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Power and Perspectives: Ideologies on Commodities in Modern-Era Film

Chelsea Masse

Political, cultural, and economic perspectives held by the majority of society are paramount to advancing global development. The way in which differently-situated actors disseminate perspectives to the greater population has dire implications for the progression of development politics. Simply speaking, the hustle of global politics and governance manifests itself behind closed doors. Much of the wheeling and dealing of high-level political actors is made possible by resource commodity extraction. The way in which the structures of commodity politics are depicted in the arts holds ample power in how the majority of the population conceptualizes global commodity relations. The arts, and in particular film, hold a powerful societal platform as this form of media is accessible for and consumed by the masses. Film, therefore, is capable of producing exposés of the realities and actualities of the brass tracks of the global system.  And with this, film can lend a hand in framing individual perspectives on politically-charged issues, such as commodity relations, with a greater degree of factuality. Adopting a cultural analysis of modern-day films with commodity-centric plot points can allude to larger political aspects found in the arts. Furthermore, the personification and metamorphose of commodities in film can be juxtaposed to the preponderant geopolitical period of the film release. Taken together, these analyses draw attention to the importance of understanding cultural consensus in light of commodity politics found in the arts, and how these depictions have the ability to disseminate hegemonic societal perspectives on the matter.

Theoretical Background

The theoretical basis for this analysis was drawn from Antonio Gramsci’s lesser known Theatre Chronicles written during the time of the rise of the fascist Italian state, and prior to his 1926 imprisonment. Importantly, Gramsci broke away from the economic determinism, and brought to light the importance of the inclusion of culture in political and sociological development. The Theatre Chronicles navigates Gramsci’s thoughts on how art was theoretically distinct, but at the same time influenced by the diversity and relativity of cultural practice. Likewise, his interests extended to how plays were used, for whom they were written, and the significance of their purported or disguised ideological functions in light of a revolutionary struggle. The writing in the Theatre Chronicles gives away the theatre as a platform for the ruling class to preserve its socially constituted values. In turn, it sought to defer different moral and social discourse from harming the control of the ruling class. The theatre, to Gramsci, served as a direct expression of bourgeois culture. Likewise, it gave the proletariat the critical knowledge that was precondition for its hegemony. With this, the stage held power to manipulate minds by expressing the values of those who control society. Gramsci articulated cultural consensus was diffused by way of the stage. In turn, cultural hegemony would follow. Not to mention Gramsci alluded to the increasing commodification of the arts. Italian theatre, at the time, commissioned performances written and staged to satisfy the tastes of the middle class. The ideology found within the plays functioned to preserve the status quo, and produce consensus. This contrasted his idea that art performances were to be written in a purely aesthetic manner. In this historical period, the hegemonic conditions imposed by Italian ruling class heavily influenced Italian theatre. The hegemony gained the upper political hand as theatre’s ability to promote an alternative hegemony was rendered inoperative. The political strategy found here was to degrade culture in order to suppress potential revolts. With this, the proletariat loses trust in the capacity of ideas to change society.

Of course, the time period and Italian context in which Gramsci wrote is critical to his analysis of power and culture in theatre. Yet today, globalisation effectuates high-level politics to occur at the trans-national level as opposed to the national level. Class no longer confines itself to nations, and class division transcends to a global level. The perspective on class today is power and control is held by a trans-national ruling class. This trans-national capitalist class is comprised of four groups of actors:

1/ Those who own and control the major corporations and their local affiliates

2/ Globalising politicians and bureaucrats

3/ Globalising professionals

4/ Consumerist elites

The trans-national capitalist class involves itself in a variety of political activities occurring at differently-situated levels including community, urban, national, and international.[1] The trans-national capitalist class includes actors who control the majority of global wealth, such as major corporations. Hence today, the trans-national capitalist class establishes hegemony by its ruling class status. Subordinate global classes consent to the ideologies of the trans-national capitalist class, and allow for its continual control. 

