“I laugh because I have nothing to lose, I am nobody,” declares the Joker. The dissatisfaction that is growing up is a serious one. Todd Phillips’ revisionist DC origin story, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, does not incite violence. The world is a dangerous place to live. The film is a ruling on the flaws of modern political systems. It is about the hopelessness and dead-end of highly developed capitalism. Joker is a tumbling of the tables in the temple, a clearing of the board to make space for a new game.
The homily is that “this” is not enough- a more radical change is required. Capitalism, despite Adam Smith, had never been about the wealth of nations, so much as the wealth of the capitalist class. The role of the state is not simply to protect property, as upheld by Smith, but, as Foucault brilliantly explained in his “Birth of Biopolitics”, extends to the active construction of the domination of the market over every aspect of human life.
Joker points to the idea that it is no longer enough to play the game of those who hold power because they are bountiful and benevolent like Bruce Wayne’s father. They are, after all, just pieces in a game which they themselves play to obfuscate the despair of majorities struggling on the margins. Joker awakens us to the perils of violence.
Greta Thunberg’s Extinction Rebellion rings the alarm to a social and ecological planetary emergency. Fossil fuels are entered as fiscal assets on the ledgers of multinationals, even when they exist only in the form of reserves entombed in the earth. In this way, they are integral to the entire financialized accumulation process of monopoly capitalism. Trillions of dollars of Wall Street assets are tied up in “fossil capital”. This makes it problematic to move from the extraction and use of fossil fuels towards blue sky alternatives like solar and wind power. No one owns the sun’s rays or the wind so there is less vested interest.
The relative shift of the economy from production to finance—opened up vast new avenues to speculation and wealth formation, relatively removed from capital investment in new productive capacity or real capital accumulation. Globalization therefore came to mean more than new markets. It implied the annexation of economic surpluses of low-wage labour in peripheral states with the resulting wealth stashed.
Around $21 trillion of offshore funds are currently lodged in tax havens on islands mostly in the Caribbean, constituting “the fortified refuge of Big Finance.” In the interim, digital technology created the basis of a new globalized surveillance capitalism, buying and selling personal data leading to the creation of huge information-technology monopolies. Elections are increasingly prey to unregulated “dark money” emanating from the treasuries of corporations and the billionaire class.
In 1991, “The Lady”, as Aung San Suu Kyi is known, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The committee described her as “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”. But this lantern of liberty stood surreptitiously like Botticelli’s “Venus” over the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar into Bangladesh; doing nothing to stop rape, murder and possible genocide by refusing to condemn or acknowledge accounts of the atrocities.
Her passionate celebrants maintain that she is a pragmatic politician trying to govern a multi-ethnic country with a complex history and a Buddhist majority who feel little sympathy for others. Many ruthless dictators like Hitler loved babies and had a pet puppy. But the truth is always in what you are doing. It is mistaken to look for the real person behind the mask. The true mask is our everyday face. There you will find all of your fears, and so paradoxically, the mask is really who I am. A crucial moment in Joker is when he says: “I used to think my life was a tragedy. But now I realize, it’s a comedy.” In this moment, he fully identifies with his mask and becomes a figure of extreme emptiness and self-destructive violence- laughing wildly at others’ despair. Joker’s crime is that he is the joke, played-on-him by the top.
Today, our world is less peaceful than at any time before, according to the 2019 Global Peace Index compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). Over the last eight years, Central America and the Caribbean have fared worse than anywhere else in terms of homicides and other violent crime and perceptions of criminality.
The beauty of Joker is that it leaves the next step of building a positive alternative to us. It is a depiction of the poor who contribute to GATE through their taxes to educate attorneys and now find it awkward to afford the fees of those they once sent to school to study. A sentiment echoed by Dean Antoine at the opening of the 2019-2020 Law Term
Indifference towards HIV aids creates a callousness among gangsters about their futures, far less the futures of those they turn their rage towards. The lesson of “Joker” is that the disappointment that is growing up today is grim and radical change is needed.