“A Clockwork Orange”, 50 years later

Photo by Carmela Gross


Commentary on the film directed by Stanley Kubrick.

“The story […] of Hitler and his first six disciples, the story of how they together founded the party and how those seven men later became first 1 million, then 6 million, then 30 million, in 40…” (Rosenberg, 2012, p.144). These are the first sentences of Arthur Rosenberg's (1889-1943) essay “Fascism as a mass movement” (1934).[1] The fascist serpent had just hatched. Rosenberg, historian and former member of the German Communist Party (KDP), was examining the first signs of the electoral and political rise of fascism in Germany, in the light of what had happened in Italy in the previous decade.

When we are facing, as we are now, a global and systemic crisis, it is worth remembering such a case – fulminant and paradigmatic – of political expansion. The success of the Hitlerian gang, placed in the background, allows us to better understand the parable of Stanley Kubrick's film (1928-1999), Clockwork Orange (Clockwork Orange, 1971). It is the fable of a youth gang, whose members rise from the underworld to join the State service; its first leader, as a promising politician; the rest, like policemen.

Thus, as a futuristic urban fable, historically enlivened by Nazi “rituals”, the parable extends to the issue of the criminal development of postmodern democracies, linked to fraud and spectacle, as well as to government strategies oriented towards technologies for controlling biological forms. , i.e, biopolitics, according to Michel Foucault (1926-1984).[2]

The future just around the corner

The plot of the film places the action in the London of the future, of modern spaces degraded and full of garbage. However, London in 1970, when the film was made, was the quintessential symbol of an attractive city. In a strategic and allusive way, the plot that pointed to urban ruins and the right-wing transformation of youth functioned, therefore, as a kind of “social science fiction”.

Thus, borrowing traits from comics and caricatures, Kubrick worked the fictional future, the context of the narrative, in a pessimistic key. Other temporal implications permeated the narrative: numerous references connected the film, as if it were part of a diptych, to the filmmaker's previous work: 2001: Uma Odisseia no Espaço (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968; hereinafter simply referred to as 2001). One of the bridges between the two films was the recurrence of the color white, adopted both in the scenes of 2001 as in the uniforms of Alex's gang. What evoked the use of white in this case?

In irony, which is a feature of this filmmaker's own dialectical narration, each form also evokes its opposite. Thus, the use of white in this case points to a wide range of meanings historically associated with dark colors. The whiteness evoked in 2001 a unified social order under a person fascist era, from which all traces of class struggle had been erased – traces like that of the dispute between the great apes for control of water, in the opening sequence of 2001.

The city divided between gangs is part of the sublunary order contemporary with the spaceships of 2001. In the same way, the words of the beggar, beaten by Alex's gang, both designate the underworld he inhabits and refer to the orbital stations of 2001. In such a futuristic order, the white uniforms of the gang – as well as the brown or dark shirts of the old Nazi militias (the Freikorps and then the SA) – point to a new social and political order, allegedly opposed to the chaos and ruin of the (present) crisis designated as the narrative context.

Certainly, the author's intention was not to propose a parallel between the libertarian causes of the students of 1968 – who, frequently and in many countries, sought to establish political alliances with workers – and the London youth in the film, who act in their nocturnal incursions as a reissue of Freikorps e SA originals. In fact, the film predicted, in 1970-71, the time of its realization – that is, just two or three years after the 1968 insurrections –, a radical mutation in the role of youth: its transformation from a libertarian force into a violent segment that intensifies spontaneously social oppression.

In these terms, Kubrick escaped the optimism of previous films by other directors who, by focusing on youth as a specific social category and as a new political subject, saw a libertarian vocation in anarchic youth behavior. It was the case of the melodramatic narrative of Traversed Youth (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), by Nicholas Ray (1911-1979), or the French films of New wave, with its light lyrical tone, closer to the sensitivity pop. From such narratives – pre-1968 –, there was an impression of progress and liberation, the predicted improvement of values ​​and laws. On the other hand, Kubrick's pessimistic vision – with his post-1968 lucidity going against the current and ahead of his circumstances – foresees the present dark times.

culture and control

There is also another strategic problem related to the new political and social subject. Students, finding themselves in transition to the world of work, are concretely linked to the sphere of culture, to whose mutations they are especially susceptible. In this sense, for example, the Ninth Symphony, by Beethoven (1770-1827), after serving an intimate ritual, side by side with the snake and the composer's image as Alex's fetishes, becomes an ingredient in the shock treatment and psychiatric intervention to which Alex is subjected . Thus, the conversion of culture into a “technology of control”, to speak in Foucault's terms, appears in the film associated with the process of youth mutation. From this perspective, the events of 1968 are much less like a dawn than an ominous twilight, whose facts and assumptions, indicators of emancipation, no longer count.

criminal status

The plot takes place in the terminal crisis of the welfare state, of its link with a constitutional State. From the outset, it determines the traits of a transitional era, in which a society – split in terms of interests, but potentially or normatively integrated into a democratic framework – has its conflicts subsumed and manipulated “biopolitically”, which results in a new order, shaped by a criminal and omniscient (or panoptic) state.

