Thinking back at it, it’s really puzzling how 1999’s iconic Fight Club got made. Perhaps 20th Century Fox didn’t know what they had on their hands – an acerbic comedy with Brad Pitt perhaps? Trailers for the David Fincher film played endlessly before Fox’s summer hit Star Wars: A Phantom Menace, giving it plenty of publicity. But this initially didn’t translate to mass audiences, who didn’t know what to make of the curious film at the time of its release. It wasn’t until it hit the video stores that Fight Club found its growing popularity, which is a pity because it plays vastly better on the big screen. Fight Club has given pop culture a vocabulary of ideas that have become cultural shorthand for a cynical era of late capitalism. So it’s all the more surprising that the film, a existential, anarchistic, anti-globalization fantasy is the last thing you’d expect from Rupert Murdock’s parent company.
The Geist, the specter, of Tyler Durden, fueled by the restless spirit of the office park dystopia, is a force personifying much of the malcontents in this age of anger. It’s interesting to place Fight Club not as fiction, but as prophetic documentary evidence of a time and place, a metaphor of the historical present, a world trapped between McWorld and Jihad, between globalism and its blowback.
Spoilers. If you haven’t seen Fight Club – get on it!
I. Self, Conflicted: Rage, Rage Against the Grey Suit
Fight Club‘s resonance, especially in the first half, is it’s darkly comic cynical wit, framing for the audience a tone of suspicion for consumer lifestyleism with its lattes, kakis, Swedish designer furniture and exotic mustard. The comforts of consumerism beset the eerie tenor of negative freedom, which is to say unfreedom, the conditional freedoms created by new social prisons of the anesthetic, emasculated, politically correct space of the corporate hierarchy. So the narrator (Edward Norton) has a psychotic break which upends his life and we are introduced to a sub-personality, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who in a sense liberates the narrator by first destroying his material attachments and consumerist habits, then turning men’s group guru, and finally anti-civ monkey wrencher.
Fight Club begins in large part a critique of the (post)modern performance of masculinity from the trap of corporate castration symboluzed by his weekly testicular cancer group. This is a castration anxiety first diagnosed in the 1950s postwar economy. Books like William H. Whyte’s 1956 The Organization Man painted a frightening picture of the American man’s individuality being swallowed up and “feminized” by the collective mind of corporate and governmental organizations. This character was given life in Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (made into a Gregory Peck movie), a precursor to Mad Men’s Don Draper, about a 1950s man whose rugged American individuality became shackled by the corporate life. He longed for the past peak experiences in the war on the Italian front where he felt gloriously alive on the razor’s edge of sex and violence. He struggles to tame his past to go on in the domestic kingdom.
The ideal self in this system was so narrow, it was near impossible to pull off – masculine, affluent, stoic, isolate, rugged, fit, virtuous, God-fearing, capitalist, and non-conformist. The performance of manhood is a gauntlet of anxiety-producing injections. Fond but not in love. A family man, but not mushy. Wild but in control. Violent but in the service of righteousness. Logical but not a machine cog. Cultural historian K.A. Cuordileone explains in Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War that the fears of collectivism and conformity fed the right wing McCarthyist and Bircher-type paranoias of the fifties and sixties. These anxieties of gender politics at their worst tended to lump together all otherness – feminists, homosexuals, the effete cultured liberal class, people of color as potential victims of communist infiltration and brainwashing, their precious bodily fluids sapped and unpurified by the alleged nefarious hidden Red plot to take over the world. Science fiction movies at the time exposed the nightmares of the culture – fears of alien invasions, giant radioactive ants, mass brainwashing, pod people, 50-foot tall women, whatever things from other worlds.
