Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience

Lauded for its clear vision of the future, “RoboCop” just gave the plutocratic philanthrocapitalists of today cover

Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience
Peter Weller as RoboCop in “RoboCop”(Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios)

We have become obsessed with prescience. Or rather, a kind of reverse-prescience that sees old books (from Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer”) invested with a new vitality. These works, and their authors, are hailed for their farsightedness and acute judiciousness, for their ability to “speak to our troubled times.” But more often than not, it’s a case of too little, way too late.

Reading the Stalinist parable “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to make sense of Trumpism feels about as useful as scanning the instructions on a bottle of bear spray while your torso’s already half-digested by a savage Kodiak. Still, we laud the old works and the old masters for their seeming ability to forecast the present, even if they do so in hazy, generalizing terms. The esteemed quality of prescience thus reveals itself as conservative, keeping us fixed on the past, lost in our fantasies of foregone foresight. Damn, if only we could have seen it coming back then.

Few pop-cultural objects carry this burden of prescience like “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire/Detroit dystopia/Christian allegory, which turns 30 this summer. Set in a near-future Motor City beset by corporate greed, with slums being rebuilt as privatized skyscraper communities and public services seized by profiteering private contractors, much of “RoboCop’s” critical legacy hinges on its seemingly spooky ability to predict the future: from the militarization of American police forces, to the collapse (and rebirth) of Detroit, to the way in which politics has become increasingly beholden to private money.

Never mind that all these things were already happening when “RoboCop” was released theatrically at the ass-end of the Reagan administration. What matters is how the film is regarded as effectively anticipating what’s happening now. Problem is: claims of the film’s prescience aren’t just overstated. They’re fundamentally incorrect. And if we’re to believe — as many seem to — that “RoboCop’s” near future is meant to be our present, then we must reckon with one of its greatest oversights: its depiction of business-suited capitalists as crass, corporatist, unfeeling heels. What “RoboCop” got wrong was its depiction of the bad guys — of those greedy corporate profiteers looking to razz Detroit’s crumbling ghettos, quarterback private police militias and trap the hearts and minds of good, honest, working men inside hulking robotic exoskeletons.


On the commentary track bundled with Criterion’s now out-of-print 1998 home video release of “RoboCop,” producer Jon Davison summed up the movie’s message. He called it “fascism for liberals.” As Davison puts it: “The picture is extremely violent, but it has a nice, tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” Indeed, “RoboCop,” like many of Dutch expat Paul Verhoeven’s other films (“The Fourth Man,” “Starship Troopers,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” even the recent “Elle”) function through this sort of deeply embedded irony; this “we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” The sex, the violence, the way they flirt with ideological reprehensibility — Verhoeven’s films are calibrated to invite reaction, even disgust. And yet that’s never the end in itself.

When a heavy artillery “urban pacification” tank shoots up a boardroom meeting early in “RoboCop,” in one of the film’s most legendarily over-the-top sequences, the joke isn’t the display of gore itself, but rather the reaction. When the scowling CEO of Omni Consumer Products (referred to with mock-affection as “The Old Man,” and played by Dan O’Herlihy) witnesses the wanton display of machine-on-man violence and mutters to sniveling underling Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), “I’m very disappointed in you,” that’s the joke — a critique of the corporate world’s utter disdain for human life, packaged in a parody of Reagan-era paternalist condescension. This, presumably, is what Davison is talking about. “RoboCop” offers visions of violence, of top-down, totalitarian corporate control, and the crumbling of the American Dream itself that proves fundamentally comforting in its cheekiness and ironic distance. Yes, the world it depicts is bad. But we know it’s bad. And that’s good.

Yet this idea — fascism for liberals — runs even deeper into the movie’s DNA. What its capitalist parody doesn’t anticipate is the current entanglements of corporatism and politics. While the ascent of celebrity capitalist Donald Trump may play like something out of a direct-to-video “RoboCop” sequel, the film fails to address the more pressing threat of smiling, do-gooder philanthrocapitalists: guys like Michael Bloomberg or Mark Zuckerberg who increasingly set the agendas of American (and global) politics, while retaining the image of selfless saviors. These are the people who, increasingly, represent the corporatization of everyday life, albeit in a way that “RoboCop”-style corporate villainy can’t account for.

When Donald Trump announced that America would be backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to pick up the tab with his private money. Likewise, before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced he was buying the Whole Foods supermarket chain last week — a move that boosted Bezos’s stock while sapping that of competitors like Wal-Mart and Target — he canvassed Twitter for ideas on charities to which he could donate money. This is the face of modern consumerist capitalism: lead with a benign-seeming charitable gesture, follow through with a massive, bottom line-boosting buyout.

The fundamental weakness of ’’80s-era, “RoboCop”-ian businessman bad guys is their conspicuousness. They are vulgar and cruel, they divulge their scheming master plans in Bond villain-style monologues, and mainline cocaine and throw their henchmen out of moving vehicles. They are obviously (too obviously, maybe) villainous. They are unabashedly wolfish and competitive. This is not meant as a dig at “RoboCop” itself, which is a perfect film. Rather, it’s a critique of the automated reaction to praising the film for its farsightedness in a way that seems blinkered and myopic, even from the perspective of today.

Because today, things are altogether different. The billionaire super-capitalists seeking to monopolize the experience of daily life tend to appear not as smirking super-villains with spindly fingers steepled together as if it say “I’m scheming.” Rather, they’re the “good guys.” They donate money to charity (while exploiting tax loopholes), they care about the environment and schools and LGBTQ rights and the health and wellbeing of the Democratic Party. Some even want to go to Mars. They orbit around politics without seeming overtly political. (The obvious exception in this glad-handing rogues gallery is Bloomberg, though his move from mayor of America’s largest city back to private citizen and super-rich guy tends to be regarded as just that, a return or a retirement from political life.) And this seeming isolation from the sphere of politics is their greatest strength.


In 1831, French bureaucrats dispatched Alexis de Tocqueville to America to study the national prison system. He skipped the prisons, surveying instead the whole broad expanse of American society. The resulting study, “Democracy in America,” is an exhaustive account of life and liberty and the then-fledgling republic.

One thing that struck de Tocqueville was the cleaving of church and state. Unlike France, where the Bourbon Restoration had reinstated privileges of nobility granted to the clergy that had been largely stripped during the Revolution, and where the Catholic Church was state religion, America’s deep religiosity existed outside (or alongside) the political realm. “In America,” de Tocqueville observed, “the clergy never hold public office and are not politically active. While the power of religion seems diminished without an alliance with political power, it is actually stronger.” Where “the political sphere is constantly in a state of flux and is always changing according to public opinion,” religion provides a stabler “common morality.”

De Tocqueville’s observations on the American clergy’s power were explicitly translated to the political-social realm by economist Friedrich Hayek and other so-called “Austrian School” economists. As Linsey McGoey writes in her 2015 critique of philanthropy “No Such Thing as a Free Gift,” these economists “grasped the that in order to wield lasting power it was important to make sure their efforts appeared as non-political as possible. Unfailingly, whenever confronted with a choice between overt political engagement and more surreptitious political lobbying, Hayek would recommend the second strategy.” This sense of standing outside the muck and mire of politics itself, of living above the fray, grants billionaire corporatists inordinate power in the public imagination (to wit: during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump successfully spun his lack of experience in politics into a virtue, and similarly framed his inordinate wealth as a mark of his incorruptibility).

Capitalism, or even just gauzier ideas of “business” and “the market,” provide their own contemporary “common morality” (or they appear to, anyway). This is the ultimate liberal fantasy: that all we need to solve massive social problems is more money, that the way to fight against billionaires is with different kind of billionaires. And this is not even to say that Bloomberg, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim et al. are necessarily bad or evil. But this altruism and aloofness is the essence of their menace. They use wealth, power and influence that results in a net negative of the democratic experiment. While appearing benevolent, they set the agenda, all without the consultation of the broader public (save for the occasional Twitter poll). They consolidate their power and restrict possibilities, delimiting democracy and wrangling into a plutocracy of smirking good Samaritans. This is the sort of stuff that never frighten liberals, who are happy to see their vested interests fortified in the hands of those who think just like them.

And this, perhaps, is why I reserve a certain fondness for director Fred Dekker’s often-mocked 1993 sequel “RoboCop 3.” There, the film’s namesake robotic constable functions not as a metalloid Christ cleansing the temple of American industry from conspicuously chicanerous capitalists, but as a hero of the disenfranchised. He’s an android golem, fighting on behalf of a ragtag revolutionary army of down-and-out Detroiters and pensionless public servants against the encroachment of corporate control (both domestic and foreign) and the steamrolling of Old Detroit. 

