Misimpression in the Jungle
The folly of utopia, mass movements, and the commoditized validation of a distorted ideal.
The mythos of relief for westerners from the excesses of westerners consumerism is a comparatively old trope, and one that plays out predictibly in the media; curiously enough, even in depiction, the most sympathetic to this notion portray this desire as the oppositional (and less desirable) “extreme” to American capitalism. The problem with this is that only one extreme on this supposed spectrum is ever couched in terminology like hubris and miscalculative egomania. Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast, based on the novel of the same name by Paul Theroux, is one such story, and I note this as a minor exception for its insistence that embracing anti-capitalism, and a separatist ideal, can easily be corrupted, at the expense of realizing this is a personal journey into the psychology of all communalistic thought.
There’s a line, intended as a criticism of Fourierists (but of utopians writ large), in the film Metropolitan, “When you’re an egoist, none of the harm you do is intentional.” More directly, Murray Bookchin puts it: “We have permitted cynical political reactionaries and the spokesmen of large corporations to pre-empt these basic libertarian American ideals. We have permitted them not only to become the specious "voice" of these ideals such that individualism has been used to justify egotism”. and this is the philosophical framing for why The Mosquito Coast's Allie Fox, an Ivy League dropout inventor relocating his family from the United States to the eponymous Mosquito Coast to build a town he purchased, Jeronimo, and build a new society free of the commercialism of how he describes the conditions of the US:
And, fundamentally, his grievances are correct; a society that rewards corruption, where myth after bootstrapping myth exposed as an oppressive lie persists as moral guidance in “earning” one’s keep in a rigged society incapable of honesty, educational institutions that reward effective self-promoters rather than truthseeking. It’s not hard to see why his son, played by River Phoenix in the film, idolizes Fox.
In the book Last Night at the Viper Room, from the perspective of River Phoenix, this is a familiar paradigm:
Harrison Ford’s character, Allie Fox, becomes disgusted with the UnitedStates and its disposable consumer culture. A genius inventor working as ahandyman in Massachusetts, he packs up his wife and four children andbooks passage on a freighter bound for the “Mosquito Coast,” the junglestretching from Guatemala to Panama. From the boat, Fox shouts, “Good-bye, America, and have a nice day!”This was not the exact trajectory of the Phoenix family, but their south-of-the-border odysseys was also rooted in contempt for the excesses ofAmerican materialism. Utopia collapses for the Foxes, just as it did for thePhoenixes. Allie Fox buys an abandoned town named Jeronimo and tries toturn it into a thriving jungle village, with an ice-making business at itscenter. The town is fueled by his hubris; when hoods with guns find it andtry to take over, he blows the whole thing up.The family ends up floating down the river on a boat, with Charlie(River’s character) exiled to a smaller trailing boat for the sin ofinsufficient belief in his father. When they try to make shelter on a beach, astorm blows everything away. The beliefs of the patriarch have proved to beno more reliable than a makeshift tent.“The Mosquito Coast tells you to be true to someone you love,” Riveropined. (Not necessarily the most obvious moral—one could say it tells youto beware of how a loved one can take you to places you shouldn’t go, butthat wasn’t something River wanted to say out loud, or maybe even think.)“I knew that character so well because I was that character. I knew hiswhole path,” River said.
River’s insight into the allure of Ford’s character is succinct, and hits at the core of why people join cults, believing themselves to be entering communalistic, equitible, and comprehensibly fair societies. That Phoenix is traumatized by his own experience with the Children of God cult, but identifies with many of its nominal precepts, more or less validates Bookchin’s assertion that good ideals (in this case, disgust with consumerism) can be re-packaged (using Ford as the avatar for a new dictatorship of personality rather than of commerce, instead of a socialistic outcome one might expect here if the goal were to rebuild society, not merely insulate Ford from said society) to serve an egoistic end; in this case, Ford’s Allie Fox wanted to be a philosopher king, not a failed inventor who moved his family to the jungle only to realize he didn’t know shit about the people who lived there, and how his invention (an machine to manufacture blocks of ice— one of which melts en route to a demonstration of his skill) would be the basis of a technocratic dictator ship of the one best suited to meet his own expectations (something even his protege, Phoenix, fails to do in this narrative, despite being the truest believer until, well, he wasn’t).
