The recent death of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper has conjured childhood memories of WWF wrestling for quite a few who grew up in the waning years of the 20th century. Fewer remember his leading role in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), perhaps the last major Hollywood film to deploy a surprisingly cogent critique of contemporary capitalism.
Piper’s role as John Nada exemplifies a current of 1980s science fiction cinema in an era poised between its recent low budget past and its emerging blockbuster future prefigured by the works of Ridley Scott and James Cameron. His character at once exuded the machismo ethic so popular in the era whilst maintaining a critical edge, a kind of Rambo without the reactionary politics. Revisiting the eerily prescient 1980s dystopia seems to be as fitting a tribute as any to Piper’s life.
Carpenter’s film was produced at the end of the 1980s at the moment that the various “revolutions” of Reagan and Thatcher and neo-liberalism seemed to have consolidated and moved beyond their period of cruel incubation. From the collective chests of humanity burst mini-financial crashes, failing banks, the Savings and Loans scandal, plant closings, community collapses, and the rise of the ugly New Jim Crow by way of the Orwellian “War on Drugs.” Nonetheless, extreme confidence in authority figures—at least among the white population that counted—had shaken off the doubts of the 1960s and 70s, giving way to an exuberant confidence in American exceptionalism and other bizarre screeds.
The collapse of the Eastern bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed only to confirm this state of affairs. They Live captures this mood in a speech that John hears from a leading politician (who seems to be an analog of George H.W. Bush), “The feeling is definitely there. It’s a new morning in America. Fresh, vital, the old cynicism is gone. We have faith in our leaders. We’re optimistic as to what becomes of it all. It really boils down to our ability to accept we don’t need pessimism. There are no limits…”
In the film, John Nada (his last name signifying “nothing,” thereby cementing his role as “Everyman”) is homeless and jobless. His difficulty finding employment at the beginning of the film contrasts with the imagery presented by the propaganda of the Reagan years and the era of neo-liberal assault. Every leading politician today finds it necessary to praise Reagan’s legacy, but They Live summed the essence of his supposed “revolution” in a way that few other films managed in the era.
Nada moves into Los Angeles and stays in a tent city while working with his new friend, Frank Armitage, at a construction site. The camp is raided by police, and afterwards Nada stumbles on a box of contraband that the camp organizers had been busted for: sunglasses. But not any sunglasses. These enabled the wearer to see through the façade of everyday life and understand the true psychoanalytic content of advertisements and media productions. Further, the glasses enabled the wearer to tell human beings from their rapacious, and very alien capitalist rulers.
The displacement of the newly transformed capitalist class into an alien force accomplishes much for the audience. It allows for a direct experience of the quality of what they themselves are going through in everyday life, albeit through the lens of a science fictional morality play. Without crudely addressing the capitalist class’s rulership, Carpenter’s film demonstrates the alien nature of their rule over society.
Indeed, in the same way that the product of a worker’s labor is denied them and then presented as an alien commodity form to them, the capitalist ruling class is presented as alien to its subjects. The state apparatus is the only mediator between them and their subjects who seem to them a strange and unruly mass driven by crass resentment of their low position in an ostensibly “natural” order. Accordingly, forms of social mobility for some are utilized as a means of maintaining the class’s hegemonic status.
In a similar way, the aliens in the film recruit humans—including would-be revolutionaries—to their class and bestow upon them the wealth, access, and status of their own position. Nada and Armitage are given the story of the aliens’ agenda when they are mistaken for such social climbers. Nada’s response to this is a refusal to submit, and he carries out an act of “revolutionary suicide” (i.e. engaging in an act of self-sacrifice for the better of the cause itself). This act ultimately disrupts the signal that allows the aliens to perpetuate their illusion, and everywhere humans notices the aliens and their Superego-esque injunctions to obey, enjoy, and so forth.
Praised by numerous leftists, the film has nothing to say about collective action and presents an almost misogynistic attitude towards gender politics. Nonetheless, it lays bare the means by which consent is secured for the capitalist world order: hegemony over the socializing and knowledge-producing powers within society as well as a monopoly on violent force, coupled with release valves such as selective social mobility to curb dissent.
Slavoj Zizek infamously cites the movie in numerous works of his, including his documentary (directed by Sophie Fiennes) The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. To briefly rehash Zizek’s points, he uses the violent confrontation between Nada and Armitage to illustrate the psychological violence necessary for radicalization, points to the role of psychoanalytic methods used to produce consenting subjects, and uses the glasses to make his point that we are always-already seeing through the prism of ideology—that is to say, there is no naked empirical observer innocent to ideology, ideology permeates the very act of experiencing the world.
Zizek’s embrace of the film aside, it is worth remembering Piper’s role as a kind of inverted action hero for the era. While the Chuck Norris/Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarznegger types shilled for Reagan’s resurgent imperialism and reactionary offensives, Piper gave a sense of humanity to an (admittedly ham-fisted) attempt to say something important: that we are already living in dystopian conditions and so rebellion is more than a right, it is a necessity.