Robocop: Capitalism and the Militarization of the Homeland
Part I: "The Near Future"
In 1987, the film "Robocop" was released as a "near-future-dystopian-drama" with little grounding in reality and the politics of the day. The themes however, are pervasive and highly applicable when studying the late stages of capitalism and corporatism as well as a militarized police force at home.
The film is set in the near future in a crime ridden, poverty destroyed Detroit. In this future Detroit, public debts and inflation along with economic turmoil has forced public services to be cut or, in the case of the police department, outsourced to private contractors. This outsourcing causes outrage among the police officers who view their jobs as being taken over by machines, like has been done in the auto-industry today, and thus putting their livelihood in jeopardy. This caused a workers strike and that gives the organized crime within the city more leeway. The story line follows officer Alex J. Murphy who was recently transferred to the Detroit precinct where he began to work with his partner, Anne Lewis. On their first mission, Murphy and Lewis had to catch the leaders of a notorious criminal gang. In the scene, Lewis was incapacitated (Murphy was unaware of this) and thus Murphy had to continue the mission alone. He then stormed the gang's lair and thought he had won because he killed two of the members. But that wasn't the case. The leader of the gang, Clarence, stepped out and ordered the rest of his men to open fire on Murphy "killing" him. The next few scenes are Murphy being evacuated and "saved" by having cybernetic body parts grafted to him so he can become the ultimate crime fighting machine.
Shoving aside the mindless killing and violence endemic of modern cinema, one can peel away the layers of "Robocop" and understand the multilayered critique of the trend that the overlap between capitalism and politics necessitates. In the film, Detroit is portrayed as a city destroyed by poverty and riddled with violence and crime in need of clean up, and in subsequent films in the series, rebuilding. This violence and crime, while not explicitly stated, is a direct result from the increasing privatization of industries and the reification of capital via the consumer mentality. Specifically, the privatization of the police force by Omni-Consumer Products serves to scare the workers while contracting out crime for profit. This contracting out of crime leads directly to the late stages of capitalism which is an increase in the rich-poor gap of an area as well as an increase in the size of mega-corporations. This gap as well as the growth of industry causes displacement of peoples, as was seen by the workers strike and the crime in the film, which in turn leads to increased poverty and subsequent violence as people fight to just get by day to day. What's more, privatization leads to corruption and collusion between the "public servants" and the mob leaders as a more efficient means to make a profit because crime is thus for profit. This increase in poverty and violence as well as, to some extent, systemic violence necessitates an expanded police force to maintain the "security" that the bourgeois need and the "order" Western society is so attracted to.
But the issue of an expanded police force in a city of economic woes raises the following question: how will it be paid for publicly? The answer: more privatization. Not only does this raise questions about the ethics of privatizing public services, but it feeds back into the cycle that caused the economic woes to begin with which means that it creates a form of economic positive feedback loop. But I digress, the point is that in an increasing zone of poverty and violence, more police action is needed is this action, in the film, comes in the form of a privatized security force. The privatized security force culminates in the creation of the so called "Robocop" out of the bullet riddled remains of Alex Murphy. This half man-half machine has a set of preprogrammed rules that it has to follow. However, these rules don't inherently mean that he is accountable and/or controllable, rather, he is accountable to a few...the elite. This lack of accountability mixed with a police force that is more akin to the battle droids in the Star Wars prequels leads to an undesirable breeding of capitalism and sovereign power.
What's more, in this police super state, the criminal ceases to be just the criminal, rather, he becomes an enemy. He is defined as an enemy to the state and the security of populace paving the way for abuses of rights and violence against the citizenry in the name of "order" and "security". This is exemplified in the film by Robocop's rules, specifically, the one that is classified and kept secret not only from him, but from the police force as a whole. This extra legality and the excessive use of force followed by the political killing places the enemy in a state of exception and subjects them to a form of barelife or homo sacer.
Part II: "The Now"
Bearing in mind the setting for the film, it is best read as an allegory for what is going on in cities around the country and penal systems across the globe. The negative aspects of capitalism combined with the negative aspects of a police state are all manifest in the film and each has an outcome less desirable than the last. In this section, I will be examining the aforementioned themes in the context of the world today as well as the impacts to each.
The reification of capital and rampant consumerism turns people into mere objects in the hands of corporations. Persons are no longer viewed as sovereign people, rather, they are viewed as tools to make more money. This is manifest in the late stages of capitalism that we are in now where corporations willingly exploit workers and even consumers to gain a profit. Additionally, the privitization of the police force exacerbates this by making criminality and prosecution/incarceration of criminals a business. This new form of big business encourages increased rates of conviction (specifically among the lowest rungs of society in what some call "structural violence") as well as decreased conditions within prisons. Further, the corruption that is encouraged by the merger of capital and police is net bad for society because it leads to a militarized homeland that encourages a progessively invasive police state. The implications of this police state were seen shortly after the Boston Bombing wherein military vehicles were used in the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his Miranda Rights weren't read in whatwas called a "public safety exception".
But it gets more exciting: the enemy creation that occurs when the criminal ceases to be human and is viewed as a threat to safety opens the door to unlimited sovereign violence because anything that can be done to stop the "evil-dooers" is seen as just. And finally, this form of the state defining which types of life are valuable and not renders life open to what Giorgio Agamben calls "bare life", where the other is viewed as disposable and their value to life is crushed because they are seen as less than human.
1: Reification, in Marxist theory, is the idea that the logic of capitalism spreads to all other facets of human life thus creating a form a deadweight capital that permeates all sectors of life (both public and private).
2: (Spoiler alert - in the second film, Omni-Consumer Products actually tries to get Detroit to default on their debts)
3: The Rules are as follows:
a: Serve the Public Trust
b: Protect the Innocent
c: Uphold the Law
d: [Classified] - later revealed as "any attempt to arrest a senior officer of OCP results in shut down"
4: The Internationalist Perspective: a classical Marxist quasi-think tank. Internationalist Perspective #36, spring 2000 < http://www.reocities.com/wageslavex/capandgen.html> accessed 7/5/12
5: Mumia Abu-Jamal, award-winning PA journalist, 9/19/98, http://www.flashpoints.net/mQuietDeadlyViolence.html
6: "Salon." Saloncom RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://www.salon.com/2013/09/23/6_shocking_revelations_about_how_private_prisons_make_money_partner/>.
7: "Private prisons demand states maintain maximum capacity or pay fees | The Raw Story." Private prisons demand states maintain maximum capacity or pay fees | The Raw Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/09/20/low-crime-rates-bad-for-business-so-private-prisons-require-maximum-capacity/>.
8: "American Civil Liberties Union." American Civil Liberties Union. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <https://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights-criminal-law-reform/anonymous-exposes-uss-biggest-private-prison-company-bad>.
9: "Jailhouse Crock: Are Private Prisons a Problem?." Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-26/jailhouse-crock-are-private-prisons-a-problem-.html>.
11: Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, “Criminals and enemies? The Mexican drug trafficker in official discourse and in narcocorridos,” translated by Fernanda Alonso, published 2012
12: Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, pg. 139-140