The ideology of the patriarchal nuclear family during this relatively affluent time heralded the rugged individual man’s man of the workplace. Meanwhile, women were relegated to the domestic space, an existential unhappiness famously documented by Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique. The critique at the time was that this gender and economic stratification put boys in a precarious position of being a generation with distant fathers but overbearing mothers. It became an anxiety-provoking gender trap for all involved. Men were alienated from home and themselves, cogs of the corporate mechanizations. Women were alienated as well, encouraged to stay in the home but were criticized for overbearing their sissified boys. Daughters taught to be deferential to men. 1950s was full of talk of the oedipalized male, pathologized and popularized in films like 1960’s Psycho and 1963’s The Manchurian Candidate. It was believed that schizophrenogenic mothers were causing men to either go gay, crazy, or both – (since until 1973, psychiatry considered homosexuality a developmental deficit). It was in this configuration that the patriarchal nuclear family endured with its Ozzie and Harrietesque dream. Tyler Durden’s prophesy: “we were a generation of men raised by women, I’m beginning to wonder if another woman is what we need.”
The grand irony of this angst rodden time was that the paranoia about a Red invasion was really a projection of anxieties in an increasingly ordered society beset by an advancing bureaucratization and mechanization of society where people began to see themselves as conformists and consumers in an increasingly lonely, alienating world generated not by communist infiltration, but by capitalist dehumanization.
By the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the externalization of anxiety onto the other could no longer be contained. The 1990s was an age in which the West was at once triumphant in the Fukuyamaist sense where we all thought free markets and liberal democracies were here to stay. This posed a new challenge of not being able to figure out anything for the CIA to do. The national narrative requires an other. As Bill Clinton’s New Democrats moved the party center to the neoliberal consensus, signed NAFTA, deregulated banks, repealed Glass-Steagall protections, expanded globalization, bolstered the IMF and World Bank, and allied with Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan in a kind of utopian move to let the markets manage democracy. The markets were buoyed and the federal government balanced the budget, all while remaining out of any major wars. The late 1990s were the halcyon days of global capitalism, and it’s precisely then, in 1996 that Chuck Palahnuik wrote his cynical apocalyptic vision in Fight Club, which focuses on a decaying world of cancerous bodies, amok hormones, bitch tits and turmorous testicles, melted fat on car upholstery, loose teeth and walking corpses, gruesome car wrecks, broken necks and fractured faces.
For all the utopianism of globalization at that time, already there were stirrings of its undoing. Call it the negative of the dialectic, the notes from the underground of corporate managed democracy. Market democracy attempted to sell us on the belief that people voted with their dollars, that consumer demand and choice was a better system than representative democracy. Of course, those who promoted this idea had a lot to gain, and it had a number of consequences. One was that the government stepped aside, giving political power to the lobbyists and special interests. The government, having become a pay-to-play system, could no longer be turned to in order to respond to the public and would be viewed with ever greater suspicion. Second, the corporation could not provide society anything to really believe in. Neoliberalism could not privatize hope, a world afar from JFK’s embedded New Frontier liberalism of “Ask what you can do for your country.” Everything was a game for profit, and it encouraged us all to think of ourselves as these little individual entrepreneurs and investors in this new economy hording our dot-com stock portfolios. Third, the corporate utopia of the 1990s engendered a great malaise and anxious malcontent exquisitely demonstrated by a number of films of the era, as if emerging from the dreams of the cultural unconscious.
II. “I am Jack’s Smirking Revenge”
1999 produced a number of classics about the corporate malaise. In addition to Fight Club, there was Office Space, The Matrix and American Beauty. Each one is about a hero who sheds the corporate tool mass identity and goes through some sort of revivifying transformation of the masculine character – programmer Peter is hypnotized to not care and breaks the office rules, hacker Neo bending the rules of the corporate simulacrum with his bullet time kung-fu, or white collar Lester unshackling himself from the white suburban malaise. In the 1950s, we had the tragic Death of a Salesman. By the 1990s, the grandsons of Willie Loman shed their corporate ennui and grey suits with hacking, pot, and street fighting, self-ing their way to rugged individualism.
