Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Capitalist Realism

Characteristic of much socialist realism was admiration of the working folk and denigration of the intelligentsia. In one review, Barańczak writes “and what fine fellows the intellectuals depicted in the novel are! … a group of constantly complaining wise guys from a Warsaw pseudo-salon (each and every one of them a degenerate…)”(7) In a review of another hack he writes “Z. Zeydler-Zborowski's speciality is describing life in the upper circles and an exceptional lack of intelligence in all of his heroes,”(8) heroes also marked by “manly candidness” and a dislike of “fops with soft, womanly movements and languishing looks.”(9) He describes how in one socialist realist novel the immense technical problem of the excavator is solved not by the professor (who built the thing), not the engineer, nor the manager of the mine, but by a simple mining foreman.“(10) Instead of dividing people into good and bad, honest and dishonest, the production novel divides them into productive workers and parasites. This division coincides almost exactly with another: 'plain working people' and 'over refined intellectuals'.”(11) In one wonderful scene in a now forgotten novel (publisher: Poland's Ministry for Defence) a lieutenant forces some student army conscripts who have been caught defacing military property to engage in a “sincere and spontaneous” discussion of the army. Shamed, the students later return and spontaneously erase their graffiti. Barańczak comments: “It would be difficult to find a better example of the triumph of simple sincerity over the miasma of the intelligentsia.”(12)

Difficult but not impossible. Try “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Legally Blonde,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “Pretty Woman”… The American version is only slightly different. Intelligence is alright, but only if of the folk-wisdom variety, and education is suspect, unless gained “on the street.” In “Patch Adams” the main character (played by Robin Williams) bemoans the fact that as a medical student he will not get to meet real patients until he is in third year. Two whole years of learning before he can get stuck in: it's more than a plain, sincere etc. man can take. Or witness “Erin Brockovich,” smiter of the Big Bad Corporation: she joins a law firm as a humble filing clerk, takes on the suits, and wins. Then there is “Die Hard,” which pits John McClane, an ordinary, straight-t
alking, working cop, against a fiendishly clever gang of euroterrorists. The highly-trained suit-wearing anti-terrorist specialists from the FBI are outsmarted by the criminal gang, but not the sweating McClane, who also sees the folly in the smarmy yuppie hostage's attempts to cut a deal with the terrorists. Other enemies of the plain people of America – the perfidious media – also get their comeuppance: too clever for their own good, their success in getting an interview with McClane's family jeopardises the lives of the hostages. It need hardly be said that McClane's personal life is complicated, but he wins back his estranged wife from the lures of the corporate life. Socialist realist admiration of the working folk and denigration of the intelligentsia is well documented – but has enough attention been paid to capitalist realist lip service to the working man?

How many times have we seen the girl almost fall for a university-educated high-flying habitué of exclusive (frequently French) restaurants and cocktail bars in Manhattan when we know that the man for her is the rough-hewn, inarticulate plain bloke who, baseball cap on head, swigs beer from the bottle in a roadhouse with mandatory pool table and jukebox and peopled by the lower classes (tarts with hearts, truckers, factory workers who have just been laid off by educated people, wearers of checked shirts etc.)? In American films the rich-poor, sophisticated-simple, devious-direct divide often falls along urban-rural or North-South lines or both, as in “Sweet Home Alabama.” The girl in such films spends almost the whole film getting it all wrong about which one is right for her – the lawyer or the trucker – but the unfortunate viewer is in no such doubt, for, as one commentator writes, the recipient must not be allowed to form his own opinion of whether something is good or bad; it must be spelled out. True, the reference was to the state-controlled press in 1980s Poland, but it has a wider application(13). Edward Możejko also draws attention to the black and white nature of judgements in socialist realist literature. Questions raised are answered unequivocally. Sound familiar? He likens socialist realist poetics to the Western(14).

Jerzy Kwiatkowski writes of Mrożek's parody Postępowiec (The Progressive) that it lampoons the naiveté of Communist Poland propaganda, a naiveté stemming from the authorities' ignorance of the living conditions of the people.(15) Ludwik Flaszen also complained of the writers of formulaic socialist realist novels that, often coming from narrow, intelligentsia circles, they know about problems from the point of view of ideological decisions, not of real life observation and experience.(16) It is often hard to escape the impression that modern American propaganda is also out of touch with reality, also – despite the glorification of the common man – manufactured by wealthy sophisticates who are wildly misinformed about the reality of the rich-poor divide. Sure, when it comes to the rich they're spot on with their luxury cars, clothes and condominiums, or so the majority of us, not part of this world, must assume. But the poor? The simple folk? If they are urban and black and appearing in music videos they usually live in a ghetto inhabited exclusively by models where no one works but everyone has a big car. Away from the gritty realism of the hip hop video the poor live in – maybe not palaces – but comfortable, rambling old properties with a lorry (sometimes affectionately known as a “pick-up” and with a token dent or two to indicate its extreme decrepitude) parked out back. In “Sweet Home Alabamardquo; Jake (the name alone should be enough to peg him as working class) is the proud owner of an aeroplane! Propaganda, Michał Głowiński notes, is to be constructive even at the cost of being absurd and primitive.(17)Notting Hill” is the tale of a love affair between a rich, sophisticated actress and an ordinary, regular bloke. A bloke who owns a bookshop. Lots of regular blokes own bookshops, don't they? Or if not, then some small business in imminent danger of being swallowed up or pushed aside by a giant corporation – such as a chain of video stores renting blockbusting, commercial films, for example. In all this there are shades of Orwellian doublethink: we sit watching films made by massive corporations consisting of highly-educated accountants and lawyers that extol the virtues of the simple folk in their struggle against accountants and lawyers.

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