Despite the film’s arch-cartoonishness and family-friendly feel (it pares back the blood and gore for scenes of Robo battling Japanese ninja androids and whooshing around in a jetpack), “RoboCop 3” has little in the way of the original’s beloved “tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” It’s fueled by a more intersectional, revolutionary energy, in which everyday people band together to defend their retirement funds and stand up for their communities. It’s the sort of story that might actually trouble institutional liberals and do-gooder philanthrocapitalists, one in which a legitimate #Resistance rises up and asserts itself, with or without the help of a reprogrammed robotic police officer. It’s a message that, one might hope, will one day too be trumped up and over-hyped as acute and totally visionary.

Or maybe the better hope is to forgo the backward-looking fetish for prescience altogether, to turn away from Oceania and Gilead and Delta City and cast a caustic eye on the present, to ferret out the culture that will seem ahead of its time well down the line, and to see what’s coming — right now.

US Senate health care bill guts Medicaid, slashes taxes for the wealthy


By Kate Randall
23 June 2017

US Senate Republicans unveiled on Thursday the Better Care Reconciliation Act, their version of a plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Obama administration’s signature domestic legislation. The US House passed its own version, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), early last month.

Like the House plan, the Senate version guts Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled jointly administered by the federal government and the states, slashing its funding by hundreds of billions of dollars. It would mark the effective end of the program, which currently covers 75 million Americans, as a guaranteed program based on need.

Better Care also repeals virtually all of the ACA’s taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, effecting one of the largest redistributions of wealth from the poor to rich in US history. These tax cuts would be paid for by slashing health care coverage and raising costs for the vast majority of ordinary Americans, in particular targeting the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and those with preexisting conditions and disabilities.

The plan was drafted in secrecy by a “working group” of 13 senators, a process drawing criticism from both Republican and Democratic senators. As of Thursday evening, a group of four ultra-right Republican senators said they would not sign on to the bill, as it was not draconian enough, while other more moderate Senate Republicans said they needed to study the bill before making a decision.

However, it is likely that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be able to garner the votes of 50 out of 52 Republican senators to pass the legislation with a simple majority, counting on the vote of Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie. The bill would then be sent to a conference with the House, where a final version would be agreed, before being sent to President Trump to sign. Senate leaders hope to receive a scoring on the bill from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) early next week and vote on it before the July 4 recess.


The Senate bill would convert Medicaid to a “per capita cap” funding system, in which states would get a lump sum from the federal government for each enrollee. States could also choose to receive a block grant instead, not tied to the number of Medicaid enrollees. This would effectively end Medicaid as an “entitlement” program, so-called because the funding is expanded automatically as people qualify on the basis of need.

The legislation would also change the way federal payments to Medicaid are calculated. The Senate bill would tether funding growth to the Medical Consumer Price Index plus 1 percentage point through 2025, then change over to the urban Consumer Price Index (CPI). This would amount to a funding cut to Medicaid, as the cost of health care typically goes up faster than the CPI.

The bill would also end the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare by 2021. This extended coverage to an estimated 14 million people, mainly low-income adults earning below 138 percent of the poverty line (about $15,000 for an individual), in the 31 states plus the District of Columbia that opted to participate in the expansion.

Better Care defunds Planned Parenthood for one year, meaning Medicaid patients could no longer seek treatment of any kind at the nonprofit organization’s clinics. This will result in forgone screenings, less access to contraceptive and abortion services, and more unintended pregnancies, as well as maternal and infant deaths.

CBO scoring of the House bill, which makes similar cuts, estimated it would slash overall funding to Medicaid by $880 billion over a decade. The cutbacks would force states to remove people from Medicaid, reduce the range of services covered, and cut reimbursements to doctors, hospitals and drug companies.

Tax cuts

The Senate bill cuts taxes on net investment income for wealthy people, repeals an ACA Medicare tax on wealthy people, and eliminates taxes on health insurers, medical device companies and tanning salons.

Better Care repeals a 3.8 percent tax on net investment income (capital gains, dividends, etc.) for individuals making more than $200,000 a year or for couples making more than $250,000. In one of the bill’s most brazen giveaways to the rich, this repeal is not only immediate, but retroactive to capital gains made earlier this year.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that around 90 percent of the tax cuts will go to households with more than $700,000 in annual income, the top 1 percent, who will be freed from the 3.8 percent tax, along with a 0.9 percent payroll surtax on their salaries.

Smaller subsidies, skimpier coverage

The bill would make much less generous subsidies available to low- and middle-income people to purchase health insurance (people earning less than 350 percent of the poverty line, compared to the ACA’s 400 percent cutoff). Individuals earning less than $41,580 and families of four making less than $85,050 would be covered. However, the size of the tax credits would be tied to what it takes to purchase insurance with poorer coverage.

Insurance companies would be able to charge older adults not yet eligible for Medicare five times more than younger people, compared to three times more under Obamacare. The bill would also change the definition of “affordable” insurance. For example, a 60-year-old who earns $35,640 a year would be required to spend 16.2 percent of annual income, or $5,773, before receiving any assistance from the government. Overall, working-class families would pay higher premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs for health insurance that covers much less.

Essential benefits and preexisting conditions

The Senate bill would allow states to seek a waiver from ACA requirements for insurers to cover essential benefits, such as maternity care, prescription drugs, substance abuse and mental health services, emergency care, and other vital services.

While Senate Republicans claim their legislation keeps in place protections for those with preexisting conditions, in practice insurers would be able to skirt these protections by simply offering plans that don’t cover a range of preconditions, such as diabetes, cancer, prenatal care, etc.

Such waivers could also affect those with employer-sponsored insurance. For example, large employers in a waiver state could restrict services, impose lifetime limits on health care costs and eliminate out-of-pocket caps from their plans.

Better Care eliminates the individual mandate, which requires those without coverage from their employer or from a government program to purchase insurance or pay a tax penalty. Due to the “reconciliation” process, the bill cannot eliminate the mandate, but it reduces the penalty to zero. Employers with 50 or more employers would also not be penalized if they fail to provide insurance to their workers.

While gutting the mandates, the Senate plan keeps the insurance marketplaces set up under the ACA intact, but insurance will be more expensive and cover less.

While Republicans in both the Senate and House, as well as the Trump administration, have set as their goal repealing and replacing Obamacare, both the AHCA and the Better Care Reconciliation Act keep the ACA’s basic structure in place—all while repealing taxes for the wealthy, gutting Medicaid and raising costs and cutting services for working and middle-class people.

This is in part the result of the procedure chosen for repeal. Lacking the 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster, the Republican leadership chose to employ “reconciliation,” which is limited to a single bill each year, and requires only a simple majority. The rules governing reconciliation are arcane, and prevent changes in policy that have no fiscal impact, such as a ban on insurance companies covering abortion, which was dropped from the Senate bill.

But in the final analysis, there was no need to repeal Obamacare outright, since it accomplishes many of the goals agreed on by both capitalist parties. As the WSWS has maintained from the start, Obamacare was aimed at cutting costs for the government and corporations while rationing health care for the vast majority. Whatever version of “Trumpcare” eventually emerges from Congress for the president to sign will take the tendencies already present in the Affordable Care Act, then strip off the limited concessions it offered in the way of Medicaid expansion, essential services and other inadequate protections.

Obamacare took as its starting point the entrenched for-profit system of health care delivery in America, which is based on enriching the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies and the giant hospital chains.

With this as its basis, the ACA had as its aim the development of an even more openly class-based health care system than what previously existed, in which workers and their families are left with rising costs, cut-rate care, or no coverage at all, and the super-rich and privileged upper-middle-class layer avail themselves of the best medical care that money can buy.

As we wrote last year, through its tax credit system and marketplace exchanges, “[T]he ACA essentially establishes a voucher system, whereby minimal government subsidies are given to individuals to purchase private health insurance. It thereby serves as a model for the future privatization of the key government programs, Medicare and Medicaid, wrenched from the ruling class through bitter working class struggles in the last century.”

The Democrats have predictably denounced the Senate plan as a boondoggle for the rich, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer railing against the tax breaks for the rich and the millions who stand to lose coverage.

But they have little to offer in way of an alternative, except the maintenance of the Obamacare status quo, or “working with” the Republicans to fix it. That is because they believe in the underlying premise that health care in America must remain at the mercy of the for-profit health care industry, and that the provision of health care must conform to the interests of the capitalist market.

As the WSWS wrote in July 2009, more than six months before the ACA became law, the Obama administration’s “drive for an overhaul of the health care system, far from representing a reform designed to provide universal coverage and increased access to quality care, marks an unprecedented attack on health care for the working population. It is an effort to roll back social gains associated with the enactment of Medicare in 1965.”

The Republicans’ attack on Medicaid, embodied in both the AHCA and the Better Care bill, marks a further step in this direction.

