Radical Philosophy in “They Live” (1988)–Frantz Fanon, Colonialism, and Violent Liberation

The movie “They Live” is most often analyzed as a movie about consumerism.  But much more interesting is the aspects of anti-colonial militancy and the philosophies of the Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon that emerge in the film.  

They Live (1988) is a science-fiction action-thriller that follows the story of homeless worker named John Nada.  After arriving in LA, getting a job in a construction site, finding refuge in a homeless camp, and witnessing the destruction of this camp by the police, he stumbles across a pair of special sunglasses that allows him to see the world as it really is: controlled by propaganda and subliminal messaging in our news and advertisements, at the behest of mysterious alien-like entities who walk among us but look and act and talk just like humans.  The rest of the movie follows John as he learns more about the true nature of the invisible occupation, joins up with other people who have realized the truth, and their attempt to resist their oppressors.

The film truly was, as Slavoj Zizek calls it in his recent documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), a ” forgotten masterpiece of the Hollywood Left”.  It managed to compress a wide range of radical left philosophies and narratives into a short ninety minutes; but most compelling to me was the film’s allegorical references to colonialism and anti-colonial violence.

Colonialism

As the film progresses, John learns more about Earth’s state of affairs.  It turns out that the aliens do not just seek political control, but rather economic control.  They are intergalactic colonialists, moving from planet to planet seeking resources, seducing planetary elites with the prospect of wealth and power they would otherwise not have access to, and ultimately changing the climate of the planet to suit their own purposes.  In other words, the film essentially portrays capitalism as a product of an insidious alien plot to extract value and destroy the environment.

The fact that the invading alien species has open relations with human elites was an excellent plot choice.  This dynamic is strongly mirrored in historical colonial practices, where European corporations and states would forge alliances with the local elites of tricontinental societies (“tricontinental” is a term used in discussions of anti-colonial struggle to refer to Latin America, Africa, and Asia).  In exchange for ceding autonomy over major political and economic decisions, the local elites would gain access to much of power and wealth than they would otherwise garner, and gain the upper hand in their disputes with their rivals.  This strategy was used everywhere, from the expansion of the United States into Native American lands, to the British occupation of India, to American hegemony in Latin America.  In almost every instance of colonialism, the success of European domination would not have been so complete were it not for the betrayal of the tricontinental masses by local elites and rulers.

Apparently deindustrialization, devastating famines, stagnant economic growth, and a near-genocidal death toll was worth the opportunity to play some tennis!

Another brilliant point of satire is how the alien invaders are described as nothing more than businessmen (specifically, “free-enterprisers”) is also an excellent parallel with colonialism.  Much of the colonial institutions that were set up by the Europeans functioned mostly as private ventures; for example, the East India Company was the primary colonizing force in India until 1857, and was motivated primarily by the pursuit of profits and business opportunities.  Colonialism was, by most measures, the result of Europe seeking to expand its markets abroad, and to find more resources to fuel its industrialization.

Another brilliant point of satire is the reference to the ecological damage inflicted on Earth by the aliens’ business practices.  Climate change is cast not just as a destructive by-product of capitalist avoidance of internalizing externalities, but as a deliberate strategy for terra-forming the planet to suit the aliens’ own needs.  But this of course is precisely what expanding markets in the developing world–typically controlled by First World banks–are doing to the ecologies of the Global South.  Indonesian rainforests are being decimated to make room for palm-oil plantations to supply the ever-expanding consumption by the world’s middle and upper class.  The Niger Delta is being devastated by multinational oil companies in order to ensure an increasing supply of oil to the world market.  And as Southern ecology is being destroyed or transformed, so too are  the traditional societies and economies of the indigenous populations in the affected areas.  What the aliens in They Live are doing to Earth and human civilization, the global elites today are doing to the global masses.

(Of course in our predicament, the global elites will also have to face the music of catastrophe if current trends continue–assuming of course that technology does not progress to a point where the bourgeoisie can either protect themselves from the consequences of ecological collapse, or escape Earth altogether, a la Elysium.  And then perhaps, Earth’s bourgeoisie–obeying capitalism’s need for ever-expanding markets–might transform into a space-faring race of colonizers, and thus become the very aliens in They Live!)

Systemic and Subjective Violence

The people in the film who have “woken up” to their colonized state through the use of the special sunglasses seem to impulsively take up arms against the aliens.  Near the beginning of the film, there are mentions of recent outbreaks of extreme and spontaneous violence–notably, against institutions like banks.  John himself joins in on this violent reaction against the aliens after a mere twenty or so minutes of wearing the sunglasses and seeing the newly visible reality of alien control, and the utter subjugation of his people.  After being chased into an ally by two policemen (who are actually aliens), John beats them down, shoots them with their own guns, and then strolls over to a bank with a newly acquired shotgun.  He then promptly delivers what might be the best line in cinematic history, and proceeds to gun down every alien in the building in an ultra-violent orgy of bullets and blood.

The almost immediate transition from observation to violence is rather jarring, and indeed rather bewildering.  There is nothing to suggest that John was feeling so violent about his new reality, or that he felt so much overriding hatred toward these newly discovered beings that he really knew nothing about.  And yet, his immediate plan is to kill as many aliens as possible, with no real long-term strategy–let alone any kind of reflection on whether violence should be used at all, whether some kind of non-violent or legalist ethic could be used to fight against the mysterious interlopers, or even whether peaceful co-existence is a possibility.

But while on the superficial level, the abrupt transition into violence could be read as the result of shoddy writing attempting to move the film into its action sequences as fast as possible, a second look at John’s context can shed some light on his chosen path.  For one thing, recognize that John–a homeless migrant worker with no known family–has virtually zero political or economic capital–a legal recourse is outside the picture.  He was excluded from the institutions of democratic capitalism even before he realized that there was something much more sinister about his world.  The only tools he can use to rectify his situation–and possibly the only tools he even knows how to use–is whatever he can grasp with his own two hands (which in this case, was two pistols and an automatic shotgun).

