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Drawing of the being from the Upside Down in control of Will Byers

The neoliberal Upside Down

Toward a critical theory of contemporary science-fiction television

When the Great Financial Crisis hit in 2008, there was a gasp of guilty excitement on the left at the sudden re-emergence of the conditions for radical social change, after 30 years of what has become known even by mainstream economists as ‘neoliberalism’: an obsession with privatisation and financialisation that has made the world more unequal than ever before.

Then when the inevitable happened, and neoliberal states saved the day by bailing out the banks and shifting the cost of the crisis onto ordinary people through austerity, the left sunk into what can only be described as a form of ‘theory depression’, fuelled by its typical disappointment in the political consciousness of the ‘masses’.

As my other work has tried to show, austerity has also been used by governments to drive marketisation agendas through public services in the hope of injecting short-term profitability into the now stagnating global system of monopoly finance capitalism. In the UK, for example, universities are being reconstructed as human capital machines, churning out research and development (R&D) for the investment-shy private sector; and cheap ‘cognitive’ labour to administer our a ‘fully-automated’ future.

While the left-intelligentsia retreated to nay-saying theory—epitomised by books like Colin Crouch’s The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism and Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End?—the ‘masses’ started revolting. At the same time, we saw the rise of right-wing ‘populist’ movements, leading to the UK’s hair breadth majority vote to leave the European Union (EU) and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.

However, just a few months before the ‘Brexit’ referendum, the almost unthinkable had happened: a left-winger had been elected to the leadership of the UK Labour Party. Although this wasn’t the first time the global anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal movement had reached the mainstream—Bernie Sanders gave Hilary Clinton a good run for her money in the lead up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election (at least until he was sabotaged by the Democratic National Committee), and Greece had the year before elected left-wing coalition party Syriza to parliament—the shift to the left of one of the two biggest and most electorally successful political parties in a neoliberal heartland arguably represented a turning point in the post-2008 crisis era.

The argument of this article is that the crisis of neoliberalism, which has not yet been able to resolve in a satisfactory way the contradictions of monopoly finance capitalism, is also beginning to be articulated in popular culture, specifically in contemporary science fiction television on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Contrary to the analysis of pessimist cultural critics, a radical questioning of the political and economic status quo is emerging in popular consciousness. While culture has not, and perhaps cannot, give any answers, the fact that the question has re-emerged indicates a shift away from the postmodern ‘end of history’ that characterised the neoliberal era.

A brief history of Marxist science fiction theory

Before moving on to the analysis of Stranger Things, it is useful to provide some theoretical context. As indicated by the title of the article, I am interested in contemporary science fiction television from a Marxist point of view. For Marxist critical theorists, cultural artefacts cannot be separated from the historical period within which they were produced, as they are seen as expressions of the contradictions between ideological systems (which serve to rationalise extant power relations) and the stark realities of the actual structure of social relations behind them.

Marx insisted that ideological ‘superstructures’—politics, culture, art—had to be read with reference to the economic ‘base’: the relations of production that created the ‘value’ upon which the wider circulation of commodities (including art) depended. However, as pointed out above, this is not to say that ideology is a simple ‘reflection’ of this base, and that cultural products can be read as expressions of any one ideological position in the social division of labour, i.e. in terms of ‘bourgeois’ or ‘proletarian’ art.

For Marx ideology is more than just ‘false consciousness’—it is a necessarily incomplete picture of the world that is ‘real’ and ‘true’ within the circumscribed and historically-specific capitalist system of reproduction. Consequently, all ideological artefacts, like political theories and art works, express in some way the internal contradictions of this system in their attempts to impose a logical or formal order on what is an extremely complex social reality.

As is well-known, Marx was critical of utopian critiques of the capitalist system. In both The Communist Manifesto and Engel’s later work Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, this mode of thinking was taken to task for assuming elements of bourgeois ideology in the construction of alternate worlds, thus expressing more about contemporary reality than any real alternative. As we shall see, Marx anticipated later Marxist science fiction theory, blending history and utopia to expose the assumptions and contradictions of the capitalist system to great effect.

For example, in the analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’ in Capital Volume 1, Marx uses Daniel Defoe’s fantastic story of Robinson Crusoe to show that the apparently ‘natural’ order of commodities and markets described by classical political economy—enshrined in the person of Crusoe, who, ‘having saved a watch ledger, ink and pen from the shipwreck’ begins ‘like a good Englishman to keep a set of books’ on the island—assumes and thereby erases the inconvenient details of capitalist historical development.

