Post-Cold War Film’s Representation of Domestic Political Antagonists

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, no more could scheming communists provide legitimate filmic antagonists whose political orientations threatened the existential character of the American way of life. History was the prize won by liberal capitalism and having emerged victorious in the bi-polar standoff, the vacuum left was quickly filled a series of “lesser evils”. One of the main forces to fill this hole has been terrorists of Arabic or Islamic identity. The filmic framing of these antagonists political orientation often emptied them of any rational, historically based or sympathetic politics. They were simply so many bodies to be killed by so many bullets. However, they were not the only replacement for the stock characters once provided by the Evil Empire. Anarchism has lately increased its representation in film, especially since the 1999 November, 30th WTO conference shut down by an alliance of strikers and black bloc groups, as well as a crypto-leftism divorced from Soviet orientation. In a manner very similar to the representation of Arabs and Muslims, these characters and groups have been similarly structured to present characters that aren’t felicitous to these two groups theoretical or practical philosophies. In writing this essay I hope both to identify the tropes of misprision and to outline a theoretical analysis for a distinctly anarchist film aesthetic. To accomplish this two-fold task I will analyze several films which explicitly or cryptically represent the aforementioned categories and I will speculate on how a specifically anarchist form of aesthetics will relate to the representation, production, distribution and an audience’s reception of a film.

The reason for injecting clearly defined and crypto anarchists into the plot lines in the manner described is reminiscent of the anti-communist films that provided cultural justification for the ejection of communists and militants from union ranks and their jobs, the criminalization of the Communist party and the public inquisition of communists or those suspected of sympathizing with them. The purpose of opening up such a cultural front is clear – as wealth inequalities become more aggravated and environmental concerns become a growing topic of daily life, motions must be made to discredit ideologies that holistically reject the current model of American representative democracy, its neoliberal economic policies and cavalier attitude to the environment. Rather than engaging in any form of debate as to the merits of particular ideologies, mass media casts anarchism as antiquated, too idealistic, juvenile, incompatible with the advanced level of industrial society and only suited to a small agrarian communities or hunter/gatherer societies, terroristic, or a facile justification for anti-social and psychopathic behavior within cultural productions. Their image within pop-culture as wholly anti-statist furthermore helps to prevent members or sympathizers to certain organizations, specifically labor unions and social justice NGOs, from recognizing the historical alignment of interests between reformation oriented laborers and social anarchists.

Given the stereotypical presentation of Hollywood as liberal/leftist this seems to be counterintuitive, especially as Hollywood films have consistently endorsed anti-authoritarian philosophies within their plots. However, such narratives have a particular goal: they wish not only to resolve the conflict within the various characters for the sake of aesthetics, but also to exempt from criticism the entirety of the super structure from which such conflict emerges, propagate the idea that positively reforming tendencies are always expressing themselves within and thus cryptically proclaim that no radical change is needed. By particularizing the failures of social institutions and turning endemic social maladies into exceptional circumstances that can be overcome if only a person with the right balance of defiance and deference to authority is inserted into the dysfunctional dynamics, Hollywood films propound a profound conservatism even when seeming to pose a different stance. Thus as anarchism gains ascendancy within global justice circles, it has taken the space left by the communists for opprobrium in cinema and recycles many of the same tropes used against it in early 20th century literature.

The first major film to contain anarchists after the Battle in Seattle was xXx. Distributed to theaters in 2002, the film’s protagonist is Xander Cage, heretofore referred to as XXX, played by Vin Diesel. XXX is a heavily tattooed extreme sports-enthusiast, and is first shown stealing the car of a congressman that has endorsed legislation restricting violent video games as part of an elaborate spectacle to illustrate that such laws shouldn’t be created. After several assistants of XXX install crash-protected cameras in the car he drives off a police blockaded bridge. XXX safely parachutes to the bottom, the cameras attached to the car are removed for use in an online viral video and the group escapes in a van with the Norse rune signifying Chaos inscribed upon it. Not five minutes into the film we see that XXX clearly disdains authorities in favor of his own pleasure. At a party celebrating the stunt later that night, XXX has his boho style loft swarmed by a SWAT unit and he is shot with a tranquilizer dart. After waking he passes two tests proctored by a secretive government agent, played by Samuel L. Jackson, that then offers him a choice between going to jail for life or working for the government agency. Like Nikita before him, he agrees to join this secret agency. While the situational context is drastically different, there is a clear parallel to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and the message that the greatest rebellion is orthodoxy, in this situation the orthodoxy is American interests and power.

Now deputized as a secret agent, XXX flies to Prague to infiltrate a terrorist organization made up of former Russian soldiers known as Anarchy 99. Their name signifies an explicit political orientation while the group is run by Yorgi, who like everyone else in the group has the same stereotypical physical features of the cold war enemies. In contradistinction to historical anarchist groups that were financed by donations, selling news papers and hosting balls, as has historically been the means by which anarchist groups have financed themselves, this group uses money made from prostitution, drugs and selling stolen items. Additionally, their understanding of class conflict is not the encouragement and production of union and party militant but the production of unmanned ships containing chemical weapon delivery system. The reason that such a weapon has been created is not related to killing a specific class of people involved with government or business, as some insurrectionary anarchists would propound but simply because they want to cause chaos by indiscriminately killing people. They are not holding anyone hostage for pecuniary gains to finance the group for further revolutionary activities and they are not interested in revenge for wrongs committed during class conflict. Their version of attendat contains no message they are trying to disseminate to the populace, they simply want to attack major European cities with chemical weapons because they hate society. Thus in a manner reminiscent of political caricatures in the late 18th and early 19th century, these anarchists are thus depicted as violently nihilistic, sadistic, and without a political purpose other than to create social unrest, chaos and disorder.

