Dead Space: The Shock Doctrine Goes Interplanetary

Jonathan McCalmont @ 26-05-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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Video gaming has something of a reputation for numbskullery. Guardians of higher culture look down upon gaming as the preserve of fat indolent children and brain-dead adults who would rather fantasise about killing things than read a book.

Of course, they are wrong. In truth, gaming is an activity comparable to wine tasting or fine dining: it is all about palate.

Let me explain what I mean – your average punter on the street might be able to tell you the difference between a bottle of wine costing £10 and one costing you £2 but they would not be able to tell you the difference between a bottle costing £50 and one costing £500. They lack the palate to appreciate the subtleties, the eye for differences. They could not tell you why lamb from Wales is better than lamb from New Zealand. They could not tell you why the painstakingly sourced and morally immaculate coffee I drink in the afternoons is better than the freeze-dried rocket fuel I pour down my throat first thing in the morning. This is because it takes time to build a palate. It takes effort to fully appreciate the little differences. This is true whether you are drinking wine, whether you are attending the opera, whether you are viewing paintings and whether you are virtually dismembering the undead.

Taste is all about the subtle differences and gaming is an arena of human activity where taste is all important. Taste means that incredibly subtle innovations in a game’s combat system can make that game worth getting excited about. Taste means appreciating the stylistic quirks and shifts of emphasis that make one violent video game a masterclass in tension and another an unending cavalcade of prurient ghoulish violence. The French intellectual and artist Jean Cocteau once said that for some, style is a simple way of saying complicated things. EA Redwood Shores’ Dead Space (2008) is a game that proves how much can be said with minute shifts of emphasis for while the game is ostensibly yet another title all about collecting money and killing monsters, Dead Space is a fiercely left wing game whose narrative constitutes a vicious critique of neoliberalism and the monetarist policies of Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys. It is a game about the brutal economic dismemberment of developing economies in the name of Free Trade and how, finally, the world is starting to realise that you do not cure poverty with Shock Therapy as that only makes things worse. Much worse.

The Cast

Dead Space begins with a tip of the hat to Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection (1997). Written by Joss Whedon almost as a dry run for his later series Firefly (2002), Alien: Resurrection opens with the crew of a tramp freighter approaching a vast space ship. The crew are a bunch of near-criminals who have been brought in to do a job of work for a much larger organisation. A job of work that is outside of the reach of the lumbering behemoth. In the case of Alien: Resurrection, the job was to deliver a bunch of unwitting victims for human experimentation. In the case of Dead Space, the job was repair, overhaul; technical assistance.

This casting of the protagonists as a group of seemingly self-employed contractors is an important move as it taps into one of the great sustaining myths of modern capitalism namely the idea that there are fortunes to be made out of this world for anyone smart enough, flexible enough and energetic enough to reach out and claim them. Think of it as The American Dream meets White Van Man. It is a myth that sells capitalism on the basis of its universal potential for creating wealth — even those people who do not benefit from capitalism continue to vote for parties of the right partly because they believe that they have the potential to become rich, even if they never act upon it… and even if the statistics tell them that most start-up companies fail, and that hardly any entrepreneurs manage to go far beyond supporting themselves. The myth tells a story and stories count for more than facts.

But this casting of the protagonists as technicians is also significant. Indeed, when the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet turned to the neoliberal economists who trained under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, he referred to them as “Technos” – Technicians. Problem Solvers. Systems experts.

The Setting

The protagonists of Dead Space have been summoned to repair a ship referred to as a ‘Planet Cracker’ — a vast factory in space that literally tears chunks out of planets and breaks them down into their raw materials so that they might be processed and sold off to the highest bidder. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful metaphor for the awesome power of uncontrolled capitalism — a force that tears at social bonds, breaks up institutions and ignores the human and environmental costs that come from the process of self-enrichment. However, Deep Space is not a vague or elliptical game. Its targets are precise and its imagery clear. The ‘Planet Cracker’ in question is not some vague symbol of capitalist greed, it is a symbol for the application of free market policies to the economies of the developing world.

As Naomi Klein argues in her book The Shock Doctrine – the Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), Friedman’s neoliberalism is best understood as a reaction against the dominant trends in economic and political thought in the 1950s. The 50s were a time when economic policy was decidedly top-down and statist. America had rebuilt itself thanks to the New Deal, Europe was embracing Social Democracy, Keynesianism dominated Economics and Developmentalism was seen as the best way of tackling poverty around the globe. These four political schools stressed the need for state management of the economy.

This belief in a partially planned economy was itself a reaction against the uncontrolled capitalism of the 1920s, which many economists believed was the cause of the Great Depression of the 1930s and 40s. To its credit, Keynesianism boasted a great many successes – not only had Germany and Japan reinvented themselves as economic powerhouses, but the wave of decolonisation that had swept the globe in the wake of the Second World War was followed by a flowering of vigorous developing-world economies, seemingly poised for industrialisation with their emerging, newly-educated middle classes, and their working classes bolstered by impressive rates of literacy and free health care. After the slaughter and misery of the Second World War, the World seemed about to pull itself together– until suddenly, history re-asserted itself.