In short, such “social science fiction” announces, with specific precision, the moment after the so-called “Glorious Thirty”, as Jean Fourastié (1907-1990) [3] named – already nostalgically, in 1979 – the period of post-1945 expansion in the central economies of capitalism (needless to detail, on the other hand, that we, on the periphery, have always and permanently lived with structural inequalities that stand out in the central economies only in acute crises).

However, in the film, some aspects of the old regime remain in the transition, such as elections and rivalries between parties. If the reasons for the crisis – cyclical and predictable – are not specified, its signs are already highlighted: poverty, urban ruins, school dropouts, idle youth, disciplinary counselors, overcrowded prisons and the fact that traditional forms of social control (law, prison, religion, school, family, etc.) no longer work to prevent young people from committing crimes – hence the state's pursuit of shock therapies; and, it seems, to an even greater extent, the state absorption of delinquency, as a strategy to deal with rising crime rates.

In the end, would they be measures to monopolize criminality? In this sense, State criminality would configure the corollary of the crisis, the sign of “a new disciplinary era”, to speak according to Foucault's categories.

Watkins, Fellini, Pasolini

Kubrick's pessimistic theses, even if they were against the grain of the general trend, did not arise in isolation. So, in Punishment Park (1971), the British filmmaker Peter Watkins (1935) imagined the United States converted into a militarized dictatorship in the Latin American style (at that time), with political prisoners and a concentration camp in the desert for young rebels. Analogously, Fellini (1920-1993), in an ironic and caricatured way, presented in three films made after 1968 – The clowns (The Clowns, 1970), Fellini's Rome (Roma, 1971) e Amarcord (1973) – the analysis of the original emergence of fascism in Italy, under everyday, prosaic and unsuspected features. Also Pasolini (1922-1975), silenced by murder, like Trotsky (1879-1940), sought to warn in 1974 about the rise of “a completely new and even more dangerous form of fascism” (Pasolini, 1975, p. 285).

Thus, in a series of articles published in journals between 1973 and 1975, and gathered in Script Corsari (1975), Pasolini began a systematic analysis of what he then designated as “the first, true revolution of the right” (Pasolini, 1975, p. 24). The text thus entitled, published on July 15, 1973, began: “In 1971, one of the most reactionary, violent and definitive periods in history began” (Pasolini, 1975, p. 24).

“Ultraviolence”: old and new

Once the scale of objectivity and significance of the problem has been accentuated, we can now move on to the analysis of the role of Nazi images in Clockwork Orange. The therapeutic climax of Alex's "brain reprogramming" is underscored in the film by the image of Hitler himself (1889-1945), flanked by two commanders. Nazism then appears as the historical paradigm of ultraviolence, cultivated by Alex's gang – which, like rival gangs, shows its roots in a social order marked by the hyperproduction of advertising.

A ultraviolence it is a sign of the pleasures and practices that Alex, as a prisoner and patient of the State, must abandon. In fact, Nazism appears as an anachronistic form, rejected by the State and by the psychiatrists who introduced the new therapy. However, the film also features clear parallels between the substance of the ultraviolence and the hatred against the other, enjoyed in the nocturnal incursions of the gang, as well as in those of the so-called Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht, November 9/10, 1938) in Nazi Germany. For bored London teenagers, each night became a Kristallnacht.

No doubt the State intends to heal Alex. But the spectator's role – if he is attentive to Kubrick's own counter-narrative and irony – is to understand that the movements of incorporation and negation, coming and going between the new order and the old fascism, constitute a dialectical oscillation. This has the function of characterizing in the film the specificity of the current form of fascism.

Thus, the gangs do not bring aspects of the old nationalist militias, but correspond to loose and hedonistic mutations, freed from the sense of duty or allegiance to a culture or national power. Even so, as the film points out, the gangs are spontaneously willing and trained for the ultraviolence, practiced as a pastime.

Analogously, the comic duets between Alex and the prison officer, whose caricatured discipline and desire to punish evoke the British imperial order, are intended to highlight the novelty – but also to alert us to the genetic mutations of the fascist matrix.

Bored, rebellious, idle, erratic and hedonistic – in short, apparently quite different from SA and other original Nazi militias –, and at the same time so comfortable with the spirit of militarization and aggression against the other… Anyway, where do these gangs come from and where do they go?

Welcome to the “spark of life”!

Alex's mother works in a factory. The young people in question come from working-class backgrounds, but are completely dissociated from the values ​​of their parents. The film highlights the void between Alex and his “old people”. Indeed, gang youth are those of the so-called baby boom; its umbilical cord, the overproduction of goods. In the face of the crisis, what is the new order to which the gangs aspire?

Clockwork Orange is the last part of a triptych that analyzed the subjectivities constituted in the course of the Cold War: Dr. Fantastic (Dr. Strangelove, 1963-1964) focused on personnel in the nuclear war system; 2001, the colonization of the cosmos in a technological-imperial age – or “in the highest stage of capitalism”. After the latter, Clockwork Orange comes to reveal how the crisis and the “highest stage” can coexist, until, finally, the project of the new capitalism is imposed – in the post-1968 period: based on technologies of social biocontrol, dismantling of the welfare state and redirection of funds to the capital market. Let's take a close look at this dystopia, so similar to the current world.

The order analyzed by the filmmaker seems very close to what Foucault, a few years later, in a class in March 1976, designated as “biopolitics” [biopolitics] (Foucault, 1997, p. 213-235). This notion appeared in a course whose critical and anti-idealist objective was to study power “not from the perspective of the primitive and ideal terms of the relationship”, but rather to establish “how the relationship of domination can produce the subject” (Foucault, 1997, p. 239).

What matters in light of such a parallel is that Foucault's and Kubrick's investigations try to clarify the new types of conditioning, as well as their impact on “conditioned subjects”. The forms of conditioning focused on by Kubrick operate in several ways. They range from taking the anabolic “milk-plus” to controlling Alex's steps by “a post-correction public counselor”. His presence in Alex's house is so frequent that he moves freely there and ends up receiving the keys to the house from the young man's mother. The fact that he knows more about Alex than his own parents signals both a generational gap and the ubiquity of government “biopolitics”.

The latter are a novelty deplored by the prison director and the guard officer, both devotees of the propaedeutics of discipline and punishment, in accordance with the British imperial tradition. The recurrence of the themes of the “new man” and his reconditioning also denote the new order, which is that of the ruins of labor and welfare state – ruins glimpsed in the dirt of the place, as well as in graffiti and graffiti that cover the mural that thematizes workers, at the entrance to the popular housing complex where Alex's parents live.

the new subjectivity

Let us dwell on the key issue of the “new man”, which occasionally appears in hostile relationships against the elderly – for example, in the surprise of the beggar beaten by Alex –, as well as on the therapeutic process and its developments. Who is the “new man”, anyway? Is it Alex from the beginning? Or the second, who learns new practices in prison, reads the Bible and volunteers for the Ludovico method? Or rather, would Alex be converted to passivity through programmed nausea? Or, finally, the fourth Alex, made the minister's favorite?

Here, as in the incorporation and negation of Nazism, there are oscillations between different narrative positions. However, more decisive and emblematic than these positions are the incessant movements of the pendulum, which establish the problem of the “new man” in opposition to the welfare state and prior order. This is the key point: Alex's positions always derive, in one way or another, from her conditioning, that is, they always result from pre-molded identities, previously adapted to the environment.

Thus, the subjectivities of the new regime comprise two aspects: the first corresponds to an insecure and vulnerable situation. Such is the situation of the prisoner, but also that of the worker and current citizen, under neoliberalism, all deprived of basic social rights. The reduction of life to afflictions and uncertainties, as well as its immersion in the flow of incessant competition, characterizes the new order envisaged by the film.

The second aspect of the new regime of subjectivity implies quick or immediate satisfactions, derived from the narcissistic realization of perverse fantasies or acts of self-affirmation. In Alex's personality, constantly prone to disguises and masks, this tendency appears from the first take, in Close over his painted eyes, until his last pose, next to the minister.

Note, in parentheses, that such perversion will become routine as a class practice in the current era, guided by fictitious capital. In this, the gains do not require the old mediations, but only metamorphoses or immediate realizations, through exchanges Online of financial assets. Thus, in Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut (Eyes Wide Shut, 1999), this disposition expands in an unlimited way. Not even doctors who, as a rule, are positivist heralds are immune to it.

In short, aestheticization, disguise, eclecticism, eradication of historical meaning and militarization stand out in Clockwork Orange, offering us a precursory reading key to postmodern trends.

