Sunday, 12 April 2020

Alien: Covid-19 and Quarantine under Capitalism

Well, the times have certainly changed since my last article, which was basically a year ago.

I won't try recap everything that has happened in the past 11 months since it would be impossible considering we live in the cursed timeline where each week feels like a month but four months ago feels like only yesterday, but it is worth putting things into context for what I want to discuss. Therefore, I'll give a brief summary of the moment we are in.

Currently, we are facing a global pandemic due to Covid-19 with countries shutting down to stop the spread. This pandemic is putting the failures of neoliberalism in stark view for all to see, as free market capitalist governments ineffectively scramble to react within a system completely ill-prepare to respond to such crises.

A looming economic collapse is just on the horizon as the billionaire class hide away and governments look to give stimulus packages for big business instead of providing welfare for the working class and most vulnerable in society. To some it seems like the end of the world and we are all watching it unfold while under quarantine.

So naturally, this is the perfect time to talk about Ridley Scott's 1979 film, Alien.

A face only the corporate interests of capital could love.

Wait, what does a 41 year old horror sci-fi featuring an murderous alien killing off the crew on a spaceship have to do with a global pandemic and impending economic crisis? Oh, you sweet summer child. Far too much for comfort.

Horror has always been a genre that explicitly reflects and explores the anxieties of society. For instance, monsters are potent symbols for aspects of society, physical manifestations of our existential fears or societal concerns. We see this from vampires representing the liberal bourgeoisie elite to the social outcast. Similarly, zombies can symbols of relentless consumerism or the loss of agency, depending on how the film decides to use them or what message it wants to get across.

However, it isn't just the monsters in horror which can reflect our societal anxieties or comment on our political moment but also the narratives within horror. This can be obvious, such as the allegorical exploration of liberal racism in Get Out (2017), directed by Jordan Peele, or oblique, such as the critique of middle class anxiety and fear of the other in Us (2019), directed by Jordan Peele.

With Alien, the obvious connection is that the events of the film are literally about a quarantine break. The crew allows an infected person onto the ship which results in the death of all but one of the crew. To be specific, it's the Science Officer Ash who actually breaks quarantine but we'll get to him later, don't you worry.

In our current moment, self-isolating and maintaining quarantine is paramount to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and avoid the illness or death of our loved ones and neighbours.

I mean, she's not wrong.

"Okay, sure." you might say. "So, there's a broken quarantine in the film Alien which results in people dying, an important lesson for us to learn as we have to live in quarantine in real life but that's like one scene in the film. It's not like you can really extrapolate much more from the film to our current situation than that."

"And how does this relate to capitalism? You mentioned capitalism in your title. Did you forget? By the way, what does capitalism even have to do with the Covid-19 pandemic or quarantine, anyway?"

Thanks hypothetical reader asking the specific questions I'm about to answer. You're correct, one scene about not breaking quarantine is not really enough to connect Alien to the pandemic, aside from teaching us not to break quarantine. Luckily, I did not in fact forget about capitalism and actually have more to say about both it and the film.

Unfortunately, so many of us do forget about capitalism, and this is intentional. Capitalism affects all aspects of our lives to the point it is just invisible background white noise - as just the way things are and can only be. People do not question it or even think that any alternatives are viable.

"Can you hear that? For a second it sounded like the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat."

This is literally what Mark Fisher termed 'capitalist realism', the "widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it". We have become so conditioned to seeing capitalism as the only way of doing things that we no longer question it or even see how it shapes our lives everyday.

Just like the "invisible hand" of the market, capitalism shapes our lives in seemingly arbitrary ways unless we understand the fundamental goal of capitalism is to accrue more capital by any means. Capitalism does not care about people, only profit.

This is particularly the case since neoliberalism has been the dominant ideology of the past 30-40 years, an ideology which sees privatization and free market capitalism as not only ideal but natural. Neoliberal capitalism is the extension of the "profit, not people" ethos to the extreme. It's literally the idea that society works best when it's run by the free market, despite literally all evidence to the contrary.

