“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” -Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee”
In Norman Jewison’s 1975 film, “Rollerball,” political governments around the world have been replaced by corporations. Wars are a thing of the past, as are political campaigns, political corruption and political positions. The world is highly sanitized with the masses kept content with the corporate products that they purchase and consume. Competition may exist between corporations, but only to the extent that the overall economy is not disrupted thereby. Some of this competition, we are led to believe, may be deemed desirable to foster improvement in the products that are provided to the masses for consumption. Some of it, however, is clearly just for appearances, with the ultra-violent sport of rollerball providing the ultimate appearance of competition.
In truth, the game is as controlled as everything else in the utopian world the corporations have created. Everyone is part of a grand master plan, devised and implemented by the mega-corporations and pronounced by their designated leader (John Houseman in a post-“Paper Chase” role).
The movie didn’t dwell on these details, which was a weakness, since, instead of exploring a harrowing vision that might have been akin to a futuristic “1984,” the plot involved the battle of one individual (James Caan, the star player on the best team in the rollerball sport) to reject the corporate dictates for his career and his life.
A similar theme, presented in a decidedly more humorous light, was evident in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, “Network” (from an Oscar-winning screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky), wherein the corporate powers of television news first create and then kill an anchorman who stirred the masses with the enraged cry, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore.”
The anchorman, Howard Beale (Peter Finch in an Oscar-winning role), expressed the frustration of the masses for the lack of control they felt in their daily lives. Beale was permitted by the corporate bosses to be a hero until he threatened the corporate image by becoming bigger than the corporation. At that point, he was confronted by the CEO (Ned Beatty in an Oscar-nominated role) of the corporate empire that Beale’s network was part of.
In this classic scene, Beatty, in God-like tones in the darkened corporate board room, bellows that Beale has “meddled with the primal forces of nature.” He goes on in his rant to tell Beale that, “There is no democracy; there is no America. There is only” … and then he proceeds to list the mega-corporations that really do rule the world.
These films were far more prescient than we may well have realized at the time. The world of the mid-1970’s (or at least America’s version of it) was completely consumed with the post-Viet Nam, post-Watergate sense of confusion and malaise that flowed from the realization that, yes, we could lose a major war and, yes, our presidents could well be crooks.
We were adrift as a nation, and the rise of corporate power may have been more escapist fantasy than futuristic horror. Thus, “Rollerball” was dismissed as a James Caan (at his height of popularity following “The Godfather”) vehicle and an action thriller, while “Network” was seen as a black comedy that struck at the rigidity of pre-cable network newscasts, rather than a foreboding hint of what unbridled corporate power could easily become.
In the three and a half decades that have passed since the release of those films, corporate America has come far closer to the reality depicted by Ned Beatty’s impassioned speech in “Network” than many of us are prepared to accept. But the evidence is all around us, and it isn’t hard to see what is happening.
Consider how much the world has changed in those 35 years. The capitalist model no longer is identified by the “mom and pop” enterprise. That kind of entrepreneurship was still ubiquitous then; it’s all too rare now. Instead, we have big chains and cookie-cutter franchises fighting to survive the assaults of even bigger corporate behemoths.
Our diets are now largely controlled by the giant food producers and distributors, as films like “Food, Inc.” and “Fast Food Nation” so vividly depict. Our energy sources are controlled by the big oil companies and their coal counterparts, as “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (another compelling documentary) makes clear.
And to the extent our politicians would otherwise be our watchdogs, they are either bought off by the corporate powers or are so wrapped up in ideological sophistry that they are incapable of taking up the Howard Beale cry. (The Tea Party movement is, in this respect, completely misguided, as it is fighting against anti-corporate populism, even as it claims to be a populist movement.)
We’re not talking about the corporations of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” anymore. That book (by Sloan Wilson, made into a popular 1956 film starring Gregory Peck) focused on the ethical questions a corporate employee faces in climbing the ladder to success. That kind of corporation – a simple business run by a single individual (Fredric March in the film) – is as much a dinosaur in today’s world as the old mom and pop stores are.
In today’s mega-corporations, individual ethical questions aren’t even worth discussing. Indeed, individuals are almost irrelevant in the giant corporations that control much of the America of 2010. The inefficiencies of government bureaucracy are no less present in the corporate bureaucracies of our new millennium. How else can the BP disaster be explained? No one individual was responsible for it, because no one individual is responsible for anything in that kind of operation.
Seen in this light, the Supreme Court decision earlier this year (in the Citizens United case) becomes much more ominous. By stating unequivocally that corporations have the same rights (to engage in political speech) as those of us who are composed of real flesh and blood, the majority of the Court is creating a path to corporate control of our society that brings the specter of “Rollerball” much closer to reality.
Think about it.