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‘A Clockwork Orange’ and its Political Relevance Today

It’s the capacity to make a moral choice that makes us human, be it a good or evil one.

Authoritarianism’s on the rise across the world. Whether it’s Chinese lawmakers abolishing the presidential term limit, the modification of laws in India to jail dissenting voices, the immigration issues being gaslighted by far-right leaders across the west, or the hardline activities being aggressively pursued in Turkey.

The phenomenon of spreading totalitarianism has one commonality: to stay in power, by hook or by crook. But the more dictators that come to power, the more restrictions there will be on our individual freedoms — which is sometimes called free will.

Origins of ‘A Clockwork Orange’

The settings of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film seem to have been inspired by the Orwellian dystopia of 1984. It’s a picture of an alternate England, where litter-filled pavements are commonplace, and adjoining government blocks have been built for housing common folk. The country appears to be in a sorry state of affairs, as the streets are ruled by thugs seeking sex and violence, making it a dangerous place to live.

The origin of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 book A Clockwork Orange is based on the 1940’s post-war anxieties. The gloom that followed after World War II led to widespread aggression amongst the youth. One example that could be cited was the ‘Teddy Boy’ culture of 1950s England that imitated the early American Gangster look. Their behaviour was sometimes in line with the violence that was glorified in such movies, and some of them formed gangs that gained a notorious reputation after clashes with rivals.

In one incident, Burgess’s own wife was attacked by a few American deserters in the 1940s. The film depicts a similar scene where the film’s protagonist Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang forcefully break into a renowned writer’s house, beat him up to the point he’s crippled, and then rape his wife.

A Clockwork Orange © Warner Bros.

Alex and His Free Will

Alexander DeLarge is a smart but delinquent teenager who does as he pleases. With no qualms about his conduct towards other human beings, he goes on a rampage with his gang, beating a homeless drunken man and picking fights.

“What I do I do because I like to do.”

He’s a sadist with no regards for others. His penchant for “ultra-violence” knows no bounds. Even his own gang members (whom he calls his droogs) aren’t spared, as he punishes them for their disobedience — which they later avenge by turning him into the authorities.

The film covers both aspects — the free will or the personal liberties of an individual and excessive government control. It showcases extremities of both. The first half depicts Alex exercising his individual freedom, creating a ruckus in society… and the second half showcases how governmental control sucks out the human inside him through inhuman treatments.

“If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange — meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil.”

In a democracy, the individual and the government have to make amends to reach an arrangement for the society to function in an orderly fashion. However, when totalitarian policies are implemented, the free will of an individual gets compromised to an extent that one isn’t given any choices. And taking away choice is as good as turning a human into a robot.

An authoritarian government, in order to stay in power, makes laws that keep cutting people off from their freedoms under the garb of the social good.

But how much is too much for an individual? The movie portrays an allegorical clash between libertarian-authoritarian views.

The Capacity to Make a Moral Choice

Alex is arrested by the police and sentenced to 14 years in prison for murder. In jail, he shows good behaviour by helping the padre in the Sunday service. But on the other hand, he identifies himself as a Roman soldier responsible for torturing Jesus Christ when he reads The Bible.

As the prisons are filled to the brim with criminals, the government devices a psychological treatment for the prisoners. A treatment that’ll help them recover from their violent traits and release them into the normal world. All this, in order to create more space for political prisoners.

When Alex is selected as a guinea pig for the experiment, he’s made to sign multiple forms without reading them. It resembles Stalin-ruled USSR, with multiple layers of bureaucracy but no real freedom. Kubrick keeps dropping hints through dialogues that the government is an authoritarian one.

“The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities.”

As a part of the treatment, Alex is forcibly shown acts of violence and rape on a widescreen, which he initially enjoys. He’s taped, tied, drugged, and a speculum is used to keep his eyelids open. He’s left with no choice but to watch the brutal clips that include the terrors of Nazi Germany. After watching those multiple times with the background score of Beethoven’s “9th Symphony”, he grows sick of it and screams to stop the treatment.

