Falling Down spins out a desperate narrative of confusion and mania, one man’s response to increasing alienation, an increasingly crazy and violent response that feeds on that alienation to compound the problem rather than finding a way through it. Michael Douglas excels in this film, which was released in 1993, playing Bill Foster, a defence engineer estranged from his wife (who has taken out a restraining order forbidding him contact with both her and their daughter) and cracking. This is a man who wants to be in control but who is losing it. There are two key moments in the film that crack open the fragile ideological carapace of Western patriarchal capitalist culture, revealing something of the hopeless pain for individuals at the heart of it, and showing how these individuals are incited to thrash out at those who should be their allies rather than against the wretched political-economic system that has driven them into this mess.
The first moment is the first crack, the first moment when Foster falls. He is in a long traffic jam on the highway, people are getting agitated, his car air-conditioning breaks down, and Foster loses it, abandons the car and spends much of the rest of the film taking out his anger on those who frustrate him. This is a man who is blocked from getting what he wants, and immediate goals are configured as things he must attain if he is not to be a failure. He is angry, understandably angry, but his energy is channelled in destructive and self-destructive ways rather than in a collective process through which he might learn from those around him who are also oppressed. He acts alone, to solve the problem that he finds himself in, isolated from others, and that increases the problem. Foster trashes a Korean convenience store with a baseball bat after the owner refuses a request for change, and in a fast-food restaurant he shoots up a phone booth after being unable to get access to call his wife. Foster is by now caught up in racist assaults – congratulated by a white supremacist in a military surplus store – and this makes him all the more agitated.
The second moment cracks open this complicity with the violent events of the day, the escalation of a situation Foster was himself trying to escape. Before he is shot dead after pulling a water gun on a policeman, he stands – and at that moment he falls, repeats the process of moral failure, of falling down – and voices his rage and incomprehension that he is actually in some way responsible for the carnage. This is the moment when he bewails the inability of the others to understand what is happening to him, what, ‘I’m the bad guy!’ I help to protect America he tells the policeman, I did everything they told me to, they lied to me. It is surely the most stunning moment in the film, repeating in miniature the incomprehension of the United States as invader and cause of carnage around the world; it is merely protecting itself, its leaders say, amazed that anyone could see otherwise, bewailing this situation by asking, what, ‘I’m the bad guy?’.
Falling Down stages a symptom of masculinity in crisis in conditions of alienation and the mistaken attempts to seal off the self as a solution to that crisis. It is a failure that is indicative of the lives of many men, and also of many organisations and even ‘opposition’ groups under capitalism, even of groups that aim to overthrow capitalism itself. This is the peculiar and sad symptomatic predicament of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain in recent years, a group mired in complaints about sexual violence, and responding to those complaints with increased confusion, denial and attack on those who raise the question again.
The facts of the case are well-known – accusation of rape against SWP national secretary, investigation committee reporting to annual conference that case is not proven, mass resignations – and the increasing isolation of the SWP is very understandable, oscillating between some shame on the part of some of its members who dared to challenge the party leadership over what happened (with many leaving and setting up shop elsewhere in new groups, like RS21, that treat feminism as a resource rather than an enemy) and defiant claims that what is past is past and that now it is time to move on. In some cases that demand that we move on has itself been accompanied by threats typical of an abuser who has been caught out; shut up, it is time to move on, or else.
What is at issue here is the longer history and mode of functioning of the SWP, a party that was founded in 1977 out of the International Socialists founded by Tony Cliff in 1962 out of the 1950 Socialist Review Group after their break from the Fourth International (over the question of the nature of the Soviet Union and consequent responses to the Korean War). One of the enduring characteristics of the so-called ‘Cliffite’ tradition which was carried forward into the stereotypically male leadership of the SWP (and also into some of the groups that it spawned in many purges and splits over the years) has been control, and the other is urgency, urgency bordering on mania. SWP leader Alex Callinicos, a new role for Michael Douglas after Tony Cliff, runs the International Socialist Tendency from London. Yes, they are good at organisation and speed of response, but …
Anyone who has been in the SWP or subjected to their antics in the front-organisations they use to recruit members, ranging from the Anti Nazi League (a success) to Stand up to Racism (tinged with hypocrisy after the SWP support for Brexit) – sign a ‘petition’ on one of their stalls concerning any one of a number of current issues and you will find yourself on their recruitment mailing list – will know well that they are control freaks of the worst kind. The organisational rigidity of the party apparatus – prohibition of internal opposition tendencies outside of the short pre-conference discussion period, for example – is also evident in their pre-meeting caucusing and then intervention and elections for positions in front campaign leaderships. Those non-members who are willing to serve as padding to show that the front is ‘open’ quickly discover that they are just treated as useful idiots if they speak out against the prescribed direction of the campaign.
And anyone who has been in and around the SWP at campaign meetings and demonstrations that they don’t directly control will know that, not only does every party member repeat what they have read that week in their newspaper, which is tedious enough, but the solution always amounts to ‘building a massive movement’ against x y or z, and increasing our activity. A situation that is a ‘crisis’ is always, you will hear members claim, turning into a ‘disaster’ (or vice-versa). There is manic optimism in practically every intervention, the idea that if only you do this or that (in line with SWP priorities) you must surely succeed.
The problem with mania is that it expresses a fragile and uncertain grasp on reality, so that when things shift from optimism to pessimism, there is a long way to fall, and the fall-out often has violent consequences for everyone around. The rape-case scandal is still not over, with mass resignations over sexual abuse in the party taking place seven years later, in April 2020. The SWP response to the crisis over sexual violence in their organisation was to shut everyone else out and to try and deal with it themselves – big mistake – and then to blame anyone who pointed to their own complicity in the mess they had created for themselves. That’s what they still say if they are confronted over their mistakes; what, ‘I’m the bad guy?’ They don’t get it, that they are part of the problem, that they repeat and reinforce alienation and patriarchal domination in capitalist society and in so much of the far left.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.