Left-Wing Critical Theory, Entertainment, and Myth: “Star Wars is Fascist, Porn is Fascist” Taken Seriously

On Monday, December 18, 2017, as the Trump Administration banned a major wing of the United States federal government from using the words “transgender” and “fetus” and China and Russia prepared for the possibility of outright war with the USA, notable Marxist Internet activist (and I say that without a hint of sarcasm; reaching so many people online is truly impressive and potentially impactful) Phil Greaves tweeted the following:

Star Wars is fascist, Harry Potter is fascist neo-feudal dreck, selfie-obsession is fascist, British soap-operas are fascist, sci-fi is generally fascist, ironic detachment is fascist, porn is fascist. Masscult under imperialism is inherently fascistic. Sorry to spoil your ‘fun’.

Greaves, who has nearly 10,000 followers and an avatar of Chairman Mao on Twitter, might strike the reader as someone to dismiss as a fringe extremist; but if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot dismiss fringe extremists in any kind of media, as they may leverage the power of that medium to make themselves the new mainstream.

Indeed, Greaves’ statement isn’t absurd: he’s being a killjoy, but as he might say, what kills more joy is fascism. And he’s right. President Donald J. Trump, the most powerful fascist leader in history (yes, I mean that – Hitler caused more suffering and death, but he didn’t have the ability to literally destroy the entire world at a whim) ascended to power using the same social media platform as Greaves used to try to shame Star Wars enthusiasts like myself, and Trump’s opinions weren’t just more offensive. They were devoid of the kind of rational content and implicitly logical backing that Greaves has. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, they catapulted a true monster to the most powerful position in the world. Many have died already because of Trump; many more will soon. And every one of us lives in fear, either of direct repression and violence from the U.S. government, or of the long term consequences of Trump’s rule.

Given what a (at the time) 140 character locked microblogging site has wrought on our planet, it’s worth taking Phil seriously for a moment. Is Star Wars or taking selfies or porn a fascist activity that increases the already great danger we face from totalitarianism? No, I don’t think so, but to really be comfortable saying so, I had to try taking Phil Greaves seriously.

So what is Phil’s argument? I’ve engaged with Marxist traditionalists (as opposed to the kind of neo-Marxianism I subscribe to, which Greaves would no doubt call neoliberal if he was being generous, or fascist if he wasn’t) before, and I have enough sympathy with their general worldview that I think I can articulate a fair summary; if anyone closer to Greaves in ideology has critiques I’d very much like to hear them. In summary, my understanding of Greaves’ fundamental belief:

Capitalism has arisen out of feudalism and is a fundementally unjust system – although at some point it was necessary for capitalism to arise so that it could be overthrown by socialism, the system that will succeed it. However, the bourgeoise, or property owning classes, have become so vested in the system of property that they create systems of ideology and discourse to perpetuate it. On at least some level, the bourgeoise knows that the vast majority of people would be better off under socialism and eventually communism; for that reason; they protect their perverse class interests by tricking people. At the time Karl Msrx laid out the basic tenets of Marxist theory, the great false consciousness could be found in religion; today, it can be found in the popular mass media, which sells regressive values to a society that deserves better. Furthermore, the specifically false conscious ideology fascism has arisen to take majority populations and get them to identify with aspects of their identity besides their role as proletarians and workers, and thus to direct their revolutionary energies toward hate of minorities rather than true reform.

My disagreements with this viewpoint are nitpicky in the abstract, but they constitute the entirety of why I can reject Phil’s argument. I buy all of what he believes up until the assertion that the bourgeoise know what they are doing. Honestly, this is the biggest thing. There are definitely evil conspirators on the right; I’m probably one of the more “I am totally saying it’s aliens” people I know. But even they are in the trip of their own sort of false consciousness. Most of the rich actually believe some variety of a Randian or Hayekian theory where they as individuals are the engines of economic progress. They are still evil, mind you – but actually, here’s an important point: as I’m sure Phil would agree, these evil rich folks also like popular media like, say, Star Wars or porn.

How do we explain the rich liking the false consciousness narratives they create for the proletarian fools? How do we explain the rich being trapped in their own Matrix? It’s quite simple: the system is evil, it was designed for a reason, but that reason isn’t what it’s actually doing. To the exact point that Phil was indirectly but quite obviously opining about: Star Wars is a property belonging to Disney, a company with fascist sympathies now (Bob Iger and Trump have ties) and in the past (Walt himself liked Hitler). Disney has always promoted socially conservative views that would be quite fair to describe as fascist, especially (and I put this in scare quotes because it’s an actual fascist term) “traditional gender roles.” Disney is currently asking like they’re reformed, giving us all sorts of movies, not just Star Wars, with female and PoC and even perhaps queer leads and characters, but we shouldn’t be fooled. Their president is still fascist and their motive is still profit. These things are undeniable. The place where I most directly disagree with Greaves on the facts is that I think the cogs in the machine, like Star Wars director Rian Johnson, don’t realize at the very least the extent to which they’re being used to serve evil. This is, again, not an excuse, but an ultimately vital theoretical nitpick.

Let’s look at another part of Greaves’ argument: that fascism is an ideology produced by capitalism to redirect the energies of the proletariat. It’s 100 percent correct. You’ve probably heard clueless or disingenuous conservatives and fascists state that socialism is fascist because “Nazi” is short for National Socialist. Leftists and especially liberals like to deny the significance of this, and they’re wrong to do so. The National Socialist Democratic (NSDAP or Nazi) Party of Weimar Germany chose that name to bring angry, disenfranchised young people, predominately men but not exclusively, into the fold. The most aggressive and militant of these men, the Richard Spencers and Baked Alaskas of their time, formed an initially unofficial paramilitary group that eventually became an arm of the German military/police: the SA, commonly known as stormtroopers or brownshirts. They used street brawling, just as neoNazis have for decades, to advance Hitler’s agenda as they saw it. Hitler kept them obedient using, in part, the mass media, as Quentin Tarantino reminded us in the disturbingly gleeful Inglorious Basterds.

Of course there’s another bit of history most folks don’t know about the stormtroopers. They were almost all killed. Hitler didn’t get his hands dirty with the everyday murder of his brutal regime very often, but he did with the SA, participating personally in the execution of SA leader Ernst Rohm and other stormtroopers. This particularly brutal bit of Nazi infighting is referred to historically as the Night of Long Knives, a term which has perhaps offensively come to refer to infighting among people who share a basic ideology, as this article archetypically represents.

A lot of folks think, and they’re not completely wrong, that Rohm and the SA were targeted because a lot of them were as close to openly gay as you could get in Nazi Germany. Rohm was gay and this did motivate some of the initial moves toward a purge, including in civilian religious leadership that wasn’t directly part of the NSDAP. But this wasn’t the main reason. The contemporary historical consensus is that the SA was targeted because of the common perception within the Nazi party that they were socialist True Believers who, while they probably hated Jewish and disabled people plenty; also felt economically disenfranchised (“economically insecure,” as the modern centrist media would put it) and wanted a “second revolution.” In other words, senior Nazis were pretty sure that the stormtroopers, while they could be relied upon to kill minorities, were committed to the “Socialist” part of “National Socialist,” and this was quite literally bad for business.

My point? Fascism does hide inside things like fights for economic justice, and that’s one reason we can’t trust that just because Disney’s latest blockbuster has fascist villains, it isn’t on some important level fascist itself. The thing about modern fascists is that they have the fascists of the past as cautionary examples. They can do and are doing better.

So why do I still think Phil is wrong? Is it my hopeless attachment to fascist fables? Maybe. But I am pretty sure that Phil’s ridiculous but also not tweet is just the tip of a massive iceberg of self-righteous left wing critique of mass media based on a misunderstanding of what stories actually are, and the real danger to leftists and communists is not the energy we lose to Star Wars and/or porn, but the energy we lose to critiques that lead nowhere, and the twisting of our ideologies that causes. This isn’t obvious though, so bear with me.

First of all, storytelling is a fundamental thing societies do. I’m not saying this based on the unscientific views of Joseph Campbell, but as someone with a Ph.D. in communication. It is trivially apparent that when we communicate, we are telling stories, even if those stories are trite, banal, or boring. The Marxist prophecy of history is a story, one I really hope is true. So is “American leftists are brainwashed by Disney.” To be really pedantic, so is “this morning, a Marxist posted a tweet.” These things are simple but other than that their nature as stories isn’t any different from something that begins with “A long time ago in a galaxy…”

Furthermore, storytellers are extremely important but – and I can hear the groans already – they aren’t the ultimate authorities on stories (texts), as Derrida points out. Phil is groaning, in the mystic world where he actually noticed this essay, and pointing out that Derrida is a postmodernist and postmodernism leads to some nasty dead ends. And it does! I was a teenager postmodernist, to paraphrase Against Me!, and I feel pretty shitty at the amount of rage and desire for change I wasted on things like trying to critique the idea that anyone could ever know anything. But while postmodernism may have a lot of bullshit, I think even an orthodox Marxist should and probably ultimately will grant that it’s true that someone who tells a story doesn’t necessarily control where that story goes or to what purposes it will be used. Best example? Marxism being coopted by fascists.

This is going on actively in left circles. I don’t know the first thing about Greaves; I’ve seen him accused of racism, but I cannot comment on that and I don’t bring it up to discredit him. I bring it up because I’ve seen the assertion, and I find it plausible that it might be true, and even if it isn’t it describes a wider problem that is true, that Greaves is a racist “class-first” Marxist. That’s a subset of Marxists who, in theory, think that race and other identities are part of false consciousness, while social class reflects reality. In actual fact, these folks are invariably racist and arguably approach the historical stormtroopers in both nastiness and disingenuousness. Whether Greaves is one or not, the attack on storytelling by many leftists is, I argue, a stealth insertion of class first ideology into leftism.

We are going to tell stories, no matter what. To believe we are not is false consciousness. Disney is fascist, and that arguably makes Star Wars fascist. I know few friends who would disagree that mainstream pornography supports some horrible things that could be described as fascist, although I think different leftists will disagree on what is fascist about porn. But porn actors aren’t fascist, and neither are the bulk of people involved with Star Wars or any other film. The system is fascist, but the system extends far beyond entertainment.

To be very clear about what I’m saying: it’s not meaningful to say that Star Wars, porn, or any media that isn’t actual intentional fascist propaganda is porn, and to assert that anything in Greaves’ post is intentionally fascist is broadly insulting in a number of ways. Systematic critiques must be made. To draw from popular media itself, in the 1999 CD-ROM game epic Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, paleoconservative Sister Miriam Godwinson states, insightfully:

Evil lurks in the datalinks, as it did in the streets of old. But it was never the streets that were evil.

Fascism turns a fundamental human capacity to communicate or tell stories evil. Our solution cannot be to reject stories; instead, we must use these capacities for good and for revolution.

Dr. Eleanor A. Lockhart, formerly a member of the petit bourgeoise, is on medical leave and faces long term unemployment. Help her survive and write more things to hopefully fight capitalism by (if you can afford it) redirecting your own excess labor product to her Patreon or her Ko-fi. Thanks for reading!