The Democrats’ fraudulent opposition to Trumpcare

By Kate Randall
21 June 2017

Senate Republicans are working feverishly to pass their version of a bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), having set themselves an arbitrary deadline of securing its passage before the July 4 congressional recess. Early last month, House Republicans passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA), celebrating in the White House Rose Garden with President Trump, who said of the bill, “It’s a great plan, and I believe it’s going to get better.”

A group of 13 Republicans senators is working behind closed doors on the Senate version of the legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to push the legislation—which concerns one-sixth of the US economy, and which will affect the health and lives of tens of millions of Americans—with no committee hearings, no public mark-up (drafting and editing) of the bill, and only limited debate.

It is no secret that the clandestine nature of the Senate “working group’s” negotiations is due to the AHCA’s wide unpopularity, with a recent poll showing that only 20 percent of Americans approve of it while 57 percent disapprove. The broad opposition is due to its draconian features, particularly the gutting of Medicaid, the social insurance program for the poor jointly funded by the federal government and the states. The AHCA would effectively end Medicaid as a guaranteed benefit based on need by placing a per-capita cap on overall spending.

The AHCA would slash $824 billion from Medicaid and would end the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid to low-income adults, causing 14 million newly insured people to lose their benefits over a decade. All told, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 23 million people would become uninsured in 10 years under the AHCA. At the same time, the bill would slash taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals, while boosting the already multibillion-dollar profits of the health care industry.

McConnell has an additional reason for secrecy, since any divisions within the Republican caucus threaten passage of the bill, and concessions made to far-right senators like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul could provoke opposition from a group of “moderates” from states with large Medicaid populations, and vice versa.

Under the “reconciliation” process chosen for the health care legislation, the Republican leadership can push through the bill despite holding only a narrow 52-48 majority, providing they lose no more than two Republicans, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote.

Senate Democrats profess outrage over the closed-door nature of the Republicans’ deliberations. They staged a talk-a-thon on the Senate floor Monday night, stalling chamber proceedings through a series of parliamentary maneuvers. A few senators live-streamed their “search” for the elusive legislation, driving around the capital. All of these stunts amount to so much hot air. The Democrats are incapable of mounting a true opposition to the Republicans’ vicious assault on the health care of ordinary Americans because they share their class objectives.

Numerous media commentaries have pointed to the Democrats’ “powerless” position to oppose the Republicans’ plan, due to the Republicans’ 52-48 Senate majority. This is only valid in terms of parliamentary arithmetic: the vast majority of the American people oppose the House bill and will oppose the Senate bill once they learn its provisions. But the Democratic Party is unwilling and unable to mobilize this popular opposition.

Every Senate Democrat, including so-called independent and self-professed “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, portrays Obamacare as a progressive social reform, or at least a “step in the right direction,” concealing the reactionary and anti-working-class character of the Affordable Care Act.

Obamacare was aimed from the start at cutting costs for the government and corporations while rationing health care for the vast majority. In that sense, the Republicans have invented nothing new. Whatever version of “Trumpcare” eventually passes the Senate will only take the tendencies already present in Obamacare and make them worse: imposing more and more of the cost of health care on individual workers and their families.

The logic of this process, under both Democrats and Republicans, is the development of an openly two-class health care system: the best health care money can buy for the super-rich and a privileged upper-middle-class layer; and for the vast majority of the population, a cut-rate system, starved for funds and personnel, offering inadequate and overpriced care, if any at all.

In response to Trump and the Republicans’ howls that the ACA is “failing” and “imploding”—through rising premiums and deductibles and dwindling networks of insurers—the Democrats beg for a seat at the table to “fix” Obamacare. This is a euphemism for making further concessions to the demands of the insurance companies and other corporate interests by further restricting subsidies for low-income purchasers of insurance plans, cutting business taxes and implementing other regressive measures.

Any health care overhaul hatched in Washington will be based on the for-profit health care system, enriching the insurance companies, drug companies, hospital chains and medical device companies and the CEOs that run them.

Looking beyond the Democrats’ bluster, working people need to actually take stock of what is at stake in the Republicans’ plan. The most fundamental attack is the gutting of Medicaid, one of the last social reforms wrested from the ruling elite through working-class struggle. While limited in nature, Medicaid guaranteed the right to health insurance and medical services for the poor and for children and disabled people, and provided funding for nursing care for the elderly based on need. Medicaid emerged as part of the “Great Society” and “War on Poverty” under the Johnson administration, alongside landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Food Stamp Act, both in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The assault on health care exemplified by the Republicans’ reactionary legislation is of a piece with the ruling elite’s attack on all the social rights of the working class—the right to a job, education, decent housing, a secure retirement, access to the arts and culture, and a healthy and safe environment.

Congressional Democrats have chosen to oppose the Trump administration not over the destruction of social conditions, but over Trump’s alleged “softness” toward Russia. They are working in alliance with the dominant factions of the intelligence apparatus to whip up a war fever against Russia in an attempt to condition the public for an escalation of the wars in the Middle East as well as a military confrontation with Iran and nuclear-armed Russia. Incapable of opposing the most reactionary presidency in US history on anything resembling a progressive or democratic basis, they have positioned themselves to the right of Trump on issues of imperialist foreign policy.

Whatever form it takes, the health care legislation that the Republicans are able to pass through Congress and place on the president’s desk to sign will be one of the most reactionary pieces of legislation in modern history. The ruling elite sees the attack on Medicaid as the first shot in their war on Medicare and Social Security and wants to see all of these social programs privatized or ended outright. In the final analysis, both big-business parties agree that health care must be limited to what is compatible with the profit interests of corporate America.

The working class must fight for its own class interests. The crisis in health care requires a socialist solution, which takes as its point of departure the needs of working people and society as a whole, not the wealth and profits of a tiny minority.

The establishment of a system of universal, free health care for all requires placing the entire health care system—the private insurers, pharmaceuticals, giant health care chains—under public ownership, managed democratically to serve human needs, not profit. Such a fight requires the mobilization of the working class as a revolutionary force, independent of and opposed to both the Democratic and Republican parties.


Senate Republican health plan could make deeper cuts to Medicaid than House version

By Kate Randall
20 June 2017

As the Senate Republican “working group” continues to craft its plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA) behind closed doors, press reports suggest that in some respects the Senate bill will go even further than the House version in attacking working people and cutting health care for low income families.

Both the Senate bill and the American Health Care Act (ACHA) passed by the House would gut Medicaid, the health insurance program jointly administered by the federal government and the states. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that the AHCA would cause 23 million people to lose health insurance by 2026, mainly because the House bill would effectively end the ACA’s Medicaid expansion for low-income adults.

The AHCA would cut $800 billion from Medicaid over 10 years, by both ending the expansion of the program and placing a per capita cap on Medicaid spending overall. This would mark the end of the program as a guaranteed social benefit based on need, forcing states to cut back benefits and throw people off the rolls.

The Hill, citing lobbyists and Senate aides, now reports that an option being considered by the 13-member Senate working group would make even deeper cuts to Medicaid by changing the way growth in per-patient spending is calculated. While the proposal would start with the growth rate for the cap on Medicaid spending at the same levels as the House bill, beginning in 2025 it would drop it to a lower growth rate, the Hill’s sources say.

The AHCA would cap Medicaid’s per-patient spending and adjust it upward each year based on the CPI-M, the consumer price index for urban consumer medical care. It would add an extra percentage point each year for spending for the elderly and disabled. The Senate plan would use the same system initially, but beginning in 2025 it would adjust per-enrollee spending using the standard CPI-U, or prices paid by urban consumers for a representative basket of goods and services.

The change is not simply one of bookkeeping. Due to the rising cost of medical care relative to other consumer goods, the change would cripple Medicaid even further by decreasing the already restrictive spending cap and growth rate. To put this into perspective, since 2000, the CPI-M has grown about 41 percentage points more than the CPI-U.

According to the Hill, the “plan has been described as a ‘consensus option’” and has already been sent to the Congressional Budget Office for analysis. The Office of the Chief Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently estimated that the change in the consumer price index used would slash an estimated $64 billion from Medicaid funding over a decade.

While Senate Republicans are in the final stages of drafting the bill, without any public hearings or even a pretense of consultation, Senate Democrats are engaged in a political stunt that will do nothing to stop passage of the reactionary legislation.

The Democrats planned to disrupt Senate business by holding the floor all Monday night to protest the Republicans’ secretive proceduring, using parliamentary tactics to disrupt the ordinary business of the chamber.

While making speeches on the virtues of Obamacare—the Democratic program to cut health care costs for corporations and the government—the Democrats are making only a token gesture against the even more reactionary pro-business replacement plan being drafted by the Republicans.