Cultural Analysis

Above all, the Theatre Chronicles intended to enlarge cultural perspectives by informing readers on how dramatic art elicits reflection on their social and human condition. Today, film replaces theatre as the powerful cultural medium that reflects current social and human conditions. Although an uncommon artistic theme, commodity politics do play a supporting role in many modern-day film plots. How commodity relations are portrayed in films produces the ideologies consented to by the viewers. Today, films have the ability to lot out principles of truth via factually written plots. The key is to develop a global consensus that reflects the inside story of global commodity chains. From this, the analysis of how commodities are characterized in films, and how such films emulate the loftier geopolitical nature of the time provides an understanding of cultural consensus in international development politics. The following is an analysis of four films referenced in the introductory chapter of the Commodity Politics manuscript. The stories presented in the following films were rooted in commodity relations:

1/ The Living Daylights (1987): While commodity politics took the backseat to a Cold-War espionage plot in this film, Timothy Dalton’s inceptive portrayal as the eminent James Bond warranted attention. Diamonds, opium, and oil appear bush-league to the bigger story of a Cold-War U.S.-Soviet arms trade. Nonetheless, the economic relations between diamonds, opium, arms, and capital were imperative to the narrative. Without revealing a great deal, a large supply of opium was purchased with diamonds. In turn this would yield a profit, and allow for the story’s U.S.-Soviet arms trade to flourish with accumulated capital. Bearing in mind the larger geopolitical reality of the time, it was frivolous to attest Bond films were produced in the name of aesthetics simply in that they were adoptions of Ian Fleming’s famed writings. At the outset, the geographical setting of the film shifted from the original novella’s East Berlin (and the deflection of a British agent) to Czechoslovakia (and the deflection of a KGB agent). This exploited the global political emotions of the Cold-War population. Likewise, commodities appeared in a thought-provoking light. In the film, diamonds purchased opium worth “half a billion dollars on the streets of New York”. But ironically, the diamond industry at the time was in a brief economic downturn. Due to mass speculation, the industry found itself in recession during the 1980s. To recover, mass advertising made way to champion the false ideology that diamonds were representative of power, wealth, and romance with the slogan “isn’t two months’ salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?” At a time where the Western-population was encouraged to invest a greater proportion of their income into diamonds to legitimize a personal relationship, they were framed in the plot as less valuable on the market akin to opium. Here entered the American-centric fearmongering political discourse of “war on drugs”. While this discourse dated back to the 1970s, it was conceivable the 1980s policies and practices ascended the discourse to new heights. Lavishly perpetrated by then Vice-President George H.W. Bush, was the introduction of discussion to create involvement for the CIA and U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts. And just post-release of the film, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was established by way of the National Narcotics Leadership Act of 1988. As well the act commissioned a national anti-drug media campaign targeted for the youth.  The politics behind the plot of The Living Daylights was diamonds were consented to as an invaluable commodity, yet the plot illustrated opium as a commodity with a relatively greater market value. The film disseminated the idea of opium as a commodity with great value to the American market during the time when American national politics was rooted in “war on drugs” discourse. From these messages, the film furthered the ideology of “opium crisis” in American politics. 

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Bond gallivanting in the company of Afghani rebels (retrieved from imdb.com)

2/ The Constant Gardener (2005): The 2005 adaptation of former intelligence officer John Le Carré’s 2001 fictional piece offered a vignette to analyse ideologies on corporate involvement in global medical epidemics. The plot of the novel, and subsequent film, was loosely based on Pfizer’s pharmaceutical testing conducted in meningitis-ridden Nigeria in the 1990s. Le Carré’s reflection in the novel’s afterword was heavy. He wrote, “by comparison with the reality, my story is as tame as a holiday postcard” and alluded to greater excitement in that time period’s governance in public-health politics. The film clearly disseminated the verity of the commodification of human life perpetuated by pharmaceutical companies. With its fictional plot set in Nairobi, the film depicted the corrupt practices between the high-level political actors associated with global epidemics. The viewer was exposed to the ideas of illegal pharmaceutical operations in developing contexts. Furthermore, the story revealed corruption in corporate operations. Skewed test results from illegal drug testing in Kenya to accelerate legal market distribution of their product. The film clearly disseminated an ideology that expressed corporations acted out of self-interest, and exploited persons in developing contexts to expedite capital-generating opportunities. Commodification of human life, and collusion amongst high-level actors in public-health governance were powerful ideas sketched in the story-line. This film provided ideologies that should have warranted global attention to the operations of high-level trans-national capitalist class actors involved in global epidemics. Yet facetiously a few years post-release of this film, the number of global epidemics began to rise.[2] Many continue to persist. For instance, the Haitian cholera outbreak began in 2010. It has yet to be brought under control.  The nature of the corporate operations in these epidemic contexts continue to remain largely in the dark to most of the global population.

