copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

Class warfare in the RoboCop films

by Milo Sweedler

José Padilha’s 2014 remake of RoboCop tells us as much about the current state of class relations as Paul Verhoeoven’s 1987 film of the same title tells us about labor relations during the Reagan era. Both of these films function as barometers of the socio-economic relations of their times. But whereas the first RoboCop offers a sharp critique of nascent neoliberalism, the Padilha remake endorses the flourishing neoliberal order of the twenty-first century.

Padilha’s endorsement of triumphant neoliberalism is not entirely unequivocal. The 2014 RoboCop invites us to come to our own conclusions about the social and political issues it raises. However, I argue, the apparently fair and balanced approach that RoboCop 2014 adopts, enables the film to promote all the more effectively the neoliberal agenda of privatization and corporatization that Verhoeven’s film critiqued more than a quarter of a century earlier. In sum, I argue, both RoboCop films engage in ideological class warfare, but they take opposite sides.

In order to gauge the difference between the two films, I begin with a summary of the main plotline of Verhoeven’s 1987 film, sparingly adding commentary and providing socio-historical context along the way. I pay particular attention in this plot summary to the ways the original RoboCop movie critiques the neoliberal politics of its day and to its interweaving of a narrative of class struggle with a story of cops fighting criminals.

I then offer an overview of salient changes from one version of RoboCop to the other, culminating in a comparative analysis of the two films’ opening narrative sequences. This comparison leads me to an examination of the various strategies that the Padilha film adopts to avoid the subject of class antagonism, and the ways that these strategies reflect or promote the prevailing neoliberal position on the issue of class. I conclude with an analysis of the films’ contrasting portrayals of capital’s principle ideological vehicle, the media, and the very different uses to which they put these portrayals.

Set in a near-future Detroit, Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop recounts the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a police officer who is shot to pieces in the line of duty during a raid that he and his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) conduct on a criminal gang in an abandoned factory in Old Detroit. Murphy is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Attempts to revive him fail, and the medics operating on him ultimately “call it,” pronouncing him dead.

Murphy’s death is due in part, the 1987 film suggests, to a lack of police backup, which the precinct is unable to provide to Lewis and Murphy due to a shortage of manpower. This shortage of manpower is, in turn, at least partially the result of a reduction of the police labor force, which has decreased since Omni Consumer Products (OCP), a private mega-corporation, has taken over the Detroit Police Department and begun running it like a for-profit business.

Murphy’s death is more than just a byproduct of corporate restructuring. We learn early in the film that OCP has been moving a lot of officers from various Detroit precincts to the notoriously dangerous precinct of Metro West. Murphy is one of those transfers. The implication, we infer from later developments in the film, is that OCP is intentionally putting officers with profiles like Murphy’s in dangerous situations in the aim of generating raw material for a new cyborg law-enforcement program that the Security Concepts division of OCP is researching. When a colleague at Security Concepts asks the team leader Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) when they can begin developing their cyborg cop, Morton responds: “As soon as some schmuck volunteers.” The film then cuts immediately to a shot of Murphy twirling his gun, beginning the last sequence in which we see him alive as a flesh-and-blood human being.

An essential component in OCP’s efforts to cut costs and increase profits is its plan to replace the men and women of the police force with efficient, reliable, and cost-effective machines. This replacement of human labor with mechanized labor is a topical 1980s subject. The Reagan era marks the beginning of a major shift from human resources to technological resources in both the private and public sectors. This shift is still taking place, accounting in no small measure for the rise in unemployment and underemployment, and the concomitant fall in real wages, documented in books like David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s The Rich and the Rest of Us, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

In Verhoeven’s RoboCop, the need for efficient and reliable law enforcement is urgent, according to the avuncular “old man” at OCP (Dan O’Herlihy), the company’s top executive, in order to protect the million workers who will begin building Delta City, the conglomeration of interconnected skyscrapers that OCP plans to build on the site of Old Detroit. We have here a perfect dovetailing of means and ends: OCP wants to privatize a public service so that they can convert the public space of the city into private property. If, as Harvey writes, “the corporatization, commodification, and privatization of hitherto public assets has been a signature feature of the neoliberal project,” OCP would be a model neoliberal corporation (Brief History 160).

OCP senior president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), second in command at the corporation, offers a justification for the company’s takeover of the Detroit Police Department that sounds almost like dictionary definition of neoliberalism:

“Take a close look at the track record of this company. You’ll see that we’ve gambled in markets usually regarded as nonprofit. Hospitals. Prisons. Space exploration. I say, good business is where you find it.”

Harvey’s 2005 characterization of neoliberalism’s primary objective alters only slightly Jones’s rationale. Harvey writes,

“Its primary aim has been to open up new fields for capital accumulation in domains hitherto regarded as off-limits to the calculus of profitability” (Brief History 160).

When we learn, midway through film, that Jones is the mastermind behind Detroit’s most powerful crime gang, the message is therefore clear: main-street crime is a manifestation of Wall Street crime.

The film insists on the link between capitalism and the criminality countless times. One of the gang members justifies spending stolen money on cocaine as “capital investment.” In order to clarify what he means, the business-savvy gangster offers an explanation that sounds like a paraphrase of Mack the Knife’s suggestion, in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, that founding a bank is a better way to steal money that robbing one: “No better way to steal than free enterprise.”[1][open endnotes in new window] One could multiply examples of this sort. The film repeatedly undermines the neoliberal rhetoric about the beneficial “trickle down” effects of unfettered capitalism. Free-market capitalism is the cause of the city’s problems in Verhoeven’s RoboCop, not their solution.

In a speech that acknowledges the suffering that OCP has caused to Detroit’s community services (in particular, to law enforcement), the distinguished old man of the company proposes to “give something back.” This high-minded rhetoric about corporate responsibility rings hollow the moment the old man unveils the gift he plans to offer to the embattled police force. What he has in mind is the ED-209 law-enforcement droid, “a 24-hour-a-day police officer, a cop who doesn’t need to eat or sleep, a cop with superior firepower and the reflexes to use it.” This is a funny way to heal wounds, by dealing a crippling blow to the injured party.

ED-209 is Jones’s pet project. Unfortunately, the droid malfunctions horribly during a demonstration, unloading dozens of rounds of bullets into a hapless OCP executive. Taking advantage of this “glitch” in the ED-209 program, the young and ambitious Morton seizes the opportunity to promote his cyborg-cop project. Much to Jones’s displeasure, the old man, concerned about the loss of profit that the ED-209 setback will cost the company, gives Morton the green light to go to prototype. Morton and his team then proceed with “total body prosthesis” of Murphy’s lifeless body, replacing nearly every part of his body with mechanical parts, wiping out his memory, and programming him with a set of directives.

As might be expected in a post-Blade Runner sci-fi film of this sort, parts of Murphy’s memory survive. Fragmented memories of his wife and son, and images of Murphy’s execution-style murder, haunt the cyborg. Prompted by one of these flashbacks, RoboCop returns to the Murphys’ now vacant house, where he visualizes scenes from his former life as he walks from room to room. During this tour, a virtual real estate agent on a computer monitor relentlessly enumerates the property’s amenities, informing the visitor that this “one-family house built by ZM Industries [...] has a growth factor of seven,” that “this kitchen by Food Concepts makes everything a snap,” and so forth. The scene ends with Robo-Murphy putting his fist through the computer screen, much to the spectator’s satisfaction.

The robot cop then tracks down the gang that killed Murphy. His investigations lead him to Detroit crime boss Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and, through Boddicker, ultimately to Jones, who has a mutually beneficial business relationship with the gang boss. The Omni executive arranged for Boddicker to kill his OCP rival Morton, and he now charges him with the destruction of RoboCop. With Morton and his “bastard creation” (as Jones calls it) out of the way, the senior executive could resume production of the ED-209 droid on the pretense of protecting the million people working on the construction of Delta City. At the same time, Jones explains, Boddicker would be able to benefit from the presence of “a million workers living in trailers” on the Delta City site. Jones expounds,

“That means drugs, gambling, prostitution. Virgin territory for the man who knows how to open up new markets.”

Boddicker responds to this proposition by repeating the phrase that Jones uses to characterize OCP’s neoliberal project:

“Good business is where you find it.”

In the final scene of the film, RoboCop bursts into an OCP board meeting to confront Jones. However, as he already knows from a previous attempt to bring Jones to justice, the cyborg is unable to arrest the company president due to “directive 4,” a classified directive built into his cyborg brain that prohibits him from arresting a senior OCP executive. It is only when the old man, whom Jones has taken as a hostage at this point, fires Jones that RoboCop is no longer impeded by directive 4 from acting against Jones. The cyborg cop then gives Jones what the Criterion DVD calls “Dick’s 9mm severance package,” sending him out of a window of the OCP boardroom in a shower of bullets.

As this narrative of super cops, crime bosses, and corporate criminals unfolds, the Detroit Police Department (DPD) engages in political action against OCP in order to protect their rights as workers and to maintain a modicum of job security. Throughout the film we see and hear (or hear about) members of the DPD discussing their situation, holding a strike vote, and going on strike. This explicitly political narrative, which runs in parallel to the story of RoboCop’s adventures, begins to develop in the opening narrative sequence of the film, when a cop in the police station, overhearing a fellow officer mention OCP, opines:

“Omni Consumer Products. What a bunch of morons. They’re gonna manage this department right into the ground. [...] I’ll tell you what we should do. We should strike. Fuck ’em.”

The precinct sergeant overhears these remarks and tries to quelch any discussion of a strike, but he is clearly unable to control his subordinates. By the end of the film the entire DPD, with the exception of RoboCop (who cannot strike because he is a product, not an employee, of OCP) and Lewis (who stands by her partner), has walked off the job.

As this synopsis shows, Verhoeven’s RoboCop intertwines two narrative threads. On the one hand, cops are fighting criminals. On the other hand, a group of unionized municipal employees is battling against a mega-corporation that has privatized a hitherto public service and is attempting to make the workers redundant by replacing them with machines. The film superimposes these two narratives on one another: one staging a showdown between capital and labor, and another depicting a battle between cops and robbers. Not only does the film identify capitalists with criminals (and vice-versa). The employees who take on the mega-corporation are also the same cops who are battling the criminal underworld. By encouraging us to side with the crime fighters, the film urges us to side with the striking workers at the same time.

In the audio commentary on the Criterion DVD of the 1987 RoboCop, producer Jon Davison calls the film “fascism for liberals.” I find this slogan misleading. It suggests that the film appeals to lefty-liberals but gives them a spectacle of violence in the place of an emancipatory political narrative. But the film is clearly marketed to fans of action movies. The trailers show numerous images of cars skidding, guns shooting, buildings bursting into flames, and people crashing through windows. They do not give the slightest hint of the film’s politics. A spectator watching the preview would have no idea that the film has a political message beyond a vague tough on crime agenda. Rather than “fascism for liberals,” I would characterize the film as “anti-capitalism for conservatives.” It promises violence and excitement, which it delivers, giving us a resounding critique of neoliberal capitalism in the process. Verhoeven’s RoboCop is a powerful piece of ideological propaganda in the class war against the rich, recruiting the unconverted (or the not necessarily converted) spectator to the anti-capitalist cause.

Padilha’s 2014 remake of RoboCop changes virtually every significant narrative and thematic element of the original RoboCop story. Perhaps the most obvious of these changes is the relation between the police officer that we see at the beginning of the movie and the robot cop he later becomes. As we have seen, in the first film, Murphy dies and comes back to life as RoboCop. In Padilha’s remake, by contrast, Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) does not die. He remains Alex Murphy throughout the film. His memories, values, aesthetic tastes (he likes Frank Sinatra), and affective attachments all remain intact. This narrative change has the effect of enabling us to identify with Robo-Murphy in ways that the first film does not. Verhoeven’s film urges us to side with RoboCop more than to identify with him. This distinction might seem subtle, but it is key to understanding the difference between the two films.

In conjunction with the change in Murphy’s post-injury character, Padilha reconfigures the cyborg hero’s physical appearance, rendering him less robotic and more dynamic. Verhoeven’s RoboCop moves with the agility of Star Wars’ C-3PO and speaks with the eloquence of the robot from the 1960s sci-fi TV show Lost in Space. Padilha’s cyborg is a kinetic superhero that leaps through space like the hero of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and talks alternately like a street-smart cop and a loving and tender husband.

The tender-and-loving-husband part is almost entirely Padilha’s invention. In the first film, Murphy’s wife and son appear as stock characters in brief flashbacks. In the remake, Clara and David Murphy (Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan) become major characters with psychological depth. Unfortunately, in order to communicate this depth, Padilha reverts to clichéd images of stereotypical gender roles, presented via hackneyed cinematic techniques (close-ups of Clara’s tear-streaked face, insidious piano music designed solely to jerk tears, and so forth). Ironically, the 30-odd minutes of screen time that Padilha dedicates to developing the relationship between Murphy and his family are significantly less memorable than the two or three minutes that Verhoeven dedicates to RoboCop’s memories of his former life with his wife and son in the first film.

The large amount of screen time dedicated to the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Murphy in the new film compensates in a way for another significant change that Padilha makes to the original story: the transformation of Murphy’s partner, Anne Lewis, into Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams). Murphy and Jack interact like characters in a buddy movie, while the relationship between the hero and the main female character is transposed onto the married couple.

The two films offer sharply contrasting images of their central male-female pair. Although Verhoeven’s Lewis and Murphy clearly care for one another, the last scene of them alone together shatters any illusions we might have had of them uniting as a couple. While preparing for the final shootout with Boddicker’s gang, Lewis gently puts her hand on her partner’s arm in order to help him recalibrate his aim. On the one hand, we feel the tenderness of her gesture. On the other, it is hard to miss the irony of Murphy’s choice of target. Lewis helps train her partner’s gun on three jars of baby food adorned with smiling cherubic faces, which explode one by one as Murphy picks them off. The scene “produces a spectacle rarely seen in Hollywood films: a man and a woman teaming up not to produce a baby, but to blow that image away” (Burgett 175). Suffice it so say that we are far removed here from the family-values subplot that Padilha develops.

One of the most revealing changes in the remake is the depiction of the mega-corporation, which metamorphoses from the predatory OCP of the first film into the much more sympathetically portrayed OmniCorp. In contrast to Verhoeven’s OCP, Padilha’s OmniCorp does not take over the DPD, has no plans to privatize downtown Detroit, has nothing to do with Murphy’s mutilation, and has no connection to organized crime. The replacement of Dick Jones, the reptilian senior president of OCP, with the bright and genial Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the CEO of OmniCorp, reflects the overall change of the corporation from one film to the other. Jones’s rival at OCP, the opportunistic yuppie Bob Morton, vanishes from the new film along with his sidekick, Johnson. In their place appear Liz Kline, legal counsel for OmniCorp, and Tom Pope, Director of Marketing, whose only visible character flaws are their company loyalty, their competence, and their professionalism. Every scene of Sellars and his two associates shows the group working collaboratively in an atmosphere of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual respect.

This is not to say that Padilha and Co. abandon the themes of corruption, in-fighting, back-stabbing, and the murderous ends to which people go in order to eliminate their rivals. They simply displace these themes from the mega-corporation onto the police department. This displacement constitutes, in my view, the most significant single narrative change that Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer make to the original story.

The re-conception of the image of the DPD appears from the opening narrative sequence of Padilha’s film. This sequence also gives us our first glimpse of the “new and improved” Murphy, preparing us for his subsequent metamorphosis into a full metal superhero, while offering a fine example of Padilha’s narrative technique. In order to appreciate these aspects of Padilha’s film, and the ways that they differ from the original RoboCop, let us compare and contrast the opening narrative sequences of the two films.

Following a helicopter shot of downtown Detroit, a “media break” to which I return below, and an establishing shot that locates us at the Detroit Metro West police station, Verhoeven’s RoboCop begins with a long steadycam shot that follows various figures around the crowded Metro West station. We hear the ambient noises of the busy station and see dozens of officers interacting with the scores of people hanging around the precinct’s crowded main hall. The camera comes to rest on Sergeant Warren Reed (Robert DoQui) and two lawyers as they stop in the middle of the station hall to argue about an inmate’s rights. It then pans left to follow the two lawyers to the door, where it picks up a thin, nerdy-looking guy, who enters the station as the lawyers exit. The nerdy-looking guy walks into a close-up as he approaches the main desk in the center of the hall and introduces himself to the sergeant: “Murphy, transferring in from Metro South.”

After a brief exchange between Murphy and Reed, the camera continues to follow various figures around the precinct, taking us from the main hall of the station into the back corridors, the showers, and the locker room. We overhear snippets of conversation about problems that officers face on the job, the deterioration of their working conditions, and their dissatisfaction with the way OCP is running the department. But it is the mise-en-scène, especially as we move into the locker room, that I find particularly striking in these shots. Verhoeven presents the precinct’s unisex locker room as though it were the most natural thing in the world, not even worthy of comment. Women change clothes (and presumably shower) alongside men, and no one seems to find this the slightest bit awkward or unusual. I can think of no other mainstream Hollywood sci-fi or action film that presents male and female partial frontal nudity (from the waist up) so nonchalantly.

The overall impression one has of the police precinct from the 1987 film’s opening narrative sequence is one of solidarity and camaraderie. We learn that the officers face difficult challenges, but we also sense that they face these challenges together, that they look out for one another, and that they treat each other as equals.

The comparable scenes in the 2014 remake make an entirely different impression on the viewer. Here, we enter with a beefed-up Murphy into an “open concept” office space, with cops staring into computer screens on their cubicle desks. The sequence begins with a close-up of Murphy’s hands pushing on a crash bar as he swaggers into the office to the musical accompaniment of the invigorating RoboCop theme. We then follow the super cop (who already seems like a super cop) from behind in a medium close-up that places his broad shoulders in the center of the frame. He responds to greetings from his colleagues with short, one-or-two-word replies as he moves coolly and deliberately past his fellow officers to an office at the back of the room. In contrast to Verhoeven’s Murphy, who is presented as an awkward outsider, Padilha’s Murphy is an insider that everybody knows. Most of all, he is cool, an embodiment of the strong and silent masculine hero.

However, the biggest transformation in this opening sequence occurs when Murphy arrives at the office at the back of the room. There, he barges into a meeting between Police Chief Karen Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and two detectives, who are discussing a recent incident that put Murphy’s partner in the hospital. Chief Dean asks Murphy what happened, but he refuses to talk in front of the detectives because, he says, they “gotta be either dumb or dirty.” They turn out to be dirty (i.e., corrupt), and so does Dean.

Dean asks the two officers to leave, which they do, and Murphy tells the chief what happened: “So, me and Jack, we been doin’ some street buys. We get a line on some guns.” The image track then cuts from Dean’s office to the scene of the action, where the story unfolds in flashback. “We come across this low-level G called Jerry who has a piece he’s not supposed to have,” Murphy recounts as we see a street gangster show an automatic rifle to the two undercover cops. The audio track then catches up with the image track as the on-screen Murphy asks Jerry where the hell he got a gun like that.

Using a narrative strategy that recurs frequently in the film, the sequence continues to shift between spoken narration and direct representations of the action. The fast-paced sequence alternately (or simultaneously) tells and shows how the two cops set up an undercover sting operation on Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), the generic bad guy that replaces the creepy Boddicker of the first film. The sting would have succeeded had not someone—the two corrupt detectives working in conjunction with Chief Dean, we learn later—tipped off Vallon. The narrative concludes with a vertical crane shot of Murphy trying to revive his partner, who was gunned down in a shootout between the two cops and Vallon’s henchmen. The sequence then ends with a brief return to Dean’s office, where the chief chastises Murphy for operating beyond his jurisdiction.

As this opening narrative sequence suggests, the Padilha film eliminates the conflict between the DPD and OCP, replacing it with an internal conflict within the police force. This new conflict structures the film as a whole, much like the battle between capital and labor structures Verhoeven’s film. Needless to say, this narrative change radically transforms the film’s ideological message. Whereas the 1987 film depicts a group of public servants working in common cause against the forces of private capital, the new RoboCop displaces the battle between striking workers and their corporate bosses onto a fight between good cops and bad cops. The narrative of class struggle becomes a story of police corruption.

In conjunction with the shift away from the narrative of class struggle, the image of the cops changes dramatically from one film to the next. Neither during the opening sequence nor at any other time in the film does the new RoboCop present the cops as workers. In the first film, the police stand in metonymically for labor as such. Their struggle against OCP condenses resistance to the brutal onslaught on organized labor that took place under Reagan into a set of recognizable images. The Padilha film, by contrast, presents the DPD as a distinct subculture cut off from mainstream society. The cops speak in an esoteric street jargon (“We come across this low-level G called Jerry who has a piece he’s not supposed to have,” for example), and they face problems that are unique to their profession. The idea that these cops belong to the labor force, much less that they could plausibly engage in the sort of political action that their counterparts undertake in Verhoeven’s film, does not occur to us.

Padilha’s film style also has an ideological dimension. In contrast to Verhoeven, whose meandering long takes give the viewer a sense of spatial and temporal continuity, Padilha opts for fast-paced editing and hand-held camera work. These narrative techniques create a sense of immediacy and urgency, but they also produce a sense of spatial and temporal disorientation. They resemble the narrative techniques that Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass use in the Bourne films, which pitch the viewer, along with the hero, into a “vertiginous ‘continuous present’” (Fisher 58). Mark Fisher considers the relation to time that films like the Bourne trilogy create, to be typical of current, advanced-capitalist experiences of time. According to Fisher, these films typify “a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate” (59). What they inhibit is both a sense of personal or historical memory and projective imaginings of the future.

Fisher cites in this context Fredric Jameson’s analysis of the antimony of postmodern temporality, in which “an unparalleled rate of change on all levels of social life” coexists with “an unparalleled standardization of everything. [...] What we now begin to feel,” Fisher writes, citing Jameson, “is henceforth, where everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image, nothing can change any longer” (Jameson 15, 17-18; cited in Fisher 59). What Fisher and Jameson mean here is that no social change can take place in an environment where the newest gadget or the latest media trend have come to supplant other notions of progress.

The Fisher-Jameson analysis of postmodern temporality bears directly on the worldview communicated in Padilha’s RoboCop. The vision of the future that the film transmits is one in which new products appear at a rapid rate. Sellars, for example, who promotes RoboCop as the hottest item in law enforcement towards the beginning of the film, considers the cyborg obsolete by the end of the film. Yet the film simultaneously communicates a vision of the future in which no socio-political change is possible. Padilha’s elimination of the class struggle, which Karl Marx famously called “the motor of history,” from the film narrative speaks volumes about RoboCop 2014’s message. In contrast to Verhoeven’s film, where the police force as a whole engages in battle against their neoliberal corporate bosses, in the remake, officers wage war against their co-workers.

Granted, already in 1987, when Verhoeven’s film premiered, labor was fighting a rear guard battle. As Harvey notes, “it took less than six months in 1983 to reverse nearly 40 per cent of the decisions made during the 1970s that had been, in the view of business, too favourable to labour” (Brief History 52). Reagan set the tone for the union-busting years to come when, in 1981, he fired the more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers who ignored his orders to return to work. But in my view, this anachronistic aspect of Verhoeven’s film makes his vision of the future all the more timely. The original RoboCop intervened on the side of labor at a time when trade unionism needed all the help it could get.

To say that labor could use this sort of support today strikes me as an understatement. The policies and practices of neoliberal capitalism inaugurated in the early 1980s have come to dominate the globe in ways unimaginable at that time. As Susan Buck-Morss writes in 2013,

“nothing—not schools, not prisons, not human genes, not wild plants, not the national army, not foreign governments—nothing is exempt from this process of privatization” (72).

At the same time, the inequality of wealth has reached its highest level since 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash. If the current trend continues, the gap between the wealthiest people in the world and the rest of the population will soon be wider than at any time in documented economic history. Thomas Piketty’s monumental book on capital in the twenty-first century makes crystal clear when the current trend towards record-level inequality began: 1980, the birth year of the neoliberal revolution.[2]

An integral component of the class war that the rich wage against the rest of us is the research and development of innovative new ways for machines to do work that has traditionally been done by human beings. Already in the nineteenth century, Harvey reminds us, “Marx argued that technological innovation was a crucial weapon in class struggle and that many an innovation had been adopted by capital with the sole aim of breaking strikes” (Seventeen Contradictions 103). As computer technology improves and adapts to capital’s needs, the work done by devices will likely soon include entire sectors that currently demand human labor, from routine services (like those that can already be seen at airline check-ins and supermarket check-outs) to highly skilled work in areas like medicine and education. Harvey writes,

“The idea that it will only be the low-paying jobs that will be eliminated and not high-paying skilled jobs (radiologists, doctors, university professors, airplane pilots and the like) is misguided. [...] Larger and larger segments of the world’s population will be considered redundant and disposable from the standpoint of capital” (Seventeen Contradictions 105).

The city of Detroit, where the RoboCop films are set, offers painful testimony to the deleterious effects of neoliberalism. “Once the nation’s richest city, Detroit is now its poorest,” writes Charlie LeDuff in 2013:

“It is the country’s illiteracy and dropout capital, where children must leave their books at school and bring toilet paper from home. It is the unemployment capital, where half of the adult population does not work at a consistent job” (LeDuff 5).

The city that Time magazine claimed, in 1951, best represented the spirit of modern twentieth-century United States, is today what a New York Times columnist calls “18 square miles of ‘America’s most severely distressed big city ghetto’” (cited in Neill 640, 651).

The causes of Detroit’s decline are numerous. As Thomas Sugrue demonstrates in his study of the origins of the urban crisis, a long history of racial discrimination in housing policies and hiring practices, combined with a steady and relentless process of deindustrialization, the introduction of labor-saving technologies in the automotive sector, and the flight of investment and jobs from Detroit as car manufacturers and suppliers “searched for cheap labor, low taxes, and lax regulations” elsewhere (xvi), contributed to Detroit’s demise. The reduction of federal urban support under Reagan further exacerbated the problem. As Detroit was hemorrhaging jobs and capital, severely eroding the city’s tax base, Reagan cut urban spending from 12% to 3% of the federal budget, resulting in a decrease in federal revenue support from 26% to 8% of the city’s budget (Sugrue xviii).

When the U.S. housing market collapsed in 2007-08, precipitating the worst international financial crisis since the Great Depression, Detroit was ill equipped to weather the storm. The Bush and Obama administrations bailed out Chrysler and General Motors, who had all but abandoned Detroit by that point, as well as the banks whose shenanigans caused the financial crisis, but they did not bail out Detroit. As a result, on July 17, 2013, the city submitted the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

The Detroit bankruptcy will have its winners and losers. The primary beneficiaries will be “a few wealthy businessmen who are in the position to control a large share of a burgeoning retail, real estate, and entertainment market” (Posey). Dan Gilbert, for example, the founder of Quicken Loans, who calls the Detroit bankruptcy “good news,” has been buying up property in downtown Detroit at a rapid rate (Posey). Sean Posey brings to light a project to privatize Belle Isle Park, located on the Detroit River, and turn it into a “free market utopia.”

The actions of the notorious multi-billionaire Koch brothers, who used their political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, to set up a web site—“No more bailouts for Detroit!”—and threatened to run ads against politicians who voted for a settlement, should perhaps come as no surprise. David Firestone comments on the Kochs,

“As they have in so many other areas of public life, two of the country’s wealthiest citizens are using their good fortune to make life far more difficult for those at the bottom of the ladder.”

Among those who will suffer from the bankruptcy in the immediate term are the city’s bondholders, who will see a decrease in the value of municipal bonds they hold, and government employees, whose ranks, salaries, and pensions will shrink. The plight of public sector workers in Detroit is particularly unsettling. “As Detroit deindustrialized,” Sugrue writes, “one of the city’s few bright lights was the availability of government employment” (xvii-xviii).

It is in this context that the actions of the Detroit Police Officers Association (DPOA), the city’s largest police union, become significant. In contrast to other public sector unions, which accepted the terms of the bankruptcy, the DPOA filed an objection to the Detroit bankruptcy, calling the city’s actions “cynical” (Helms). “The DPOA notes that in recent years undermanned cops have taken pay cuts and suffered low morale amid poor working conditions,” explains Matt Helms in the Detroit Free Press. In an unfortunate case of life imitating art, the science-fiction future portrayed in Verhoeven’s RoboCop is looking all too real. As screenwriter Edward Neumeier succinctly says in a recent interview, “We are now living in the world that I was proposing in RoboCop” (Joy). 

These recent developments make Padilha’s decision not to show the Omni corporation privatizing downtown Detroit, taking over a public service, or restructuring the police force, and his concomitant decision not to portray the DPD as a politically engaged group of municipal employees, particularly striking.

I can find only two moments in Padilha’s RoboCop that show an awareness of the socio-economic issues that Detroit currently faces. Both of them fly by in a matter of seconds as little bits of visual information on the edge of the frame.

The first of these moments occurs during one of the many insufferable scenes between Robo-Murphy and Clara, when she begs her cyborg husband to come home. The scene is set against the backdrop of the Detroit police station, where cops have set up barriers to keep a small group of protestors at bay. As Murphy pulls away from the station on his hotrod motorcycle to stop some crimes, leaving Clara alone in the middle of the street, we see that one of the protestors on the edge of the frame is carrying a picket sign that reads: “People need JOBS, Robots don’t.” As if to clarify that this guy is an anachronistic throwback to a bygone era, on the opposite edge of the frame, a woman holds another sign, reading: “Robots do Not Make Love!” The latter sign evokes the old Vietnam-War protest slogan, “Make love, not war,” here transformed into one of weakest arguments imaginable against automation (that is, until robots start taking the jobs of sex workers). The scene mocks the idea of social protest in general and of protest against robotics in particular.

The second scene where we can catch a critical reference to politico-economic issues occurs during a news report on the Senate vote repealing the law that prohibits the use of combat drones on American soil. I will return momentarily to discuss the debate around the legality of using robots for law-enforcement purposes. For the moment, I just want to point out a headline that runs along the bottom of the screen in a ticker feed during the coverage of the Senate vote: “Inequality in America proves that Karl Marx was right, says economist John Ryan.” Although this reference to wealth inequality is a welcome nod to the macro-economic issues that the film otherwise ignores, it is both too little (I did not even catch it the first time I watched the film) and too late (it occurs ¾ of the way through the film, at which point we been subjected to an hour and a half of neoliberal spin).

As we can glean of our discussion of the 2014 film up to this point, one of the strategies that Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer adopt in the face of the inherently divisive subject of class difference is omission. They either ignore the problem of class, as though it did not exist, or belittle it in one way or another. This criticism might seem awfully minor, hardly worth making. The film does not take a stance on climate change, vegetarianism, or prayer in school either. I would hardly want to impute a position to the film on those subjects based on the fact that it does not address them. But given the explicitly anti-capitalist stance of its source material, RoboCop 2014’s omission of the narrative of class antagonism constitutes in and of itself a position on the class struggle. Padilha and Zetumer do not simply fail to bring up the issue of class; they decide to eliminate it.

Moreover, this decision mimics the neoliberal right’s own position on the subject of class. The only times one hears talk of class in the right-wing press is when someone, generally on the left, proposes some way to address the ever-widening gap between the wealth of top executives at big firms and the relative poverty of everyone else. At that point, Fox News pundits go into high gear, accusing the left of class warfare while lauding the beneficent CEOs of mega-corporations, ironically rebranded as “job creators” when downsizing is clearly the order of the day.[3] Otherwise, the mere suggestion that such a thing as social class exists can lead to accusations of Marxism. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum recently went so far as to demonize the term “middle class” on the grounds that “there’s no class in America. [...] That’s Marxism talk” (Reilly). In sum, although I entirely agree with Buck-Morss that “there is class warfare being waged, from the top down” (72), I would insist on the idea that an essential component of this war is the denial that it is taking place. Padilha’s erasure of the narrative of class conflict from the story of RoboCop both reflects and promotes this neoliberal agenda.

Another strategy that Padilha and Zetumer adopt is one of displacement. In particular, they recast a political problem with clearly defined antagonists as an ethical dilemma with no simple solution.

Here, I must say that I am convinced by Alain Badiou’s argument that the rise of the field of ethics over the past few decades, in tandem with the rise of neoliberalism, supplants as much as it supplements work on politics. Although I do not mean to belittle the important work that has been done on ethics in recent years, and I by no means wish to suggest that people who work on ethical topics necessarily harbor neoliberal sympathies, I do think that it is worth historicizing the trend, which began roughly contemporaneously with the birth of neoliberalism, around 1980, and established itself as a cultural dominant in conjunction with the triumph of global neoliberalism, about a decade later (see Badiou 4-17).

The shift from politics to ethics is palpable in numerous changes that Padilha and Zetumer make to the original RoboCop story. The displacement of the themes of greed and corruption from the vile corporation onto villainous cops is just one example of this shift in focus. The survival of Murphy, for example, as opposed to his death and rebirth as RoboCop, transforms the story of the robot cop’s inhumanity, his “inability to function beyond the laws and interests of a corporation” (Litt 47), into a heroic story of self-overcoming. The creation of a new character, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a prosthetist whose ethical sensibilities sometimes run counter to his boss’s desire to expand OmniCorp’s combat-drone program into the lucrative U.S. market, puts us in the position of a person in the throes of an ethical dilemma. The film tellingly presents Norton’s dilemma in the form: Should I serve the greater good by pursuing a cyborg law-enforcement program that will save countless U.S. lives, or should I do what is best for Murphy and his family? With the question posed in these terms, the battle against corporate capitalism as such is already lost. All that remains for the film to do is to lead us to the right ethical conclusion, which it does by appealing to our emotions.

The shift from socio-political critique to emotional appeal is particularly apparent in the two films’ contrasting portrayals of the media and the very different uses to which they put these portrayals. In conclusion, let us examine these contrasting representations.

In Verhoeven’s film, the “media break” episodes are witty and delightful pieces of tongue-in-cheek social commentary that intersperse sound-bite-sized infotainment TV reports with commercials for such products as a family board game called “Nukem” (marketed with the tagline: “Get them before they get you!”), the new line of sports hearts by Jensen and Yamaha available at the Family Heart Center (“Remember, we care!”), and a luxury sedan appropriately called the 6000 SUX (“An American tradition, 8.2 M.P.G.”) because it “sucks” (gas, at least). The jovial news anchors report on international wars, insurgent revolutions, urban crime, and an array of minor and major technological malfunctions with uniform good cheer and a big smile. The episodes are smart, funny, and clearly satirical. They work, Steven Best observes,

“because [they] only slightly [exaggerate] what real newscasts now do—just enough to expose the artificiality of TV news codes without appearing too unbelievable.”

We do not for a moment get caught up in these newscasts. On the contrary, they cultivate a critical distance that provokes reflection about how commercial television works, what it is, and why we watch it.

The Novak Element in Padilha’s film has an entirely different tone and serves a radically different purpose. Like Verhoeven’s media breaks, it looks uncannily like actual television programming. In particular, it strongly resembles (audio-visually, thematically, and ideologically) The O’Reilly Factor, the Fox News talk show hosted by right-wing pundit Bill O’Reilly. But in contrast to Verhoeven’s mock TV episodes, which show us that network news is spin, Padilha’s talk show attempts to convince us of its spin.

Padilha’s film starts with a shot of talk-show host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) seen from behind, his head and shoulders harshly lit in silhouette by a light in his face. The camera carves a 180-degree arc around the figure as we hear an off-screen technician count down to airtime. Novak then looks up into the camera and opens the film with a short monologue:

“What if I told you that the worst neighborhood in America could be made completely safe? And what if I told you that this could be done without risking the life of one law-enforcement officer? How do I know this? Because it is happening in every country in the world except this one. Welcome to The Novak Element. I’m Pat Novak.”

The scene proceeds to take us from the TV studio to the program as such, presented as it would appear on home television screens. From there, an internal screen opens, enabling Novak to conduct an on-screen interview with General Monroe at the Pentagon. As the general describes an ongoing mission called Operation Freedom Tehran, a new screen opens showing an aerial view of downtown Tehran, followed by an additional screen of the film crew on the ground, which enlarges to fill the film frame. The sequence then alternates between shots of the film crew shooting the scene on location in Tehran and point-of-view shots of the cameraman’s footage, and then between omniscient shots of the action on the streets and hand-held, documentary-looking shots inside the home of a Tehranian family.

This opening sequence is a tour de force of continuity editing, moving seamlessly from the television studio into the heart of the action. The crane shot that takes us from the streets of Tehran, where combat droids patrol a residential district, to an aerial view of the city, is breathtaking. The sequence engages us viscerally in the film narrative, plunging us into the action. Yet in so doing, it effectively eliminates the critical distance that Verhoeven’s media breaks opened up. Padilha’s film does not encourage us to think about why the army is in Tehran. It may well be that the purported “freedom” that the U.S. military is promoting in Tehran is none other than that of the market, but the film does not bother us with these details. All we need to know is that the Iranians are bad guys, which the movie obligingly shows us in a series of shots that could be right out of Reel Bad Arabs, the Sut Jhally-Jack Shaheen film documenting the long history of racist portrayals of Arabs in Hollywood films.

The importance of emotional reactions like those produced audio-visually in the opening sequence is, in turn, central to the film’s principal theme, as we learn when we move from the combat zone back into the television studio, where Novak broaches the debate over the use of drones on U.S. soil. In keeping with the Fox News slogan of providing “fair and balanced” coverage of issues, Novak interviews people on both sides of the debate. On one side is OmniCorp CEO Sellars, whose combat-drone program could save innumerable U.S. lives. On the other is Hubert Dreyfus, the author of a Senate bill prohibiting the use of combat robots on US soil. Senator Dreyfus’s case rests exclusively on the argument that drones do not feel anything when they pull the trigger. If they did, the argument implies (and the film ultimately suggests), everything would be fine.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge here that RoboCop 2014 is at pains to point out that Novak’s supposedly “fair and balanced” coverage is in fact neither. The TV host cuts off Dreyfus in mid-sentence, for example, in order to give Sellars the last word, and Novak’s impassioned campaign for the legalization of combat robots on U.S. soil is clearly partisan. But Padilha’s approach here only mimics the one it mocks. The director’s wink to the film audience as he shows the talk-show host manipulating his guests and their arguments, comes across as its own version of a “fair and balanced” representation of right-wing talk shows, with all the built-in bias that that slogan has come to connote. The cards are clearly stacked against Dreyfus from the beginning. In contrast to the handsome and eloquent Sellars, whose arguments are short and to the point, the bow tie-wearing Dreyfus (Zach Grenier) drones on in a pedantic tone about robots’ inability to feel anything. When Novak cuts him off, we experience a Gong Show-like pleasure and are grateful that someone shut him up. All indications clue us in from the get-go that Dreyfus will ultimately lose the debate, both in the court of movie houses and on the Senate floor.

Throughout the film, Novak plays a role like that of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, articulating our position for us in case we do not know where we should stand. When, at the end of the film, posed before a waving U.S. flag, he delivers his closing monologue, he therefore presents the film’s ideological conclusion as well as its narrative ending:

“I know that some of you might think that [...] these machines violate your civil liberties. Some of you even believe that the use of these drones overseas makes us the same kind of bullying imperialists that our forefathers were trying to escape. To you I say: Stop whining! America is now and always will be the greatest country on the face of the Earth. I’m Pat Novak. Goodnight.”

The film has come full circle. Novak gets the first word and the last word, as though the entire movie were an extended episode of The Novak Element. Therein lies the film’s ultimate irony. The new RoboCop creates a sense of what it feels like to watch a show like The Novak Element. In my case, the feeling is a mixture of anger, frustration, and disappointment. And nostalgia: I yearn for an anachronistic cyborg like the one played by Peter Weller in 1987 to put his stainless-steel fist through the screen. Maybe that is a good thing. It prompted me to write this article.


1. Macheath a.k.a. Mack the Knife’s original line is: “What is a picklock to a bank share? What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank?” (Brecht 92, Act 3, scene 3). [return to text]

2. See, for example, figure 1.1, on income inequality in the United States between 1910 and 2010 (Piketty 24). Other data produced in Piketty’s book, some reaching as far back as the eighteenth century, show similar trends in other countries.

3. The latest big explosion of this sort of discourse took place in response to the so-called Buffet Rule, proposed by billionaire Warren Buffet, which would set a minimum tax rate of 30% for people earning over $1 million per year. See the “Buffet Rule” entry on Wikipedia for an overview of the rule and a nice dossier of the responses to it.

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