The Democrats can offer no way forward for the millions of Americans who are currently struggling to obtain health care and pay their bills under Obamacare, and will fare even worse under the Republican replacement. That is because the Democrats share the same class objectives as the Republicans, to boost the profits of insurance companies, drug companies, hospital chains and medical device companies.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set a goal of pushing the legislation through before the July 4 recess, using the process known as “reconciliation,” which allows the bill to pass with a simple majority and exempts it from any filibuster. The main obstacle to passage is not any protest by the Democrats, which is only for public consumption, but differences within the Republican caucus in the Senate and between House and Senate Republicans.

Meanwhile, a new study also shows the potential ill effects of the House bill, the AHCA, on the US economy. The study by the Commonwealth Fund and George Washington University shows that while the economy would see a short-term boost from the repeal of the ACA’s taxes on the wealthy and corporations, in the long run the decrease in federal spending on health care would lead to the loss of almost 1 million jobs over a decade.

Credit: Business Insider • Source: The Commonwealth Fund

The study writes of the AHCA: “It initially raises the federal deficit when taxes are repealed, leading to 864,000 more jobs in 2018. In later years, reductions in support for health insurance cause negative economic effects. By 2026, 924,000 jobs would be lost, gross state products would be $93 billion lower, and business output would be $148 billion less. About three-quarters of jobs lost (725,000) would be in the health care sector.”

The number of people working in the health care sector has risen in recent years due to the greater access to health care by people newly insured under Obamacare or through the expansion of Medicaid, as well as the aging of the population. The study notes that under the AHCA, cuts to Medicaid and federal subsidies for people to access health insurance would lead to fewer people using medical care and fewer jobs in the health care sector.

In other words, the estimated 1 million job losses would be a direct result of people being denied access to needed medical care, and those who are insured would have less money to put back into the economy in the form of consumer spending. The job losses would vary by state, according to the study, with many losing tens of thousands of jobs (see map).


The Senate Trumpcare Bill Is as Devastating for People with Pre-Existing Conditions as the House Version

Republicans want to deny life-saving coverage and call it “flexibility.”

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

The Senate version of Trumpcare was supposed to fix the problems in the House bill for people with pre-existing conditions by dropping a provision that allows states to waive enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s community ratings provision that bars insurers from charging sick people more for insurance. Remember, the House insisted they were maintaining protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and were just giving states the “flexibility” to decide whether they’d enforce it or not. Now the Senate is compounding the lie that people with pre-existing conditions will be covered by saying they’ll drop that provision, when in actuality they’re putting in another provision that’ll still screw sick people.

What the Senate bill will reportedly do is to allow states to waive the ACA’s essential health benefits (EHB) requirements, and that will still “eviscerate coverage protections” for people with pre-existing conditions, analysis from the Center for American Progress finds. That’s because insurers could offer plans that don’t give the benefits those sick people need, and shut them out of coverage.

As a result, people with pre-existing conditions in waiver states would face significantly higher costs and find it much harder to find insurance plans that actually covered treatment for even relatively common conditions such as mental health problems or diabetes. The Center for American Progress estimates that in the individual market, 5.3 million enrollees with pre-existing conditions would live in states that waive EHBs and thus see their protections eroded.

In addition, the problem would be particularly acute for older Americans, who would face much higher premiums under the AHCA, as well as for millions of low-income Medicaid enrollees, who would lose comprehensive coverage due to the AHCA’s $834 billion in cuts to that program. […]

Thus, insurers would likely engage in a race to the bottom to avoid attracting the sickest enrollees. This would also affect healthy people, who would see fewer plan options offering comprehensive benefits than prior to the ACA.

Add in the Medicaid cuts and the repeal of the age-rating limits, meaning insurance companies could charge older people significantly more than younger people—5 times more—and you’re looking at a bill that’s as bad for people in the 50-64 age group as the House bill was. And it’s a lot of people. “There are an estimated 5.1 million enrollees ages 55 to 64 covered through the individual market, both on the ACA marketplace and outside it, and estimates show that 84 percent of enrollees in this age group have at least one pre-existing condition that would have resulted in them being denied coverage or being charged more prior to the ACA.” CAP estimates that 2.2 million people over 55 would live in the states that chose to waive these requirements, meaning 2.2 million people just in that age bracket who would like be uninsured or completely impoverished trying to maintain insurance.

Senate Republicans are going to try to sell this bill as a kinder, gentler Trumpcare. Don’t let them. If you have a Republican senator call them through the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and let them know you won’t be fooled.






Four years later, “Breaking Bad” remains the boldest indictment of modern American capitalism in TV history

The show’s visual style is the greatest-ever rebuke to the gory hold neoliberalism has over our minds and bodies

Spoiler alert: This essay reveals major plot points in “Breaking Bad.” If you still haven’t watched the show, maybe you should go do it right now. 

Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul — not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
— Walt Whitman

It’s not plot, it’s the visual style that matters.

Much of the critical attention paid to “Breaking Bad” — to my mind, not only the greatest television show but arguably the most sustained accomplishment in the history of the cinematic medium — remains centered on the shallower dimensions of character and plot. Now that enough time has passed since the end of the series, we should be able to have greater appreciation for the show’s artistic accomplishments, which elevate it beyond any competition for the best of the best.

“Breaking Bad” is not just the chronicle of an individual’s breakdown, but a global map of modern Western civilization: from its roots in a Lockean/Newtonian liberalism founded in empiricism and hands-on innovation all the way to its contemporary denouement in an abstract capitalism of runaway corporations unresponsive to human ideals. The series unflaggingly maintains the highest cinematographic standards — at the level of a Buñuel, Godard or Antonioni — for not just a couple of hours but for more than 60 hours. In doing so, it translates the abstract chronicle of the rise and fall of empire, and of the various classes of people who are part of it, into visual material that will outlast its moment.

Admittedly, “Breaking Bad” does not exploit alienation effects — the full range of high modernist techniques — to the extent that Vince Gilligan’s crew (particularly director of photography Michael Slovis and production designer Mark Freeborn) were undoubtedly capable of. Though there are occasional glimpses into how much farther the creators could have gone, usually they choose a light hand. This makes the techniques they did use all the more effective, absorbing the default Hollywood narrative style with more conviction.

The primary means by which “Breaking Bad” distinguishes itself is repetition: It is the method that pressures the visual aura to become uncontainable, lending space and time extra-worldly dimensions. Repetition in “Breaking Bad” is not just a stylistic tic, a shortcut to conventional foreshadowing or retrospection, but the marker of a philosophical continuum among all the different lifestyles possible under capitalism.

Each season concerns itself with a dominant mode of capitalism; the motifs, colors, sounds and the whole organization of the visual field emphasize the qualities of that particular mode. There is a season-by-season progression from bourgeois professionalism and petty entrepreneurship to medium-scale enterprise to multinational enterprise and monopoly capitalism, all the way to the final brutal form of empire ending in self-destruction.

Along with progression in the modes of economic organization, there is progression in the psychology of the individuals carried along by the unstoppable waves. It entirely misses the point to analyze Walt (Bryan Cranston) or Jesse (Aaron Paul) or Skyler (Anna Gunn) in terms of good or evil, or conformity to the norms of society that realist art traffics in. The only way to understand these characters is as functionaries within the evolving modes of capitalism. Again, it is repetition — foreshortening or expanding as necessary — that keeps us always in two minds about the unfolding reality. Good and evil have little to do with it.

No other American visual production has been this smart about defamiliarizing ordinary locales in which we conduct our daily business. The White home at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane leads in this defamiliarization by uncanny repetition, but every other location functions similarly: the Schrader home at the end of a cul-de-sac at a higher elevation; the various labs (from Walt’s high-school chemistry lab to the early makeshift one in the RV to Gus Fring’s elaborate setup underneath the industrial laundry to the one in the Nazi compound); the DEA office; the hospitals and clinics, the desert (where various sub-rosa activities take place, from mass killings by foreign intruders to the manufacture of meth and the burial of money to Western-style shootouts and train heists); and even the hardware store, the site not only for home improvement but for procurement of the materials of drug production and corpse disposal.

Every place of activity — from a car to an office to a physician’s consulting room to a fast-food restaurant — appears and reappears in shifting guises, never having the same look, redefined each time by lighting and color and sound, to give us no single privileged site from which to exert our own morality over the narrative. The meaning of each location is caught up in its vanishing moment of existential reality; therefore, the only place of safe observation is the formal aesthetic, that is to say, to put ourselves in the shoes of the creators. Capitalism’s physical realities are offered in so much plenitude that our only choice is to extract ourselves from its seductions and retreat to a formalist posture.

Let me look at a couple of episodes to put some bones on my argument about “Breaking Bad’s” devastating critique of neoliberal capitalism functioning through highly stylized cinematographic techniques.

Season 2, Episode 10: “Over” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Phil Abraham)

Sometimes the episode teasers are flash-forwards, consistent through a season, with variations providing partial information. In season 2, it is the falling of the plane over Albuquerque, with parts and bodies landing on the White residence. This particular cold open is in black and white, like the other times the flash-forward occurs this season, in episodes 1, 4 and 13.