In order to broaden the political significance of xXx as an anti-anarchist film, it is worthwhile to provide a close analysis of a particular scene which occurs after XXX has ingratiated himself with Anarchy 99 after provided them with a number of stolen cars. A bumbling and inept Czech policeman, XXX’s liaison, accidently makes it known that he is spying on Anarchy 99 and XXX. A short car chase ensues and XXX shoots the policeman in the back with a special bullet containing red dye and a tranquilizer. This fools Yorgi into believing he killed the policeman and this is seen as a final test for XXX to gain membership into to the group. This scene clearly depicts the ineptitude of other countries security apparatus, the superiority and necessity of American policing forces and the need for American forces to play an intervening role in the internal affairs of other countries. If Rambo is a signifier of the Reaganite epoch that required vigilance from the Soviet threat, then XXX is his neoliberal signifier dealing with the aftermath where there is no singular hegemon to be battled. And in the end of this film it is clear that the terroristic anarchism is and should be defeated by a morally righteous if at times ambiguously so neo-liberal order.

Given his physique it is not surprising that Vin Diesel would play a morally. In Fast & Furious, Vin Diesel reprises his role as Domenic Toretto. While the plot of the movies doesn’t bear any sort of thoroughgoing analysis it is worth noting that

The next film produced in the wake of the 1999 Battle in Seattle whose storyline featured anarchists as major characters was the 2002 B-movie The Anarchist Cookbook. The film is at base a bildungsroman where the protagonist played by Devon Gummersall, Puck[1], begins as an anarchist and becomes a conservative who works at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as a result of his experience with Leftists of various stripes and the influence of a Young Republican. The film opens with Puck stitching together a series of anti-consumerist platitudes claimed as anarchism as he goes through his daily routine. The camera settings change with each critical thrust and are timed to illustrate his practice of these in his daily life. As he articulates a rejection of upward mobility as a goal in life the film focuses on someone smoking marijuana through a gas mask. As he says, “Anarchy is a way of life” he opens up a refrigerator that is barren of food. When the setting changes to a toy store where Puck is playing with merchandise, he then defines anarchism as “pure undiluted freedom, liberty out of bounds” and states that “we might not know what we’re for, but we know what we’re against.” While it is likely that it is impossible to give a legitimate definition of a system of political beliefs within five minutes, in this opening monologue sequence it is clear that anarchism is associated with juvenile aimlessness.

From this opening manifesto Puck then introduces a motley cast of roommates. Puck first introduces us to his failed love interest Karla, a siren who is shown as obtaining pleasure by seducing married men in order to break up their marriages. Then the audience is presented with Johnny Red, a stereotypical 60s radical who idolizes Sweden and is later shown to be a repressed pedophile, Sweeny, a rakish DJ whose major political commitment is against monogamy and finally Puck’s closest friend “Double D”, a hapless nitwit whose initials mean Dumb and Dumber. This motley assortment of radicals are all employed at a radical bookstore and in their free time they engage in spectacular campaigns designed to get media attention to specific issues such as animal rights or the environment. None of them are shown as having any commitment to being a part of trade-union struggle nor any commitment to some other organizations concerned with economic inequity. The limits to their practice of class warfare is petty theft, that is until Jack Black arrives. As the person who disrupts this groups pseudo-anarchist torpor and drives the plot, Black is a charismatic and sociopathic nihilist who “doesn’t even believe in nihilism” yet judges that The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell is like The Bible[2]. As should be apparent, the film did not so much have characters as flat caricatures that were so negatively stereotypical it caused one indignant writer in the Winter 2004 edition of Green Anarchy to state that: “To be blunt, there are no anarchists in the film… To put it simply, this film is a pathetic stereotype of anarchists, meant to make us look stupid”. Indeed, all of the supposed anarchists of the film are libertines appealing to non-codified notions of freedom and liberty in order to justify their selfish actions.

This changes as Black’s entrance into the communal house accelerates the frequency and gravity of their political actions. Though this does not always occur without some level of resistance. While the other members of the house almost immediately give way, Puck oscillates and is simultaneously appalled and enthralled by Black’s political analysis and willingness to “take things further”. As Puck increasingly comes to question whether or not Black embodies the logical extension of his political philosophy a police officer comes into the apartment after a burglary, he witnesses Karla snorting cocaine. The entire group is arrested and the communal house they were all squatting in is boarded up. This eventuality marks the point wherein Puck seemingly decides that Black does not represent his beliefs. This is shown geographically, as Puck is sent to the suburbs to live with his parents as part of his sentencing, in his embrace of the bourgeoisie game of golf and also as while on parole he begins to enjoy working for a living at a call center rather than dumpster diving and scamming. In one of his scenes at works we see an explicit disavowal of the form of anarchism that he once claimed when his boss calls him into his office after Puck set up an impromptu party in order to brighten the spirits of a co-worker who has been depressed over a dead dog. His boss asks him: “Is that what anarchists do? Take matters into their own hands? Every person responsible for themselves?” to which Puck’s responds “More or less” and the bosses response of “Sounds good to me.” This dialogue demonstrates that Puck’s true political positionality is not that of an anarchist/libertarian-communist but an anarcho-capitalist.