Marx then hammers the fetishism argument home in a rare moment of speculation, in which he imagines ‘for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force’. In this utopia, there is no mystery as to the source of value or the distribution of wealth. Paraphrasing Marx elsewhere, each would contribute according to his or her abilities and would take according to their needs. In a world where social use is the measure of value, there is no need for mystification.

Neither of Marx’s examples are meant fully and accurately to evoke alternatives to the capitalist system of production but are rather to bring to light what is hidden in this existing system. In the 1970s, a new form of cultural criticism emerged, drawing on the Marxist-influenced critical theory of the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’—but taking popular culture more seriously—which made this counter-factual method of critique the basis for its theory of science fiction.

Helping to create the academic field of Science Fiction Studies, U.S.-based critic Darko Suvin argued that in its best examples science fiction could be read as an explicitly intellectual attempt to draw the contours of the capitalist system—and, by doing so, enable a critical-historical consciousness of the social ‘totality’ to emerge. By helping people reconstruct this totality, science fiction also liberated consciousness to imagine ways in which the capitalist system could be transcended through political practice.

Fredric Jameson then took over Suvin’s analysis of the form of science fiction but put strict limits on its utopian function. While the genre did offer an epistemological mechanism for reconstructing the social totality out of the counter-factual imagination of alternative worlds, histories and futures, this reconstruction could never be entirely successful as the reality of global monopoly capitalism was irreducibly complex.

In his 1982 essay ‘Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?’, Jameson argued somewhat counter-intuitively that it is in its greatest failures to imagine the future that science fiction fulfils its emancipatory promise. However, in Jameson’s depressing vision, this ‘constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself’ can only serve to remind us of the ‘systemic, cultural, and ideological closure of which we are all in one way or another prisoners’.

In Jameson’s work on postmodernism as the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, this insight is generalised to all cultural production. Going even further than Theodor Adorno—who attempted in his later work to circumscribe modernist art as a semi-autonomous sphere in which critical reason could survive the ‘totally administered world’ of monopoly capitalism—Jameson maintained that in the postmodern era, humanity loses its ability historicise, resulting in a cultural ‘depthlessness’ which points only to the impotence of utopian visions.

It is this cultural depthlessness that motivates postmodern culture’s obsessive, schizophrenic and referentially empty reproductions of the past that Jameson conceptualises as ‘pastiche.’ In the absence of ‘real’ historical consciousness, the postmodern era seeks constantly to recreate the past through cultural appropriation and commodification. However, for Jameson all that this achieves is a staging of its inability to historicise, which from the cultural critic’s point of view is useful in showing us the suffocating totality of hegemonic monopoly capitalism.

The neoliberal upside down [spoiler warning]

It follows, given the inability to historicise, that true ‘nostalgia’ is impossible in the postmodern era. Ironically, this tension over nostalgia is what makes Stranger Things—written and directed by the Duffer Brothers and first aired on Netflix in 2016—so interesting. In this wildly popular serial planted firmly in the 1980s, the impossibility of nostalgia itself becomes an allegorical subject of the narrative.

Set in the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, the plot of the first season of Stranger Things revolves around a group of young boys searching for their missing friend, Will Byers. As their search develops, they discover that Will had, in fact, been trapped fleeing from hideous creature in an alternate universe—the door to which had been created (unintentionally) by a mysterious, fugitive, shaven-headed girl who goes by the name Eleven.

Joining forces with the boys, as well as with sympathetic ‘grown ups’ who gradually get absorbed into their Dungeons and Dragons-mediated world, Eleven uses her powers to battle the monster, enabling Will to be rescued by his Mum and Police Chief Jim Hopper.

The first thing that viewers notice when watching the series is an overwhelming and thoroughly suffocating nostalgia for the 1980s, epitomized by the John Carpenter-inspired typography and synthesiser keyboard soundtrack of the opening credits.

For so-called ‘millennials’ like myself, the opening credits evoke a simpler past in which horror films and console-based computer games constituted the horizon of mine and my friends’ collective experience, with most Friday nights spent struggling to stay awake after eating far too many sweets during the latest viewing of an instalment of the Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser franchises.

In addition to the style and feel of the series, the naïve ‘commodity fetishism’ of the 1980s is explored through Eleven’s character as she is introduced at the beginning of Episode 2 by Mike to all the ‘cool stuff’ he and his parents own.

