James DeMonaco’s 2013 horror film The Purge, which imagines a near-future America in which a fascist government declares all crime (including murder) legal for one night a year, received generally bad reviews. Most reviewers overlooked how the film speaks to the relationship between desire and power in modern civilization. This essay deploys Michel Foucault and Herbert Marcuse’s ideas on the political roles of violent passions to address the reviewers’ criticisms of the film. The film critics’ biggest mistake was in assuming that the America of The Purge is almost identical to America as it exists in real life. The critics suffered from what Lee Siegal calls “art-phobia,” an inability to appreciate artwork that imagines how other worlds and experiences may be, rather than mechanistically reflecting our own. i Unable to appreciate how the movie takes place in a fascist, rather than liberal capitalist, social order, critics complained that it does not make economic sense. For example, Michaell O’Sullivan said that the premise makes no economic sense because yearly slaughter of Americans would decrease the workforce’s size. ii Others question the characters’ personal decisions. Multiple reviews expressed aggravation with the character Charlie Sandin’s decision to harbor a homeless stranger from a gang that slaughters the poor for sport. iii Some expressed doubt that a vacuum of law would actually result in immediate mass murder. iv Others wondered why the film’s villains seem not to care for their own lives. Why do the purgers, portrayed as affluent and educated, “giggle in the face of death” by threatening the well-armed Sandin family for the thrill of killing one homeless man? v
Using Foucault, I argue that the movie does make sense economically when one considers how the film’s fascist government’s promotion of politically unthreatening but emotionally-cathartic violence may be similar to the 1800s bourgeoisie’s promotion of a criminal element to divide the working class. Much like the nineteenth century bourgeoisie, the film’s capitalists act to save their economic privileges by directing criminal passions away from revolution and toward social parasitism. The characters’ decisions do make sense when one analyzes them using Marcuse’s dialectic of civilization. As society’s repressive capacities increase at the same time that production becomes increasingly irrational, those who are most emotionally devoted to the existing system will find themselves driven toward hatred of people who remind them of the system’s irrationality; this explains why purgers are so motivated to kill the homeless. As society’s unchecked aggression and increasingly efficient mass media lead to the establishment of totalitarianism, many lose their ability for autonomous judgment and self-respect, thereby becoming less careful with their own lives. Finally, even under totalitarianism there exists the potential for autonomous moral decision-making and empathy; this explains Charlie’s decision to protect a strange homeless man despite the obvious risks involved. This Foucault and Marcuse-inspired reading of The Purge magnifies the need for self-directed and critical exercise of the violent and erotic passions.
Synopsis (Spoiler Alert)
For clarity’s sake, a very brief summary of The Purge’s plot is necessary. In the near future, after two world wars, a currency devaluation, and a stock market crash, poverty and crime are out of control in the U.S. until a fascist organization called the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) comes into power. The NFFA creates the Purge, an annual spring holiday in which all crime is permitted with two exceptions: certain types of explosives are not allowed and it remains illegal to kill high-ranking government officials. As a result, the economy rebounds and crime decreases for three reasons: first, people can release their pent-up anger and hatred, allowing them to be productive and compliant citizens for the rest of the year; second, the practice kills off helpless people who are a drain on the economy (such as the old, sick, and homeless); third, the Purge increases demand for weapons, security systems, etc., thereby acting as a form of military Keynesianism.
The movie focuses on one affluent, suburban family, the Sandins, as they try to make it through the night alive. The Sandins lock themselves into their home using an expensive security system, but their son, Charlie, decides to briefly unlock the system to allow an injured homeless man (listed in the credits as “Bloody Stranger”) to enter the house and escape from a gang of masked, wealthy murders (listed in the credits as “Freaks”). The Freaks’ leader, “Polite Stranger,” explains his belief that he has the right and obligation to kill the poor during the Purge and demands the Sandins release the homeless man for the gang to kill or else the gang will tear down the security system and murder everyone inside the building. The Sandins’ patriarch, James, subdues the Bloody Stranger and prepares to return him to the Freaks, but instead decides to fight the Freaks upon realizing the inhumanity of delivering a homeless man to be murdered. The Sandins together kill off most of the Freaks, although James is killed in the process. Upon seeing that the Sandins are in trouble, their neighbors intervene to kill the remaining Freaks — but only so that they may enjoy killing off the Sandins themselves. The Bloody Stranger finally emerges from his hiding in the Sandins’ house to save them from their killer neighbors.