As this article by Organise Aotearoa outlines, "Under neoliberalism, austerity is everything. The existence of everything, often including human life, has to be justified in terms of cost-effectiveness, self-reliance, and interoperability with the rest of the system."

This is why wages have remain stagnant for the past 30 years despite the fact that productivity has increase exponentially, resulting in the Productivity-Pay Gap. It's why social benefits have been relentlessly cut due to austerity policies. It's why the gap between the rich and the poor has grown so insurmountably massive in recent decades. It's why, although the amount of billionaires has sky-rocketed, the working class still bear the brunt of taxes. That's neoliberalism, baby.

Left: Employer has $$$$$$ from which to pay the Worker.
Middle: Worker is paid $$ by Employer.
Right: Privatised Housing & Healthcare is charges the Worker $$.
Now, I'm no mathematician but I think this leaves the Worker with, uh, let's see... bugger all.

The above image comes from a neat video by Carlos Maza, which very simply and succinctly breaks down how neoliberal capitalism, specifically in the US, is uniquely unequipped to deal with crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic. I don't want to rehash his points here but suffice to say, it's hard to argue otherwise. I mean, have you looked at the world lately?

But what does all this have to do with Alien? Quite a lot actually or I wouldn't have brought it all up. The message from neoliberal governments in the face of this pandemic after only a few weeks of shutdown is "get back to work", to get things back to normal as soon as possible.

Even in Aotearoa New Zealand where I live, a country which has been praised for its response to the pandemic and has been under shutdown for nearly three weeks, there have been grumblings from some sectors that the shutdown has worked well enough and everyone should get back to work shortly in order to save the economy.

Bear in mind, we are supposed to be in shutdown and self-isolation for at least four weeks and they can barely handle a fortnight before wanting to risk people's safety and lives for the market.

Which brings us back to Science Officer Ash.

I told you I would get round to him. 

In Alien, Ash is revealed to be an android [spoilers for a movie from 1979, I guess] operating on secret orders from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation that his number one priority is to bring back the alien life-form and to consider the crew "expendable" in achieving this goal.

Put a pin in that for a moment.

Remember when I discussed how we tend to forget about capitalism since it's all around us? Well, that extends to class consciousness. We don't see each other as all belonging to a shared class but rather as isolated individuals operating within society. Which is ridiculous of course, class is a huge factor in the quality of our lives and our material conditions. But why am I talking about class?

Since we are conditioned not to think about class, most people don't really acknowledge that the crew of the Nostromo are working class folk doing a working class job. In space!

As the late great Roger Ebert said in his retrospective review of the film, "These are not adventurers but workers, hired by a company to return 20 million tons of ore to Earth." And he's right.

Ripley putting in the appropriate level of effort for a wage slavery job.

By the way, this is also why the Nostromo looks less high-tech than the ships in the prequel films Prometheus and Alien: Convenant - it's a bloody freighter, not a luxury cruiser. This tangent has no relevance to my argument but I thought I'd point it out. It just bugs me when people complain about the Nostromo being low tech in comparison as though this is a flaw in continuity, when they are comparing top of the line scientific vessels to what is basically an intergalactic truck.

Getting back on track, the fact we ignore the crew's class is kind of fascinating since the movie repeatedly hits you over the head with its awareness of class, specifically through the engineers Parker and Brett. Parker is forever trying to haggle better wages on behalf of Brett and himself, who, as the blue collar workers of the crew, have been stiffed on their contracts compared to their crew members.

However, although Parker "is vocal about his desires to be equal to the rest of the crew", as this article by Film School Rejects points out, "he is constantly shot down or ignored" due to his status as both a blue collar work and a black man.

The article goes on to state, "Within Scott’s examination of capitalistic power structures lies a critique on race as well and how those who are not white are even further exploited for their labor; Parker should work for less money and be happy about it."

"So, you're saying I should just accept racial oppression and capitalist exploitation?
Sounds like a crap deal to me. Can I talk to my union rep?"

