Total Recall from 1990 starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, a ‘lowly construction worker’ who goes to Rekall Corporation in 2084 to have a brain implant to give him the memory of having been to Mars on a dream holiday, much cheaper than the real thing, and discovers that the memory is already there. The question that riddles the rest of the film is whether Quaid’s anxious uncertain sense that his troubled dreams of being on Mars and that led him to Rekall were based in reality – whether he was always the leader of the resistance there as secret agent Carl Hauser – or whether this is a false memory that gives him the psychotic delusion that things are not as they seem, that he is more than he seems. There are three key hinge moments that the film, based on a short story ‘We can remember it for you wholesale’ by Philip K Dick, revolves around. The first moment is when Quaid learns that he may really already be Hauser, a fantastic discovery that tears aside the veils of reality as we know it and reveals another reality behind it that structures what we think we know. This is the Philip K Dick moment par excellence; there is another reality – it is not that another world is possible; it already exists. Quaid is, and always was, a secret agent and leader of the Martian resistance.
The second moment, a key scene in the film which elaborates a motif in Dick’s science fiction stories which is not actually present in the short story but true to the parallel reality themes throughout his work, is the moment of decision, of radical existential choice. This is the red pill moment (borrowed for the first Wachowskis’ Matrix film), one where our hero is faced with a forking path between two realities, one of which will spell disaster for him and everyone around him. But which? Quaid is told by the doctor that the red pill is ‘a symbol of your desire to return to reality’, and that if he swallows it he will fall asleep in the dream of being a rebel leader and wake up as what he was before. This second key moment is marked by hesitation and anxiety, and it is the bead of sweat on the face of the doctor that cues Quaid into this anxiety in the other; he shoots the doctor and his fight in and for his new reality resumes.
The third key hinge moment in the film is actually at the end, an unusually indeterminate and pessimistic denouement for a box-office bestseller – Total Recall was made on one of the most expensive film budgets of the time – when Quaid is sucked out onto the Martian planet surface after a reactor explosion and starts to suffocate. Perhaps he has successfully activated the reactor as he planned, however, and perhaps this has released oxygen into the atmosphere, and perhaps he lives. The final scene of the film though does not make this clear, nothing is certain, and it is possible that Quaid’s dream of a happy ending (like that in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) is nothing but a fantasy he conjures up to console himself as he chokes to death.
The key question that haunted the Labour Party through to the General Election at the end of 2019 was whether Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip for giving Theresa May the go-ahead to trigger Brexit Article 50 whenever she likes, and on the Tories own hard-Brexit terms, would be seen as his own ‘red pill moment’. It was a defining moment, and underlay the final denouement of Corbyn. We already look back with some fond nostalgia at what 2015 gave us as the first key hinge moment for left politics and for Corbyn when he discovered that he was at leader of the Labour Party. But what then?
The British Labour Party grew to over half a million members after Corbyn was elected leader in 2015. This was an incredible turning point for a political party that had been founded in 1900, and had come to function as the British representative of social democracy, the British section of the Socialist International (the Second International which became a network of reformist and ruling parties trusted by capitalism to manage piecemeal changes that do not threaten big business or colonial power). The Labour Party first became a loyal governing party of the British State in 1924, and presided over a number of important progressive initiatives over the years when it took turns to rule, including the founding of the National Health Service, during which time its membership rose to over a million. This was before it folded under the pressure of capital and then enthusiastically, under Tony Blair, implemented neoliberal policies as the natural and most efficient heirs of Margaret Thatcher.
The election of Corbyn did not shift the whole of the Labour Party to the left, but rather opened up the gap between two parties; The Labour Party of the Members of Parliament and the apparatus linked to the bureaucratic leadership of the Trades Unions determined to prevent any shift to the left on the one hand, and the grassroots base of members of local Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated trades unionists who were dismayed at the abandonment of ‘Clause 4’ of the party in 1995 which, when adopted in 1918, had called for ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. 2015 saw something of a time-shift, then, a dramatic victory for the left and a complete surprise for Corbyn, a hard-working and trustworthy Member of Parliament for Islington North since 1983, who had barely made it onto the leadership ballot.