The music has the same effect on him as grotesque acts of forceful sex and brutality. But, they stop only till he ceases to have a choice.

The completion of the treatment renders him defenceless as he can’t act according to his will. Even if he would want to choose evil, he cannot. Not that he’s likely to choose well, but he simply can’t use aggression as it makes him sick and giddy.

Burgess’s central idea is that one has a moral choice between good and evil. But, the “Ludovico treatment” takes it away from Alex. He goes to the extreme to imply that even if Alex chooses to be evil and inflict damage, his moral choice cannot be taken away. As it is the central aspect that makes him human. Without that, he’s no different than non-living matter that exists but is incapable of making choices.

“Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”

Is Alex Evil?

The movie heavily downplays the evil nature of the protagonist compared to the book. In the novel, Alex is a teenager who rapes and beat pre-teen girls, whereas in the movie he’s shown to have consensual sex with girls his age.

He goes on housebreaking sprees along with his gang members. He vandalizes their property and rapes a woman in front of her husband. After committing such a heinous crime, they go for a nightcap at a bar which suggests no scope of remorse for their actions. Without a doubt, such a person is unquestionably evil. He’s definitely a threat to society if he roams free.

But Alex is not the only evil character. The other characters are as evil as Alex but they pretend to be good-natured.

His corrective school advisor is shown as a molester who later gives the evidence against Alex. Probably, Alex could be skipping school because of his predatory nature.

His gang members are of an equally criminal nature but they get away. When he encounters them after his treatment, they take him to a deserted place to beat up and nearly drown him before abandoning him in the middle of the countryside. They’re metaphorical to opportunists in a political setup who can switch their honesty at the drop of a hat. Initially, they’re criminals led by Alex, but later they side with the authorities and act as their stooges.

Alex’s parents aren’t wicked but they represent the class that’s prefer the status quo in society. Unlike Alex, who affirms his identity as a criminal, his parents are akin to neutrality. Unbothered by the ill-effects of a fascist government, this class always chooses to keep quiet.

After getting injured, Alex reaches the home of the writer whose wife he had raped. He doesn’t recognize Alex but he knows about the techniques being used on him for improvement in behaviour. He decides to use him as a weapon against the government by bringing it out in the press. But, as soon as he comes to know that Alex is the same person who had raped his wife, he finds sadistic pleasure in torturing him, playing the “9th Symphony” that now makes Alex sick. Unable to bear the sickness, Alex attempt suicide by jumping out of the window. How is he the lesser evil than Alex?

The characters played in the movie symbolise different characteristics of people that exist in a political setup. They wear a veil of being good-natured, but in actuality, they are just as wicked as Alex.

Fascists Want to Stay in Power

The common misconception is that fascism is associated with an ideology. Madeleine Albright, who served as the first female Secretary of State in the US, defines it thus:

Fascism is not an ideology; it’s a process for taking and holding power. A fascist is somebody who identifies with one group — usually an aggrieved majority — in opposition to a smaller group.

The hypothetical government in the movie employs inhuman treatment to treat Alex to rob him off of his self-determination.

Similarly, an authoritarian regime would enforce its citizens to several restrictions that can leave them without the freedom to choose. The uncertain nature amongst humans is an inherent threat to the fascists. Once, they become incapable of making a choice, the regime can rule with an iron fist.

When Alex returns home, he finds that his parents have rented out his room to a stranger called Joe. In an argument, when Alex says he’s suffered for the sins he committed, Joe (who metaphorically represents a mob) bashes him for his wrongdoings. Joe’s totally insensitive to Alex’s suffering because he believes that Alex deserves to suffer more — as he’s inflicted pain on the innocent.

The moral compass of a society might be agreeable for the inhuman Ludovico treatment being meted out to a hardened criminal like Alex. But, in reality, the government won’t bat an eyelid when using the same treatment on its dissenters, who are nowhere close to evil like the protagonist in the movie.