As the rhetoric and posturing of the Cold War began to overtake domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic, the political currents began to shift. Why was America supporting countries that refused to buy American goods? What of the corporate interests that were nationalised? If your country isn’t open to free trade, does it not follow that you are anti-American? And if you are anti-American, does that not mean that you are pro-Soviet? … and so the well of Developmentalism was poisoned.

In Chile, Bolivia, Britain, Poland, China, South Africa, Russia, across South East Asia and even in America itself, the message rang out: open your markets, sell off your nationalised industries and institutions and allow the invisible hand of the market to ‘fix’ your economy. In every case the same pattern emerged — economies imploded, governments cracked down on the people, and the rich became the superrich while the people starved. Indeed, as Loic Wacquant suggests in his excellent book Punishing the Poor – The Neoliberal Government of Social Inequality (2009), the role of the state in today’s body politic is not to help the poor but to keep them under control: to brutalise and incarcerate them if they refuse to accept the logic of neoliberalism and the unquestioned assertion that the unaccountable market will always know better than a benign and democratically elected government.

Dead Space is about the aftermath of the decision to break open an economy. The planet cracker has popped the cork of Developmentalism; now the free market moves in to begin stripping the assets, and chaos is unleashed.

The Enemy

Dead Space pits one of the Technos (named Isaac Clarke in a nod to two dead white men of the science fiction persuasion) against the massed forces of the necromorphs. The necromorphs are (in a move reminiscent of the Resident Evil series’ re-invention of Zombies) dead humans reanimated by a virus. They are disfigured, twisted with rage, impossible to control. They swarm across the planet cracker bringing death and destruction with them. They are controlled by a hive mind and form a collective – a soviet, one of those ‘society’ things that Margaret Thatcher claimed did not exist. A revolutionary consciousness. As in Chile and China, this collective consciousness cannot be reasoned with… it can only be bludgeoned into submission.

The Methods

Dead Space’s gameplay is unashamedly inspired by that of other third-person action games such as Tomb Raider (1995) and the survival horror classic Resident Evil (1996). You control one character who prowls sinister corridors picking up items of equipment, money and increasingly high-powered weapons. As with most contemporary video games, Dead Space happily asserts the universal power of the market — it does not matter how many lives are at stake, how dangerous the situation is or the extent to which the world is falling apart — you still have to pay money for the big guns. The logic and the power of the market always transcend human needs.

However, Dead Space’s reverence for the market does not stop with surreal mercantilism… it also extends to the actual game-play. Indeed, one of the innovations trumpeted by the avalanche of hype that surrounded Dead Space’s release was the way in which shooting monsters is rarely sufficient to kill them. Pump round after round into your average necromorph and he will still keep coming at you. Dead Space does not reward butchery, it rewards surgery. Indeed, the most efficient way to kill necromorphs is to assume the role of the hatchet man and make cuts. A leg here. An arm there. A health service here. Some national oil reserves there. Cut. Cut. Cut.

The Plot

So far, I have painted a picture of the mute Isaac Clarke as a futuristic Chicago Boy – an outside expert brought in to manage the break-up of an economy when the forces of the free market unleash chaos. But this is only half the story.

As Deep Space progresses, the video, sound and text logs that litter the ship begin to fill in the story of what happened to the planet cracker. What went wrong? It turns out that the chaos unleashed by the planet cracker was caused by the decision to take on board a strange Maguffin known as the Marker. The Marker is initially believed to be an alien artefact but, as is made clear in the decidedly average tie-in animated film Dead Space: Downfall (2008), the truth turns out to be rather more complex. A matter of conspiracy and double-dealing best summarised by the idea that the artefact is actually man-made; this places the necromorphs and the events on-board the planet cracker in rather a different light.

Indeed, the necromorphs are not alien interlopers into a natural process, but products of that process itself. This is an important distinction, as it chimes so well with the way in which Friedman talks about the free market. Indeed, one of the more intriguing tactics used during the rise of neoliberalism as a political doctrine is the idea of the free market being in some way natural, like a default setting. If this is true, then it follows that any intervention by the state in the market is a ‘distortion’ of the market and ‘unnatural’, but this is mere political rhetoric… the market is a human institution and, as such, it has no existence beyond that granted it by humans. Living in a state of bare-knuckle free market capitalism is no more natural than living in a Stalinist planned economy… and even if it was, it would not be clear what kind of moral or political authority ‘natural’ carries. It is not ‘natural’ to have a special room to defecate in, but it does not follow that we should all let it drop out the back like cart horses. Dead Space’s suggestion that the necromorphs’ presence is a result of the planet cracking suggests that the human costs of the market must be taken into account and not merely repressed with force. Indeed, the game’s final act sees Isaac Clarke desperately trying to mend fences with the hive mind by returning the marker to the planet. This also chimes intriguingly with the history of neoliberal thought…