Johnny Black is released shortly after this and convinces Puck to come to a new squat that he and Johnny Red have found and turned into a drug-manufacturing site in order to fund their anarchist operations. Puck wants to leave, but decides to stay in order to make sure that his friend Double D is safe, as he’s become addicted to the drugs that Black cooks, and as despite his newly blossoming romance with Jody, a girl in the young Republican party, as has Karla, who exchanges sexual favors with Black for drugs. The purpose of the drugs sales is to purchase weapons that Black plans to use with in a multi-group action founded on an alliance with Neo-Nazis and a Texas Nationalist militia. Their purpose is to target a university by spiking trees scheduled to be cut in an Earth Liberation Front style operation and assisting the Neo-Nazis/Texas Nationalists to blow up an almost completed Black Studio Union building named after Malcolm X. Anarchists are thus no longer simply correlated with soft drug use, but are seen as hard drug manufacture distributors which, condone violent racism have no code of honor to protect their members. The film thus reproduces the Cold War trope wherein communists “more dangerous and more brutal than ordinary criminals, who at least adhere to their own code of honor” to anarchists in a post-Cold War setting (Whitfield 135). Puck, disturbed by this, decides to drug all of those that are going to participate in the action, knocks Black unconscious with an iron skillet and then calls the police to turn them all in.

After Puck learns that he is going to be financially rewarded for narcing on the group, he decides to go to California to work with Jody at the Reagan Library and renounces his nickname. This radical shifting of political identity reemphasizes the superiority of neo-liberal logic as seen in xXx. Anarchism is depicted as a libertine, juvenile ideology at best and an anti-social, pathological one when its presuppositions are extended. Johnny Black’s “anarchism” illustrates merely that he is a sociopath and thus this political commitment is classified as reflective of a deranged mind and thus a wholly unacceptable form of political action.

The next two movies I’ll address, V for Vendetta and I Am Legend, differ from the previous two in that reference to characters embodying a deformed anarchist/communistic political commitment are not explicitly labeled within the films but are merely implied. The thematic struggle in both films is between collectivism and a permutation of capitalism. Both are concerned with reintroducing heterogeneity into a political system that has developed to a level of excessive homogenized. Additionally both films have protagonists which are messianic heroes able to near single-handedly bring an end to the films conflict and usher in a new age of peace.

V for Vendetta was released in 2006 and presents a divergence from the other films thus far mentioned as it is the only one based upon a graphic novel with an explicitly anarchist message[3]. Set in a dystopian future London, V for Vendetta opens a young girl, Evey Hammond, being rescued from the clutches of salacious bobbies by the films eponymous protagonist, V. After dispatching the police, V convinces Evey to accompany him to his musical performance and they go to a prime vantage point to witness the timed destruction of the Old Bailey on at the arrival of Guy Fawkes Day, November 5th in an act of Propaganda of the Deed. After the news stations spin the event as a planned demolition, V forces his way into the station with explosives on his chest and transmits a message claiming responsibility for the act, the need for political change, the need for people to take more responsibility for the current state of political affairs, promises to hold those highest up most responsible and finally issues an invitation to come to Parliament in a year to participate in its destruction. Were the context framed slightly differently then V could easily be a politician running for office and requesting his supporters come to a speech. Indeed, every four years modern American political parlance is filled with references to the need to destroy the culture of corruption in Washington D.C. V thus becomes a referent for change, but a change that is an undeterminable signifier that is able to translate into all of the grievances for the populace but presents only abstractions.

During V’s escape from the building, which has been surrounded by SWAT police on the tail of Evey due to a camera capturing her face while with V, she rescues V, and is later rescued by V. He takes her to his secret hideout and through a series of flashbacks it is shown how the Big Brother-esque Chancellor Sutler and his Christian Nationalist, homophobic henchman came to power. Concurrently, through a series of scenes with V as an assassin and a master manipulator of information, we see him entrapping and killing those that did viral medical testing on V (as well as other undesirable parts of the British population such as Arabs, gays and political dissidents) and helped Sutler come into power. The anatomy of a revolutionary takeover of power is reflective of historical examples, however, the film posits that it is simply a specific cabal of evil people that has gained control of the government that caused totalitarian control to be instituted – not that it is an essential aspect of bourgeois democracy faced with a real or manufactured crisis. Furthermore, the depicted method of combating such forces, individual acts of violence, while effective when tied with a broad based movement combating fascism and advocating an alternative, as in the time of the CNT-FAI, is shown to be transcendentally effective through a lone person2. V is capable of single handedly acting as a highly organized and well funded cabal and thus reproduces the messianic logic of authoritarian dictators divorced, as V is, from the interests and desires of the working class exactly like Sutler.

This paucity of V’s tactics is claimed by some critics to be ameliorated in the final scene, where a mass wearing Guy Fawkes masks on Guy Fawkes Day comes to witness V’s promised destruction of Parliament. This is the moment where Hardt/Negri’s concept of the multitude is found and in a moment of solidarity, despite the presence of military forces and the threat of being fired upon, tens of thousands gather to watch the explosion. The soldiers back down due to the lack of orders from the executive and as the building explodes people in the mass remove their masks and a multi-cultural diversity is shown underneath. However, the framing of the message is clear in that it states that one can be totally apolitical in one’s daily life, but if one listens to the dictates of the “revolutionary authority” the yoke of totalitarian government can be overthrown; provided, of course, that a hero has neutralized the leaders. This mass of people does not represent political actors, but an audience participating in a spectacle. Rather than adopting active roles to resist the methods of control used against them, they rely upon a messianic figure with super-human strength and abilities to signal when the revolution should happen. This pitiful web of relations, and more importantly the failure of the film to enunciate an alternative to the repressive form of government that will surely resurface, vastly overshadows the fact that the film illustrates the simple need for revolutionary forces to adopt some of the methods of the government that they desire to overthrow. What ought to be anarchism in the film is thus just a fable about the need for citizens to be passive until they are told be some authority other than their own to do something.