In a sense these films presaged a growing subgenre of film and television in the post-9/11 world where the protagonist is a workaday ordinary Joe who is either initiated into superherodom by joining a killer elite fraternity or are amnesiacs who discover that they have hidden talents usually finding out that they are some sort of super spy (True Lies, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Bourne Identity, Alias, Spy Kids, Wanted, Kingsman, The Americans, The Incredibles, Heroes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and countless others). In these kinds of narratives, the heroes kind of turn into their superhero inner selves. The message being that the consumer-driven world of the herd might have gotten you down, but they just don’t understand … the real you. It’s one of the reasons that often the most colorful part of a man’s wardrobe is his superhero boxers. Under the suit, you’re a hero, a star brimming with personal power capable of being a badass American idol.
Of course, this is another trap of the late capitalist self where we’re all supposed to be unique beautiful snowflakes with selves well esteemed. The ideology maintains that it is the only path forward, and that we all have this great opportunity to advance ourselves, to unleash some serious Tony Robbins personal power. It creates a gap in our imaginations between ego and self, between the normal workaday person we think we are and the superperson we think we could be … if only … whatever. The fascination with superheroes, super-spies and super-whatevers in our culture has a lot to do with this.
But for many, this is held out to be only an illusion, a dream too far, such that the unlived life becomes toxic, their days preoccupied with ressentiment – they rise up and say “a plague on the new economy!” It cynically curses the negative freedom of managed democracy and the consumerist self. It curses the quest for perfection. Fight Club, in a fascinating anti-hero move, toys with the idea that there is a secret life to be lived, but it’s not to be a superhero, it’s about letting it go and embracing defeat. The self overcomes by undergoing defeat, by picking fights, only to lose, as a path to real freedom. Tyler Durden:
“Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Goddamnit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
III. The Neocon’s Therapy for Office Park Wimps
It’s this anxious malaise and boredom that politics would respond to. It would not resemble Tyler Durden’s radical anarchism. Conservatives would regather themselves in the late 1990s to respond to the Clinton coalition to regain power. With the markets in control, there wasn’t much for them to do in terms of an economic platform. So they attempted to find something else – a change in culture. And this change had an air of restoring a masculine ethic, diagnosed in Steven Ducat’s book The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity. It was more than anything a plea to character rather than reason, and worked hard to make their party into one that would restore “honor” to the White House. It was a plea to properly masculinize the office against the sissified libertine affectations of the doughy-bodied and pussy-whipped William Jefferson Clinton. To do this, the right closely allied itself with the fundamentalists to alter the political character with stiffened political … (ahem) … backbone. This project is the equivalent of Fight Club’s the testicular cancer encounter group, Men Remaining Together. “Yes, men. Men is what we are.”
They attempted, and failed, to ride the wave of a pseudo-event, the Lewinsky bee-jay media spectacle, to oust Clinton. And then their dreams turned to more imperial interests. In the late 1990s they regrouped around a new narrative that became a grandiose plan for a Pax Americana called The Project for the New American Century. It was an ambitious plan to use American power to influence world markets and called for regime changes in key Middle Eastern Countries. It became a highly ambitious plan to once again assert American influence, to messianically remake the world in America’s image, restoring the world order with the God-given providence of American exceptionalism. Corey Robin writes of his 2000 interview with archconservatives William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol:
The end of Communism and the triumph of the free market, they told me, were mixed blessings. While they were conservative victories, these developments had nevertheless rendered the United States ill-equipped for the post-Cold War era. Americans now possessed the most powerful empire in history. At the same time, they were possessed by one of the most antipolitical ideologies in history: the free market. According to its idealists, or at least one camp of its idealists, the free market is a harmonious order, promising an international civil society of voluntary exchange, requiring little more from the state than the occasional enforcement of laws and contracts. For Buckley and Kristol, this was too bloodless a notion upon which to found a national order, much less a global empire. It did not provide the passion and elan, the gravitas and authority, that the exercise of American power truly required, at home and abroad. It encouraged triviality and small-minded politics, self-interest over the national interest – not the most promising base from which to launch an empire.