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Point-of-view scene of Ralph Fiennes’ character, Justin, observing pharmaceutical testing in Kenya (retrieved from imdb.com)

3/ Syriana (2005): This 2005 film was loosely adapted from former CIA case officer Robert Baer’s memoir See No Evil.  The film metamorphosed the political, economic, legal, and social repercussions of global petroleum politics written as four distinct story-lines. The separate story-lines disseminated the separate dimensions of petroleum politics, and how these dimensions appeared in the fictional international affairs. The film depicted aspects of collusion and corruption entangled in the relationships between high-level political actors, international petroleum companies, and oil exploration. For instance, the film portrayed an American-oil corporate backed coup d’état in an unnamed Persian Gulf kingdom ruled by a family dynasty. The country this movie alluded to was quite evident. Regardless, here was an ideology representative of the role big American oil corporations held in commodity governance. The timing of the release of this film was meticulous. In the 2000s, international politics was deep-seated in the discourse of an “energy crisis” with oil serving as the mainstay of commodity politics. And oil was particularly crucial to the national and foreign policies and practices of the U.S. Bush Administration. American petroleum politics, at the time, was fixed in Saudi Arabian relations.  Much of oil politics were written in “high oil prices” discourse. Solutions, at the time, were by and large framed in “improved sustainable production” for lower oil prices. Evidently, the story presented in Syriana inextricably paralleled the geopolitical realism of the time of its release.

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Picturesque metamorphose of mid-2000s American petro-politics courtesy of Matt Damon and Alexander Siddig (retrieved from imdb.com)

4/ Blood Diamond (2006): Beyond its abhorrent “White saviour narrative”, Blood Diamond served as the only large-scale produced and widely-distributed film on conflict in commodities in developing contexts.  Allusions of neo-colonialism and religious-morality were flecked in the story-line.  The film picturized the Sierra Leone diamond supply chain from illegal small-scale mining operations up to international traders. The plot attempted to exploit the viewer to stout emotions affiliated with conflict and violence in commodities. The script attributed diamonds as the “igniters of war”; yet, the writer missed the opportunity to use their powerful platform as an exposition to reveal the operations of the diamond industry as perpetrators of conflict. Rather, it framed the raw resource as the culprit of civil-war. The film disseminated an ideology that assayed diamonds, in their primitive and raw form, were valueless. If commodity value was equated to some quantity of “socially-necessary human labour”, then it was clear as a bell diamonds had no real economic value. This was simply because there was no true social need they filled. Instead there existed a façade demand in Western society for diamonds. This fake demand was cooked up by the diamond industry to continue their conquest for endless capital accumulation at the expense of developing contexts. Nevertheless, the illustrations provided by this film on the diamond industry should have warranted a societal halt on diamond production and consumption. Yet, according to a De Beers Group report, The Diamond Insight Report 2018, global consumer demand for diamond jewellery increased by two percent to $82 billion USD in 2017. As well, diamond production increased both in output volume, and economic value. It was worth noting from this report three additional mines were opened in the same year. The ideology presented in Blood Diamond should have brought societal consensus to disassociate from diamonds production and consumption. However, the contrary persisted.

