Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in "Joker" (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

"Joker": A harsh indictment of neoliberalism and gangster capitalism

Why are many critics reacting so negatively to Todd Phillips' "Joker"? Maybe because they can't handle the truth


Chauncey DeVega
October 9, 2019 11:00PM (UTC)
The following contains spoilers from "Joker."

Writer-director Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is a dark, enthralling, challenging, and seductive film about how a cruel and indifferent world can create a human monster. Joaquin Phoenix gives an Oscar-worthy performance in the starring role of Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually becomes the comic book superhero Batman’s archrival.

“Joker” deftly weaves in elements of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” as well as “Network” and other films to great effect.

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“Joker” also rejects the simple storytelling conventions and archetypes of good and evil, or right and wrong, that are typical of the Hollywood superhero genre.

The first signal to this comes early in the film when the city of Gotham — which is in the midst of a sanitation workers strike — is described as a place where “super cats” may have to be used to stop a plague of “super rats.” Many critics have condemned “Joker” as messy, boring, problematic, irresponsible, overly violent or perhaps even “dangerous.” This hectoring is a function of many things. But it is primarily rooted in how Phoenix and Phillips have offer an empathetic portrayal of a psychotic, antisocial character.

“Joker” is an especially challenging film because, for some viewers and critics, any effort to empathize or sympathize with Arthur Fleck and/or the Joker feels like an indictment of their own sense of virtue and self-righteousness. “Joker” causes other discomforts as well: Phoenix’s character is an unreliable narrator who exists in his own subjective reality. This disconcerting effect subverts simple expectations of closure (and perhaps of catharsis) which by design most Hollywood films give their audience.

Of course,  critics have filtered their critiques of “Joker” through concerns about the infectious power and violence of the New Right in Donald Trump's America, and the worry that a movie about a socially alienated, mentally ill, violent white man may somehow inspire or legitimate right-wing domestic terrorism and other evils. The error in such logic is that right-wing domestic terrorists do not need any justification for their crimes or other vile behavior. Those who have been seduced by such a repugnant ideology will act (or not act) independent of what a film supposedly “tells" or permits them to do.

“Joker’s” narrative explores a basic narrative question: How does an ordinary if profoundly alienated man such as Arthur Fleck eventually become a supervillain?

But “Joker” is much more than a character study of one of the greatest villains in American and popular culture. The film is also a powerful indictment of neoliberalism and gangster capitalism, and a culture of cruelty that is causing great harm around the world.

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As presented in this version of his origin story, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck (who will eventually evolve into the Joker) is a clown by vocation. He lovingly cares for his infirm mother (Frances Conroy). Fleck suffered severe emotional and physical abuse as a child from his mother and her boyfriend, and was institutionalized for many years. He is repeatedly harmed by strangers and society as a whole. He initially wants to be “well” and “happy” and to not “feel so bad anymore” before concluding that it is the world, and not him, that is truly broken.

At one key point in the story, Fleck kills three entitled white predator types in a subway car, who menace and assault him after he intervenes to aid a young woman who had become a target for their harassment. As "Joker" proceeds, Fleck grows from being a sad-clown wannabe comedian to a killer seeking vengeance against those he sees as transgressors.

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Through this journey of awakening, the Joker as vigilante inspires a violent uprising by other dispossessed and rage-filled people, who disgusted by the behavior of their “social betters,” including billionaire Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne (aka Batman). Such rich people hide behind philanthropy and noblesse oblige as they slur the working class and poor people of Gotham as “clowns.”

But did any of these events really happen? Arthur is a supremely unreliable narrator. His mind is medicated, programmed through the distorted, mediated realities presented by modern mass media. He is pathologically narcissistic, bending and interpreting events to put himself at their center. To great effect, this lack of narrative intelligibility challenges the implicit bargain between the film and viewer regarding the nature of the truth.

There are numerous examples: Is Arthur actually locked inside of Arkham Asylum or some other mental health facility the whole time? Are the events of the film just his imagination being poured out on the screen?

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Could Thomas Wayne, the one-percenter, be his real father? That is suggested by a prized photo of Wayne with Arthur's mother in their youth, which is signed, "Love your smile — TW.”

At the end of the film, is the Joker really saved from the police by an army of “jokers” — all wearing clown masks in a  working class and poor uprising — and then lifted on their shoulders like a savior and martyr? Is this Joker the same character from the Batman comic books — or did Arthur Fleck inspire some other “Joker” to kill Bruce Wayne’s parents?

Does the Joker in fact kill his psychiatrist and then dance down the hallway in a macabre parody of the famous scene in Charlie Chaplin’s "Modern Times"? Or is that another delusional fantasy?

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“Joker” offers no answers.