White is the dominant color in this episode. We are used to seeing Walt and Jesse dress in yellow hazmat suits with masks on when they cook meth, but here NTSB workers are salvaging evidence from the swimming pool in white hazmat suits. In a later season Skyler will feign drowning herself in the pool, and later in this episode Walt Jr. will throw up in the pool when Walt makes him drink too much. The show is teaching us to see this quintessential suburban space as a locus of dramatic intensification (at the end of season 4, after killing Fring, Walt will sit alone by the pool, contemplating his total victory).

The plastic packages and boxes of evidence will recur in a different form at the beginning of season 5, when Walt engineers a plot to destroy the evidence captured from Gus Fring at Albuquerque police headquarters. The fuchsia hair of the drowned teddy bear is the only color that stands out in the black-and-white tableau, with the one eye popping out ominously. In characteristic fashion, the pink teddy bear appears at different times throughout the series (and also has echoes in the colors of the masks Walt and Jesse wear), as does the missing eye of the teddy bear Walt finds and saves.

Each season of “Breaking Bad” breaks toward an apocalyptic ending (from Tuco and Fring’s deaths to the finale with Uncle Jack’s gang of Nazis), but in the second season, one of attempted domesticity — for Walt and Skyler (after Walt’s cancer goes into remission), for Jesse and Jane (as they try to conquer their own addictions) and for Hank and Marie (as she works through her neuroses) — the confrontation is not with some malevolent external force but Walt’s own growing comfort with violence. This particularly means seeing Jane die, which leads in a convoluted manner to the plane exploding above his neighborhood. In a literal visualization of the chaos effect, Walt invites the world to crash over his head when he makes the choice to let Jane die in Jesse’s bed.

As the rescue workers collect the evidence from the pool, at first it looks — because of distortion and superimposition — as if they were walking upside-down underwater. We quickly realize that we’re seeing their reflections in the pool. The exterior of the White home always appears different. Its relationship to neighboring houses and the street is perpetually redefined: The texture and color and lighting reinterpret the house each time, based on the relationships within the White family or Walt’s state of mind. As we zoom out over the driveway, we see that glass has been shattered; it turns out to be the windshield of Walt’s Aztek. Two body bags are duly marked and laid out next to the car. Since we don’t yet know about the airplane crash, we wonder if these might be Walt and Jesse’s bodies — or any other pair of bodies from the show. Whether or not Walt and Jesse end up precisely like this, we sense that they are already marked men.

The teaser has set the opposition against the “live” action to unfold before us, inviting us to step into the philosophical abyss of death. The rescue workers are performing the same authorized rituals on behalf of industrialized death — the dominant characteristic of capitalism — that Walt, in his own hazmat suit, performs at great risk. The White residence is most white (capitalism = whiteness) in the moment when bodies are being salvaged. “Breaking Bad” feels most alive when capitalism is being acted out violently, rather than the veneer of domesticity of the middle seasons, suggesting that it is in capitalist domesticity that we are least energized. Walt is strongest against cancer at his most ruthless. Hence the constant urge, when Walt has a chance to rest, to keep running to the hardware store to fix the water heater or to take care of the “rot” underneath the floors.

Much of today’s great art seems to be in conversation with Daniel Defoe’s individualist/empiricist philosophy in “Robinson Crusoe.” “Breaking Bad” constantly discovers ways to overturn the narrative incongruity of an individual’s development aside from society, something Defoe made literal by setting his novel on a remote island. “Breaking Bad” represents the stage where the human mind has been completely absorbed by capitalism’s logic, and forays into romanticism cannot but be absurd appendages to the overwhelming movement of capitalist destruction.

“Breaking Bad’s” frequent fish-eye views — humans witnessed through the bottom of objects used in industrial or domestic processes — abrogate the primacy of the human gaze. Skyler becomes distant toward Walt because of his penchant for secrecy, yet makes silly advances toward Ted Beneke, who represents an earlier phase of American capitalism, the manufacturing base of a hundred years ago.

The first shot after the prologue is a closeup of Walt’s weatherbeaten hand; the possibility of working with one’s hands is often a focus of “Breaking Bad.” On Walt’s first day of rest, the bedroom is illuminated by morning sunlight (how different from when the Salamanca twins wait for Walt to emerge from the shower to kill him!), but there is no real option to rest, as we see in the next scene, when Walt meets Jesse at a nondescript restaurant to tell him the good news about his remission.

Walt’s uncertainty is suggested by the wandering camera, the bland blue walls (hazy compared to the assertive blue that will emerge in the final season) and the lack of an identity for the restaurant, or even faux-friendliness, unlike Pollos Hermanos. The only bright color is the red chairs. The camera rotates during the entire scene, taking the men in from multiple directions, never settling for long on one angle. The scene begins and ends with a view of Jesse and Walt occupying the right half of the screen, while the left half is taken up by a plant standing in a dark closet. That there can be no stable point in communication is conveyed by the horizontal lines that always seem to be angling up or down.

The next scene continues this inner quandary. At the party thrown to celebrate the good news about Walt’s health, unlike the party in the pilot episode when Walt was physically embosomed (flabby but wanted) by friends and family, Walt stands very much apart, and reluctantly offers a short, nihilistic speech. This apartness continues at the pool, where he sits away from the crowd, in a corner with Hank and Walt. Jr., and encourages Walt Jr. to drink shot after shot of tequila. We notice more bushes and branches behind where they are sitting than at other times, and what appear to be mythological symbols on the walls.

Meanwhile, at Jesse’s apartment, his attempted domesticity with Jane is the mirror image of Walt’s own handyman efforts. The red plates and red ketchup stand out against a background of white furnishings. Later, as Jesse seeks emotional certitude with Jane, the floor, cabinets and blinds are bathed in white. When Jane’s dad visits unexpectedly and breaks into their domestic bliss, the shot of the back of the duplex highlights the division — Jesse’s side and Jane’s side — despite the nostalgic bath of Southwestern adobe colors. At the front door the hanging plants frame the visitor in deceptive calm. When Jesse leaves, disappointed by Jane’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship, his red car stands out as he hurries past the red stop sign. When he returns home, anxious, his apartment is dominated by red and rust chairs and furnishings. Jane makes her apology by drawing “Apology Girl,” in black and white, of course.

The show persistently brings up nostalgia for the era when masculinity had its place in the culture, only to nullify it. Beneke’s attempt to keep the family manufacturing business alive evokes this, though unlike Walt and his urge to provide for his family (an ideal the show deconstructs when, for example, Fring coaxes Walt out of retirement by arguing, in the later “Green Light” episode, “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family”), Beneke can only resort to accounting tricks.

As with every location — Walt and Jesse’s homes, the DEA office, Saul Goodman’s office, Los Pollos Hermanos, the industrial laundry, the car wash — each variant shot of the Beneke headquarters suggests new interpretations. We see it in the surrounding industrial milieu, not particularly bleak but removed from the life of the city, despite the up-to-date office interior; this mode of capitalism is obsolete. The lunchroom calls up similar nostalgia, as Skyler and Ted pursue an old-fashioned office flirtation. The episodes involving domesticity and nostalgia tend to have little extra-diegetic sound. The quietness of industrial-age America contrasts with the loudness at the end of the episode when Walt warns a pair of low-life competitors (downscale versions of himself and Jesse?) to “stay out of my territory” — to the aggressive tune of DLZ’s “TV on the Road.”

Walt putters around in the heater room (a “lab” for the handyman?) with rusty liquid on the floor foreshadowing Victor’s blood in the superlab when Fring kills him, or the floor of the same lab when Walt kills Fring’s employees after doing away with him. On Walt’s first visit to the building supply store, rows of white heaters (the same shape as barrels, of course) are on display. The camera expertly brings objects to our attention rather than the people around them. The distancing toward the hardware store is at one with the interrogation of nostalgia toward golden-age suburbia, which sways even Jesse for a while. The re-envisioning of ordinary American venues seems to me “Breaking Bad’s” greatest stylistic accomplishment, which the show does without venturing into extreme experimentation. For example, the shot of the White residence framed by the discarded heater at the curb in front subtly devalues suburban quietude.

On his next visit to the building supply store, when Walt leaves we see his car framed in a wide shot, the texture of the scene corresponding to the wide view of the Beneke headquarters earlier, and also the texture when Jesse leaves the duplex. Walt converts his basement into a lab of sorts, once he discovers “rot” while fixing the heater; fixing one mechanical problem only leads to discovering another, in an endless chain. When we see Walt Jr. staring at the hole underground while Walt lies prone on his back, it foreshadows the later “Crawl Space” episode, which is the last chance Walt will have to make a clean getaway — except he can’t because Skyler has blown the $600,000 to bail out Ted from the IRS. It also foreshadows the final shot of the concluding episode when we are shown Walt’s prone body from high above, after he has (lovingly) caressed the Nazis’ lab equipment.