John’s immediate turn to violence can also be better understood when we recognize that violence already existed prior to him killing the two cops and murdering the aliens in the banks.  But it was not the kind of violence that is typically understood as violence–that is, acts of physical harm perpetrated by an individual, onto another individual.  This is just one form of violence.  An equally important form is the violence of systems–that is, the ways that physical and psychological harms result from one’s position in the larger order of politics and economics.  This systemic violence is what already existed, by virtue of the dominance of the alien’s consumer-capitalist system and their central role in creating and reinforcing it.  And for somebody like John, who has no ability to affect the political-economic structures he finds himself in, directing his resistance against the individual subjects who run these structures is the only recourse he has.

Violence as Personal Liberation

We can elaborate on John’s use of violence through the lens of Frantz Fanon, the great Algerian anti-colonial revolutionary and philosopher.  From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

…violence is a fundamental element of colonization, introduced by the colonizers and visited upon the colonized as part of the colonial oppression.  The choice concerning violence that the colonized native must make, in Fanon’s view, is between continuing to accept it—absorbing the abuse or displacing it upon other members of the oppressed native community—or taking this foreign violence and throwing it back in the face of those who initiated it.  Fanon’s consistent existentialist commitment to choosing one’s character through one’s actions means that decolonization can only happen when the native takes up his or her responsible subjecthood and refuses to occupy the position of violence-absorbing passive victim.

We find in this passage a re-iteration of what was stated above: that violent reactions against certain individuals and spaces is not where violence initially entered the equation.  But we also find a spiritual justification for violence against an oppressor class, in that such violence is the only way to regain one’s humanity and agency in the face of the violence of colonial dehumanization and control.

Fanon was a psychologist before he was a revolutionary and a philosopher; thus, his advocacy of violence is deeply rooted in what he saw as the liberating effects of violence on the individual.  Fanon was able to see first-hand the effects of colonialism on the spiritual, emotional, and psychological well-being of indigenous Algerians, and thus emphasized the importance of resisting this dehumanization with any means possible.  As Michael Sonnleitner writes in his paper Of Logic and Liberation: Frantz Fanon on Terrorism:

Destroying the myths associated with one’s inferiority complex was seen as essential to the promotion of a new self-respect.  It also became, for Fanon, an important justification for terrorism.  In his last book he would assert that “for the native, life can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler”. Extreme violence, he argued, becomes psychologically desirable as it proves to the oppressed that the colonizer is as mortal as they are and that they are as powerful.  Such violence, from Fanon’s perspective, becomes functional as a last resort of the colonized to defend their personalities and to develop self-respect (Sonnleitner 1987: 289-290).

This perspective shines a whole new light on John’s spontaneous turn to violence.  The sunglasses shattered his reality, and his previous beliefs about human autonomy and freedom, in a matter of minutes.  And for all he knew, the newly visible masters of this horrible reality–the aliens–might have been gods.  This is why, after he shoots the first alien-cop dead, he smirks and says grimly, “So! You bastards die just like we do!”  Then, being relieved at this resurgence of his own autonomy and power, he continues this violent personal therapy by charging into the bank to kill more aliens.

Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) militants, the vanguard party of the Algerian War of Independence.

Dehumanization of the Oppressors

The fact that the film is constructed to downplay the murder of aliens also strongly echoes a Fanonist standpoint.  The bank massacre scene is shot and written such that the audience is meant to root for John as he guns down unarmed and defenseless entities; one could imagine the shock, horror, and anger that such a scene would produce in Western theaters if John were instead an African or Asian anti-colonial militant gunning down White people in an oil refinery complex or an upscale hotel.  And yet, given that the victims are dehumanized aliens–literally, not human–their violent ends mean very little to us when compared to the joy of seeing John regain his autonomy and power.  This need to dehumanize the oppressor class to make violence easier was recognized by Fanon:

The preceding master/slave commentary becomes particularly crucial in the context of Fanon’s use of the worse species.  The master-oppressor-capitalist was described by Fanon as belonging to a species different from that of the slave-oppressed-socialist.  Such a use of a word with biological connotations served to dehumanize the master (settler) in the eye of the slave (native).  As they were no longer considered to be human beings in the same sense that the natives saw themselves, the settlers were thus more easily able to be slaughtered with little or no sense of inhibition (Sonnleitner 1987: 301).

We can see now that They Live takes Fanon’s argument that the colonizers are a different species quite literally; the alien antagonists are dehumanized not through philosophical argumentation and rhetoric by anti-colonial militants, but by the very fact that they are biologically not human.  This “natural dehumanization” means that the audience will unquestioningly side with John as he cheerfully guns down alien civilians and human collaborators.  Of course, the true irony is that when real-life instances of this violent form of personal liberation is seen on the news–for instance, when Nigerian eco-militants take Chevron oil workers hostage in response to the destruction of their environment and society–this sympathy is almost never extended. The violence perpetrated by tricontinental militants resisting neocolonial institutions is seen devoid of any political, economic, or historical context, and thus such events are seen as the random work of crazed terrorists–much like how, in the beginning of They Live, the audience is puzzled to hear about spontaneous acts of violence against banks by supposedly insane individuals.

Conclusions

In short, They Live is a brilliant film, with an astounding level of philosophical depth and political satire.  It is unfortunate that so much of the popular discussion around the movie is about its standpoint of anti-consumerism, instead of its satire of colonialism and neocolonialism and the critique of modern Western attitudes toward political movements in the Third World.

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