This film differs from xXx and The Anarchist Cookbook in that V’s political orientation is close to that of the anarchist, but he plays the role neither of bugbear or political ingénue that learns to recognize the absurdity of anarchism. In the film there is no vocalization or exposition of the word anarchism. V, while acting in the tradition of anarchist assassination of political figures, cryptically alludes to Emma Goldman when spouting bombastic, quasi-revolutionary rhetoric and acting with general disdain for the law, rather represents an anarchism recuperated into capitalist ideology. It is an anarchism that has been captured, shorn of its history and philosophy, that has had its values, analysis and illustrated potential tortured out of it, that has been disemboweled so that finally it can be stuffed and sold as a commodity.

Containing many of the tropes used at the height of government/media collusion during the Cold War in order to ideologically reinforce capitalism and delegitimize alternatives, I Am Legend, released in 2007 and directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith, also shows the shifting forms of political antagonists in post-Cold War films. However I Am Legend distinguishes itself from the aforementioned films on several levels. Whereas the first two films made explicit connection between anarchism and villainy and V for Vendetta showed anarchism as myth, I Am Legend disavows such immediately facile connections and instead adopts a more nuanced approach. The antagonists here can be collectivists of any variety – be they anarchists, socialists or communists – as there is no direct allusion to political ideology. Here the political implications are manifested in the bodies and daily practices of the films heroes and villains. With such historical specifics removed, the film is able to operate at a higher level of abstraction as it less connected to a historical-material understanding and make itself more susceptible to a conceptual interpretation. With this circumstance the film is not only able to functionally discredit collectivism of any kind as a political ideology, but it also encourages epistemological positivism and associates historical, dialectical materialism with monstrosity. At this point I will note that this particular film does not originate this type of symbolic hierarchicalization. Rather Will Smith’s 2004 film I, Robot accomplishes much of the same ordering as does the 2010 film Tron: Legacy. However given the manner in which this particular film immediately provides a symbolic system of relations with which to decode its anti-collectivist stance I will focus on this and save the others for a longer piece.

I Am Legend opens with a news interview that provides the basis for interpreting the symbolic content of the Krippen virus (KV), the cause of the dystopian future and thus a means for reading the film as a whole. While it is not revealed until later that we learn that KV has caused the death of 90% of humanity, leaving 12 million unaffected and 588 million transformed into Darkseekers it is important to read this into the content of the opening dialogue, the entirety of which is as follows:

TV Personality: So, Dr. Krippen, give it to me in a nutshell.

Dr. Alice Krippen: Well, the premise is quite simple – um, take something designed by nature and reprogram it to make it work for the body rather than against it.

TV Personality: You’re talking about a virus?

Dr. Alice Krippen: Indeed, yes. In this case the measles, um, virus which has been engineered at a genetic level to be helpful rather than harmful. Um, I find the best way to describe it is if you can… if you can imagine your body as a highway, and you picture the virus as a very fast car, um, being driven by a very bad man. Imagine the damage that car can cause. Then if you replace that man with a cop… the picture changes. And that’s essentially what we’ve done.


In this exchange there are three major points that require identification, contextualization and exposition. First worth looking into is the manner in which the cure for this cancer is created by engineering the measles virus to do its opposite, help people rather than causing injury. Such a conceptualization of life and matter as simultaneously being and becoming, defined within a system of relations rather than unto itself and understood as being interpenetrated with its opposite, susceptible to qualitative metamorphosis (especially when these changes are based upon scientific guidance) has its intellectual origin in dialectic epistemologies. That said, just as a dialectical movement is visible within this particular moment doesn’t mean that that this is necessarily what it means. Though other epistemologies recognize and attempt to explain social, biological and technological change in a different formulation from the above, perhaps this is not enough evidence for us to immediately accept the interpretation that KV can be seen as embodying dialectics so hopefully subsequent analysis will do so.

The second means of furthering this interpretation of KV as dialectics is illustrated in the disease that Dr. Krippen seeks to cure with her applied research: cancer. While one cannot use the abstraction of capitalism to explain all social ills, cancer is specifically related to environmental, commercial, dietary, social and other changes linked to the spread of the industrial modes of production that contain with them capitalist systems of social relations. This connection is furthered made when factoring in the analysis of John McMurty. In his book The Cancer Stage of Capitalism McMurty puts forward the thesis that the never-ending quest for surplus value required by capitalist modes of production leads to growing levels of social conflict and environmental destruction of those that “host” it. As such the best metaphor for understanding capitalism is as a malignant form of cancer. The attempt to end cancer is thus symbolically linked to the attempt to end capitalism. While the actual form any revolutionary politics would take in order to achieve a post-capitalist society is up for debate, the historically revolutionary role of dialectics and historical materialism is undeniable. Thus extending this metaphor we can see positivistic, reformist politics would be conceptualized as treating cancer whereas dialectic, collectivist politics is curing it. As Dr. Krippen seeks to eradicate cancer, KV is dialectics and those that are not immune to it are dialecticians.