“The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism of the market,” Buckley told me, “is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you mast the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.” Conservatism, Kristol added, “is so influenced by business culture and business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the left.” Kristol confessed to a deep yearning for an American empire: “What’s the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role? It’s unheard of in human history. The most powerful nation always had an imperial role.” … Because of its commitment to the free market, the United States lacked the fortitude and vision to wield imperial power. “It’s too bad,” Kristol lamented. “I think it would be natural for the United States … to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. (The Reactionary Mind, 161-162).
So here we have one form of response to the malaise of the market, which is a sort of romanticized vision, a re-invigoration of belief of right through American might. Managing the portfolio, mowing the lawn, getting an SUV and having a barbecue just wouldn’t pass existential muster. The market was the aim of the neoconservatives, but alone it was not enough. For them, what was needed was a good imperial adventure to bolster the spirit of the nation. The new America would be tempered by the glory of the struggle. The most popular show of the 1990s, Seinfeld, “a show about nothing,” and this was a nothing the neocons sought to fill in a new national narrative that was abundantly gifted to them after 9/11. Politics didn’t just go after a few criminals, it was a call for nation-building!
With the vague “war on terror” the neocons attempted a new Cold War type effort, this time with no clear goals or endpoint. The role of enemy, once played by communists, was now played by terrorists. It does not matter who gets to play the enemy, as long we have a glorious struggle to stiffen our backs. A cure for the new economy’s office park doldrums, Dubya in his borrowed flightsuit showed us how to straighten the spirit of the nation on the USS Abraham Lincoln. In 2002’s State of the Union Address, he gave it a catch phrase, “For too long our culture has said, “If it feels good, do it.” Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: “Let’s roll.”
This was, as is obvious by now, a colossal disaster, and some fifteen years after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the results of the invasions are clear. First time tragedy, second time farce. (It’s somehow fitting that Brad Pitt would later play a thinly fictionalized version of an sphincter-tight General McChrystal in 2017’s War Machine, David Michôd’s satire of the Afghan occupation, an occupation which haplessly and aimlessly drags on, its occupying force unable to recognize its limits.) While generating some quick patriotic bluster and a run on Hummer sales in America, the frenzy for war, in any respect that it may have fulfilled the right’s quest for salubrious national vigor, was short-lived. By the early days of the second Bush term, the deceits were revealed, corruption mounting, and Katrina showing how crippled the government had become.
How quaint a time is was when George W. Bush told a fairy tale of an innocent virtuous America against the barbaric enemy lurking somewhere out there in the shadows, as if it were some clear Manichean struggle of good us versus evil them.
History, never short on irony, tells how reactionary politics begets further reactionary politics, forces engaging each other in a mutual feedback loop which, after years, the struggle is not defending liberal democracy against the overblown extremism of the other, but of a democracy unraveling itself from within with its own drift toward angry extremism and nationalism. It’s not the jihad of Islam that frayed American democracy, but American jihadism. America’s foreign policy spent decades propping up fascist strongmen in the developing world, governments friendly to American corporations. These political exports were bound to come home to roost. And like Tyler Durden, turned out to be a force of political id beyond the control of its dream makers, becoming self-destructive. By 2017, it’s a joke to think the terrorists can destroy liberal democracy. We’re more than capable of doing that ourselves. In this ideological wreckage, the alt-right, and Donald Trump, find their superhero origin story.
IV: Project Mayhem and the Alt-Right in the Age of Political Chaos
Oh, so anyway, back to Fight Club – which never short on grasping the irony of self-contradiction. It dispenses with the support group mode of hope and self-affirmation, as Jack abandons this for the revivifying therapy of the underground boxing club, breaking open the anesthetic Dilberted identity. Its violence allows the narrator to break from his consumerist conformity one punch at a time. This works for awhile, not so much due to the fighting but through a holistic renunciation of his yuppie lifestyle. It turns out that the force of liberation is also one of profound destruction, slipping away as it turns into Project Mayhem – a kind of anarchistic shaolin monastery where shaven head initiates renounce their names and devote themselves to the cause under the tutelage of their well-ab’d wildman guru Tyler Durden.
