
The beginning of the movie was an attempt at creating a Communist society. But once the lower class realized that there still was in fact a ruling class, a group in which made their laws, they revolted. Once the revolt occurred, art was allowed back into the society, which inevitably would lead to another capitalist society. It goes full circle every time. Because humans aren’t accepting of the idea of suppressing their emotions, a utopia could not work. Human emotion is too much of a factor within society. People can never have enough to be satisfied. They always want more. In a conversation between Milton Freidman and Phil Donahue about Socialism and Capitalism, Freidman brings up the idea that every country is run on greed, even if they don’t realize it themselves. When considering a Communist society Milton Freidman says to Phil Donahue, “Just tell me where in the world you’d find these angels that are going to organize society for us.” This quote wraps up this essay and the movie “Equilibrium” perfectly. No matter what, there will always be greed and there will always be someone who is striving to be better or higher. As quoted from the movie "Equilibrium," "Man's inhumanity to man is the ability to feel. Emotion is a disease." And as long as the world is home to people with these emotions, and are allowed to express them, there will not be a solution to Marx’s so-called “problem.” Capitalism will continue. As quoted by the main female character of "Equilibrium," feeling is "as vital as breath and without it, without love, without anger, without sorry, breath is just the clock ticking." And if life comes to that, what's the point?
Classical Literary Criticism. Trans. T.S. Dorsch and Penelope Murray. London: Penguin
Equilibrium. Kurt Wimmer. Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs. DVD Dimension Home Video, 2002.
Hyman, Stanley Edgar. “The Marxist Criticism of Literature.” The Antioch Review, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Winter, 1947): 541-568.
Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. 2. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848. Rick Kuhn. 28 Apr 2008. http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/classics/manifesto.html
Milton Freidman – Socialism vs. Capitalism. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76frHHpoNFs
Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. “Introduction: Starting with Zero.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. 2. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004. 643-646.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Course in General Linguistics.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. 2. Massachusetts” Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004. 59-71.