Foucault on the Criminal Class
Many reviewers find the idea of an annual slaughter of the underclass that strengthens the economy bizarre and illogical. For example, Michaell O’Sullivan writes that the Purge “makes no economic sense, since killing your own workers is an even stupider business strategy than underpaying them…exploitation of the proletariat may be well and good, but don’t execute them all.” vi However, when one compares the Purge to the development of the criminal class in the 1800s (as described by Foucault in his 1977 book Discipline & Punish), the holiday appears more economically rational. In the early-to-mid 1800s, the European bourgeoisie faced the problem of a politically assertive criminal underclass. Criminals, sometimes under the influence of radical anarchists and Fourierists vii, increasingly understood that they could deploy their violent passions in support of the workers’ movement. viii The bourgeoisie developed the modern prison system to prevent criminals from linking with the proletariat as a conscious revolutionary force. The prison system did not serve to decrease crime, but rather to direct criminals toward a “politically and economically less dangerous” illegality. ix Two new types of criminals emerged from the modern prisons. From the working class, a criminal milieu of spies, scabs, and instigators developed to break up and harass the workers’ movement while the prisons also directed a few petty bourgeoisie criminals (who would likely have become revolutionaries in an earlier generation) to focus on an apolitical lifestyle of crime. These middle class criminals symbolized the bourgeoisie’s economic illegality and refined tastes. x
Consider the parallels between the Purge’s political/economic functions and the prison system’s social utility. Like the prison system, the Purge develops at a time when a political revolution is likely and serves to redirect society’s revolutionary energies away from political liberation and toward the degradation of the very political underclass that could support and benefit from a revolution. By allowing crime to go on uninterrupted for one night a year, the NFFA directs the angry masses to squander their revolutionary energies by merely trying to stay alive, by trying to make a profit off of the night, or by enjoying the opportunity for unrepressed sadism. The Purge preempts Americans’ revolutionary spirit and directs it against the most vulnerable in society. The Freaks play roughly the same role as Foucault’s petty-bourgeoisie criminals. Instead of revolutionary violence, the Freaks practice a type of aesthetic, masturbatory violence for personal recreation. Just as the nineteenth century criminal artists represent their era’s economic criminality, the Freaks symbolize the economic criminality of Great Recession-era America. Both the prison system and the Purge come into being to divert the masses’ revolutionary impulses by redeploying potentially political energies toward parasitic and selfish social practices.
Another, more contemporary example serves to clarify how The Purge brings certain problems facing our own economy into view. Recall one of the latest controversies surrounding former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK). In this particular round of controversy, DSK stands accused of abetting a prostitution ring through his participation in organizing high-end swingers’ parties. At these parties, the world elite enjoyed transgressing social taboos (DSK fancies himself as a “libertine”) while exercising their sexual privilege over the less powerful with little consequence (DSK seems oblivious and apathetic to the prostitutes exploited during these parties). At the same time, the orgies played a somewhat significant role in the global economy’s functions: aspiring leaders who wanted to get close DSK invested considerable expenses into his sex parties. DSK’s swingers’ parties were thus a place where elites practiced their sexual privilege over the less powerful with little consequence and where the global upper class illicitly gained economic influence by ingratiating themselves to DSK. xi
The Purge is essentially an inversion and intensification of these processes. Again, we see elites allowed to practice their raw sexual (and we can add violent) privilege over their victims without fear of legal consequence; again (and to a far greater extent) we see an illicit redistribution of power and wealth upward (this time via military Keynesianism and the suppression and cooptation of the NFFA’s potential opponents). However, the Purge inverts the power relations that operate through DSK’s swingers’ parties. Whereas the swingers’ parties involve a few elites sexually exploiting the less fortunate and economically benefiting by building relationships with one prominent economist, the Purge grants the entire privileged strata the opportunity to sexually/sadistically and economically exploit the entire underclass. Whereas the swingers’ parties are conspiratorial, with a few elites meeting in private for their strictly personal benefit, the Purge is totally public and drenched in religious and national symbolism. The film thereby exudes what Lee Siegel says gives art its power to shock. Rather than merely holding a mirror to our own society, the movie surprises us by extending and concentrating the surprising qualities of our own reality so that we may recognize our world’s strangeness. xii The Purge allows us to better understand our own socioeconomic reality by exaggerating its least savory aspects.