Fight Club, aside from general malcontent, isn’t narrowly ideological. In a sense, it holds a pre-ideological space, becoming a reference point for anti-globalist progressives and anti-globalist libertarians alike. Eco-warriors at the Environmental Liberation Front and ammo and gold-hoarding doomsday preppers of the alt-right both can find something here rooted in the cynical reactions to global capitalism. Fight Club was still in theaters during the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, a time when the anti-globalist vanguard came from the left and Fight Club posters lined the walls of dorm rooms. But by 2016, the libertarians are perhaps more fervent in renewed calls for economic nationalism. The posters with those little pink bars of soap lined the walls of their think tank offices as they plotted to give the administrative state a good frothy scrub.
When Steve Bannon became a political operative he likened his group to Fight Club’s Project Mayhem – a secret tactical unit tackling the net with their agitprop disrupting the Clinton machine’s globalist agenda. The vanguard of the alt-right, the political agitators of Brietbart and Infowars, Alex Jones and agent provocateur Roger Stone effort themselves to agitating the liberal class to set the nation back to zero. Ever in the mood for grand thinking, as Bannon says, the aim is to ensure economic nationalism for the next forty years through the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” (see my essay on Steve Bannon’s Therapy: Or, Gaslighting America to its Restoration with the Elixir of White Nostalgia ) Bannon’s fondness for Fight Club reinforces those critics who called the film a protofascist fantasy revivifying male fantasies of sex and chaos.
This new thrust of the alt-right comes not from the instinctual renouncers of the Christian right. It doesn’t come from the holy rollin’ weepy-eyed hypocrites of the early naughts, but from a rather macho performance art that delights in mocking, insulting and crass behavior. Gone is the gentile rhetoric of the Rockefeller, Reagan, or Romney variety. And all of that hypocritical religious veneer appears to have been stripped away to get to a much cruder performance of the frustrated American male. So we have snide characters like the Milo Yiannopoulos, who delights in offending others with pseudo intellectual jeremiads and sexist bigoted insults. Or body-building libertine and swinger Roger Stone. Once disgraced by the conservative class’s cult of manners in the early 2000s, Stone now seeks revenge in a new party whose daily rhetoric resembles a barroom brawl. And of course there’s the paranoiac Alex Jones, who rants about chem trails turning frogs gay and how he likes “to eat, fight and have children!” Of course the king revenge phallus is Donald Trump himself, a handsy adulterer and confidence man. Trump is a political wrecking ball, having weaponized his voice, the non-linear grammar zig-zagging, the blunt words pugilistically blurting out between pursed lips. Trump cast himself as superhero, claiming to be last chance for American capitalism against the deleterious corruptions of feminizing and politically correct liberal horde of snowflakes sapping the spirit of the nation.
( It’s funny how the term “snowflake” has meme’d its way across the right’s blogosphere to connote their tough talking disdain for p.c. millennial libtards – messages from Tyler’s bullhorn “you’re not a unique and beautiful snowflake, you are the same decaying matter as everything else!” )
I believe it was on the Samantha Bee show that joked that if Hillary’s path to the White House was a video game, it’s perfect that the final boss would be the most cartoonishly misogynistic. But to reverse the paradigm, it’s perfect that if Trump’s path to the White House were a video game, the final boss would be the wife of the former president that signed NAFTA. Trump himself successfully branding the office of the presidency did so not for any feat of expertise, but precisely for symbolic reasons, in no small part because of the limpdicked over-compensating macho performance that played well to the dreams of restoration of the depressed blue collar core of the nation – a combination of big daddy and l’enfant terrible, a magical phallic totem for those going full MAGA. He symbolized the great white hope for all Viagra-Americans up to their neck in resentment for the effete liberal globalists tucked away in their elite coastal bubbles.
Trouble is, it it’s one thing to sit on the outside looking in and criticize the status quo. It’s another thing entirely to be in charge. It’s one thing to resent and try to tear down. A different conversation entirely to build something constructive. One thing to run against a straw man they branded Obamacare, another to actually come up with a viable alternative.