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The Future

Klein’s book predates the recent economic crash, but it still predicts an imminent sea change – a paradigm shift, like an oil tanker turning. She speaks of the international community’s gradual loss of faith in the International Monetary Fund – a body set up in order to help poorer nations only to serve as a herald of neoliberal colonialism throughout the 1980s and 90s. She points to countries such as Thailand and Lebanon who, faced with environmental and military disaster, refused to allow the break up of their infrastructures and the selling off of their common goods. She even points to New Orleans, where returning communities have started to reclaim their homes and throw a spanner into the works of property developers who saw the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina as a form of biblical flood — wiping the slate clean for private enterprise.

It is clear that we are standing at a historical tipping point: will the logic of free markets continue to rule our lives or are we, as a species, stepping back from our cowardly fetishisation of stock prices and profit margins? The answer remains unclear. We seem to have entered a state of political quantum indeterminacy…

We know that our governments have pumped billions of dollars into the global economy in the hope of fending off what, at one point, looked like a second Great Depression. We know that the grass roots of recovery are starting to peek through. We know that the people of the West will not stand for cuts to public services: people have taken to the streets of Athens to make that case, and the US has brought in a truncated form of social medicine as proof of their renewed faith in the state. We know that banks and businesses were deemed to be ‘too big to fail’, demanding government intervention rather than the logic of the markets. We know these things and yet we do not have the full picture… have those billions gone into rebuilding our economies or into the pockets of the superrich? Have governments spent not in order to stave off economic decline but to push back the day when they have to make cuts? Is this recovery lasting, or is it merely a blip on the otherwise downward spiral of free market capitalism in crisis?

David Harvey argues in his sublime book The Enigma of Capital (2010) that naked capitalism demands 3% economic growth every single year. Initially this proved easy, but so many economies have now been broken open and picked clean that there seem to be few opportunities left. What is worse is that we have just finished one of the longest sustained periods of global economic growth on record. The global economy is now so immense that a mere 3% growth demands the creation of huge amounts of new wealth. Where is it going to come from? Have we reached the end of the road for Neoliberalism? Have we realised that we are close to the edge and stepped back? Until the dust settles on the current crisis, the picture remains unclear… and the same is true of Isaac Clarke’s apparent change of heart in Dead Space.

Dead Space has a sequel due for release next year. We know that it is going to be set on a space station, and we know that the ending of the first game saw Clarke fighting for his life against a necromorphed version of the woman he loves. Has he made peace with the hive mind? Will he help its collectivism spread to the new setting? The fact that the game ends with Clarke fighting his former love suggests that there is the basis for an alliance between the ‘Techno’ and the collective. I would like to think that the sequel will see Clarke spreading the collective across human space, leading a revolution that will replace humanity’s greed and avarice with a sense of togetherness born from a hive mind. I would like to see the systems expert using his skills to ‘fix’ the unmoderated economies and societies of human space.

We should all turn our backs on Milton Friedman and join with the flesh-eating space zombies from beyond the stars. Surely that is a political programme that we can all get behind?

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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4 Responses to “Dead Space: The Shock Doctrine Goes Interplanetary”

  1. Nader Elhefnawy says:

    Overall, a very strong piece. I haven’t played Dead Space, but the discussion of the politics and economics on which the analysis is based are very impressive. (I have only one slight quibble, which does not detract from the quality of the overall argument, specifically with the claim that we have just finished one of the longest sustained periods of global economic growth on record. Growth since the ’70s has been more and more anemic with each decade, contrary to the hype.)

  2. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Nader 🙂

    Thanks for the praise and for your disagreement. Is the problem with the ‘long boom’ vision of recent economic history not that economic growth is defined in incredibly narrow terms?

    You’re right about the increasing anemia though and that chimes quite nicely with Harvey’s analysis of capitalism having to work harder and harder (and become more and more brutal) to generate any kind of growth at all.

  3. Nader Elhefnawy says:

    Certainly agreed about those points-the narrowness of the terms, and the increased strain to generate additional gains. As it happens, I’ve been publishing for years about the pattern of diminishing returns in the global economy, starting with a piece in International Security back in 2004. (I was working off the societal collapse theory of Joseph Tainter rather than a critique of capitalism, but the pattern was certainly there.)
    Incidentally, Alan Freeman offers some interesting number-crunching here:
    http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/6745/1/MPRA_paper_6745.pdf

  4. Tom says:

    I won’t sully a video game article with political debate, just leave a note that their are some pretty thorough critiques of Naomi Klein’s narrative particularly by the Reason foundation. But blah, blah, blah.

    If you’d like to continue this as a series, I’d like to nominate Mother 3 as an(excellent) game that flirts with the allures of socialism and the loss of community as a village adopts consumerism. It is worth going out your way for the english patch. It’s touching regardless of political affiliation.