Wow. Single figures. Okay, time for some fun.
“I’m asking you to help yourselves,” says the Doctor.
Revolution isn’t about everyone suddenly becoming altruistic and angelic. It is, as Marx saw it, “the movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority“.
“Nothing will change round here unless you change it,” says the Doctor. Here is ‘freedom and necessity‘. It must be done, but they can choose to do it or not to do it.
“What will we do with two guns against all those guards?” asks Veet.
“You can’t do anything, but there are fifty million people in this city. Think how the guards will react to that number.”
“It’s crazy talk,” says Goudry, “Rebellion? No one would support you.” Capitalist realism.
“Given the chance to breathe clean air for a few hours, they might. Have you thought of that?”
The Company pumps a chemical fug into the air that makes people anxious and weak. That’s how it works on Pluto. Here we call it ideology, or hegemony.
The Doctor and Bisham discuss ways of knocking out the gas pumps.
“I was a B grade in Main Control,” says Mandrell, “The Doctor’s right. It could work.”
Until now, nobody has been more cynical. But Mandrell has, in a sense, just been given the chance to breathe clean air.
The Doctor isn’t stinting on the revolutionary optimism. He suggests taking over main control. Mandrell thinks it could be done.
“What have we got to lose?” he asks.
“Only your claims,” says the Doctor.
Everyone is quite impressed by this. It’s a sign of the times that we, the audience, are evidently expected to recognise and relish the reference. The Doctor knows full well what he’s saying – and he’s not just punning. Workers don’t usually have to wear chains these days, but they still have nothing compared to the Companies of this world. They have their ‘claims’ of course – claims upon democracy and human rights, etc… But the Company never gives refunds unless forced to, so the workers’ ‘claims’ are essentially the same as ‘nothing’.
“Anything’s worth trying,” says Cordo, a man who was trying to kill himself that morning, but who is now frantic with revolutionary confidence, “If only we could win. Just think, if we could beat the Company!”
“There’s no ‘if’ about it, Cordo,” says the Doctor, “We will.”
There’s ‘the actuality of the revolution‘ for you.
Robert Holmes is often called a cynic… but he was at least as much a romantic. This story is a full-on romantic political drama of revolution. The cynical and self-seeking drop-outs turn strike-leaders. The cowed and suicidally-miserable worker is transformed by revolution until he’s a whooping, gung-ho, gun-toting freedom fighter. (Revolution changes people even as they change society – one reason why waiting until we’ve all changed ourselves for the better is functionally the same as accepting the status quo. You change yourself by changing society, and vice versa.) The workers collectively overthrow capitalism and set up a workers’ state in about a day. Much to the blinking incomprehension of many who have tried to understand this story, the Gatherer’s final flight is treated unequivocally as a joke and an inspirational achievement. It’s not Robert Holmes being cynical about revolution; it’s Robert Holmes getting infected with rebellious fervour. Even Synge and Hacket, intially forced to aid the revolution at gun-point, gradually get swept along and start helping willingly. Marn cynically switches sides to save her own skin… but, as with so much Holmesian cynicism, that should make us ask: who and what is this cynicism really about? This is cynicism about the powerful. If we just call it, in general terms, ‘cynicism’, then we’re conceding that the actions of the powerful define politics and society.
‘The Sun Makers’ is often said to be a right-wing ‘satire’ of the UK tax system. But I have a question: how much tax does the Company pay?
It’s a sign of how utterly the Right has set the agenda that criticising taxation is seen as an inherently right-wing thing to do. There is, astonishingly enough, a left-critique of state taxation in capitalist states. The Right attack taxation because they want, in this neoliberal age, to effectively abolish any penalty or restraint upon big business. They call this ‘liberty’. They’ve already managed it to an astonishing degree. Meanwhile, regressive taxation – combined with deregulation, privatisation and the erosion of the social wage – disproportionately penalises those on lower-incomes. That is not a concern of the right. In fact, it’s a priority.
This idea that the Right hate tax is related to the idea that the Right hate the state. But the Right is, essentially, a coalition around the defence of class privilege, and in capitalist society class privilege is defended by the state. What the Right hates is the idea that the state can be used for any purposes other than their own. The social-democratic idea that the state should provid services in return for taxation is too much for them.
As Terry Eagleton has written, nobody was more hostile to the state than Marx. He saw it as an emanation of class society. It was pure alienation of human ‘species-being’. Engels called it little more than “a body of armed men” tasked with repression.
One of the quintessetial traits of neoliberalism is anti-state rhetoric combined with the heavy use of the state to further the interests of the ruling class. You ‘roll back the state’s frontiers’ while also using it to fund military imperialism, police repression, bail-outs for banks and corporations during times of crisis, etc. State funding of the welfare state is restricted and curtailed while largesse flows freely to corporations. The US government gets taken over by oil-executives who talk about how much they hate the state while using it to plunder oil-rich countries. Even as the state supposedly gets downgraded, it becomes ever more violent and monomaniacal in its determination to support capitalism.
In ‘The Sun Makers’, the state has basically been bought out and taken over by a private concern. The Gatherer’s state exists to pour profits into the Collector’s Company. The state gathers and the Company collects. They call these profits “taxes” but they actually amount to charges for services, i.e. the production of air for breathing, the construction of suns, the provision of time for sleeping. You have to pay to be euthanased, to be buried, to be employed, to take pills, to go outside. The social wage and the welfare state have been abolished – privatised in all but name – and every aspect of private and social life has been commodified, marketised. The state charges you for everything and invades your life and watches everything you do and punishes you when you disobey… but it does all this as a private contractor for a monolithic block of predatory capital.
As so often, Doctor Who expresses anxieties about capitalism in terms of aesthetics that recall Stalinism or ‘totalitarianism’… but this isn’t just confusion. The essence of Stalinism was the functioning of the state as capital. This would have been no surprise to Marx, who wrote primarily of capitalist relations and of the property form as just a social expression of such relations, one form among possible others. Marx knew how central the state was to supporting the rise of capitalism. The Soviet bureaucrats were no less directors of capital (or exploiters of workers) for the fact that they didn’t formally ‘own’ any factories.
We only have to look around us today to see how prescient it was for Doctor Who, in 1977, in the early years of neoliberalism, to see the total privatisation of the state leading to pervasive state intrusion, regressive taxation, carrion-feeding austerity and social authoritarianism.
And it’s quite breathtaking that, in 1977, as the tide of struggle called ‘the 60s’ faded into memory, Robert Holmes romantically and unrestrainedly suggested workers’ revolution as the solution.
Well, I had fun.