This is similar to why anyone joins any cult: They identify a problem in society, but without the consciousness to identify the cause, they fall victim to the self-assuredness of someone claiming not only to have the answers, but the only one capable of perceiving them as such. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, loosely based on the story of L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, is another such story—a post-war generation of young people orphaned by what is supposed to be the freest, richest nation on the planet, besieged by poverty, mental illness, and instability, who else but a father figure like Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, could deftly enlist them into evanglism for The Cause, and weaponize them as true believers in a holy war on the rightful skeptics, within and out the movement?
This phenomenon, as Eric Hoffer will put it in The True Believer, of mass movements of this sort are predicated on the "desire for change" from people believing in a purely external locus for their circumstances, that things beyond their control can be tamed, and these movements promise to share the answer, if you seek enlightenment down their path, and this sells because, like Dodd and Fox, the leader will be self-assured to the point of exceeding arrogance, closed to the notion that they do not possess the answer:
“The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.”
The “converts”, of course, as Hoffer identified, are those marginalized in ways that keep them at arm’s length from society; in the case of Dodd, it was the traumatized Freddie Quell, with Fox, it was his family who watched his struggle between his mechanical brilliance but total lack of emotional intelligence within the correctly identified consumerist superstructure. Hoffer’s framework doesn’t necessarily hold up today as well for a variety of reasons as a practical lens for evaluating the world in real-time: "all mass movements are interchangeable", he says, which he finds precedent for in situations like inter-war Germany as a prominent example of competing potentially-zealotic ideologues coming to power, with Hitler simply happening to covert enough opponents to gain consensus. This is a useful interpretation of the nature of mass movements, but his argument is that these mass movements are also competitive, meaning that these competitors can and will flip sides in the conglomeration of power, and in the case of Nazi Germany, the egoism of Hitler’s statecraft permeated everything in a way his opponents simply could not have, is where I think this theory has legs for practical analysis.
Apply this example to contemporary American extremism— the iconosphere in the United States’ popular political imagination will carry identical ideology between new figures, perceived as more and more extreme, while simply repackaging ideology with a more iconoclastic wrapper (a gameshow host rube like Ronald Reagan being used to sell a regime of Rumsfeld and Cheney’s making, carryovers from what Nixon left unaccomplished for them, through both Bush presidencies—the latter’s candidacy being purely reactionary gimmickry-, and ultimatelly still pulling rank today), finally coming to a head with a literal gameshow host president with entirely milquetoast reactionary-right politics, albeit repackaged and sold as this new revolutionary ethos that, ultimately, only does the bidding the corporatist-authoritarian nation-state of banks and defense contractors. The people who believe these things to be sincere political expression are Hoffer’s “New Poor” (and, perhaps, you can see why I feel the theory doesn’t hold much weight in practical analysis, but the competitive nature of selling the ideology does), and they haven’t, demographically, changed meaningfully over the last 40 years, with the expansion of the same becoming very predictible (bringing a Libertarian element was telegraphed the moment the Kochs helped found a contolled-opposition in the form of the LP National party).
I won’t belabor this particular point further (see here for more on this), but there is some relevance to the paradox of Allie Fox’s jungle utopia, and mass movements that mirror the worst elements of what they claim to be combatting. I wrote:
In Christoper Parker’s A history of American Reactionary Movements: From the Klan to Donald Trump, he posits “Beginning with the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, clear through the Tea Party oftoday, reactionary movements are motivated by a belief that America is in rapid decline,something that is associated with perceived social and cultural change”— this is a span of time that covers the beginning of the American hegemonon in global politics through its preeminence as effectively the world custodian, and on behalf of its own interests in the affairs of sovereign nations, and commensurately, the ability of the public to be drawn into movements like these becomes dramatically simpler: how these precepts of American culture manifest in foreign policy (expansion of empire) as well as domestic policy (mass-surveillance, failing critical infrastructure, etc.), highlights very real issues, but in the absence of a real left-wing mainstream politic to create collectivist incentive or even a coherent public consciousness of itself, it leaves this public vulnerable to reactionary thinking, and at the mercy of reactionary politicians who, as we saw in 2010 (and again in 2016), simply suggest they would do something to restore the structural integrity of the United States, whether or not they had any idea how or why or even if this needed to be done, and more often than not, the problem grows, but the status quo simply trends to include more and more in the name of unity in the face of reactionaries, rather than combatting them.
Effectively, in seeking to break from society, without replacing society (the historical revisionists’ flaw—identifying a problem, but not correcting the record) or what is perceived as broken about it; this does become the job of Fox by virtue of concluding the state is no longer responsive to social ills, this part he gets right, but what does he do differently that proves any less alienating from society, the land, his family?