In the current atmosphere where data’s supreme, the governments can make a law to get access to someone’s private information in order to prevent any damage inflicted by a particular individual on society. But, it can jeopardize the privacy of a citizen without any criminal tendencies. This way, the government can exercise control over their subjects and avoid any kind of dissent that is a threat to their power.

For instance, installing cameras with facial recognition across the cities can help the authorities track the offenders of the law. But, it will also give them the power to impose control over the rebels.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Security vs. Liberty

The Oxford English Dictionary defines liberty as “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s behaviour or political views.”

It’s often seen that the government imposes restrictions on civil liberties citing security concerns. A classic example would be America’s ‘War on Terror’, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that sabotaged the rights of minorities. It almost gave a free hand to the authorities to target the minorities by racial profiling.

John Locke pointed out in 1689 that — the means given to the state to fight our enemies (terrorists) could very well be used by the government to fight its own enemies (political opposition, minorities, etc.).

The citizens tend to trade off civil liberties during times of distress, as observed after the 9/11 attacks. It’s a psychological knee-jerk reaction. Most likely, the people are trading the freedom of ethnic, racial or religious minorities, which later becomes applicable for political opponents.

When the government imposes restrictions on personal freedom, it actually realises the goal of terrorists as it goes against the ideals of liberty, equality and freedom.

But, should we exercise complete liberty? No, because absolute freedom will lead to a state of anarchy.

A Clockwork Orange is an active debate between security and liberty. The authorities arrest Alex under the charge of murder and conduct an experiment on him that leaves him defenceless, unable to act on his will. But, when they receive bad press for the treatment, they strike an arrangement with Alex. The governor offers him a job in exchange for co-operation in the elections.

When Alex tells the governor that the writer poses a threat to his life, the governor replies with “we put him away.” Instead, they arrest the writer who is a political opponent of the government. Probably, they would conduct the experiment on him, leaving him without free will.

1934 Nazi Party propaganda poster

Current Scenario

Government control can be exercised far easier than it’s ever been possible before. The ability to collect and store personal data allows governments to keep an eye on citizens, and it’s a cakewalk. The data entries of citizen could be collected to identify their political beliefs, and separate ones with opposing views.

In the digital world, we leave multiple traces of our likes, dislikes, and political orientation by the many things we post on social media. It’s impossible to totally cover the traces we leave behind that can compromise our own privacy. It will only take an authoritarian regime to sack your liberties by using your “private” data to their own ends.

Are we really free?

On the other hand, in a consumerist world, free will is close to a myth. We have corporations controlling our opinions with targeted marketing. Facebook alone revealed they have 98 data points that are used to target ads. 98 seems a ridiculously low number, but it could be way more than that.

Every day, our thoughts are being manipulated. Not that they were not in the earlier era. Nazis had a propaganda ministry — Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. It was meant to control the mass media and gather public opinion in their favour. Adolf Hitler was glorified and presented as a cult-like figure.

But, if Hitler or Stalin were to exist today, it would have been much simpler for them to monitor, trace and eliminate the political opponents. They could have effortlessly run a propaganda machine with the use of social media. Unlike the movie, they wouldn’t have required Alex’s help to further their agenda.

Controversies

A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971 and caused huge controversy across the world. Cases were registered against a few teenagers in the UK for violent acts allegedly inspired by the film’s scenes. Kubrick faced threats and protests outside his house, forcing him to ask Warner Bros. to withdraw the movie from the UK — and it wasn’t re-released and made available on home video there until after Kubrick’s death in 1999.

Despite all the controversy, mixed reviews, and an X rating, the movie was well-received at the 44th Academy awards. It was nominated in four categories including ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’. It lost both to The French Connection (1971).

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Vaibhav Bhosle

Hi, I am here to share my learnings with the world. You can check out my travelogue ‘My Iranian Diary’ on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0985FZ9W3