The third enunciation made in this exchange that allows the astute audience member to identify KV infection as indication that that body embodies dialectics occurs when contextualizing Dr. Ripens’ statement of how a bad person driving fast in a car gives you “one image” and exchanging that bad person with a police officer presents a more desirable picture. Immediately after these words the film transitions to three years into the future. An extended shots of Manhattan, arguably the current center of capitalism, shows the city absent of human activity but with flora and fauna overtaking the city. The sound of a car rises and we see Dr. Robert Neville speeding down a highway with Samantha, a German shepherd. As the dog is widely known for being a police dog and Neville holds a military rifle on his lap, we are encouraged to associate him with the “good man” in Dr. Krippen’s exchange. However this is not the case as we learn later in the film that he is immune to KV. Additionally we learn that the U.S. Army – the historical foe of dialectics and historical materialist epistemology, a.k.a. Marxism – previously employed Neville. Conceiving itself as an exceptional country immune to class conflict and enforcing any attempts to prove otherwise, social conflict was often attributed to “outside agitators” that embodied a foreign social philosophy. Thus Neville represents a positivistic epistemology, the cancer that is capitalism and antagonist to the Darkseekers, who live in appropriated housing, in a seemingly consensus form of government and display radical solidarity when attempting to rescue a female Darkseeker kidnapped by Robert Neville.

Now before furthering this line of analysis as it relates to the films symbolic order it is important to note that the conceptualization of dialectics in I Am Legend isn’t of the Marxian/Hegelian variety but an oversimplification which uses binary categorization of thesis (measles virus/harm) and antithesis (Cancer cure/help) which results in a synthesis (Darkseekers/pandemic). While this binary opposition demonstrates sublation into the virus’ third development this totalizing shift in human subjectivity is seen as a devolutionary and foreclosed development which needs to be turned back as in life there is death, humanity or Darkseekers and neither are able to co-exist or evolved. Such a non-continuous logical/developmental triad is Jungian in conceptualization and shows that the virus and those affected by it are vulgar dialecticians. Additionally, dialectics is marked within this symbolic framework as the cause of death of ninety percent of the world population and those that embody it are transformed into monsters meant to evoke horror in the audience.

Moving from this coding to the film we find that throughout the film the vantage point centers on Neville, making the audience empathize and identify with him and the loss of his family, his feeling of responsibility for the pandemic and his aspirations to fix it, a fact compounded by their horrifying physical appearance and voicelessness of the Darkseekers.His quest to right wrongs and the tropes of romantic individualism structure sympathetic sentiments in his favor despite the fact that he is kidnapping and performing medical experiments on humans. Neville’s inability to see the world dialectically and apply Reason to the new situation that he is in is not seen as a weakness but as part of his indefatigable strength. Combating dialectics as an embodiment of positivistic epistemology, Neville naturalizes and is valuated as heroic for embodying the imperialist drives of capitalism to consistently obtain new bodies to be placed under allocative and authoritative controls and repress resistance to its restructuring of subjectivity and social conditions. We see this most poignantly in Neville’s lab, where there are 72 Polaroids on the wall showing the faces of the Darkseekers he has kidnapped and killed as a result of his attempts to transform their bodies. This doesn’t bother Neville as their lives have been emptied of intrinsic value, they have been turned into a means for obtaining Neville desires been subjected to a paternalistic discourse framed as an objective, medicinal one that allows him to circumvent moral reflection. This doesn’t seem intended to cause the audience to question the legitimacy of such claims as the Darkseekers are consistently presented as more animal than human[4]. Giving his own assessment of the creatures, Neville himself states in one of his log entries “social devolution appears complete” and “typical human behavior is entirely absent”. While Neville eventually wavers in his commitment to curing KV after his dog is killed in a trap orchestrated by the Darkseekers, he eventually reaffirms it and demonstrates his essentially redemptive nature in a Christ-like act of personal sacrifice in order to “save humanity”.

It is not just in the symbolic ordering of I Am Legend is it become possible to see an anti-dialectical, anti-radical message, but in its subsidization by the government. The films production was tied to the co-operation and partial funding of local and federal agencies – a consideration which Tony Shaw has definitively illustrated in his book Hollywood’s Cold War only occurs when a film aligns with the ideological interests of the government. Reporting on the production issues of the film, Joseph Steuer gives us the following information on the films most technically difficult scenes, the evacuation of Manhattan:

In addition to complying with the requirements of no fewer than 14 government agencies, producers had to bring in a crew of 250, plus 1,000 extras, including 160 members of the National Guard in full combat gear. They commandeered a flotilla of Coast Guard boats, grappled with hypothermia-inducing temperatures, coped with dozens of production-related injuries — and nursed a frozen helicopter.

Kramer [the director] says “I needed to get permission from the (Economic Development Corp.), (the Department of Environmental Conservation), the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the New York City (Department of Transportation), the New York State DOT, the Department of Small Business Services, the FDNY, the NYPD Harbor Unit, the NYPD Aviation Unit, the (Federal Aviation Administration), the U.S. Army, the National Guard and the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.”

Such cooperation is not merely a gift, but get in return a narrative that reinforces the hegemonically dominant ideas and combats those that would contest it. Thus it is by relying upon Hollywood to recognize its mutual interest with the government, both are able to use each other to their advantage.

XXX and The Anarchists Cookbook both have characters claiming an anarchist social philosophy, while V for Vendetta has a crypto-anarchists but all three illustrate that in the end the choices of political intervention is invested with hegemonic rather than revolutionary interest. All of the characters in these films play roles that are one-dimensional casuistries that are ontologically unified with capitalism and thus reproduce its logic through the tropes of these films. Commentating on the manner in the form of revolutionary culture can in essence be its opposite, Herbert Marcuse called this unification of opposites “one of the many ways in which discourse and communication make themselves immune against the expression of protest and refusal” (Marcuse 81). When this is the case, whatever subaltern identity claimed is a mask that is discarded due to events that show that an unalterable human nature requires police states. Based upon these examples there are three potential roles for contemporary anarchism. Either it is depicted as a synonym for terrorism, a cause of fear and thus a legitimization of government as protector in the film xXx, or it is shown to be the domain of a middle-class rebellious adolescence that soon learns it’s correct place in society as in The Anarchist Cookbook. In the film V for Vendetta, the quasi-anarchist actions of V is actually a quixotic, insurrectionary pseudo-philosophy leading neither to freedom or liberty for those oppressed. This essentialist framing of anarchism within filmic culture as an undesirable goal and a stillborn approach to social change reinforces capitalist media pronouncements and deracinates potentially viable discourse and praxis for institutional change. While encouraging reactionary attitudes in viewers uninformed to anarchism’s philosophy and history, it reinforces the overwhelming misrepresentation in the media that allow for its pre-emptive and overpowering repression during times of public political contestation. Where I Am Legend, like I, Robot and Tron: Legacy differs from these films is only in form. Emptying explicit political signifiers allows for not merely anarchism to be maligned but a more broadly conceived scientifically oriented collectivism.

Despite the clearly propagandistic nature of the aspersions cast upon anarchism in these films, some of the criticisms that they present are indeed true. For one American social movements that claim anarchist inspiration are few and far between and small in number and are often divorced from working class movements. The tendency towards environmental and animal protection has increased as a result of long forming historical trends that have sought to separate this particular strain from the labor movement. Blaming history for the problems of today as a stance which absconds oneself from accountability is not an option and the contemporary, influential individualist anarchist thinkers such as John Zerzan, Bob Black, Hakim Bey, Derrick Jensen and Crimethinc Collective’s failure to place anarchist concerns within the realm of labor is equally problematic. While not all of the contemporary anarchist movements embody the same type of downward mobility as visible in The Anarchist Cookbook or are as insurrectionary as V or XXX, many of the people within such movements see themselves as opposing mores that lead them to fight an unnecessarily uphill battle when trying to convince someone that their political ideology is a viable option. Rather than going into a critique of these individuals and the groups to which I allude I will claim that one of the options to counter the continued misrepresentation of American anarchism as well as its schismatic relations with labor and other oppressed groups is through a distinctly anarchist film aesthetic.

The task of describing a specifically anarchist film aesthetic has been anathema to anarchist film critics such as Richard Porton, and the reasoning is understandable: how can a specific code of rules be made to determine what actually is or isn’t anarchist film? When considering the historical record of previous attempts by anarchists to use various art forms this position seems silly. More importantly than the ahistoricity of such a claim, however, is that such a statement reduces anarchism to a philosophy that is simply “against rules” rather than being “against rulers”. Anarchism imagines its own structure of economic and human relations, which it desires realized: in a reductively basic form, the rulers are not unaccountable representatives and material goods and the means of production are commonly owned. That there can be no possible description of anarchist aesthetics is simply infantile and an extension of the nihilistic motto “all is permitted”. A clearly defined aesthetic acting as a counterbalance to those cultural productions that reproduce the hegemonic values of capitalism is not enough to be called an anarchist aesthetic. An entire system of relations relates to the film qua film and thus such an aesthetic would not just consider reproduction but to production, distribution and reception and use-value. Before sketching such a system, however, I will analyze the film aesthetic of the Situationist Internationale as their theoretical writings have had a profound impact on the contemporary anarchist movement despite they’re being an avant-garde organization. After pointing out the weaknesses in their writings, I will give a brief outline on how such a form could be organized as well as the benefits of a broader system of relationships.

Guy Debord and the Situationist Internationale, which loudly proclaim themselves at the most radical filmmakers, were neither anarchists nor Marxists, The Situationists was an avant-garde organization of students and artists founded in the late 1960’s predominantly in Paris. Their films were supposed to be an extension of such writings as Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and their films were revolutionary in their use of new film techniques. However, it was their conception of what was revolutionary that was in fact part of the problem. Some of the “revolutionary” techniques within Debord’s films included 34 minutes of black screen and extended conversations with white screen. Such aesthetics were supposed to enrage the audience so much that a “situation” would be created, they would thus not want to be spectators anymore and turn from passive audience into active mob. The Situationists also pioneered the use of montage, sound-image discontinuity, negative sequences, flicker, white/black screens, and direct manipulation of the celluloid surface through tearing, writing and scratching. Another technique that the Situationists claimed to have pioneered was called detournement[5]. Such a practice reformed a particular cultural production, usually advertisements and film, normalizing capital and made it into one that was to cause the audience to question the capitalism and its social effects. The pinnacle of such an aesthetic is René Viénet’s film “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” which took a kung-fu movie and, by voicing over all of the spoken parts, made it into a mouthpiece of Situationism and their brand of radical subjectivity while parodying the events of Mai 68. That this type of film was undesirable to the majority of the Parisian populace was known clearly by the producers of the films, however “the telos of his cinematic production had never been financial gain: even prior to its release, the hostility toward it’s violation of the syntax and economy of pleasure characteristic of spectacle was anticipated” (McDonnough 396). As can be imagined, the films had a very limited viewing audience not just due to their unpleasant nature, which made them a bore to watch but also due to the showing restrictions set upon them by their filmmakers. The Situationists, in essence, held that an aesthetic appreciable only by a “progressive” bourgeoisie to be something radical and revolutionary.

The problems with such an aesthetic are multi-faceted: it presumes an extremely high level of theoretical knowledge on the part of the audience, its incoherence and film techniques are alienating, it is designed to be unwatchable and its fear of recuperation and desire to resist representation lends itself to political inefficacy and the cultivation of a radical subjectivism that balks at the idea of any sort of unity offered by unions or political organizations. These self-imposed limitations on aesthetic practice are understandable given the Left political organization options available were limited to Stalinism, Maoism and a very marginalized Trotskyism. However the poverty of their philosophy is clear based upon their choice of non-filmic political tactics and history. Their tactic of detournement is the only tactic to have survived the Situationists disbandment and is illustrated in the groups inspired by the Situationists such as the Billboard Liberation Front, and while this group is looked down upon by the police it is because they are vandals and not because they represent a threat to the system. In fact, such an aesthetic is easily recuperable and marketable as the example of Adbusters show. Such aesthetic theory has had the effect of transitioning anarchist struggles from the traditional realm of labor and social justice struggles to one of mere cultural battles. While these are of course interconnected and inextricable, it appeals to a specific group of people which is not the working class. As the aesthetic and the political becomes tied together so strongly that the aesthetics triumphs as the sole medium of engaging in what becomes transmogrified into a vague “anti-capitalist” struggle we see how within its theoretical constructs it suddenly becomes a revolutionary act to deface advertisements, graffiti “counter-consumptive” messages and make movies that only a few people ever see. This is not to deny that this would happen in a revolutionary situation – however the greater part of time would be related to outreach, group building, advocacy, etc., which is much more “boring” than spray painting pithy phrases on government buildings. Modern day anarchists excessively enamored with the Situationists or ideas descended from them should work on deromanticizing the group and escaping the influence of their aesthetics. What an anarchist film aesthetics needs to do is to face the cultural hegemony inscribed with capitalist logic on its own playing field – the market – and form it accordingly.

Contrary to the logic of the Situationists, that a distinctly anarchist film aesthetic should appeal to a large section of the consumer marketplace is no paradox. Being that anarchism is a populist social movement it would not essentially be antagonistic to the mode of distribution of narrative Hollywood cinema, as it would be invested in gaining the widest possible audience for its messages. In fact a film that is able to so shows its cultural power.

One means of demonstrating the dearth of current modes of current anarchist film aesthetics is in its distribution. Most outlets of such films are relegated to online retail, occasional low-attendance film or political festivals and Bit Torrent websites such as These areas of distribution presume either a particular political identity has been chosen or a certain amount of cultural and intellectual refinement that isn’t atypical of the non-bourgeoisie. Either way these films contain little outreach value for those not already converted. These films are typically documentaries and with few exceptions the production values match the small amount of money invested into making it. One manner of changing this static dynamic would be to attract investors, specifically those that could potentially benefit from propagating the anarchistic spirit.

Despite the fact that the “AFL-CIO willingly providing union cover to CIA operations enabling many a military junta”, it could be to the benefit of anarchists to ally and co-operate with these and other Hollywood Unions represented by the AFL-CIO in order to finance filmic projects. Doing so could mean pecuniary growth for both parties if mutually dividing the income for reinvestment into other projects and for use in class based projects (Smith 203). Such propositions would initially lead to internal controversies and resistance within the union leadership, but a case could easily be made that the mass distribution of anarchist cinema would lead to more political capital than simply throwing it in the direction of a Democratic party that takes its vote for granted and has historically cared little to assist the unions. Doing so not only financially helps the union and reintroduces anarchist currents of thought within them, but also is a manner of organizing and demonstrating an alternative to the current relations of capital. Given the conservatism and collaborationist history of this union to capitals interests it is unlikely that such an alliance is forthcoming and should such an event happen it would remain highly problematic, however the manner in which anarchist film aesthetics is currently limited by funding and technical ability in a market that has grown accustomed to slick production quality consigns anarchist film that fails to address this to the margins and are thus always just preaching to a very small choir.

The production of an explicitly anarchist film aesthetic would find itself in a great debt to post-colonial cultural analysis. Though some academic research has mapped out the manner in which Cold War politics since the Bolshevik Revolution has affected American cultural production – it has not obtained the same visibility of post-colonial theory. While it is important not to conflate historical anti-colonial and anarchist movements, it is also necessary to recognize the manner in which these two struggles overlap, shed light upon each other, encourage each other as well and at times antagonize each other. Anarchists qua anarchists are against government while anti-colonialists are merely against colonial governments. However the former views the American government as an occupying force and can in a way be seen as akin to a colonizer.

Like the colonized and as I have shown in the above film analysis anarchists are marginalized in all avenues of media representation except their own minor outlets. As such they must begin the task of cultural and political reinscription. For the contemporary anarchist filmmaker one could begin by applying Said’s statement that: “To achieve recognition is to rechart and then occupy the place in imperial cultural forms reserved for subordination, to occupy it self consciously, fighting for it on the very same territory once ruled by a consciousness that assumed the subordination of a designated inferior Other” (Said 210). Doing so would mean that the falsely depicted teleological unity between government/governed would be exposed, the American notion of classlessness exceptionalism and justified poverty would be excoriated and the popularized notion relating to the general stupidity of Americans and thus their need to be ruled over would be reversed. Building upon this initial charge, anarchist film is further responsible for articulating the Proudhonian “general idea of a revolution” by illustrating histories of struggle to their amnesiac audiences, negating the negative aspersions cast upon anarchism, affirming a positive vision of potential anarchist social relations by depicting current and possible socio-economic relations and destroying the logic of hegemonic domination propagated within cultural products. By striving to be a popular cultural referent, in the manner The Fountainhead has become for Objectivists and neo-liberals, they are able to counter the prevailing norms.

Like Ayn Rand’s novel turned film, the medium of socially active novels and agitprop offers a form that could be manipulated to creating movies today and further reputes such a juvenile notion that there can be no distinctly socially anarchist aesthetic. Books such as the unexpurgated version of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Iron Heel by Jack London, Haymarket by Martin Duberman, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, etc. are compelling, thus marketable stories and some of them contain the prophetic figures that is, quoting Georg Lukacs, “On the one hand, a historically authentic figure, true to life; and on the other hand anticipates those qualities… which will only emerge fully in… struggles” (Adorno 47). Put another way, as the heroes depicted in film are transformed from supernatural, adolescent characters fighting fantasies to anarchistic heroes there is likely to be an increase in a specific type of person: one who desires and wills to combat capitalism through organized struggle. Akin to this is the also Lukacasian notion that by reformulating cultural narratives to they act like fables there can be a true-avant-garde created. This notion has its basis in writers such as Gorky and Chernyshevsky and is currently being exploited by anarchists of the primitivist variety like Daniel Quinn. Reformulating some of Lukacs’ ideas to contemporary times does not mean reproducing a Stalinist or popular front approach to literature, but it does recognize the manner in which post 9/11 direct actions have been transmogrified into terrorism by repressive new laws and that it would benefit anarchists to help sway public opinion against such laws. This would be especially helpful for those anarchists who focus their advocacy on environmental issues. A contemporary film, with a scene similar to the courtroom monologue by Roark in The Fountainhead, containing a green-anarchist that is successfully able to defend his arson of a housing development in front of a jury and be found innocent would be meaningful leap forward both for anarchism and anarchist aesthetics.

These dynamic, alternative models to the reigning form of representation signify a social anarchist aesthetic incarnated as a positive, non-fragmented art occupying the dialectical space between the dimension of actuality and potentiality. That such an aesthetic need not be stylistically didactic and thus unpalatable is shown within the British director Ken Loach. While his works is of a vaguely leftist rather than particularly anarchist films he’s directed such as Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes the Barley display anarchistic sensibilities as they convey clear sympathy with workers, illustrates historically fecund moments for social change and shows the true situation for labor: struggle or subservience. Speaking of Loach’s film Bread and Roses, Andy Stern, the International President of the Service Employees International Union, says that the film “helps us to see and feel the urgent need for action. With the characters in the film, we learn again an old lesson: in the struggle for dignity and justice, working people can triumph when they stand together.”

It is not just the film itself that would lead to a properly anarchist aesthetic, but the attempt after the film to help create communities which can use the film as a referent for discussion. Rather than everyone leaving the theater as individuals, pamphleteers could wait outside the cinema to steer people to local action organizations or alternative spaces could be used to show the films akin to the way in which Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth set up showings in churches across the country and provided lesson plans for teachers when showing it in the classroom. Providing this productive capacity for anarchist films to imbue community relations rather then replicating the divisive individualism of capitalist films is one of the defining aspects of it. In this way an anarchist film aesthetic would be greatly inspired by Italian Communist Party founder Antonio Gramsci, who organized such events for Milanese workers along similar lines. By recognizing that an anarchist film aesthetic must not just be concerned with overthrowing the hegemonic values of cinema but turning it instead on its head, a true anarchist film aesthetic can be created.


Graeber, David. Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007

Lukacs, Georg. Aesthetics and Politics. New York, NY: Verso, 2007

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001

McConnough, Tom. Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2004

Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York, NY: Vintage Press, 1994.

Smith, Sharon. Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2006.

Steuer, Joseph. Government Agencies Cover Filmmakers in Red Tape. Accessed May 15th, 2011

Whitfield, Stephen. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.



[1] Giving the protagonist the name of Puck is similar to the opening scene of xXx in that it establishes him as a character that is both related to chaos and mischief and that it relates him to a mythological ideology.

[2] Besides the 26-page introduction entitled Anarchism Today, which contains now outdated analysis as to the contemporary political situation, the book is composed of nothing but now outdated illustrations and diagrams of how to manufacture drugs, make black ops communications technology and improvised explosives.

[3] Also worth noting is the fact that it received laudable reviews within various Leftist online message boards and blogs after its release for “its spirit of rebellion” and ability to inject a revolutionary referent into popular discourse. However Alan Moore, the author of the original graphic novel, claimed that the film had gone so far from his authorial intent that he disowned the film. These divergent receptions the film evokes issues that will be answered in a later section.

[4] It’s also worth noting how similar this relationship is to other historical ones between the American government and various domestic groups and foreign nationalists subjected to violence.

[5] Such a claim is however baseless as the IWW had been rewriting popular hymns for songs fifty years beforehand.