Marcuse’s Dialectic of Civilization and The Purge
The previous section revealed how the annual Purge makes sense from an economic standpoint. However, the subjective aspects of the Purge and how they influence various characters’ choices still require explanation. Why, as the film’s detractors ask, do the Freaks care so little for their own lives? Why do people turn immediately to murder during the purge when they could commit other crimes? Why is Charlie Sandin so willing to risk his own life to save a stranger? In his 1956 book Eros and Civilization, Marcuse presents a “dialectic of civilization” xiii that offers some answers to these questions. As society develops increasingly efficient uses for humanity’s inherent lust and sadistic impulses, people become more susceptible to violent, extremist ideologies out of their own guilt for past transgressions and inability to realize the freedom and happiness modern society makes possible. Driven to heavy aggressiveness by its own guilty conscious, modern civilization drives people toward a totalitarian lack of interest in their own individuality and an overbearing desire to eliminate anyone who dissents against the status quo. Totalitarianism cannot destroy all independent thought, however, and some nonconformists (like Charlie) will find newer, more libratory avenues for the sexual and violent instincts than those the dominant culture insists upon.
The dialectic of civilization refers to the historical process by which civilization continually reorganizes humanity’s psychological drives to promote greater social stability by directing naked aggression and sexual gratification into more useful ends. As society develops increasingly sophisticated techniques for redirecting these energies, people become better able to control nature and fulfill their own needs, suggesting the possibility of living without domination or scarcity. However, in a turn of the dialectic, humanity does not manage to do away with domination because, at every breakthrough in the control over the emotions, aggression returns to haunt mankind in an even more destructive and irrational form. This twist makes people again try to find new social/political forms that will better defer their aggression. xiv The Purge illustrates this dialectic.
Drawing from Freud, Marcuse insists that sexual and violent drives are unified in the human subconscious before civilization acts to separate them. The drive toward death and the drive toward life have the same origin: the total comfort of the mother’s womb. The desire to recreate the bliss one feels before being born into a stressful world guides the death instinct and sexual desire. xv Both energies seek the “ regression behind life itself” to a point where bodily pleasure and death converge. xvi Human reason and social institutions separate the death drive from eroticism, but this separation remains forever tenuous. A desire to regress to the pre-rational lack of distinction between the two instincts motivates the Freaks and explains their ostensibly transgressive sexual sadism. When the Freaks “release the beast,” they abandon human reason for a primitive animalism disburdened of restrictions on emotions and impulses. The Freaks embody the reconsolidation of sex and violence through their exaggerated bisexuality, sexualized posturing outside the Sandins’ doorstep, and practice of rape. However, they have not managed to truly escape the confines of societal reason and return to a primitive bliss. Marcuse argues that society finds ways to allow for the exercise of aggressive and sexual energy in a way that “recreates” productive workers and obedient citizens. xvii The Freaks enact an extreme form of this type of socially-useful recreation. They will return to their normal, rational lives (should they survive) the next day with a reinvigorated focus on sustaining society: they are, in their own words, “reborn” and “cleansed” of their pent-up aggression.
While the desire to regress to a primitive state without socially-imposed separations between sexual and violent instincts may explain some of the Freaks behaviors, it does not fully account for why the Freaks are so careless with their own lives or why they choose to exercise their aggression by massacring the homeless and other outsiders (rather than through artistic expression, revolutionary violence, or other types of crimes). The NFFA’s violent, extremist ideology points the Freaks’ attempts to overcome instinctual repression toward murder. Ideology, which Marcuse fears is becoming increasingly violent and irrational, plays a special role in the dialectic of civilization. Marcuse says that when aggressive instincts do not find immediately useful outlets, they are abstracted into patriotism, morality, religion, and ideology. xviii People translate their guilt and anxiety over their society’s past sins into anger at those who remind them of these past misdeeds.xix For example, Marcuse notes that Christian anti-Semitism is partly explained by Christians’ distress over Christendom’s past atrocities. xx The NFFA consciously develops the Purge to reconcile Americans with their country’s historical violence. In the film, a pro-NFFA psychologist defends the Purge by proclaiming “we are an inherently violent species: wars, genocide, murder; the denial of our true selves is the problem.” The Purge thus serves as an ideological exercise in which Americans reconcile their own guilt over previous excesses, presumably the atrocities the U.S. committed in the two world wars that preceded the NFAA’s ascension to power, by reenacting these very atrocities. The poor and political dissidents become the targets of this ideological exercise because, as visible reminders that all is not well in American society, they provoke the very anxiety that drives people to extreme nationalism.
Similarly, Marcuse writes that ideology becomes increasingly violent as humanity’s potential to live free from domination grows. Modern people feel a heavy guilt for not using their advanced technology to end domination and unnecessary repression. Civilization no longer has any pressing need to excessively repress sexual/aggressive drives in order to survive because science has already conquered nature to the point that a more rational social order could potentially fulfill everyone’s needs. At some level, people understand that such a change is possible but fail to enact it because doing so would require a politically difficult break with the status quo and ruling elite. xxi Faced with the guilt of failing to achieve this feasible but difficult change, individuals redouble their support for the very political forces preventing such a change and direct their aggression at those who remind them of the possibility of liberation. Marcuse illustrates this process by reference to the medieval church’s massacres of Anabaptists and other heretics. The heretics emphasized Christ’s egalitarian message and bodily existence, which suggest the possibility of a spirituality that did not repress physical pleasure. xxii While systematically executing these heretics, Marcuse writes, the church was acting against “the specter of liberation which they desired but which they were compelled to reject.” xxiii Much like the old Church’s henchmen, the Freaks desire an escape from repression, but act against those whose presence hints at the possibility of liberation: the poor (who would be the likely beneficiaries of a revolution against the NFFA) and political dissidents. xxiv
Having explained why the Freaks choose to murder the homeless during the Purge, the question of why both Charlie and the Freaks seem to act so carelessly with their own lives remains. xxv The answer relates to life’s lack of value under totalitarianism. Marcuse sees the strictly supervised and standardized relaxation of sexual taboos as a defining feature of modern totalitarianism. Unable to continue repressing the social body’s pent-up aggression, elites must direct their followers to transgress old taboos in a controlled, standardized way. Thus, the elites manage to neutralize sexual and violent indulgences by mass producing them. xxvi With the mass culture dictating how one encounters and overcomes taboos, individuals are much less likely to learn how to autonomously define themselves through the violation of sexual mores. xxvii The Freaks’ transgressions exemplify such coordinated, faux-rebellion and the loss of individuality that accompanies it. It goes without saying that the Freaks’ violations of taboos are not the creative acts of autonomous individuals, but rather government-directed and sanctioned activity. The Freaks together chant a prayer to God, America, and the NFFA before executing their victims; this amounts to a ritualization and political neutralization of transgression itself. Likewise, the Freaks seem to possess little sense of their own individuality. During the Purge, the Polite Stranger sheds his appreciation for individualizing social forms, such as friendship: he shoots his own friend in front of James Sandin just to demonstrate his willingness to kill. The Freaks’ masks erase their individual identities, swallowing them into the collective form of the purgers. Thus, a lack of individuality, enforced by totalitarian society’s coordination of rebellion, explains why the Freaks are so willing to risk their own lives for what appear to be minimal rewards. The Freaks do not have the well-developed sense of individual dignity and self-worth that comes from autonomous rebellion.
Although Charlie also risks his own life, he does so in a very different way than the Freaks. Where the Freaks act carelessly with their own lives because they do not value individual life, Charlie risks his life out of respect for the life of another individual. A foil to the Polite Stranger, Charlie represents the necessity of maintaining individual, moral autonomy under totalitarianism. It is important to note that Charlie, much like the Freaks, attempts to cross social taboos and embrace his sexuality and death instincts: this much is apparent in his morbid fiction and artwork. For example, Charlie writes a story about a man who rips his own heart out because his love is so powerful that it kills people (his sister exclaims that the man should have cut his penis off). Charlie’s story reveals that he is just as driven to reunite eroticism with the death instinct as the Freaks. However, he follows these impulses on his own terms, injecting his own discomfort with the Purge into his artwork. Therein rests the political significance of Charlie’s decision to save the Bloody Stranger from the Freaks: Charlie’s own self-directed reclamation of his repressed instincts enables him to empathize with another individual, whereas the Freaks’ preempted transgressions erase their ability to respect individuality. By criticizing Charlie for letting a stranger into his house during the Purge, the movie’s reviewers unwittingly demonstrate the filmmakers’ latent argument that America suffers from a lack of empathy and dignified solidarity.
With all this in mind, we must not only take comfort in Charlie’s decision to help another human being in danger, but also note how Charlie accompanies his own moral development with an indulgence of his erotic and violent fantasies through a morbid fascination with the Purge and death. The message of The Purge is certainly not that we should deny our own lust and sadism, but rather that we should continuously develop and refine them in a self-directed way, lest authority figures dictate how we come to terms with our own violent and erotic tendencies. We should strive to be like Charlie, whose own self-exploration of his repressed aggression and sexuality overlap with a strong sense of empathy and individual autonomy. We should avoid becoming like the Freaks, who come to embrace their repressed urges in a way that reinforces our society’s fascistic trends, such as those found in national chauvinism, Christian fundamentalism, and unbounded capitalist competition. Marcuse and Foucault both point to how easy it is for potentially liberating transgressive passions to become entwined with the exercise of authoritarian power.
Another recent movie, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, indicates these themes’ urgency. According to Chris Hedges’ review, American Sniper glorifies everything The Purge criticizes: Eastwood exalts American gun culture, extreme nationalism, mass conformity, and Christian fundamentalism while deriding compassion, empathy, and individual self-reflection. More importantly, Eastwood’s film celebrates a man “intoxicated with violence” and presents moral rejuvenation through the militarization of society as a solution to America’s political and economic ills. xxviii Interestingly, this is the same type of sentiment that puts the NFFA into power in the fictional world of The Purge. Reading The Purge alongside Marcuse and Foucault shows the need for artwork that explores violence from a critical and empathetic standpoint. If progressive artists do not present individuals with avenues to develop their darker passions, then media like American Sniper will define the development of these instincts as an exercise in mass conformity and unrefined barbarism.
i Siegel, Lee. Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination. New York: Basic Books, 2006
ii O’Sullivan, Michael. “‘The Purge: Anarchy’: movie review: a heavy-handed, gory sequel.” The Washington Post. July 17, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/the-purge-anarchy-movie-review-a-heavy-handed-gory-sequel/2014/07/16/2232438a-0d13-11e4-8341-b8072b1e7348_story.html (accessed February 9, 2015).
iii O’Connell, Sean. “Movie Review: The Purge.” Cinemablend. 2013. http://www.cinemablend.com/reviews/The-Purge-6441.html (accessed February 9, 2015); Gumbarge, Jesse. “The Purge: 4 Reasons it was a Disappointment.” Jarvis City. June 10, 2013. http://jarviscity.com/2013/06/10/the-purge-4-reasons-it-was-a-disappointment/ (accessed April 14, 2015).
iv Willmore, Alison. “Why The Purge Movies have a Great Premise and Terrible Execution.” Buzzfeed. July 24, 2014. https://www.buzzfeed.com/alisonwillmore/the-purge-movies-class-warfare-letdown?utm_term=.tcj1Lyxva#.xyw4v10qW (accessed February 9, 2015).
v Gumbarge 2013.
vi O’Sullivan 2014.
vii Foucault, Michel. Discipline/Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1977, 289.
viii Ibid, 275.
ix Ibid, 277.
x Ibid, 283-285.
xi Wolff, Michael. “Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Our Paranoid-Erotic Fantasies of Power.” The Guardian. October 15, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/15/dominique-strausskahn-paranoid-erotic-fantasies-power (accessed February 9, 2015); Carvajal, Doreen and Maia de la Baume. “Sex was ‘Out of Step,’ Straus-Kahn Says, But Not Illegal”.” The New York Times. October 14, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/world/europe/dominique-strauss-kahn-says-lust-is-not-a-crime.html (accessed February 9, 2015).
xii Siegel 2006, 217.
xiii Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. London: Routledge, 1956, 78.
xiv Ibid, 90.
xv Ibid, 28-29.
xvi Ibid, 25.
xvii Ibid, 47.
xviii Ibid, 33-34; 52-53.
xix Ibid, 56.
xx Ibid, 69.
xxi Ibid, 93.
xxii Ibid, 68-71.
xxiii Ibid, 71.
xxiv The NFFA encourages their supporters to place blue flowers on their doorsteps to show support for the Purge. The film suggests that purgers target dissidents who fail to support their government in this way. The Polite Stranger tells James Sandin that he does not want to attack the Sandins because they have blue flowers on their porch. Presumably, this Freak would be less hesitant to attack people who are not outward backers of the Purge.
xxv Although no reviews pointed this out, the ease with which the Sandins’ neighbors accept their oncoming deaths as the Bloody Stranger prepares to shoot them also demonstrates the purgers’ lack of concern for their own lives.
xxvi Ibid, 93-95.
xxvii Ibid, 89.
xxviii Hedges, Chris. “Killing Ragheads for Jesus.” Truthdig. January 25, 2015. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/killing_ragheads_for_jesus_20150125 (accessed February 9, 2015).Copyright (c) 2016 Judson Abraham