Walt Jr.’s look at his father resembles the way we view someone we have just buried, though there is no room in capitalism to allow for such prolonged glances of curiosity. Capitalism promises to eradicate all the cancers, keeping people busy doing that and nothing else. Hence, Walt tells his son, “[I have to] just cut it [fruiting bodies, fungus] out and start fresh,” which makes Walt Jr. wonder, “Is the whole house going to collapse?”

The buzz of Walt’s saw transitions seamlessly into that of the vacuum cleaner at Beneke’s, where a different kind of rot (Ted’s IRS shenanigans) is what Skyler will try to cut out to give the company a fresh start. When Skyler lets Ted clasp his hand over hers, it is over white account ledgers (which can’t be balanced in the old economy), even as Ted counsels her about her marital situation, saying, “Being that rock takes everything you’ve got.” Here, as so often, the dialogue is an ironic counterpoint to the visual field, a continuous verbal montage interrogating our ways of understanding reality.

The connections with the cold open now become more explicit. Walt is dressed in the same white hazmat suit as the rescue workers once he gets serious about taking out the rot. The mise-en-scène of the breakfast table is visualized umpteen different ways, this time with prominent white mugs and salt shakers, as Walt tells Skyler he can’t go to work because “Skyler, there’s rot!” Walt is in remission, after having almost lost his life, yet Skyler can’t wait for him to get to work: Breakfast is a ritual denial before we start each day.

We overhear news about the housing market collapse, then cut to the Beneke building’s external surroundings, presented more bleakly now. Earlier, when we saw Skyler with Ted shortly after Walt’s restaurant rendezvous with Jesse, the railing leading to Skyler’s office seemed unstable, the lines echoing those of the restaurant. Now, as Skyler is more certain, the horizontal lines of the railing appear steady and a single stem with white flowers again dominates Skyler’s office. Walt, on the other side of town, is busy underground, accompanied by red rags (and plenty of rusted horizontal pipes).

Walt’s next visit to the hardware store is dominated by bunches of white containers of “KILZ,” which is labeled “white pigmented, odorless.” The textual signifiers throughout the series seethe in the visible trappings of a culture (perhaps the only one in the world) that gives everything away at every moment. The public address system queries: “Why can’t the grass always be greener on your side?” The shopping carts are red, the sale signs are in red, and there are red containers and red caps over bottles of chemicals. When Walt encounters the ruffian trying to get meth supplies, at first he is solicitous. He might have continued helping him out, but his cowardliness incites Walt’s manliness. Framed by the red, white and blue flag over the checkout counter, he decides on his course of action. At night the hardware store’s parking lot has turned ominous, as Walt issues his aforementioned warning to his competitors. No house can exist without an extended “territory” going along with it; the myth of privacy is foundationless, and there is no choice but to exert power (of some kind) within a given territory.

Season 5, Episode 8: “Gliding Over All” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Michelle MacLaren)

In the teaser, the fly — which we remember from the earlier eponymous episode, where Walt was driven to a frenzy in the superlab from fear of contamination — now appears because of the proximity of Mike’s corpse in the car trunk. Bodies are substitutable and keep finding themselves in similar predicaments: In season 2, Walt and Jesse were locked in the trunk of Tuco Salamanca’s car, on their way to Mexico. Now Walt has just killed Mike Ehrmantraut, and awaits Todd’s return after the disposal of Mike’s car in the usual manner: Cars are flattened into pancakes, computers are rendered useless with magnet attacks and bodies are always being dissolved in barrels of acid. As Todd views Walt from behind, a large white safe is illuminated. The Vamonos Pest Control office recalls others (such as Chow’s, or Fring’s in the back of Pollos Hermanos) where capitalism’s dirty work bubbles up: No safe can store the Faustian knowledge Walter White possesses.

We are not given much time to focus on the fly, or the disposal of Mike’s body, because season 5 is the culmination of the speed, mercuriality and inhumanity of multinational globalization, the visual style capturing it all. There is a fleeting glimpse of the chart Walt had been studying when Todd arrives; it is one describing various species of flies. A fly is not just a fly, it belongs to a classification system, which is the job of science to elaborate. The full meaning of the fly episode, this recurrence suggests, is not meant to be understood. The fly is not necessarily a symbol for anything; our very existence in capitalism, our very pursuit of “scientific” knowledge, is the problem. “Breaking Bad” wants to take us beyond death to existence as the unsolvable worry. Mike’s corpse is disposed in a white plastic barrel, as we’re reminded that not long ago he was the enforcer; thus, all the enforcers in capitalism with inflated ideas about their own importance are going to be dissolved, including at last the very system of enforcement.

The first episode of season 5 establishes the textural overtones from which it never varies. Locations like Madrigal’s headquarters in Germany, or the café Lydia likes to frequent to make her deals, are the epitome of post-postmodern insensateness, dominated by a cool blue and background noise associated with gentrification. With season 5 we enter the notion that there is no normal in neoliberalism, so Todd (the old-style Nazi) fits in well with the modus operandi of abstract multinational corporations.

Walt’s house will soon be the scene of attempted destruction (like the Schrader home), and when the overhead shot offers a view of his bald head and body as he takes a shower, we are invited to think of the “showers” at Nazi concentration camps. We notice that Walt has left Gale Boetticher’s inscribed copy of “Leaves of Grass” in the bathroom, but it would be a mistake to think of Walt’s hubris causing Hank to discover his identity by way of Whitman; the visual style should have persuaded us by now that no possibility of assigning guilt or credit exists.

When Walt meets Lydia at the café for the first time, the contrast with Pollos Hermanos’ bright ambience (the Southwestern fast-food décor amid which the old-fashioned meth empire flourishes) couldn’t be starker. These are the venues where neoliberal destruction, on a planetary scale defying imagination, is silently plotted. The café is dominated by vertical lines and columns, and its particular shade of blue is a continuation from the season-opening “Madrigal” episode. Lydia’s enticement of Walt has more meaning in the pacified setting. After Lydia brags about moving millions of metric tons, the view expands and we see the complete figures of the patrons, after having glimpsed mostly partial images of them: Our entire bodies are dedicated to the abstract movement of finance, that’s the whole picture.

The café architecture has emptied modernism of its electric charge; it is the sort of open structure that goes back to Milan’s Galleria but has no humanist quality. The vertical lines appear more prominent as Walt makes up his mind. When he’s thinking of delivering the ricin to Lydia, we hear soft piano music, but it grows louder as Lydia writes down the names of the nine doomed men in prison, and the two shake hands over their deal. In one of this episode’s numerous allusions to earlier events (to make the point that neoliberalism is the summation of all the forms of capitalism that have gone before), Lydia echoes Tuco’s exact words when she says, “We’re going to make a lot of money together,” just as Walt echoes Mike’s words when he says, “Learn to take yes for an answer.” The scene ends with an ever-widening shot, and we get the largest view yet of the entire restaurant, including the counter at the other end.

Walt meets the Nazis to plot the prison murders in chilly darkness in a motel room. He concentrates on the mass-produced painting on the wall (as with the music at Lydia’s café, both respectable and sordid locations share the deadness of “art”). “Breaking Bad” insists that the emotional highs in our civilization occur when we engage in various competitive, violent or selfish games; it is not art but violence (think of the excitement of the train heist) that turns us childlike, even if it means murdering actual children. Walt, like everyone else on the show, is most robust, for example, in the climactic episodes of each season, when capitalism’s murderous game is most intense.

This emotional intensity comes across in Walt’s concentration on the picture, while the Nazis sprawled next to him are reflected in the mirror next to the picture. So we have a sideways view of Walt, and the picture he’s staring at, next to the reflection of the Nazis. The underwhelming color is camouflage green, as Walt wonders aloud how the pictures get distributed. The camera’s gaze bestows bleak heroism upon the murderer who notes things that are not so much distractions as iterations of the industrialized processes that reduce us to ciphers.

There is a time-lapse shot of the Motel Hacienda, followed by the calm of the Albuquerque prison’s barbed wire. As Walt expects news of the murders within the designated two-minute window, his house is shown in the richest brown hues we’ve seen so far. The objects are sharply defined in deep focus, and we notice (Oriental) screens; we’ve never seen his home look so classy, so old-world, with richly textured bookcases. Walt’s expensive watch — with the same blue face as Lydia’s blouses, and with red hands and white hours — ticks away during the prison murders montage. The montage, like the meth cooking or distribution montages, is accompanied by Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up,” suggesting the light energy when we, in our own ways, commit everyday murderous deeds. Afterwards, like Walt’s home, Hank’s home has also never looked so classic and sturdy — with rich wood and marble, sturdy bookshelves and cabinets; this only heightens the total loss of purpose Hank is feeling at the moment.

