"On the one hand, the author of the letter is a sort of eye, a sort of source of supervision for the person to whom he addresses his advice and opinion. Seneca tells Lucilius: When I send you a letter giving you advice, in a way it is as if I myself were coming to see you and check what you are doing. But on the other hand, inasmuch as he recounts his own life, what he is doing, his choices, hesitations, and decisions, the person who writes the letter puts his own life under the watchful eye of his addressee. The two correspondents, author and addressee of the missive, are thus subject to each other’s watchful eye. Correspondence is a practice of the true life as unconcealed life, that is to say, as life under the both real and virtual eye of the other."
Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth: Lectures at the Collège de France, 252
I just watched the 2011 film Margin Call yesterday, set in the 2008 financial crash, and was really wowed by it. Not necessarily because it’s great cinema, or because it’s philosophically profound, or because it has good emotional characterisation. It fails to achieve those qualities to various degrees, but to the extent that it succeeds it is something rather more significant. It reminds me of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s classic 1940 novel about Stalin’s show trials, although really it’s about a greater issue: the collapse of trust in an ideology.
I’ll admit that I’m in love with the intellect and power portrayed in Margin Call. Yet, although it has the flashy mathematics (or movie-script version thereof) and suits, it actually shows their limits. Mathematics provides no solution, merely a stark depiction of the situation; power is constrained to work within the existing networks of greed and strength. No-one’s even really shown making an unexpected power-play, there’s not much narrative tension (that is, given that we’ve seen the actual crash happen); despite the premise that the firm’s trading has gone outside historical limits, exposing it to catastrophic losses, what actually happens occurs within preset limits of the firm within the market. After the beginning, there are no more surprises. And even that one, it is repeatedly hinted, is not that much of a surprise.
Similarly, in Darkness at Noon you always know that Rubashov, the Old Bolshevik, is going to be executed. It’s not even a matter of when or how, although it is to some extent a matter of why. This is because Koestler was writing in the aftermath of the worst period of Stalin’s terror, in 1936-7; and also immediately after the great betrayal of Communist ideals in the Hitler-Stalin (or Molotov-Ribbentrop) Pact of 1939, a crushing blow to European anti-fascists still attached to the Party. The crux of the argument, as presented by Koestler, is whether Rubashov should accept his fate at the hand of a capricious dictatorship because through it acts the Revolution, the historically inevitable but subjectively fallible progress of man, as a collective; or if there is enough value in man, as an individual, to assert their moral right over political exigency (and inevitability).
(I use the term man here advisedly; this, and other books in the genre and period, are about men, written by men, concerning primarily values in the abstract, and secondarily the very serious emotions they produce in those men. I’ll admit I’m equally in love with the historico-political profundity, although I’d argue that it’s not necessarily gendered except by default - I’m sure women of the time could write and think the same, when allowed. See Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for an account of a slightly later but similar period - the 1950s - from the perspectives of Communism and feminism, and where Koestler is referred to as a “swine”. As for Margin Call, it fails the Bechdel test because the only time two women converse they are engaged in firing Stanley Tucci. Demi Moore has a fairly strong part as an older, senior executive (and in one excellent scene she and the guy from The Mentalist talk over a silent cleaning lady in an elevator) but while the rest of the film is almost entirely about men, and how they wrecked the global economy, I would argue that it doesn’t display any unnecessary machismo.)
A similar theme pops up in Margin Call, once it becomes clear the firm’s holdings are to be ‘liquidated’ (the same word used to describe political executions in Stalin’s Russia; the film also begins with a purge, in the form of layoffs). Zachary Quinto’s character - it’s so hard not to see him as young Spock - poses the question as to whether the course of action is “necessary.. or right”? Needless to say, he is in no position to influence the outcome, although he is the one who discovered the horrible truth (Rubashov’s guilt is not in any of his real actions; although it is perhaps in his awareness of the guiltiness of the system). By this stage it has already been established that what is right “can come in several interpretations”; more prosaically, it is identified solely with the need of the firm and its wealthy owner(s) to accrue their own best advantage.
It is at this point that I see an ideological parallel between Darkness at Noon and Margin Call, or better perhaps, a mirror image. The first is about the flaw in Communism that crushes individual lives (altogether rising to a great number) in pursuit of what, subjectively, may or may not ultimately benefit ‘the masses’, but which objectively we must have a paradoxical faith in as the supremely rational interpretation of history. The second is not so much about any fervent belief in the market, as a practical commitment to the acquisition of wealth - and its mathematical techniques - which lead however to the inevitability of capitalism’s structural problems as the ruling logic of human life.
