Joker: capitalism and legal ideology

Image: Elyeser Szturm
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By Juliana Paula Magalhães*

The film Joker (Joker), by Todd Phillips, has taken crowds to cinemas in Brazil and around the world. The brilliant and exquisite performance of Joaquin Phoenix, the impeccable soundtrack, magnificent cinematography and script, alone, are enough to make the film stand out. However, the film about the sad smiling clown transcends the boundaries of mere cinematography and makes us reflect on the society we live in, structurally constituted from the capitalist mode of production.

The transgressive impetus of the character Arthur Fleck, initially, is contained by the typical ideological devices of our society. The film takes place in a time before the internet age, therefore, in it the television media appears in all its power. Robert De Niro's appearance in the film even makes a clear reference to the famous The King of Comedy by Martin Scorsese, which had De Niro as the protagonist.

In Todd Philips' film, Fleck appears as a peaceful citizen, a little dissociated from “socially acceptable standards”, although harmless – although he had already been admitted to a sanatorium and used psychotropic medication for continuous use. A good son, hardworking, honest and a survivor of an insipid and miserable life, one of Fleck's great joys was watching Murray Franklin's television show, alongside his elderly mother. In one of his delusions, Arthur even sees himself next to the presenter, in a moment of complete ecstasy. Fleck's lack of a father figure is evidenced in his imaginary encounter with Murray.

Arthur's life would go on, perhaps, without major setbacks - albeit in a mediocre way and filled with humiliations and aggression -, if it weren't for the mental illness that afflicted him, one of the symptoms of which was uncontrollable laughter, at totally unpredictable moments. , usually in stressful situations. The problematization of mental illness in the film is notably done, questioning the very boundaries between “normal and pathological”, since Fleck – the so-called mentally ill person – is sensitive enough to be bothered by the harassment suffered by a girl in a subway practiced by middle-class young people – so-called “good citizens”, who worked in Thomas Wayne's company -, as well as to be attentive to the look of a child on public transport or to perceive the maternal naivety in believing in everything that was said in the newscasts.

The film, however, does not follow a conventional path, but destroys our illusions - hence the vaunted nuisance in some sectors of the critics and the public –, by opening wide the ills of bourgeois society, with large infected cities, misery, poverty, trivialization of violence, exploitation of work and exacerbated individualism. Right from the start, we were shocked by the aggressions suffered by Fleck, dressed as a clown - a job that guaranteed his livelihood -, attacked for free while he worked. It remains there, our “anti-hero hero” lying on the ground, in shambles, humiliated and still having to pay for the damage to the plaque destroyed by the juvenile delinquents who attacked him.

The dialogue with the boss is quite emblematic. Fleck is called to pay the value of the plaque and, while listening to his boss's unfair reprimands, he smiles, since he had heard from his mother since childhood that he came to bring joy to the world and that he should always smile.

A weapon given to him by a coworker – which Fleck is reluctant to accept – ends up being one of the ingredients for the beginning of the character's complete transformation. The artifact, which accidentally falls out of the clown's clothes – until then harmless –, during a presentation at a children's hospital, leads to his dismissal.

The humiliation becomes complete when Fleck, fired, dressed as a clown, returns silently home on the subway and is attacked by a fit of nervous laughter when a young woman is the victim of harassment in the almost empty carriage. Arthur's behavior draws the attention of the harassers. Then he becomes the target of mockery, humiliation and aggression again.

We believe that, once again, our martyr will remain on the ground, battered and defenseless. But here we come to the turning point of our story. Arthur reacts and from there the Joker begins to be born. It is interesting that the actor who stars in the film has the surname Phoenix, since the phoenix is ​​the mythological bird that rises from the ashes, as that is exactly what happens with Todd Phillips' Joker. Arthur's destruction by an oppressive bourgeois society gives rise to the appearance of the Joker. Only at that moment does the character begin to be taken by a feeling of emancipation and the singular dance in the public bathroom will represent this.

The film subverts the traditional conception of the hero, as someone who abides by law and order, allowing for a scathing critique of legal ideology. The hero, even if he does not always make use of purely normative expedients – after all, the hero's figure always has a hint of transgression –, has as its final scope the restoration of peace and tranquility that are momentarily disturbed by some villain.

