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Eating away at all that is beautiful and noble in the human experience
What is solidarity if not the collectivizing incentive for surviving the end of the world, and to get ahead of it?
In The Trigger Effect, Matthew is at the center of how complex conflict and stratification has become in American culture—debateably he’s living life on easy-mode, but even he isn’t immune to the fallout of the effects of everything from patriarchy to the false class prerogatives of the failing middle class in the US, and its knee-jerk differentiation of itself from the working class. Matthew is financially successful, married, has a family, lives in a nice suburban home; his wife, who he is suspicious of, has a close friend who he feels, simultaneously, threatened by as a sexual rival, but leads the charge in using, what some theorists today might call, toxic masculinity to influence his thinking in a crisis (a blackout-induced panic that has led him to the decision to willingly override his better judgement and purchase a gun).
The film opens with him performatively asking his wife if he should “say something” to two Black men behind him talking during a movie; he gives them stern looks, passive-aggressively huffs, and when the men fail to notice, he asks to move seats. He spends the rest of the film avoiding one of the men, who keeps finding himself in the same places as Matthew (this is important), while Matthew, in his blind racial bias here, is intimidated, but also feels his stature is not being acknowledged as well; this comes across again when his mid-renovation home has items missing, and he and his wife derisively blame the workers. His baby is sick, and the doctor is unresponsive to this concern, so he ends up stealing Amoxicillin from a pharmacy that, during this panic, declined to check their records or make a deal with him to provide said refill script— he is sold out by another customer in line, just for the sake of it. He arrives home safely, but his one moment of denying the artificial social order in the face of its failure, he feels nothing but guilt, rather than anger at this democratizing experience that he and the other men he feels threatened by are experiencing, blind of their respective identities, as well.
This film is a reverse Falling Down situation: rather than American culture driving Matthew to effectively coup the social order, this film sees Matthew try to uphold it in the face of it collapsing around him while his neighbors openly exploit the circumstances, using the language of social justice (solidarity, collectivization) to coopt resources they have no intention of sharing. If the missing character in Falling Down was Michael Douglas’ self-awareness of the lies of American empire, the missing character here is Matthew’s sense of class consciousness— instead, he sees his neighbors descend into vigilantism, petty cop behavior to benefit capital (the narc at the pharmacy, for example), and ultimately piracy to hoard, rather than stretch collectively, resources.
In this splintering, the divisions prevalent in quotidian society (racial, gendered, class) become more pronounced as the film crescendos: Matthew is forced to take off on foot after his friend is wounded by a man who was, ostensibly, intending to menace them into giving him gas, and winds up at the home of the Black man from the beginning of the film— the disparity between himself and Matthew becomes clear, he had to hoard to stay safe and isolated from the ongoing social decay, while Matthew had, ideally, been planning to isolate in relative security from the unwashed masses, and only in this moment, realizes the missed opportunities for solidarity in the face of crisis that cannot discriminate on these bases (while the infrastructure can, indeed, discriminate based on who statistically lives in what neighborhoods, etc.) because it was intending to represent a sudden absence of the artificial social order that was hierarchically dividing them in the first place in this intersection 12 dimensional chess board, where no one knows where they stand, except that Matthew, and those like him, were allowed to feel unconcerned with the rest of it, while posing a risk to it in his apathy.
As the situation grows more dire, more people become more paranoid and desperate, racial dynamics, gender dynamics, and even the flexing between the two men, Matthew and his wife’s friend, continues to remain competitive (Matthew, while they’re fleeing the family home, asks to drive the car, for example; the two Black men are still looked at with suspicion and are targets for intimidation even amidst a situation that, somehow, fails to register to the others is a universal one at this moment; Matthew’s wife is perceived to be questioning his masculinity in his decision making throughout the movie, or is shut down when she suggests taking an initiative Matthew perceives to be his responsibility— to be clear, she does little to warrant this suspicion). When Matthew arrives at the house of the Black man on foot after his friend is shot during an (possible, we don’t know— everyone is desperate, everyone is pulling a scam on someone else) attempt to steal their gas, he responds to the skepticism of his story (as if he should be believed by default, not mistrusted as he is) by saying if he weren’t being truthful, he’d kick the door in; the man, Johnny, tells him “this won’t help you at all”— the chance for solidarity was being a decent citizen the rest of the time, not just when his friend is in trouble.