The formative years: towards the liberal-fascist tandem

Let us adopt one of the clues that serves as a synthesis of the others. Alex's odyssey functions as a “novel of formation” (Bildungsroman). It narrates the memories of the formation of a young and ambitious ministerial cadre (un jeune loup, as the French say). The interventions of the current minister (of the Interior), as well as his care with the media, demonstrate that this is not the forms of the old fascism. On the contrary, the current minister is the representative of a State that has a budget that is, above all, rationalized and increasingly restricted – as the minister points out to the prison director who asks him for funds. Therefore, the minister is not all-powerful, but his authority is accountable to the State and the electoral process.

However, it is certain that such subordination occurs strictly in the sphere of scenic performance. It is a Spectacle State, of ministers who act theatrically and of minorities defined and conditioned in “biopolitical” terms. All have a clear sense of the media scene, as we see in the lesson for Alex, dictated and reviewed directly by the minister himself.

It is part of the role of the media to record the pact between the minister and the “representative of mentally cured prisoners”, thus functioning as a “social contract”. What role does the cultural sphere play in the social order thus reorganized?

We know that neoliberal governments carried out a process of restructuring the functions of culture. From a context in which conflicts were symbolically translated and re-elaborated, its function was strategically transformed into an operative mode, in which concrete conflicts of class and interests are concealed (behind masks and multicultural reasons) and falsely resolved through general integration into consumerism. . Such a culture model does not fundamentally require more than a theme park, amalgamating the illusions of generalized access – in self-service mode – to goods; access stimulated through the reduction of costs due to the Chinese mode of overexploitation, and combined with the credit expansion of fictitious capital. The cultural model also implies the extinction of a historical republican entity such as the Legislative Power, replaced by the liturgy of the market.

We live in an era of totalitarian pseudo-democracies, in which political mediations between opposing poles have given way to apotheotic spectacles and media satisfaction. Is there perhaps a better synthesis, in cinema, of such historical formation than the image of a future Prime Minister feeding – or rather, feeding in his mouth, as one of his own offspring – the representative of a “biopolitical” category? It should be noted: biopolitical representative who, from the outset, was transformed into a smiling and promising politician and, who knows, into a future prime minister… [4]

* Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil (Haymarket/HMBS).

Review and research assistance: Gustavo Motta.


Clockwork Orange [A Clockwork Orange].

USA, 1971, 136 minutes.

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. London: William Heinemann, 1962 [ed. braz.: Clockwork Orange. Trans. Fabio Fernandes. São Paulo: Aleph, 2015]. Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clarke, John Clive, Adrienne Corri, Carl Duering.


BANAJI, Jairus. Fascism as a Mass-Movement: Translator's Introduction. Historical Materialism, London, v.20, n.1, 2012, p.133-143.

FOUCAULT, Michael. Il faut defendre la société: cours au Collège de France (1975-1976). Ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, under the direction of François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana. Paris: Hautes Études/Seuil-Gallimard, 1997. [Ed. port.: Society needs to be defended. Lisbon: Books from Brazil, 2006.]

FOURASTIE, Jean. Les trente glorieuses ou la révolution invisible de 1946 à 1975 [1979]. Paris: Fayard/Pluriel, 2011.

MARTINS, Luiz Renato. The sad end of the welfare state: Kubrick's parable. In: PINCHEIRA, Iván et al. (eds.). Machines of knowledge, mechanisms of power, practices of subjectivation. Minutes of the 1st Transdisciplinary Journey of Studies in Government / Nucleus of Studies in Government of the University of Chile. Santiago: Ediciones Escaparate, 2016. p.59-64.

PASOLINI, Pier Paolo. The genocide. Rebirth, 27 sep. 1974. In: Scritti corsari. Milan: Garzanti, 1975. p.281-287.

______. La prima, vera rivoluzione di destra. Weather Illustrated, 15 Jul. 1973. In: Scritti corsari. Milan: Garzanti, 1975. p.24-30.

______. corsari script. Milan: Garzanti, 1975 [Ed. braz.: corsair writings, trans. Maria Betânia Amoroso. Sao Paulo, Ed. 34, 2020].

ROSENBERG, Arthur. Fascisms as a Mass-Movement [1934]. Trans. Jairus Banaji. Historical Materialism, London, v.20, n.1, 2012, p.144-189.


[1] See Rosenberg (2012, p.144-189).

[2] See Foucault, 1997, p. 213-235. 237-244

[3] See Fourastié (2011).

[4] Edited from a text originally published under the title of “El triste fin del state of well-being: la parabola de Kubrick”, in PINCHEIRA, Iván (ed.)/ Núcleo de Estudios en Gubernamentalidad, Univ. from Chile. Machines of knowledge, mechanisms of power, practices of subjectivity (Santiago: Ediciones Escaparate, 2016), pp.59-64; republished in Portuguese, under the title “The sad end of the welfare state: Kubrick's Parable Marxist Criticism, no. 48, Sao Paulo, IFCH-U

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