Project Mayhem brought deconstruction of the feared bureaucracy, but did it really promise another viable way of being?
V. Tyler’s Choice: Jihad vs. McWorld
So where does this leave us? Where does Tyler Durden’s prophesy end? Around the time of Fight’s Club’s publication in those august times of globalization was Benjamin Barber’s 1995 bestseller Jihad vs. McWorld in which he proposes that liberal democracies are in peril on two fronts. On the one hand, the McWorld state of the corporate managed democracy that usurped the political class, a move that resulted in what Sheldon Wolin called inverted totalitarianism. Capitalism unfettered like this is no friend to democracy – a quick glance at Russia and the state capitalism of China are clear enough examples. And at the same time, this same free market system as it financializes all of life – the biosphere, the body, colors, ideas, DNA, water, languages, cultures – flattens cultures by appropriating everything, turning it into capital as it insatiably hoovers up the world. It’s a culmination of what reactionaries like Sayyid Qutb called jahiliyyah – empty and Allaha-less foolishness. So the other front of this two-sided the siege on democracy is jihad. It’s religious, or nationalistic, or racial, or romanticist. It’s reactive elements of society erupting from the rubble of McWorld’s destruction – gross inequality and loss of representation.
Fight Club presages all of this inner turmoil. It’s Jihad versus McWorld in novel form, symbolically articulating the experience of the Godless spectacle. The narrator, trapped in McWorld, embraces his version of jihad – a hodgepodge of Zen renunciation, anarchism and soap-making. Apart from their antipathy and resentment for the decadent culture of the liberal capitalists of the North Atlantic culture, it’s hard to identify really what Islamist resurrectionists really stand for. By all accounts, their grasp of the tenants of Islam is slight, the equivalent of learning the Bible on a cereal box, their jihad already McJihad.
Barber’s answer against this Chinese finger trap of Jihad versus McWorld is a resurgence of radical democracy, and along with it a competent democratic people. The answer for Tyler Durden, who is himself a personification of the inner resentment and malcontent, the premodern wildman jihadi within, is to somehow hermeneutically integrate this shadow energy through the acceptance of bodily decay, loss, and the gestures of self sacrifice through self-inflicted chemical burns. This the struggle of Fight Club’s third act, when Jack, after exploding all his possessions and having a number of deaths both near and symbolic, giving himself a chemical burn kiss, driving off the road, after then attempting to turn himself in and spill the beans about Project Mayhem and risk castration from his own space monkeys, throwing himself through glass shelves, and down a long flight of stairs, finally shoots himself.
The grand attempts by the right, that is to say the character therapies of the neocons and the alt-right, to change the stupefying aspects of McWorld attempted to re-masculinize the narrow masculinity of the 1950s nostalgia. But what they lack is the embrace of loss, the egocide or self-overcoming, the loss of attachment which is perhaps the greatest of Tyler Durden’s insights. America as a idea resists losing at any costs and will doggedly remain engaged in battles long after anything that could be called victory is out of grasp. This embrace of defeat for the American self is perhaps yet in the future. It’s another paradox – America in a sense won’t be free until it’s surrender to history.
Fight Club ends with the reintegration of the personality, but it is unclear to what end. Does he resume his office job somehow with a better more creative command over his coping skills, continuing as a semi-functional hipster perhaps with the aid of some Haldol? Will Tyler go on in some form destroying civilization, spread among Fight Club franchises, mooring man to his paleolithic instincts? What is the future of the frustrated man in a world of machines and organizations that only grow in complexity? What does Jack do with the space monkeys on Paper Street, or the other franchises he’s set up? Are they now beyond his control, a genie’s havoc that cannot be rebottled? If Palachuik’s sequel is informative, these symptoms never go away. The repressed always have the potential for return, even blowback – it’s the sort of tinderbox the world is in at the moment, a world which may at any time erupt into mayhem.