The city of Gotham is one of the most important characters in the film. It provides the social milieu and therefore the context for interpreting the  political meaning of "Joker."

This story is set during the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom are forcing neoliberalism and its policies of austerity, “trickle-down economics” and the "free market" onto all areas of public life.

Neoliberalism as a form of gangster capitalism sells the lie that destroying the Commons, the social safety net, social democracy and a sense of shared human obligation — and cutting taxes on the rich — will somehow create economic growth, prosperity and “freedom” for all people. After several decades of failed experiments, such economic and social policies have been disproved. In reality, neoliberalism is “socialism” and “welfare” for the richest individuals and largest corporations — and “survival of the fittest” for everyone else.

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To maintain control of a public that is often despondent, suffering, at times near rebellion but also cowed by learned helplessness – neoliberal policymakers and other elites use the punitive and punishing power of the state to quell dissent.

Precarious economic circumstances also help to suppress resistance and even the act of imagining alternative, more democratic political possibilities and outcomes. Mass media, schools, and other agents of political socialization have convinced many Americans (and other people around the world) that consumerism, capitalism and democracy are the same thing. People who live in societies dominated by neoliberalism and gangster capitalism are told that they are ultimately responsible for their own suffering and lack of success, even as income and wealth inequality soar, life chances are truncated, and meritocracy is exposed as a sham.

But perhaps the greatest power of neoliberalism and gangster capitalism is the control they assert over people’s emotional lives. Neoliberal elites must create emotionally self-regulating subjects if “the system” is to remain stable and not collapse into chaos. Achieving that goal is advanced through various means, including "narco-capitalism" and the dopamine hits delivered by the internet and social media, whose success is predicated on loneliness and social atomization. The technology of “mindfulness” also does the work of enforcing neoliberalism’s need for emotionally self-regulating subjects.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker character rejects that order of things. Indeed, he rejects the entire regime of training and discipline demanded by neoliberalism.

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 In their new book “Manufacturing Happy Citizens,” Edgar Cabanas and Eve Illouz explain the role of “happiness scientists” in enforcing neoliberalism’s power over its subjects:

Questioning the existing state of affairs, defamiliarizing the familiar, and inquiring in the processes, meanings and practices that shape our identities and everyday behaviour are fundamental endeavours of social critical thinking….

That happiness scientists have often been belligerent towards critical social thinking is no secret, calling it negative, deceptive, and even dishonest. These scientists believe that we should get rid of this kind of negativity because it only fuels pointless and fruitless claims for social and political change.

The character of the Joker is forced into being by neoliberalism’s assault on public services and its indifference to real human needs — and also by the way neoliberalism and gangster capitalism create a feeling of social isolation and loneliness among people around the world.

In the film, Arthur Fleck is denied mental health care by public hospitals and other programs, which are being “downsized” or terminated. Fleck is economically insecure. He is not paid a living wage for his work as a clown. He has no health insurance or other benefits. His mother is in dire need of medical assistance.

The city of Gotham is suffering through a sanitation workers strike, events that were relatively common in the 1970s and '80s, as sanitation and other public workers were engaged in collective action to fight for a living wage and safe working conditions. Neoliberalism, of course, views unions and collective action as wasteful and unproductive.

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The incidents of emotional stress and physical assault that turn Arthur Fleck into the Joker take place on dilapidated public transit, on dirty streets and in under-resourced public hospitals and mental health care facilities. Neoliberalism’s gutting of public services and neglect of public spaces creates the literal "spaces of encounter" where Arthur is traumatically forced along his journey of transformation.

Neoliberalism even attempts to regulate happiness itself. Arthur genuinely wants to make people happy, internalizing his mother’s wish that he should “smile and put on a happy face.” But Arthur is not allowed that form of self-actualization. This horrible state of frustration, disappointment and futility is described by cultural theorist Lauren Berlant as a state of “cruel optimism”.

Here is Berlant in an interview from The Point:

One of the things that excites me about comedy is the comic disturbance of the shared object. Like, you think you know what it is but you don’t, and you get to delight in that. It allows in the room a multiplicity of kinds of possible effects and affects, and that flooding itself is funny. ...

I’m also interested in thinking about politics as comedic, by which I don’t mean delightful or funny in the easy Schadenfreude sense. I’m interested in the comedic dictum, which is that disturbance doesn’t kill you, it forces you to live on. The thing about trauma, as I always say to my [Literature of] Trauma students, is that it doesn’t kill you and you have to live with it. And that’s the thing about comedy, too. The comedy is that you get up again after you fall off the cliff, and have to keep moving. You have to live with the brokenness, and you have to live with surprise, and you have to live with contingency. And you have to live with the pleasure of not knowing, if you can bear it. But how you have to live with it is another story.