Later in the episode, when Walt visits Jesse to finally give him his share of the profits, we see Jesse’s house as bereft of the solidity of Walt and Hank’s house (though his spirit is stronger). The focus in Jesse’s living room is the futon. Jesse has never wavered from his small-business mentality (in the end he even has to undergo a period of slavery); he doesn’t have others’ ambitions. (Walt: “I’m in the empire business.”) In Jesse’s house, devoid of furnishings, the two are able to let loose and reminisce about their improvisatory history with the unreliable 1980s Fleetwood Bounder RV that served as their mobile lab early on. We are invited to consider that Walt’s exit from the drug trade might have provoked a downward health spiral, rather than the other way around; the question is never explicitly answered, because one of the metaphysical dilemmas of capitalism is that we never know such answers.

Walt depositing the bag of money at Jesse’s home is to metaphorically recall him to death. We watch the Walt-Jesse interaction in Jesse’s living room from high above (the death POV, if you will), whereas when Walt interacts with Lydia, for example, we see them at eye level, in conventional medium shots. Walt and Jesse’s relationship, with the father figure attempting to raise his student’s ambitions, is different. As always on “Breaking Bad,” there is continuity between all the realms of life, without any of the artificial separations protecting the lie that capitalism is not ruining us at every moment.

When Walt lifts his head after bending down to take a drink in Hank’s living room, the jump cut reveals him merrily being the meth producer again. The montage that follows, with the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion” at last making its appearance, is a highly sped-up integration of production, distribution and finance in global business, every act occurring almost simultaneously. The montages in “Breaking Bad” are excellent instances of making the passage of time a conundrum, fatally altering space and vice versa; this is the quality of film that distinguishes it from other art forms.

In this particular montage, the desert is at a remote distance, miniaturized as though its threats were suddenly manageable — or so global capitalism would like us to think. While Saul has a leisurely drink, we realize that at last everything in this global network Walt has plugged into is efficient. Walt on his own is shown from above, while the money being stacked by him and Todd is usually seen from a low angle. Skyler’s blue blouse and red cup, along with a view of her legs, transition to a view of Lydia, also wearing a blue blouse (the same cornflower blue top in which she will take the ricin in the final episode) and drinking from a red cup. The cut from Skyler to Lydia in the montage makes us ask: Who is Walt’s crucial relationship with, Skyler or Lydia? The car-wash office has been transformed into a moneymaking operation that exceeds its actual potential, the aspiration of every business. An aerial view of suburban sprawl shows us house after house on each block draped with the Vamonos tent, cover for meth-making; this shot continues until we reach the very edge of the desert.

Exiting the montage, Holly is shown taking her first steps on Hank’s lush blue rug, suggesting that she will grow up implicated in the same web. When Louis calls Walt Jr., we’re back to nostalgia for the heyday of the American middle class, with leisure opportunities for each family member. Marie and Skyler engage in the same layers of family deception, offered as confession, that Hank and Walt engaged in earlier in the same setting; again, it’s repetition that keeps collapsing the artificial boundaries of respectability. Marie, as is her wont, engages in therapy talk, telling Skyler that she worries they’re “enabling” her, and that it’s time to “repair the family.”

My worry with “Breaking Bad” was always whether it would succumb to the valorization of the family — a staple of reactionary American filmmaking for at least 50 years — but this never happens, because family is fatally caught up in the financial dynamics that ruin every sphere of life. To the extent that “Breaking Bad” is a relentless attack on capitalism, it mounts the same kind of attack on the psychological structures that support the modern nuclear family, the base of capitalism.

To show Walt that their family has been preserved for good, Skyler takes him to the storage unit with all their money. The bright blue hues in the storage facility are more metallic, more disturbing, but it’s the same blue of Madrigal and of gentrified postmodern capitalism. Walt’s $80 million is covered with bed sheets; the money is literalized as the bed one lies in, a form of eroticism, when Skyler asks, “How much is enough?” The next scene after the preposterous stack of money (on which Huell and Kuby will soon lie, as though on a bed) is Walt lying on the MRI bed. Again, Walt is seen from above, an intimation of God or death seeing us, and true also of the folklore of so-called near-death experiences. Here is modern medicine (a subset of capitalism) observing Walt’s prone body, as in the crawl space when his sole offspring watches him.

The escalating physical crisis for Walt is reinforced by a typical time-lapse montage of Albuquerque, as we go to the final scene, where Hank at last discovers Walt’s true identity. The yard is dominated by earth tones, as Holly is being pushed around in a blue and red cart by Walt Jr. This is Walt and Skyler’s last attempt to return to earth; in this scene there are more rocks strewn around the yard than we’ve ever noticed before. The pool — which looked enormous when Skyler was feigning to drown in it or when Hank and Walt fought over Walt Jr. — looks tiny now, the smallest it has appeared; the corresponding psychological attempt is to get past the issues that remain submerged, to miniaturize them.

Likewise, the family chatter over the everyday uses of science is of a different quality (the sound is very muted) than in the past. As Hank enters the master bathroom, where he will make his devastating discovery, it appears larger, calmer and more spacious than ever before, in all its lavender glory. This is another deception against what is about to happen, yet another way to creatively imagine the same locale.

“Breaking Bad” will stand the test of time in the way of the greatest art

The short Walt Whitman poem which serves as my epigraph, and is the source of the title of the episode above, might as well be “Breaking Bad’s” aesthetic philosophy compressed to a nugget: The cinematic style “glides over all” (looks from a massively detached point of view at the whole of the neoliberal economy), making us see nature, space and time, and the dimensions of death we all have to face, in a new way.

“Breaking Bad” was a historic show because it took the biggest strides toward the “cinematization” of American television. When critics focus on character development in a realistic vein, they miss nearly everything that is unique about the show. Character in “Breaking Bad” is interesting to the extent that it is developed through visual style, for example, in the way teasers compress time in an open-ended commentary on a season’s (as yet unknowable) thematics. The show makes a mockery of the neoliberal myth of changing one’s reality by changing one’s body; that’s one meaning of Walt assuming the Heisenberg persona and altering his physical appearance accordingly. In the Walter/Heisenberg dichotomy we have a parody of social media reinvention, as is true also of Marie’s assumed identities. We seek to redefine time and space by denying mortality, fantasies capitalism feeds in order to keep its real ventures going without opposition.

What takes place off-screen in “Breaking Bad” is so vast that it defeats a critic trying to fit the show within any given genre. It is not merely a rehash of various genres, but it reaches for a meta-narrative that absorbs each of the genres it encounters: That’s what “Breaking Bad’s” visual technique is always trying to accomplish, from the desert scenes (rewriting the classic Western and the spaghetti Western) to reimagining the inherent melodrama of the suburban setting. It is the malleable character of people that gives places reality: Thus we see the White residence 16 years earlier, when they are considering buying it, empty of character and unrecognizable; the same unrecognizability pervades in the scenes at the end when the house has been taken away.

“Breaking Bad” imagines how it is to inhabit a place when the economy seeks to define you in particular ways: Does your self-definition follow from that, or is there something internal that cannot be absorbed in the economy? That’s the source of Walt’s endless anger, the artificial separation between legitimate and illegitimate occupations, legal and illegal ways of making money and acquiring power. Gray Matter Technologies and similar outfits can peddle legal pharmaceuticals to the tune of billions of dollars, whereas there are strict rations to health care, even for Hank when he is injured, beyond which the neoliberal economy won’t go.

Corresponding to forms of permissible and impermissible power are public spaces versus hidden spaces, a constant preoccupation for the show: The heater closet and the crawl space evoke subterranean nightmares we must heed. When liberal democracy was getting started, novels imagined science as a savior; now science is amoral, fatally implicated in empire and domination, a facilitator of new waves of fascism. In this economy of amorality, a would-be small entrepreneur such as Jesse (like his friends Badger or Skinny Pete) has little chance; Jesse is kicked out of his home by his own mother, and at a low point in his life seeks shelter for the night in his and Walt’s RV. Which raises the question whether Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz of Gray Matter Technologies have freedom under neoliberalism or are just as disposable as the insecure small businessman. Are they too fatally reliant on constant PR — just as is the DEA, just as is Walt’s high school, just as are Beneke and Goodman?

“Breaking Bad” is not a popular culture reflection on crime and punishment. Neoliberal crime is sophisticated, but the show’s tension consists in visualizing remnants of pre-neoliberal production, distribution and finance — storage rooms full of cash, car washes for money laundering! — uneasily meshing with neoliberalism’s abstract sphere. The visual style never veers from keeping this tension in sight, and the variations within repetition make us realize the gaps, which are really hypocrisies, in the narrative we tell ourselves about the economy in which we all think we have a rightful place. Had Walt (and Saul and Skyler and Mike) not had to deal with piles of cash, the crime would have remained forever undetected.

