Saturday, September 6, 2014
Capitalism, Communism, and Melodrama (Revised)
It is by no means difficult to identify the Communist Manifesto with some of the most basic elements of melodrama we've discussed in class so far. Melodrama, we've said, divides characters very simply into groups of good and evil people, most often associating the side of good with common folk, and pitting them against the evil aristocracy. Similarly, the Communist Manifesto almost immediately asserts that the world is divided into “two great hostile camps--” the Bourgeoisie, who posses capital and the means of production, and the Proletariat, who perform labor for meager wages. Furthermore, it consistently portrays the Proletariat as victimized and exploited by the Bourgeoisie, shows its full support for the working class, and asserts, rather dramatically, that “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
However, the Communist Manifesto contrasts with the rhetoric of melodrama, especially as it is seen by Singer, in at least one major regard. Singer emphasizes that melodrama tends to portray helpless protagonists who “experience duress from forces beyond their control,” but are ultimately saved, not by resolving the issue themselves (they are “unable to stop villainy through their own actions”), but by being saved by fate, which ultimately rewards their virtue. Singer asserts that such a plot was comforting in a newly modern, capitalist world where people could suddenly become unemployed or homeless-- it reassured them that there was still an outside force that would protect good people from harm. He goes so far to say that melodrama "served a quasi-religious ameliorative function" for people in the time of emerging capitalism, that is, Melodrama was comforting in implying that a God-like force will always give good and evil people their just desserts, even if it didn't necessarily actually mention God.
The Communist Manifesto does coincide with Singer's view of an insecure world ruled by capital. In fact, Singer even quotes a portion of the Manifesto which asserts that the Bourgeoisie has "pitilessly torn asunder" traditional feudal ties, "and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.'" However, the manifesto does not by any means encourage the Proletariat to sit back and wait for fate to save them. Instead, it insists repeatedly that the only way for the Proletariat to overcome the oppression of the Bourgeoisie is by a direct revolution, saying at some point (I can't seem to find the quote) that the overthrow of the Bourgeoisie requires the action of the vast majority of the Proletarians, if not every single one. Thus, the Communist Manifesto calls for the rejection of the sort of passive faith that Singer believes is encouraged by melodrama, and asserts that rather than needing to be saved by circumstance, the working class needs to claim its rights by decisive action. Just as Marx is famously quoted as calling religion the "opiate of the masses" (or, more accurately, the "opium of the people"), he would probably consider melodrama, in the "quasi-religious" role that Singer describes it as occupying, a source of false hope that would dull the people's will to seize their rights through their own power.