Ultimately, he learns little— life returns to normal once the power comes back, and because he came out of it unscathed, and everyone else was reduced to survivalist piracy, or was forced to give up their resources for the benefit of someone else, he only needs to be skeptical of the threats he, personally faced. His neighbor who murdered a home invader into Matthew’s home is who he is skeptical towards, not towards his role in perpetuating this society, or his own behavior. I believe this to be deliberate on the part of the director, David Koepp: how you would react in a doomsday scenario, just like you would in any other world historical event, is easily predictible by the role you play in the circumstances that lead to it; it’s an amplification of social disorder when things, temporarily even, cease normal function, not the removal of it that drives this sort of depravity.
In evaluating world historical revolutions, there’s a theory called the J-Curve of rising expectations. Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the first to use it as an explanation for why the French Revolution prospered in areas with high engagement with revolutionary activity (while the Marxist interpretation of the revolution has, largely, been recontextualized, class consciousness is a huge factor in how subsequent revolutions played out as a result of geopolitical tensions being the main driver of this sequence of events— if you take this thinking to the logical next step, and include new theories of intersectionality, etc. you can arrive at a framework for understanding how this applies to a social order that has racial or cultural tension as well, like the United States): a high-level of awareness of material concerns drove citizens together to combat the cause, rather than each other for those material resources. In this case, the United States by the 1990’s, in this film, is depicted as having conditioned Americans to be so individually interested for the benefit of those who exploit them, that they tear each other apart during a blackout with no apparent cause, which businesses dictating who gets what, rather than remaining in place and stretching their resources to reempower themselves during a time of powerlessness that only, objectively, extended to the inability to have electricity in one’s home— as far as they knew, a temporary situation.
James C. Davies used this theory of a J-curve of rising expectations to explain why so many communist revolutions historically had broken out—basically that the problems of capitalism were manifestly resolved, as Marx had observed, by communism; not necessarily a desirable state, but as the ineveitable outcome that compensates for the failure of systems that capitalism drives to the extremes (historically, this would be imperial or oligarchical power), and that false scarcity of a prevaling, unjust economic system would drive the populace to solidarity. This was not the case in this film, and as 2020 has demonstrated amongst Americans, even a basic willingness to act with a collective incentive for public health, to say nothing of political upheaval that isn’t, on some level, entirely intended to prop up systems benefiting primarily the elite.
This is how things, historically, have been observed to play out in the case of the French Revolution, for example, but let’s speak a little more generally as the circumstances may not be the same but share a dynamic: the monarchy spends lavishly at the expense of its creditors, the nobility, who themselves are enriched by the labor of their peasants, while the monarchy retains all nominal political power of consequence, even if the nobility functionally runs the state, now imagine this monarch also is embroiled in longstanding geopolitical conflict, wherein the spending is not only extreme financially but taxing on the citizenry and the ability for the nobility to retain their lifestyle, and in so doing, this sort of neofeudalist system prevails in reconcentrating political power to depose the monarch. Decades pass, systems modernize, peasants are aware of the political sea change, but the nobility fails to deliver on the prosperity that was to be shared, more revolt breaks out. Ultimately, between restorations, subsequent resolutions, a republic is founded with robust roles (in theory) for all citizenry as equals, with many of the reforms from various revolutionary periods (i.e. educational reforms originally championed by Napoleon in use into the next century after his exile). This is, ideally, how this goes: a problem is identified, and in the context of revolution, a reaction is generally proportional to the disparity between expectations and reality (a king living well while workers starve or die on his behalf in warfare— pre-revolutionary Russia, for example, an empire built on debt to other empires while starving its peasants), anywhere from procedural restructuring of the government to open militarized revolt, and as we move further and further into the modern era, this framework applies, but the nuances become less and less muted, and become the core dysfunction. Imagine a chaos map of this sort of dysfunction, which each subsequent contribution making the overall picture more difficult to resolve back into coherence and create an understandable map of the reordered data.