Em Joker, the situation is reversed, because the problem is precisely the excluding bourgeois order. Therefore, there is no plausible way out other than rupture. Arthur, upon becoming the Joker, is devoid of beliefs and goals and he verbalizes this himself. However, his non-conformity in the face of what has already been given remains clear. And this feeling finds reverberation in the population of Gotham, having as its trigger a statement by Thomas Wayne who calls the poorest clowns, when commenting on the deaths that occurred in the subway, in the episode with Arthur, who has not yet been identified due to his robes of clown.

At this point in the film, protests begin to spread across Gotham and protesters begin to wear clown masks – in allusion to the “hero clown” of the subway episode. One of the genius aspects of the film resides precisely in highlighting the power of the event as something that can be fundamental in triggering a reaction process and an attempt at rupture on the part of the masses. Criticism of the television media and the ideological apparatus of the State in general is evident in the film.

One of the most emblematic scenes is precisely Arthur's participation in the Murray Franklin program. Arthur asks to be called Joker, a qualification given to him on another occasion, in a sadistic mood, by the presenter. The dialogue established between Murray and Joker during the program is spectacular. Phoenix's magnificent performance at that moment shows all his power.

Joker it allows us to enjoy an artistic representation of some aspects already pointed out by the most advanced Marxist criticism about capitalist society, law and ideology. In effect, Karl Marx, in his mature work, scientifically dissects the vicissitudes intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production, whose core resides precisely in the commodity form, constituted from the universalization of the exploitation of salaried work. The German philosopher, especially, in The capital, unravels the functioning and reproduction mechanisms of bourgeois society.

On the other hand, the Russian jurist Evguiéni Pachukanis, in his work General theory of law and Marxism, extracts the consequences of Marxist thought for law, demonstrating that the legal form is directly derived from the commodity form, such as the state political form. Therefore, law and the State – as they present themselves in contemporary times – are direct products of capitalism. Therefore, the path to social transformation necessarily passes through the end of these social forms.

The French philosopher Louis Althusser, among other points, advances in an understanding of ideology in capitalism, based on a combination of Marxism and psychoanalysis. For Althusser, ideology is not an object of choice by an act of will, but is unconsciously imposed, based on concrete material practices. The subjective constitution of subjects takes place through ideology. Therefore, in capitalism, the core of ideology is precisely the legal ideology, given that for the perpetuation of this mode of production it is essential that individuals present themselves as subjects of law.

In Althusserian theory, alongside the repressive State apparatuses, we have the ideological State apparatuses, which act especially through ideology. They are: the school, the mass media, churches and places of worship, political parties, parliament, judicial institutions, among others. In this way, the performance of law takes place both through the repressive state apparatuses and through ideological apparatuses.

The way out of this situation lies precisely in the action of the masses and the event can channel such transforming potential. Here we return to our film, for Joker allows us to visualize this possibility and it materializes in the apotheotic scene, in which the population of Gotham, crazed in their clown masks, promotes chaos, in a destructive impetus that even turns against the bourgeois class, culminating in the murder of Thomas Wayne, its top representative.

It is the triumph of the anarchic Joker and perhaps the possibility of triumph for the proletariat. But this “victory” was short-lived and once again the ideology of the bourgeois order was imposed. Joker returns to the sanatorium and the attack on the bourgeoisie was nothing more than a kind of “joke”, which Arthur smiles at while talking to a psychiatrist.

However, the story is not over yet and the gruesome trail of blood left by Joker's footprints in the film's final scene invites us to rethink our values. Arthur – although one should not disregard the presence of his psychiatric problems – ultimately succumbed to capitalist society and Joker is a product of that same society, after all, even his nickname was given to him by a spokesperson for the bourgeoisie. Thus, the film awakens us to the reflection that if the path of true social transformation is not sought, by breaking with the social forms that engender social exclusion and daily violence, the result will inevitably be the sad perpetuation of barbarism. …

*Juliana Paula Magalhães is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Law at USP.

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