Early in the film, Reverend Spellgood (played by Andre Gregory!) and his family are sharing the boat among others with the Fox family to Panama, to work in one of his churches. Fox, an atheist, bristles upon meeting Spellgood and a rivalry between them forms, on the basis of their missions’ cores. Effectively, the mission of Jeronimo, once they arrive and realize it’s not a well-kept acreage, but in need of repair, Allie Fox takes the children on a trek to a village where natives are rumored to have never seen ice (the purpose of Fox’s device being to create ice in such an environment), but he is not only beaten to the tribe (the missionaries arrive first), but his delivers nothing, as the ice has melted. The Spellgood compound (Fox calls this “a concentration camp”) proves to be the family’s promised land after trekking with Fox (who has told his family the United States has been destroyed) becoming increasingly delusional about the condition of his utopia. Even Charlie (Phoenix), at this point, loses the trust of his father after revealing a transgression about his lack of faith in Allie’s abilities that undermined his narrative of utopia.
Ultimately, the meta-conflict of the film is this one between Fox and Spellgood— they’re both colonizers, but Fox becomes the exploitative capitalist force he was fleeing out of sense of desperation once he realizes the state of the town he’s uprooted his life to, while Spellgood ultimately seeks to (potentially well-meaning, depending on how you view missionary work) harvest souls, something Fox perceives as at least as oppressive a component in American life. This is the same as the conflict between Freddy Quell in The Master, albeit from the perspective of the consumer; traditional salvation in a society you believe to be corrupt, or do you become a true believer of the guy validating your anxieties about the same and develop a blindspot for it as a result? In the case of Quell, he is unable to resolve it; the Fox family, however, does—this can be attributed, perhaps, to that marginalization Hoffer speaks to being systemic, not interpersonal or familial, lacking that radicalizing, exploitable vector for the potential for extremism if a good faith collective incentive fails to materialize in a competitive movement.
Ultimately, resentment and hubris prove to be the fatal (literally, in Fox’s case) flaw, and absent any kind of collectivizing incentive to rally with (rather than behind) him, his family departs. There’s two ways this can occur—you deify a person, form a cult around them, or you find what you relate to about that person’s expression of your shared interest, and what others relate to, and you work together for that shared interest, rather than the enrichment of that first person, who you follow rather than learn from. The Master and Coast both do the former— Dodd and Fox both expect obedience in exchange for the keys to a higher truth; they aren’t peddling an ideology, they’re peddling a lifestyle, an all-consuming one, and one that is an echo chamber for them, and fun house for the followers, believing the surreality, the austerity, etc. to be transcendental.
Dodd's speech at a wedding early in the film:
"There's a cycle, like life. Birth, excitement, growth, decay. Death. Now... now. How about this? Here comes, a large dragon. Teeth! Blood dripping! Red eyes! What do I got? A lasso. And I whip it up, I wrap it around its neck, and I wrestle! Wrestle! Wrestle him to the ground. I snap up, I say "Sit, dragon!" Dragon sits. I say "Stay!", dragon stays. Now it's got a leash on. Take it for a walk. And that's what-where we're at with it now. It stays on command. Next we're gonna teach it to roll over and play dead."
is probably the single best demonstration of the power of saying a whole lot of nothing to a Hofferesque true believer, finding depth where there is very little, but it's anodyne surreality-- "I believe, in your profession, it's called... 'Nostalgia'." as Freddie says-- that's Dodd's product, the ability for an adult to have an extremely threatening authority figure tell them there's a simple code to follow for prosperity, even if it costs you everything. Quell fears Dodd like a father, even after he's let go of the Cause, and this film tells this story of millions of Quells astoundingly, only the way Anderson could. In Coast, we’re talking about a literal father and son, a patriarch and his flock, and they all fear him, even amidst seditious (in his eyes) conduct, they feel the need to hide from him, internalizing his prefered dynamic. We see this mirrored everywhere.
They aren’t lifted from their circumstances in the margins, they’re separated from the society that put them there, attacking nothing but their own ability to recognize the enemy was never society, but the prevailing systems of oppression (in the case of The Master, capitalism and the post-war neglect of its veterans; in Coast, it was consumerism, a school that produces well-connected magnates and not the educated innovators, and ultimately, Fox’s hubris itself) that they are now neutralized as a threat towards; after all, the mass movement thrives on microcosmic representations of the idealized form of these systems.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending: