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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Mister Robot, a recollection of Chomsky, and a reflection on Robespierre

And the award for pretension in blog post titles goes to ... yeah, bear with me on this one. I recently binge watched the first two seasons of Mister Robot. It had Chinese overlords and hackers like the novel I'm working on and anarchists like my one professional sale of a short story, so I figured someone would ask me about it at some point and I should be caught up. And I figured I'd like it. I did--awesome TV show. Amazing plot twists, wonderful use of Breaking Bad-esque flashbacks as episode starters, complex PhilDickian "What is real?" aspects, some terrific absurdism, a diverse array of well-developed characters, an anti-establishment ethos--you'd think they called me personally and asked me what I'd like in a TV show.

What inspired me to blog today was a line from the penultimate episode of season 2, voiced by Elliot, the mentally ill, morphine addicted, leader of the anarchist hackers who managed to cripple the world's banking system as a way of cancelling debt and redistributing wealth in a triumphant end to season one: "You can't win; you can only keep them from winning." The hackers won the battle but seem to be losing the war, as they destroyed without a plan to start anew. So season two ends with Elliot and several of the other good guys contemplating how to reverse their revolution. (How is Elliot a good guy? The banker bad guys are way worse.)

Elliot's dad and another character's (Angela's) mom were killed by something going on at a nuclear power plant, a project the Chinese overlords are willing to spend trillions to save, pretending it to be for bailing out of the American big bank, and Elliot thinks wishy-washy liberalism would have been enough to effect social change? My instinctive disgust at this turn in the plot led me to recall a lecture Noam Chomsky gave back in the 80s when I was at MIT. He made the statement that he always votes in US elections. Moreover, he, the defining figure of the 1960s New Left, said that liberals (cue Phil Ochs singing the sarcastic anthem, "Love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal") do often perform important work in limiting the extent of suffering, even if they do so in the context of an oppressive, post-capitalist system they fail to challenge.

Angela had appeared to take a liberal tack throughout season 2, "working for change from the inside." And she did seem to believe in her ability to do so as a part of E-corp (Evilcorp, the huge bank) management early in the season. However, she ended the season (this week's episode) fully in league with the class traitor, Tyrell, and Whiterose's Dark Army of Chinese hackers. And Darlene, leading Fsociety while Elliot is in prison, devolves into a murderous thug, brought to justice by Dom, who tries to bond with her as "another girl from Jersey," leaving the possibility that this foul mouthed (ever seen a show with a female character using the c-word for women's genitalia so often?), hot, brilliant, failure as a leader will be the true turncoat (or she might turn Dom, the equally hot and brilliant FBI agent, to the anarchist cause; we will see in season 3).

So could Elliot (as well as Trenton and Mobley), really be turning to liberalism as an ideological alternative? Or does the post-credit scene in the season 2 finale with Leon (Elliot's African-American buddy in prison who cut the white supremacist thug prison gang to piece to save Elliot and revealed himself as a Dark Army operative) approaching Trenton and Mobley signify that the true end lies in allying with the Chinese?

One must remember the last to face the guillotine in the French Revolution was the patriot leader, Robespierre. The ends rarely justify the means. The extreme violence horrifies Elliot, inspiring the apparent turn to liberalism.

Sure, the destructive phase of a revolution can easily devolve into thug violence. Image: Huey Newton in the sixties, non-violent civil rights protestor, fed up, taking on guns and a revolution, yelling "off the pigs," highlighting the institutional violence against American Black people in a way that produced real change. Image: 1970s protestors shouting "Free Huey," while his lover, Elaine Brown, leads the Panthers toward free breakfast programs for youth and services for the elderly, negotiates directly with Governor Brown over job creation, and runs a political machine that failed to elect a Congressman but made it easy for Ron Dellums to run as a Democrat and dominate Oakland/Berkeley politics for decades. Image: Huey Newton in the eighties, a crack-addicted thug shot to death in a drug deal, split from Elaine Brown, whom he had denigrated and beat up. Ronnie Rayguns rules the country, dismantling nearly all of the Great Society programs, bringing hunger back to America. (By WHO standards, it had been abolished as of 1980.) All of this constitutes evidence Elliot was right when he said, "You can't win."

But can you "keep them from winning"? The Great Recession, bank bailout, and return to the smoke and mirrors economy would argue you can't. Goldman-Sachs executives were never brought to trial; indeed, they are back to "earning" their tens of million dollars in annual bonuses. Liberalism certainly isn't the answer.

Methinks the Chinese will play a major role in the show's answer. Darkrose, in her guise as the transvestite leader of the Dark Army, takes direction from Elliot (actually from Mister Robot; Elliot's mental illness blanks these parts of his life from his consciousness), and allies with Tyrell and Angela. But in his other incarnation as the male Chinese bureaucrat, he orders an attack on the FBI that kills every operative except Dom and he bargains with Phillip Price, CEO of E-corp, to save the secret project. Recall in season one that he goaded Price into intervening with Obama to allow the Chinese to take over in Congo (and splicing actual footage of Obama into these scenes was inspired scriptwriting, in my opinion).

What would the world look like with China as the sole superpower? Well, you'll have to wait for me to get my book into shape that I can look for a literary agent, probably a matter of at least several months, and then proceed from there, as I do provide one view. My China is a lot less dark than Mr. Robot's. Or is it? With so much in Mister Robot told via an unreliable narrator, it's hard to be sure.

My take: as appealing as anarchism might have been in pre-Franco Spain or to 1960s American New Left types, it's not viable today because of global climate change, habitat fragmentation, overfishing and other ecological catastrophes that truly threaten the entire world's population. Voluntary, weak associations of independent actors won't solve any of these problems. We need nation states; some will have to lead. At this point, China and the US look like equally poor world leaders. You can't breathe the air in Beijing. Human rights in China are ephemeral and often cut off completely. Rural poverty is still a major issue. Whereas in the US, I work in a county with a 75% child poverty rate. It's telling that one of the most popular TV shows of the last decade featured a high school teacher who turns to becoming a drug kingpin as a way of paying his medical bills and supporting his kid, who has cerebral palsy. Gun violence is endemic. Hatreds of every sort are flaring up anew. And the big Presidential debate this week will be over whether fracking is peachy keen (Clinton) or we should go back to heavy reliance on coal (Trump). Diplomatically, invasion is still the go-to approach, as both Clinton and Trump seem much more war-like than Obama was, and he was the guy who campaigned on doubling down on the war in Afghanistan. Drones controlled from San Diego carpet bomb innocents in Pakistan and it doesn't even make the nightly news.

But yet, the Paris climate accords will be implemented. Obama and Xi actually took a step forward toward solving a huge world problem, displaying the sort of leadership needed to buttress my argument that anarchist smashing of everything is misguided in today's world.

Will there be more forward progress?

We'll see in Season three. Meanwhile, Lucifer's season premiere was this week.

What, you thought I was going to offer a profound insight that was going to inspire you toward transformative change leading to world peace? If I had that insight, do you think I'd blog about a TV show?

That's your job. A writer can only inspire contemplation. If this post got you thinking, I did well.

Go out and "keep them from winning."

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