Mike shows Eleven his Yoda Star Wars action figure, his parents’ 22-inch television and his Dad’s Lazy Boy armchair. Later in the episode this commodity fetishism undermines a painfully earnest definition of true friendship, with Mike’s insistence that a friend is ‘someone you do anything for’ immediately disrupted by Dustin’s interjection that friends are also those you ‘lend your cool stuff to, like comic books and trading cards.’

Here, the viewer assumes the position of Eleven’s character, with her dumb passivity enabling our vicarious enjoyment of this fetishistic nostalgia. However, Eleven’s constant refusal of this fetishism in favour of symbols of belonging, as well as her confusion at the conflation of things and meaningful relationships, problematises this enjoyment and reminds us that this is, in fact, a fantasy, and that this fantasy will inevitably be disrupted by the monster of ‘reality’.

These scenes and the aesthetic of the series, I think, can be usefully interpreted as a representation of the ‘golden age’ of neoliberalism, when financial deregulation created an economic boom—which would, after 30 years, turn out to be a spectacular ‘bubble’. However, using a heavy-handed nostalgia, Stranger Things simultaneously reels us in—allowing for the necessary suspension of disbelief—and distances us, creating the ‘cognitive estrangement’ so important to science fiction’s critical function (á la Suvin).

Another way that nostalgia is shown to be impossible is through the main story arc of the first series: the abduction of Will Myers by what will later become known as the ‘Demogorgon’. The Demogorgon is a suitably horrible creature with a mouth for a face and a tendency to eat anything that moves. The constant disruption of Hawkins by this horrific creature—especially the lives of the children, through whom we primarily experience and theorise what is happening—provides the narrative arc of the first series and its science-fiction-horror shock pleasures.

However, it soon becomes clear that the Demogorgon is not the primary threat to Hawkins. The alternative reality from whence it came, the ‘upside down,’ threatens to obliterate the doorway between the two worlds and swallow the small-town and its kitschy nostalgia wholesale.

Flipping a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game board to show its black underside, Eleven—recently escaped from the mysterious Hawkins Lab—demonstrates in Episode 2 to Mike, Dustin and Lucas that Will is trapped in a parallel world or dimension that they name the ‘upside down’.

Remembering this demonstration in Episode 5, Dustin—ever the theorist in the series—makes the connection between the upside down in which Will is trapped and the ‘Vale of Shadows’ of the D&D world: ‘The Vale of Shadows is a dimension that is a dark reflection or echo of our world. It is a place of decay and death. A place out of phase. A place of monsters. It is right next to you but you don’t even see it.’

As this D&D theory of the upside down is narrated by Dustin, we follow sheriff Jim Hopper as he breaks into a top-secret Department of Energy lab to find out the truth about what is going on. As he reaches the basement, we see what is being described: choking on the ash-filled air, Hopper discovers some kind of rip in reality out of which something organic, slimy and tentacled is creeping.

As we get into the second season, the relative insignificance of the Demogorgon is confirmed. The real monster is a ‘gargantuan and spider-like’ shadowy entity, at least ‘50 stories tall’, which will later become known (also via D&D theory) as the ‘Mind Flayer’.

‘The precise details of his anatomy remain unknown, due to the thick, black cloud-like substance which envelops him,’ explains an article on the fan website, Fandom. ‘It is unclear whether he is entirely composed of this substance, or if his body contains any solid elements.’

The Mind Flayer controls the Demogorgon, which turns out to be a pet-like animal—suggested also by Dustin’s failed attempts to domesticate one at the beginning of the series—as well as the rescued Will, who returns changed from the upside down, apparently infected after being almost absorbed within its network of tentacles.

At the end of the series, Will becomes a ‘spy’ for the Mind Flayer, acting as a conduit between Hawkins and the upside down and feeling its pain directly when attacked.

It seems to me that a direct analogy can be made—based on the over-arching reading of Stranger Things as parable of the crisis of neoliberalism—between the Mind Flayer and the contemporary monster of finance.

As argued above, it was finance that saved the capitalist system from stagnation in the 1970s and provided the boom/bubble which in turn enabled the rabid consumerism of the 1980s.

Finance is immaterial, shadowy and difficult to understand, yet directly influences our material and social reproduction. It creeps into every aspect of our lives, colonising the ‘real’ world of social use and need, leading us to be nostalgic for a simpler, more innocent version of capitalism.