Comedy is a lot about the question of whether you can bear it, in a way that tragedy isn’t. Because in tragedy the world can’t bear you.

Later in that interview, Berlant argues that "America tries to be a comedic force, in the sense that it tries to organize a kind of optimism about living politically. About a greatness, about a transcendence, about the practical or concrete utopia." Our "constant disappointment" about that failure, she concludes, "is a lot like the constant repetition in a comic sequence of a slapstick event. Except the violence of the disappointment is not funny! And it has really bad, painful effects on people’s lives."

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Arthur Fleck, after his transformation into the Joker, speaks to this futility when he tells his mother, while smothering her to death, “I used to think my life was a tragedy. But now I realize, it's a comedy.”

For decades, neoliberal elites and other policy makers have tried to create “healthy” self-regulating subjects. They have failed. The Joker is the representation of that outcome — and also the story of Arthur Fleck's "liberation" as a villain.

In many ways, neoliberalism and gangster capitalism are making the individuals and groups who suffer under their rule literally mad.

Because the color line intersects all areas of American life, racism and racial animus were and continue to be used as a tool for creating the neoliberal nightmare. Reagan and other conservatives used the image of the black “welfare queen” to convince the American public that cutting food stamps, welfare and other public assistance for the neediest Americans was good public policy.

Stereotypes of “lazy” black people who could only get jobs with the federal government continues to prime white hostility to the very idea of government itself and the safety net. This reaches back to racist associations from the Civil War and Reconstruction, where “big government” was imagined as protecting black people by "stealing" from “self-reliant” and “disciplined” white Americans.

In America, black women have been special targets of the neoliberal war on democracy and the public sphere, because they are strongly associated with government jobs and the bureaucracy. Black Americans, in the White American imagination, are still seen as anti-citizens who are not “self-reliant” or “productive.”

The Joker, however, is “race neutral” and “colorblind" (in his own twisted way). The Joker’s mob of protesters is interracial. Black people seem omnipresent, even hyper-visible in the Joker’s world. Why? This is the neoliberal reality of Gotham and the social and political moment it represents.

Arthur’s social worker is a black woman. On the bus, he tries to entertain a black child by doing his clown routine. The child’s mother tells Fleck to leave her child alone. The medical clerk (Brian Tyree Henry) who has Fleck’s mother’s medical records is a black man. Black and Latino street ruffians assault Arthur, stealing his placard, robbing him and leaving him laid out in an alley. The psychiatrist questioning the Joker at the end of the film — whom he apparently kills — is a black woman.

Yet the Joker never summons racial invective or other signs that he is angry that black people have caused him harm. His real enemies are the rich, white authority figures like Thomas Wayne who rule over Gotham and the world.

Phillips blunts the accusation that the Joker is somehow “racist” through the character of Arthur's neighbor Sophie played by Zazie Beetz. He imagines them having a whirlwind romance, but he is actually stalking and terrorizing Sophie: The “relationship” is entirely in his mind. Using this character in such an obvious way is one of the few missteps in an otherwise excellent film.

What of the Joker’s politics? In the film, he explicitly rejects politics, describing himself as a nihilist. But given his narrative unreliability, such claims must be viewed with suspicion. What is clear is that the Joker’s vigilantism, as responded to by Thomas Wayne’s insults toward the working people of Gotham, sparks a “populist” uprising.

The people’s uprising in “Joker” is the worst type of populism. It is blind rage, lacking ideology, which is liberating in the moment but does little if anything to address social inequality or to offer an alternative vision of the future.

Like the comic book character on which he is based, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker offers a form of permission: He ultimately does what he wants, without guilt or restraint. Most people do the opposite: They are “civilized,” which is defined by subjecting oneself to social norms even when they make you miserable.

Before fully and finally becoming the Joker on his hero Murray Franklin’s late-night variety show (a cameo role for Robert De Niro) — and then killing him on air — Arthur Fleck carries a small card in his wallet which explains his medical condition (known as “pseudobulbar affect”).

On the bus, Fleck gives this card to the parent of the child he is trying to entertain as a way of explaining his odd behavior.

It reads: "Forgive my laughter. I have a condition (more on back). It's a medical condition causing sudden, frequent, uncontrollable laughter that doesn’t match how you feel. It can happen in people with a brain injury or certain neurological conditions."

This is a perfect summation of the insane absurdity of neoliberalism and what it does to the people who live under it.

As the movie progresses and Arthur more fully becomes his "true" self, the Joker, he stops laughing involuntarily. The affliction appears to be gone.

Perhaps there is a little bit of the Joker in all of us who live under the cruel logic of neoliberalism and gangster capitalism. But to consider such a possibility is too unsettling and difficult for many people — including those who are reacting negatively to "Joker" and its damning indictment of the current order of things.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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