In each case there is a profound fatalism mixed with what is ostensibly a criticism of the subject at hand. If Darkness at Noon was an anti-communist novel (although Koestler expressed the Bolshevik viewpoint so well, or at least appeared to, that some thought he was still a Communist - including the FBI), then there’s a good case for arguing that Margin Call is an anti-capitalist film, or at least an anti-financial capitalism one. Each at least implicitly offers the temptation to believe that reform of the current system is impossible - either economically, taming the markets through regulation, or politically, allowing for a democratic revolution - but in painting such a gloomy picture of the status quo and, as it were, reifying its ideology it perhaps makes the argument for it. That at least is what I see as the main and deepest theme of the criticism of Darkness at Noon, from the divergent viewpoints of George Orwell to Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
As I read it, the latter’s Humanism and Terror, first published in Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes of which he was the political editor, is part attack on Koestler and apologia for Stalinism, but also takes the heartless logic Koestler was supposedly criticising and expands on it as a justification for a pro-Communist political position (now in post-war France; Merleau-Ponty eventually broke with Stalinism during the Korean War). It becomes whatever is the opposite of an immanent critique; or alternatively, a sort of Pascal’s Wager on the progress of History (l’Histoire, always capitalised). The ever astute Orwell, writing a few years earlier, pointed out that by caricaturing the philosophical motivations of the Bolsheviks Koestler ultimately fails to reveal all that much about them and fails to acknowledge his lack of a viable and coherent alternative. For Orwell, “all revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure”.
Margin Call indulges in occasional philosophising about the market and man’s place in it. In one scene, in a way rather reminiscent of Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev where one character has to bring back an exiled Old Bolshevik to face a show trial, the fired ex-manager in the risk department, who began the uncovering of the financial catastrophe, is tracked down to his new home in leafy Brooklyn at dawn. In being persuaded to return to the firm by a mixture of coercion and recompense, he recounts how he once built a bridge in his former career as an engineer and how he has calculated all the objective time saved from people’s commutes. As if that represented a ‘real’ value to be weighed against the smoke and mirrors of the financial market; for Koestler (who studied to be an engineer before abandoning it for journalism and political activism) mathematics and physics represent the tangible certainty that the Bolsheviks thought they, too - or maybe it was just him - had found in Communism. By contrast, Zachary Quinto’s analyst character was a ‘rocket scientist’ with an advanced degree from MIT before joining finance for the money.
It all culminates in a monologue by the boss man, played by Jeremy Irons, in the executive dining room looking out over New York. Capitalism is an endless cycle, with winners and losers always in the same proportion, and all we can do is try to win as much and as often as possible - but the next crash will always come. Kevin Spacey’s character, who is about to quit in disgust and exhaustion at what the firm forces him to do, backs down: not, he says, because of the speech, but simply because he “needs the money”. In this way the film cleverly disavows the power of its own spoken ideology, by implying that the more fundamental force is just built-in human desires (an ideological position in itself, needless to say).
Darkness at Noon attempted to resolve its own philosophical dilemma by turning Rubashov’s eventual surrender into a kind of existential gesture, or act of faith. In the future, perhaps, we will have some kind of humane socialism, but for now there is no option (for the Bolshevik, at least) of rejecting the brutal regime that orders your own execution. Margin Call is distinctly less optimistic, in that it doesn’t even hold out the hope of a better capitalism (only one in which you may, for a time, make a lot of money) but it does emphasise the lack of any other choice. The problem is that what each portrays as an inevitable vice, the systems’ defenders turn into an inherent virtue: what is Communism but humanity’s progress into the next stage of social evolution; what is capitalism but the free pursuit of happiness? By representing each as an ideology with such a firm grip on the human mind, even in failure, we guarantee their continued success. Perhaps we need to reject ideas altogether - although that is the one thing we certainly cannot do.
Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth - 22 February 1984, 153
As I mentioned before, a poignant aspect of this work is that Foucault died soon after giving the lectures, and throughout there are all these hints of doubt and expressions of regret about whether he’ll get to cover a topic or give it enough space. Of course all the lectures are him basically experimenting with ideas in some form or another, and not sticking strictly to his original plan, but while in The Birth of Biopolitics (1978-1979) he seems almost cavalier in digressing into different centuries or philosophies, here he approaches an understandable frankness about the limitations of his (life’s, work’s) course. The ‘Course Context’ by Frédéric Gros at the back of the book has this to say about the above lecture and the evolution of Foucault’s view of individualism:
”.. the two statements Foucault arrives at in 1984, and which we cannot separate from his struggle against disease and his death in June, would be: it is not death that frightens me, but the interruption of my task; of all diseases, the one which is genuinely mortal is the disease of discourses (false clarity and deceptive self-evidence), and right to the end philosophy cures me of it. Finally we should note that the whole of Socrates’ last words (take care of it, don’t neglect my request: me ameleste) refers to the epimeleia dear to Foucault. This care of self, which Foucault wanted to place at the heart of ancient ethics, will have been in fact the last word on Socrates’ lips.
But it still remains to show, and this is the whole stake of the 1984 lectures, that this care of self, which in 1982 [The Hermeneutics of the Subject] was understood simply as a specific structuring of the subject irreducible to the Christian or transcendental model (neither the subject of confession nor the transcendental ego), is also a care for truth-telling , which calls for courage, and especially a care for the world and for others, demanding the adoption of a ‘true life’ as continuous criticism of the world.”