Now, since we don't acknowledge the crew as working class people being exploited by the capitalist corporate elite, we tend to view them merely as individuals trying to survive a murderous alien. The problem with ignoring class is that it becomes easier to miss how they are all similarly exploited by the corporation which cares more about profit (procuring the Xenomorph) than people (the crew).

Let's take that out that pin now. As we know, the crew are viewed as expendable by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. And who is the representative of this corporation? A soulless synthetic android. It couldn't be more on the nose if they tried.

Ash has been ordered by the corporation to bring back the Xenomorph at the expense of the crew, essentially to sacrifice the crew on the alter of capitalism. Remember, these are orders he cannot disobey since he is an android. He is merely a cog in the machine, the ideal worker under capitalism, and as such, he treats the human workers as beneath him.

The rest of the crew have value only when they are useful to achieving the mission. Once they are no longer useful, they are disposable. For instance, Kane's body is used up and broken in order to transport the alien fetus on board the ship. He is reduced to a vessel and once he has achieved his job, he is discarded.

Of course, I linked the chestburster scene. It's an article on Alien, I think it's contractually mandated that every discussion of Alien should include the chestbuster scene. Coincidentally, it's the capitalist bootlicker who prevents the working class hero from killing the alien. Funny that.

Now, let's contrast Ash's dispassionate and inhuman treatment of the crew with Ripley's reaction when she finds out what Ash's secret orders are. She is not only shocked and upset but angry and disbelieving. Her reaction is emotional, visceral and, well, human. I hope I making the point clear.

I would also say it is not insignificant that it is only when the surviving crew members, Parker, Lambert and Ripley, work together that they are able to decapitate Ash and learn the truth about how they have been exploited by the corporation. It's almost like they need to build solidarity or something...

So, how does all this relate to Covid-19? Well, just like the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and Ash, the conglomerates and politicians who serve them are saying that people should not only sacrifice themselves to save the economy but be happy to do so, as outlined in this Washington Post article.

"Let's get back to work, let's get back to living... and those of us who are 70 plus will take care of ourselves but don't sacrifice the country." - An actual Lieutenant Governor, and not a cartoon villain, apparently.  

The Trump administration has repeated downplayed the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic even as the US has the most cases of any country, with just over 500,000 confirmed cases at time of writing.

Not to mention, we have Republican senators like Richard Burr, who, after having being briefed about the impending pandemic in January, decide to sell off millions of dollars in stocks before the market dropped due to fears about the pandemic. He of course did this while simultaneously keeping his constituents in the dark about the scale of the threat.

Naturally, he is not the only one, as at least three other senators were caught in the act, including a Democrat Dianne Feinstein because liberals are also capitalist stooges and not immune to crass opportunism in the midst of a pandemic. A pandemic which will inevitably disproportionately impact the working class and poor they are supposed to represent. Of course, neither Barr or the other senators will face any genuine consequences, legal or otherwise, from the current system.

Just like Ash and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, under neoliberal capitalism, politicians and multi-billion conglomerates will sacrifice us at a moments notice to maintain their capital. They will happily let us all be brutally murdered one by one by a perfect organism whose structural perfection is matched only by its hostility than sacrifice a penny of their profits.

This is the lesson that Alien teaches us in this time of quarantine under capitalism.

I hope it is one we heed and learn well.

P.S. After I finished writing this, I watched Thought Slime's "Top 5 Anti-Capitalist Horror Movies" video and they described the capitalist horror of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation in Alien far better and more succinctly that I do here. Typical. Give the video a watch by the way, it's great.


Alien (1979) - Wikipedia

Alien (film) - Xenopedia

Covid-19 and the new era

The Productivity–Pay Gap

Growth in World's Billionaires

Coronavirus and the American death cult

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?

Great Movies: Alien (1979)

In ‘Alien,’ Horror Comes In The Form of Labor Exploitation

A viral plea to let grandparents sacrifice themselves captures a truth about Trump

Republican senator urged to quit after report he sold stocks before Covid-19 market plunge

US senators accused of insider trading