Doctor Who frequently did stories which critiqued capitalism to one degree or another. But there’s an interesting dialectical twist to this, which is that it usually cloaked such critiques in the aesthetics of (for want of a better term) ‘totalitarianism’.
It begins, arguably, with ‘The Macra Terror’… though so much of what that story does ‘first’ is actually just being done openly and consciously for the first time. Other examples include (most graphically) ‘The Sun Makers’, ‘Vengeance on Varos’, and ‘The Happiness Patrol’. I’d argue for a few others to go on the list, but these are the most obvious examples. ‘The Beast Below’ carried on the tradition, as did ‘Gridlock’ before it (albeit mutedly). Yet many of these stories have been subject to readings which interpret them as right-wing and/or libertarian attacks on aspects of socialism and/or statism (often assumed to be synonymous). I might even (overall) support such a reading in some cases. ‘The Beast Below’, for example, is a story which critiques aspects of the capitalist world, but which (to my mind) ends up supplying more alibis than indictments – partially through its use of totalitarian/statist tropes. I think the thing that leaves them open to such readings is their ‘totalitarian’ aesthetic. The (myopic, ideologically-distorted) view of socialism which sees it as inherently coercive and statist can grab hold of the aesthetically magnified symbols of statism which litter these stories.
I think this tendency to wrap critiques of capitalism in totalitarian aesthetics comes from the influence of the Nigel Kneale / Rudolph Cartier TV version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which starred Peter Cushing.
Stylistically, this production appears to have been deeply influential to the rising generation of programme-makers who would write and design Doctor Who in the 60s. The totalitarian affect pioneered visually in that production gets embedded in Doctor Who‘s internal semiotic repertoire as a stock way of expressing worries about social freedom.
This isn’t surprising at all, since the aesthetics of totalitarianism have proven a popular and enduring way of expressing such worries in the wider culture, as the proliferation of SF dystopias has shown. They’re now almost a basic, fallback position for YA books and films.
But we need to do more than just gesture to a particularly influential production. That’s not enough. It’s not an explanation. You can’t just say ‘this production here was influential’. That’s just begging the question. The real question is: why was it influential? What was it about it that made its aesthetics stick so hard?
I think the answer actually lies back in the book. Much of the horror of the book is the everyday horror of squalor – whether it be the squalor of coldness and dirt and forced ‘healthiness’, or the moral squalor of everyday ideological management. Orwell gets the former from his experiences of public school (which he wrote about elsewhere with loathing) and the latter from his experiences of working within the BBC. Even Newspeak is derived from work he did for the BBC World Service in India. The book is also obsessed with the horror of poverty, whether it be the relative poverty of the lower middle classes scraping by in an austere world of rations and shortages, or the more absolute poverty of the proletariat.
Oceania is a howl of disgust at the world Orwell came from as much as it’s a parodic howl of fear at the rise of totalitarianism. In his gorge, he felt the nauseating similarity of the collectivist oligarchies of public school, British imperial police, BBC, and Stalinist Party. Indeed, part of how he was able to speculate so accurately about what it was like to live in Stalinist societies is owing to his experiences of living within hierarchical structures of coercion within his own society. He sees the sanctimonious regulation of life within totalitarian structures like the Stalinist Party clearly because they chime with his experiences of public school and bourgeois middle-class life. Exactly the resonance which attracted so many British middle-class intellectuals to Stalinist organisation repelled Orwell. He runs like fuck while they happily reintegrate… and yet he is irresistibly drawn to write about it. (A powerful psychological substrata in Orwell’s work is a feeling of irrisistible attraction to things that horrify.)
It’s not hard to see how the kinds of neurotic feelings of attraction/repulsion which animated Orwell might also animate a later generation of educated, British BBC men, usually from some level of the middle class, and often themselves public school educated.
Robert Holmes in particular (writer of, most pertinently for this essay, ‘The Krotons’, ‘The Sun Makers’,’The Deadly Assassin’ and ‘The Caves of Androzani’) has peculiar echoes of Orwell. He was in Burma during the war and was then a policeman before he worked for the BBC. Orwell was a colonial policeman in Burma before he worked for the BBC. I don’t know if Holmes went to public school (nobody – not even his biographer – seems to know where he went to school), but he certainly endured army life and Hendon Police College.
Ian Stuart Black, author of ‘The Macra Terror’, attended Daniel Stewart’s College in Edinburgh.
He then joined the RAF at the outbreak of World War II and worked in intelligence in the Middle East.