Detection itself is a paranoid impulse, when crimes of far greater magnitude (involving trillions of dollars and implicating the health of all living species) are not even recognized, let alone punished. “Breaking Bad” deconstructs criminality, and therefore also liberal bourgeois virtue, because if the definition of crime is overturned then so is the meaning of the virtues that support legal ventures. We are all (neoliberal) entrepreneurs now, even Skyler with her car wash, with all that this implies. The solution to any crisis, under neoliberalism, is to become an entrepreneur and sell yourself. The DEA is parasitic, facilitating the credible monopoly of legalized addictions, while prosecuting those operating outside the arbitrary monopolies.

One of the questions neoliberalism presses on us most urgently is that of masculinity in an economy that has no use for any of the definitions of masculinity that went with the rise of liberalism and industrialization. “Breaking Bad’s” stylistic innovations let us think critically about the crisis of masculinity (which also means the crisis of feminism), one of whose final manifestations (as we’ve seen repeatedly in the past century and as is unfolding again) is Nazism. Neoliberalism disposes human bodies as callously as Walt does in barrels of hydrofluoric acid. Science always bails out Walt — even Jesse, his once-inept pupil, begins to have total faith in Mr. White’s ability to get them out of any scrape through some scientific improvisation — including in the final episode. “Breaking Bad” suggests that the scope for this kind of individualist science has been extinguished, professionalized big science having removed scientific capability from the grasp of anybody not seeking to make monopolistic profits. Scientific rationality (formerly an aspect of masculinity), in the way that we collectively endorse it now, is the only inescapable trap, which has merged into neoliberal domination today.

In this context, it is naive to study Walt’s morality from a bourgeois realist point of view (like Hank talking about “chasing monsters”), when neoliberalism compels a fetishization of the family that removes it from liberal democratic concerns. The protection of the family at all costs (from neoliberal ravages) is the clue neoliberalism has already given us, and has always kept in plain view, as the means to our own self-destruction. It is playing with these evident clues, in plain sight, that constitutes “Breaking Bad’s” stylistic innovation: The savagery we think we see so often, as in the prison-murders montage, is the rule neoliberalism wants us to epitomize as the definition of crime.

All of “Breaking Bad’s” visual inventions have one aim: To show that there is no single turning point in neoliberalization, that it is a continuous and endless process. So for critics to wonder about this or that juncture, such as the hardware parking lot scene, as the inflection point where Walter “breaks bad,” is futile. We are not proper Heisenbergians (able to think post-philosophically, post-morally, post-democratically) because our minds are not wired that way. “Breaking Bad’s” visual style superimposes our primitive brain (which seeks comfort in small affections) over the abstractions of contemporary economic life, creating constant moral openings where we can see the duality of things and therefore interpret our conundrum. All of us have doubles, or we wouldn’t be neoliberal subjects; all the characters in “Breaking Bad” — Gus as the DEA supporter and meth kingpin of the Southwest, as much as Jesse’s little brother or Wendy the drug addict — visually represent this merger. Time and space must collapse to uphold our mythology of unity, and “Breaking Bad” does this over and over again so that we may justify our (realist) ethics to ourselves.

Anis Shivani is at work on a novel called “Abruzzi, 1936.” His most recent books are “Karachi Raj: A Novel,” “Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems” and “Soraya: Sonnets.” “Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century: Conversations” comes out in April 2017.

Chris Cornell’s talents transcend the grunge genre he helped create

Chris Cornell, who committed suicide after a concert yesterday, was at the heart of the change in rock in the 1990s

Earlier this year Chris Cornell released a new solo single, “The Promise,” which doubles as the theme song to the new Christian Bale movie of the same name. Although orchestras curl up around the song’s main acoustic guitar melody, Cornell’s singing takes center stage. His voice, weathered like aged leather but not raspy or faltering, defies categorization: Cornell exhibits the confidence of a pop balladeer, the vulnerability of a folk singer and the weariness of a rock ‘n’ roll icon who’s seen it all.

“The Promise” marked the latest sonic iteration for Cornell, who committed suicide after Soundgarden’s Wednesday night show in Detroit. But this soundtrack song was hardly a surprising departure. Cornell lived what felt like a million musical lifetimes in his 30-plus-year career because he possessed the kind of versatile voice that gave him musical options outside hard rock.

“My history of singing has always probably been closer to a David Bowie approach than, for example, an AC/DC approach,” Cornell told Spin in 2014. “I never thought of myself as being the singer that wanted to create an identity and then stick to that. As a child, I was this record collector/listener that would sit in a room and listen to the entire Beatles catalog alone, over and over and over again.”

He added, “I think that affected my vocal approach because there were four singers in that band, and I never knew who was singing what. I was a little kid; I didn’t really care. I thought that’s what rock music was and I thought that’s what making an album was: You sang in the style and with the feel that the song was asking for.”

Still, Cornell was one of the few hard-rock singers who didn’t need a Plan B. As the frontman of Soundgarden, he steered the band’s dense amalgamations of classic rock, heavy metal and psychedelic rock with fearless gravitas. He’d slide from feral yowls to somber intonations, often in the same song, capturing the band’s roiling disquiet. Soundgarden was lumped into the grunge movement almost by default, but the band transcended this niche in large part because Cornell pushed it into more classic territory.

If anything, Cornell felt like the glue that held together Soundgarden’s disparate sonic textures and personalities together. That was one of his strengths as a band frontman — a fact that became clear when he moved on to front Audioslave, a group comprised of Rage Against the Machine’s instrumentalists. Cornell corralled Audioslave’s towering hard rock into something both fresh and timeless, by being a typically expressive vocalist: passionate and wary, cathartic and subdued.

Unlike many of his peers who had to work around unique or unorthodox voices, Cornell was a naturally charismatic singer with acrobatic range. Although open about his influences — namely, he was an avowed acolyte of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin — Cornell absorbed what he learned from these greats and spun this into his own strengths. It’s difficult to call someone so popular underrated or underappreciated, but Cornell’s presence was easy to take for granted, since he was such an ingrained part of rock ‘n’ roll culture.

Yet Cornell’s studious, malleable approach to music also made him a natural for moving beyond pure hard rock and into movie soundtrack work. He showed off a stunning, blues-influenced delivery — a torch singer’s croon, really — on “Misery Chain,” a duet with Joy Williams on the “12 Years a Slave” soundtrack. Cornell brought a rugged touch to “You Know My Name,” the theme of the 2006 James Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” and turned in a dusky, haunted vocal performance on the Golden Globe-nominated “The Keeper.”

Best of all, however, is “Sunshower,” a lost classic on 1998’s “Great Expectations” soundtrack. The psychedelic-tinged acoustic pop song boasts one of Cornell’s most commanding and naked vocal performances:  “When you’re all in pain/ And you feel the rain come down,” he sings, his voice cracking with anguish. “Oh, it’s all right/ When you find your way/ Then you see it disappear/ Oh, it’s all right.” “Sunshower” is both comforting and despairing; Cornell gives into emotional pain, while also reminding himself that these feelings are temporary.

As this song underscores, Cornell’s solo work was rewarding for listeners in entirely different ways — bare and vulnerable and often so intimate that it felt like an intrusion to listen. (His 1999 solo album, “Euphoria Mourning,” is a particularly underrated collection.) But Cornell flourished with this approach, especially when performing live. Like another one of his idols, Elvis Costello, he embarked on marathon solo shows, where he could cover favorite songs (John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”), tell stories and dip into different corners of his catalog. For some artists, acoustic shows are a necessary evil; Cornell, however, was comfortable being alone.

About the only solo departure that didn’t work was “Scream,” a widely derided, electro-leaning 2009 album produced by Timbaland. The lukewarm reception had less to do with Cornell’s performances, however, and more to do with biases against rockers going pop. And this didn’t hurt his career: All told, Cornell dominated mainstream rock radio throughout the ’90s and well into the 2000s, making him as much the patriarch of modern heavy and hard rock as Eddie Vedder, and the late Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley.

In fact, as Salon’s Gabriel Bell pointed out, “Cornell’s death marks the passing of yet another voice and face familiar to those who grew up witnessing the profound changes rock music underwent in the early 1990s.” It’s shocking and jarring that another one of these familiar icons is gone, especially in the midst of what appeared to be a successful Soundgarden tour. The band was due to headline Friday night during the sold-out Rock on the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio.

On my Facebook page, no two people were posting the same Cornell-associated song, another testament to the breadth and depth of his career. Yet whether performing snarling hard rock or plaintive acoustic folk, Cornell exuded melancholy, anxiety and desolation via his voice. Even early on in Soundgarden’s career, when his fondness for Robert Plant was most evident, Cornell sounded like an old soul, his angst coming from a deep, unknown place. He was a great singer because of his empathy — an innate characteristic that can’t be taught, but something he possessed in spades.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.