This was like a dream come true for comrades in different campaigns who had seen Corbyn up to then as the patron saint of lost causes, and it was as if the Labour Party had now been shifted into some kind of parallel reality. Things were no longer as they had seemed. This is the moment, the first crucial moment, when this once lowly worker with the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union and then National Union of Public Employees suddenly becomes Party Leader, as if it was always destined to be so. It was as if Corbyn had bid to have the secret agent for the resistance fantasy implanted in his brain only to discover, like Quaid, that this historical memory was already there, that this revolution was something like what Walter Benjamin called ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’, redeeming the radical history of the Labour Party for today, reactivating it, turning it once again into what it might have been, a vital force against capitalism.
It was, for some on the left, as if the Labour Party was now completely different from the rotting corpse it seemed to be, as if it was no longer an old social-democratic reformist party working with the establishment, but now with the resistance. Perhaps Corbyn was leading the resistance to austerity that would turn the tide against the Tories. At last, a popular trustworthy figure, charismatic in a strange anti-charismatic way – something that appealed to distrust of old political bureaucratic machine politics among new activists – was really willing to change the symbolic coordinates of the left.
Between 2015 and 2020 the Labour Party twisted and turned between two realities. In one, Corbyn was indeed a force for change, redeeming his reputation as honest parliamentary back-bencher unconcerned with power, and speaking out for the National Health Service, for immigrant rights and a number of other radical causes. In the other, however, Corbyn surrounded himself with some dodgy Stalinist and bureaucratic party-political advisors close to the Communist Party of Britain, soft on the Assad regime in Syria, for example, and he tried to maintain party unity by fudging the debate over the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system. Worse, Corbyn sided with the establishment in Westminster against Scotland, repeating his pledge to win back seats for a British Party run from London, his dearly-loved Labour Party, from the Scottish National Party. Those who flooded into the Labour Party to back Corbyn, and even members of some of the little left groups who have joined, were already asking themselves what is dream and what is reality.
Then came Corbyn’s red pill moment. The red pill was a symbol, of a return from the dream to brute reality, of falling in line with the ‘will of the British people’ that had been lied to and duped into voting by a very narrow majority on a low vote for Brexit. Corbyn had, quite understandably, been lukewarm about campaigning alongside the devious and divided Tories for the European Union in the June 2016 EU Referendum, but he was ever since egged on by crowds of little Englanders who have been willing to play the patriotic card, to pander to British nationalism in line with their own delusional fantasy that Brexit meant Lexit (a ‘left’ exit from the EU). Corbyn’s decision to whip his MPs to vote for Brexit in parliament was a disastrous mistake, feeding the illusion that ‘amendments’ in parliament would have any binding authority on Theresa May (the vote gave her personally the right to trigger Article 50) and then bizarrely proclaiming that the fight would begin after the vote had taken place.
Some desperately claimed that Corbyn’s cunning plan opened the way to another vote after the Brexit negotiations were over, but then it was too late. They pretended that our hero had not yet swallowed the red pill, that there was still time to spit it out. Some hope; disappointed supporters who already avoided attending Labour Party meetings after signing up as members were already dribbling away. What mattered were not so much the secretive strategies but Corbyn’s own role as symbol of the resistance, what this vote meant for the left. The Labour right-wingers who broke from the whip were then, by 2019, being cheered on by some of those who voted for Corbyn as leader, and even members of Momentum voted for Keir Starmer in the 2020 leadership election. And so, in a bizarre twist of fate, Corbyn, never a Trotskyist, though accused often enough of being one, was replaced by Keir Starmer who was once a member of a quasi-Trotskyist network led by former secretary of the Fourth International Michel Pablo. Disillusion with the ‘Corbyn revolution’ was already corroding the resistance before the bitter defeat at the end of 2019 and the election of a new leader in 2020.
It is as if our hero turned out not be to be Carl Hauser, rebel leader, after all and perhaps not even Douglas Quaid, lowly construction worker. The worst scenario, and this is how it seemed to some of those gutted at his inept mistake in parliament, was that, after whipping his own Members of Parliament into giving support for a politically reactionary vote, Jeremy Corbyn whipped off his cuddly beard mask and we did indeed find Arnold Schwarzenegger underneath. It turned out that we were indeed taking a short cut to the third key hinge moment in this story when it would end badly for all of us. It was not merely that Corbyn returned to the back-benches and that the Labour Party became a traditional social-democratic party again, a return to business as usual, but that Brexit was triggered under the Tories under Boris Johnson in a nationalist frenzy. Now the British nation state can expel foreigners, crush the rebellious Scots, re-assert itself in the world, and we could all hurtle to nuclear war and choke to death from COVID-19, as if we were on Mars.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.