I’m not saying Black loathed public school and the RAF. I don’t know how he felt about them. What I’m saying is that he’s an example of a BBC man of that generation, and he lived in hierarchical structures similar to the ones Orwell lived in, owing to their similar class positions and careers.
But we need to go a little deeper still.
Why does Nineteen Eighty-Four, when rendered as a TV show by the BBC, come to wield such influence? It must be more than the fact that the book’s depiction of cold showers, hectoring compulsary P.E., pious sanctimony, and ideologically-drenched clerical work, resonated with a bunch of the corporation’s talented hacks.
On a superficial level, it’s because the Kneale script subtly tweaks the story to make it more like SF than Orwell’s more Swiftian approach. On a less superficial level – and this is what I really wanted to get to – it’s because totalitarian societies are also capitalist.
It could hardly be otherwise. Totalitarianism (not a word I’m fond of, but it’ll do for now as a placeholder to denote something we all recognise) depends upon the industrial, economic and political developments of capitalism to exist. It depends upon modern industry, classes divided by their relation to production, the bourgeois family, the standing army, imperialism, a standing police force, bureaucracy, a strong state, central government, etc.
The workers’ state would also depend upon such things, but as a springboard rather than a prop. The workers’ state would pull itself up on top of such things the better to bury them. The Stalinist state was a failed workers’ state. It was unable to transcend the bourgeois mode owing to the undeveloped nature of the Russian forces of production, relative scarcity, outside attack, a devastating civil war (started as a war of aggression by the Western powers), and isolation after the failure of the German Revolution. By contrast, the fascist states in both Germany and Italy (and in a more mediated way in Spain) arose as direct reactions against more-or-less revolutionary threats to unstable national capitalisms. (This is why I don’t really like the term ‘totalitarian’ as it pays too much attention to superficial aesthetic similarities at the expense of embracing an ahistorical narrative. The ‘fascists’ in Russia were the West-sponsored White counter-revolutionaries.) The Nazis arose in Germany as a form of class collaboration between those bourgeois forces which felt threatened by Communism and the insurgent German working class. The failure of German workers and socialists to pre-empt or defeat this reaction is a huge part of what led to the isolation of the workers’ state in Russia and its subsequent degeneration into Stalinism. The people who made the Russian Revolution knew full well they would be doomed to fail if world revolution didn’t spread to more-developed allies.
Stalinist Russia was state capitalist. It never became socialist or communist in the Marxist sense. It was a workers’ state which degenerated into an extreme form of state capitalism through historical contingency – isolation, attack, civil war, the rise of a bureaucratic layer following the near-elimination of the working class, etc. (I was never a member of the now deservedly self-ruined SWP, but I broadly accept their theoretical standpoint on state capitalism.)
Thing is… all capitalist states are state capitalist to some degree. This sounds like an obvious tautology, but you’d be amazed how many people buy the idea that capitalism is something fundamentally seperate from the state, capable (at least theoretically) of subsisting without it. Much as the ideologues of capitalism like to pretend that individual freedom is the essence of capitalism, the truth is that capitalism is actually impossible without massive state intervention and support.
This has never been more true than now, in the age of neoliberalism when the state has supposedly been rolled back. The state works tirelessly to keep the peace and order of capitalist social systems, to manufacture ideological and material complicity, and to redistribute wealth upwards from the working class and into the hands of private capital. That’s what Austerity is, for instance: another form of neoliberal praxis for creating the trickle-up-effect.
The state and society are not seperate things, the latter superimposed upon the former, or squatting on top of it like some kind of malevolent succubus – a mistake made commonly by libertarians, liberals and some varieties of anarchist. The state is part of society. It is a superstructural emanation. It is that part of class society which coercively regulates the order, reproduction and stability of the system. It positions itself and discourses about itself as something above and seperate from society, yet morally responsive and responsible to it. The truth is the exact opposite.
You can see the crucial role of the state very clearly by looking at the state now, but you can perhaps get even more clarity via historical distance, which thins out at least some of the ideolgical fug. When you look at the capitalist states in and around the era of the Great Depression, you see an intense process of increasingly conscious and sophisticated state fusion with capital (this, of course, is the essence of capitalist imperialism… and so is hardly unrelated to the outbreak of World War).