However, finance cannot be simply ‘killed off’. I think the significance of Will’s symbiotic relationship with the Mind Flayer can be read as a warning: we cannot kill the monster of finance without killing the real source of its power: commodity production.

But also—and this point reveals the critical-allegorical power of Stranger Things—now that this monster has been unleashed and insinuated itself into every aspect of capitalist production, circulation and consumption, we cannot go back to a simpler version of pre-finance capitalism.

So, in a sense, Stranger Things is telling a true story. Once the monster of finance is unleashed, there is no killing it without killing the whole system. This was also Marx’s point. You cannot reform capitalism. The only way to overcome its internal contradictions is to establish a different system—by revolution if necessary—one based on social use rather than exchange.

Who is to blame?

Stranger Things also addresses the issue of responsibility in complex and interesting ways. Who is responsible for unleashing the Mind Flayer, and by extension, the monster of finance?

In Season 1, we discover that Eleven’s mother, Terry, was a subject in the infamous Project MKUltra experiments: a real and deeply disturbing 1960s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation that involved the covert testing of ‘lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on unwitting Americans’.

Not realising Terry was pregnant with Jane (Eleven’s real name) at the time, the scientists at Hawkins unwittingly granted Eleven telekinetic powers. They then tried, of course, to harness these powers and turn Eleven into a Cold War secret weapon. The portal to the upside down turns out to have been created accidentally, as a side-effect of the intensive exploitation of Eleven’s powers by U.S. intelligence services.

The state, therefore, is in one sense straightforwardly to blame for the disruption of nostalgia as a result of its characteristic lust for power and need to continually wage war with an anti-capitalist ‘other’.

However, this explanation is undermined in the second season, when Eleven finds her ‘sister’ Kali—another victim of the MKUltra experiments, also with special powers—in Chicago, and joins her gang of misfits on a mission to exact revenge on those that have wronged them in the past.

Kali persuades Eleven to use her powers to locate the scientists responsible for hurting her mother, eventually finding Ray, the lab technician who performed the shock therapy that permanently damaged Terry’s mind. However, upon seeing a photo of Ray with his children, Eleven refuses to kill him.

My reading of this otherwise remarkably tangential subplot is that a simplistic explanation of the state as an ‘evil empire’—with small-town Sherriff Hopper as its Republican, anti-statist counterpart—is refused in Stranger Things.

Instead a more grown up explanation is suggested: we are all, in fact, responsible for not only unleashing the monster of finance, but also for continuing to allow the state to rule in the private interests of monopoly finance capitalism, rather than in our collective, social interests.

Postscript: The return of history

In the end, Stranger Things gives no simple answers. This is only fair given the complexity of the current crisis of neoliberalism. What a critical reading of contemporary science fiction television shows, however, is that the contradictions of the present situation are reaching the level of popular consciousness, and that history is once again the subject-object of cultural production.

That we are living through an important historical moment is plain for all to see, without the need for critical theory. However, the present is also felt as an ‘interregnum’; we know change must come, but we have no idea how or when this change might happen.

We know that neoliberalism cannot deliver everlasting growth, as promised, and that its grossly exaggerated wealth will never ‘trickle down’ to the rest of society. But our continuing inability to convincingly imagine alternatives to neoliberal finance capitalism has resulted in the present moment festering like an open wound, enabling right-wing opportunists like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump to step in with self-serving dystopias to scare the public into conceding political power.

Within this context, science fiction television writer-directors are turning to the past not to escape, hide and evade political responsibility, as Jameson once accused fantasy writers of doing. They are instead struggling with history, and by struggling with it, showing the impossibility of both past and present and therefore the absolute necessity of moving forward.

Frankfurt School satellite Walter Benjamin may be the true theorist of this post-post-modern culture. Benjamin’s intellectual model was Charles Baudelaire’s ‘ragpicker’, who rummages through the ‘refuse’ of the commodified past to find an object that would ‘explode the continuum of history’.

In the absence of a movement in the historical present, as neoliberalism seeks to hold the world within a never-ending state of emergency, cultural producers are turning to the past to crowbar a sense of temporality out of this deadlock.

On the one hand, contemporary science fiction television is an expression of a general re-emergence of historical consciousness out of the catastrophe of the present. But on the other, it is also part of the struggle to wrest consciousness out of this catastrophe, to re-establish a sense of historical agency, and with it, resurrect our ability to imagine a future beyond monopoly finance capitalism.

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