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Personification of rebel violence in Freetown during the Sierra Leone 1991-2002 civil war (retrieved from imdb.com)

Evidence from the analysis of the above four films suggested films disseminated a wide-array of ideologies on differently-situated commodities. Some films, such as The Living Daylights, exploited the political emotions of a time period (such as emotions held in the Cold-War period) to generate an ideology. Even when films, such as The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond illustrated plots based on non-fiction writing, there was little global revolt to counter the commodity activities depicted, and produce systematic change. Each of these films shed light on little pieces of truth in commodity politics via their creative personification of corruption and collusion in governance. However, these films have yet to enact significant societal change as global commodity extraction continues to persist despite the well-documented externalities. Perhaps the commodification of film has allowed it to lose potential as a platform to produce cultural consensus. Nevertheless, the analysis of commodities found in art opened doors to a fruitful inclusion of cultural analysis in development politics.

Concluding Remarks

Film is the cultural art medium of this particular time period that holds the ability to disseminate factual perspectives on commodities and politics to subordinate classes. Today, film is a globally accessible art form. This is because they are translated into a wide-variety of languages, and are often distributed globally. And with the global expansion of streaming services, availability and accessibility of films is only increasing. For instance, streaming-giant Netflix is accessible in 130 countries, including countries deeply-rooted in commodity extraction such as Central African Republic and Cameroon amongst others. The average rate of the streaming service is $7.99 USD, and is financially accessible to proportions of the urban population. Of course, accessibility is not universal, and may be undermined by certain functional aspects like internet speed. However, improved accessibility facilitates film as powerful platform that can challenge the status-quo and preserved ideologies of global development politics, and no longer solely a form of art.

Film has the potential to educate and provoke thoughts on development politics in proportions of the population that are geographically-removed from the realism of commodity dependence and extraction (i.e. the majority of the urban North American population). Populations consume these films, and in turn the films can disseminate ideologies reflective of the truths along commodity chains. The ideologies present in films may be the only knowledge segments of the population will consent to on commodity matters (unless, of course, they take the initiative to do individual research on the matter). Filmmakers, screenwriters, and those generally involved in the creative process must consent to the responsibility of disseminating factual and accurate ideologies on commodity politics in light of cultural consensus. The greater validity and accuracy of perspectives diffused by films could produce cultural consensus amongst the subordinate classes on commodity operations in developing contexts. And this could have substantial impacts on how global development is approached.

References

*Featured Photo Mat Silvans Blood Diamond http://www.matsilvan.ch/index.html*

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Boyajian, W. E. (1988). An economic review of the past decade in diamonds. Gems & Gemology, 134–153.

De Beers Group. (2018). The Diamond Insight Report 2018.

Dombroski, R. S. (1986). On Gramsci’s theatre criticism. Boundary 2, 14(3), 91–119. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/303235

Dombroski, R. S. (1989). Antonio Gramsci. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co.

Gaghan, S. (2005). Syriana. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Glen, J. (1987). The Living Daylights. United Kingdom: MGM/UA Communications Co.

Meirelles, F. (2005). The Constant Gardener. Focus Features.

Partnership Africa Canada. (2005). Diamond industry annual review: Sierra Leone 2005.

Rhode, D. (2014, March 24). The Kimberley Process is a “perfect cover story” for blood diamonds. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/diamonds-blood-kimberley-process-mines-ethical

Sklair, L. (2002). Democracy and the Transnational Capitalist Class. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 581(1), 144–157. http://doi.org/10.1080/09557570008400329

Sklair, L. (2005). The transnational capitalist class and contemporary architecture in globalizing cities. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 29(3), 485–500. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2427.2005.00601.x

Stevenson, R. W. (2005, April 26). Bush and Saudi Prince discuss high oil prices in ranch meeting. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/26/world/middleeast/bush-and-saudi-prince-discuss-high-oil-prices-in-ranch.html

The White House. (1989). National Drug Control Strategy.

Vidal, J. (2005, June 8). Revealed: how oil giant influenced Bush. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/jun/08/usnews.climatechange

Zwick, E. (2006). Blood Diamond. United States; Germany: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Appendix A: List of Global Epidemics 2008-present

Adapted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics#21st_century

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