The Nazi state utilised heavy state control and investment, even as it allied with and supported national bourgeois class allies, in order to stimulate the economy and build up imperial capability. The Stalinist state was a state involved in breakneck industrialisation. That’s why its horrors are so intense and drastic – they concertina the horrors of primitive accumulation, industrial revolution and early imperialist acquisition (all of which happened in Europe during the rise of capitalism) down into a compressed few decades of frenzied misery. You see it in America, perhaps most clearly when the US state stepped in to keep the tottering economic and financial sytem going, and to divert popular anger and resistance into state-funded stimulus packages (ie the ‘New Deal’… which, incidentally, did much less to solve the Depression than arms spending and monopolisation).
Orwell was not a theoretically sophisticated thinker, and he certainly wasn’t a neo-Trot avant la lettre. But he did understand (as Homage to Catalonia makes clear) that Stalinism and fascism were actually both forms of state capitalism… or, at least, of exploitative hierarchy with oppressed working classes. Nineteen Eighty-Four makes it clear that the working classes still exist and their labour is still exploited, very much as it always was. Part of the point of the book is that nowhere near as much has changed as the Party says has changed. One of the neglected subplots involves Winston trying to question ‘Proles’ about whether life is really different now. The indications are that they don’t think so.
I think this is why the SF-inflected version of Nineteen Eighty-Four turned out to be so useful to Doctor Who. It’s SF, so the show can co-opt it. And it’s based on a fundamental recognition of the similarity of oppression in capitalist and ‘totalitarian’ systems, the difference being one of degree.
This is the deep cultural reason why the aesthetics of Nineteen Eighty-Four (via Kneale and Cartier when it comes to Doctor Who) get utilised in so many subsequent texts which employ the dystopian mode to express anxieties about social freedom. The story provides a logic that can express the essential syngergy of two supposedly inimical systems. This surfaces in 60s Doctor Who – perhaps most explicitly in ‘The Macra Terror’ – because of the cultural context of the times. Because of protestors beaten and tear-gassed by Western police forces who look worryingly like the Thought Police. Because of the seeping in of ideas originated by people like Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse… and yes, even by Trotsky and the New Left. It’s important to remember that Fromm – a Marxist (on the whole) and a critic of both Western capitalism and Soviet Communism – was a bestselling writer a decade before ‘Macra’ was written. Fromm stresses alienation whereas Marcuse – also a trendy big-selling theorist – stresses control, but the cornerstone of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is his articulation of paralells between Western capitalist culture and the culture of the Soviet Union, and his critique of bureaucratic management in both systems. It was published in 1964.
There is much to be said about both these thinkers, and I would not endorse either of them without heavy caveats (to say the least), but the point here is that from a position of popular as well as academic fame, thinkers and ideas such as these were seeping into the wider mainstream culture of an increasingly uneasy post-war capitalism. This capitalism dwelt under the shadow of malaise, Vietnam, nuclear bombs, the revolt of colonised peoples against Western oppression, civil rights protests against institutionalised racism, popular rebellion amongst the young against war, and authoritarian police repression.
As ‘The Macra Terror’ understands, cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing. People in ‘free’ societies increasingly saw, at least on some level, the tesselation between what happened under so-called Communism and what happened at home.
People always talk about The Prisoner in relation to ‘The Macra Terror’, and that’s probably because both feature systems of repression cloaked in… or rather structurally identical with… some kind of holiday resort aesthetic. The Village is a more middle class resort whereas the Colony is – as is well understood – a sort of working class holiday camp. But the deep connection between the two – beyond the material connection of Ian Stuart Black and Patrick McGoohan – is that the kitsch quasi-authoritarianism of structured leisure chimes with the kitsch actual-authoritarianism of repressive regimes, which include state-designed and state-monitored forms of entertainment. This happens because private capitalist forms of leisure which cater to the working classes in ‘democratic’ societies are as integrated into hierarchy as entertainment in ‘totalitarian’ societies, if less officially. Both feature forms of regimentation and containment appropriate to the organisation of the social lives of workers, with the appropriateness determined in an essentially inhuman method derived from the need to keep psychological discipline. At the risk of sounding paranoid and conspiratorial (because I think this happens largely as a self-organising, emergent property of hegemony), holiday camps were the way they were because they catered for people who needed to be happy to go back to work and follow orders again once the holiday was over.
As with Marcuse and Fromm, I wouldn’t want to endorse Patrick McGoohan as a thinker without heavy caveats (one of the pleasures of writing this particular blog is that I can write sentences like that) but I will mention one scene from The Prisoner. It’s the scene where Leo McKern’s Number 2 tells Number 6 that he sees the whole world becoming (in the phrase 6 supplies for him) “as the Village”. 2 says it will happen when the “two sides” (of the Cold War) “look across at each other and realise they are both looking into a mirror”.
Be seeing you.