As we saw in the film, and reflected in today’s prevailing, almost bizarro Hegelian dialectic wherin we’re left with a synthesis that almost intentionally satisfies nobody materially at the will of the prevailing economic system (neoliberalism)— corporatist-authoritarian capitalism creates, artificially, scarcity, which creates two oppositional political frameworks as a reaction. This part is to be expected— those who “got theirs” desire a state where they, personally, remain prosperous irrespective of whether or not their stability relies on exploiting the labor of others, or those who recognize individual abundance is not an individual pursuit in any economic system (even if one is rewarded as if it is) and that a robust shared abundance breeds stability for the systemic collective, rather than the material attrition of the alternative. The warping comes in where you have these oppositional belief systems moving the goal posts about what is and is not “the problem”; it’s only when you find yourself in a situation like that of the film (which is, increasingly, a quotidian reality in many parts of the country) that it becomes obvious which not only embraces the circumstances that produces it, but encourages the disparity. Matthew’s neighbor attempting to fortify the neighborhood from potential opportunists to exclude, for example, rather than the irony of the neighborhood coming together at all for their safety as a model for the sort of confederalism that can stand-in for a temporary support system (where no collectivizing incentive exists).
Notably absent in the film is, well, The State™ except for fleeting moments of black helicopters flying overhead; no word about what is happening. What we’re to take away from this movie is that this refusal to recognize an opportunity for solidarity, but also reinforcing artificial differentiators, because of how internalized they have become, and thus biases and prejudices will out, resulting in the social order surviving, even if the people within it do not (starvation, murder, exposure, medical need, etc.) and this is the primary mission of the prevailing economic system. Taken to its logical extreme, consider what might be happening if this film took place today: corporations and politicians concerned with continuity rather that robust social ecological health, the violence in the film would be more extreme (there’s a protracted run on a gun store depicted at one point), the enforced scarcity of for-profit healthcare necessities like pharmaceuticals would be more lethal, hoarding of one’s abundances, and in all likelihood, would the racial tensions not have been potentially lethal in a film where already this dynamic of 1990’s Los Angeles is on full display off-screen just as much as it on-screen?
If the state is omnipresent absent crisis, but absent in the presence of crisis (and perhaps even benefiting from this absence in the face of crisis, if not actively perpetuating it), what synthesis possibly exists? Well, if we’re to take what happens in the next 25 years since this movie came out as informing this view (now that we find ourselves in a similar situation), we’re to believe that continuing to invest in the state can eventually lead to a solution, rather than organizing in ones community outside of electoralism and a system with no true oppositional voice to the most aggressive of enabling voices in the government, which at that point, exists only for its own sake. This is not to say that (despite evidence to support this) the state, especially a nominally representative one, cannot be reformed or restructured, but that if electoral outcomes and existing organizing is not meeting the core needs of its citizens, more is required and will, necessarily, be the only path to having those needs met. Murray Bookchin said, “What compels me to fight this society is, of course, outrage over injustice, a love of freedom, and a feeling of responsibility for perpetuating and enlarging the human spirit — its beauty, creativity, and latent capacity to improve the world. I do not care to come to terms with an irrational society that corrodes all that is valuable in humanity, that eats away at all that is beautiful and noble in the human experience.”; Absent collectivizing incentive, present the conditions of individual abdunance as a virtue, solidarity and robust self-actualization may never become a possibility, let alone the material needs required for a satiated society.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:
Surfin’ USA, by Vincent Bevins
Behemoth Rises Again, by Andreas Huyssen