Think of your favourite political movement, right now think of your favourite television executive producer.
See given the subject of this blog means that I'm guessing a fair number of people came up with feminism and Joss Whedon. Well guess what? You can combine the two in special fundraising screenings of Serenity for Equality Now. Go see if there's one near you. You can also combine the two by watching Joss's speech to Equality Now, where he answers the question he gets asked most often half a dozen different ways. Go watch it now (or if you're on dial-up like me - start down-loading it) - I'll wait.
I thought I'd honour these events by writing about the politics (OK I'm a geek and I have many different theories about the politics of Joss Whedon shows and I'll go into them at a moments notice).
I think the politics of the television show are quite distinct from the politics of the movie. The movie says something - and we can argue about what that is, but it's message is in the plot of the movie. The politics of the television show are less direct, they're more about the world that was created, and less about the narrative of the individual episodes.
Live Free or Die
I first got involved with activism in university when I was 19. It was 1997 and the National government was looking to corporatise university education. A whole bunch of other people got involved with me - it was new and exciting. I was young, innocent and inexperienced. I remember having a conversation about politics with a Marxist, who seemed very grown-up to me, but now I think about it he was probably only 22. Anyway we were talking about our local social democractic party of the time the Alliance* social democracy and he said something like this:
In a way we agree with the National party - the country couldn't afford free education and free health care, and all the rest of the Alliance's policies [the Alliance was NZ's social democratic party for a while there]. If the government introduced policies that radical then the capitalists would disinvest. Government's have to run the country in the interests of capital.Only he said it a little bit more annoyingly because he was a member of the International Bolshevik Tendency. Now I'm a little bit older now, and basically agree with what he said.
What does this have to do with Firefly? Well I think the politics of Firefly are a little bit like that - I think the Firefly can sustain either a libertarian or an anti-capitalist reading relatively easy - but I'm not sure the world they portray is particularly consistent with social democracy (or liberalism - if the term means much to you).
Now obviously I prefer the anti-capitalist reading, but I'll go briefly into the libertarian reading, which I think is pretty self-explanatory. On Firefly the government is generally portrayed as the bad guy. The basic aim of the captain of the ship is to stay away from the government and stop them meddling in his life. I'm not at all surprised that libertarians can find the show appealling. I strongly suspect that Tim Minear leans towards libertarian politics, and that doesn't surprise me (Tim Minear is the show-runner of Firefly who is not my secret tv boyfriend).
There are some serious problems with the libertarian reading - most importantly because no-one in the 'verse takes private property particularly seriously.
The Materialist 'verse
I think (and I don't think this is particularly controversial) that the 'verse is a capitalist one. I also think that capitalism doesn't work for poor people in the 'verse (just like it doesn't work for poor people in the real world). We see people dying from work in the mines, because they're not safe, we see the desperation of unemployment and we see capitalists using indentured labour owning a company town. These are real world problems, caused by real world capitalism. Joss set it up this way describing it as a world where there were laser guns, but not everyone could afford them.
This is more important than it should be. Most television denies any material reality for its characters. Grace Paley said that when you're writing you should remember that all your characters have blood and money. For most TV characters money isn't a reality, they have a bigger apartment and wardrobe than someone on their salary could ever afford, and whenever the writers get bored and decide to introduce a money based plot it is ridiculously unrealistic. On Firefly money, and class were real - they affected people's lives and were the driving force in much of the plot.
This isn't particularly radical (in the real world, it's possibly quite radical on television). But I do think it makes an anti-capitalist reading consistent with the text. It'd be radical if it offered a solution, and it does - for a second - from Jaynestown (my favourite episode):
If the mudders are together on a thing, there's too many of us to be put down...It's not quite a call to the barricades, but it's a sign that at least some of the writers of Firefly live in the same world I do.
That's the radical left reading and the radical right reading - it's the social democrat reading that is most problematic. The Alliance, the government in the 'verse, is not neutral - it maintains the power structures, and fights imperialist wars. Now this makes perfect sense to libertarians, because they believe that governments suck (although I've no idea what they think about imperialism, because litertarianism never made any sense to me - the only libertarian I've ever liked was Laura Ingalls Wilder). It makes sense to most left-wing radicals because we believe that the state tends to work in the interests of people with power, particularly the ruling class. It's problematics for liberals and social democrats, because at best they have to believe that the state can be neutral.
Big Damn Movie
Serenity is slightly different. Not because the state is presented any more positively - poisoning people and creating unimaginable horrors is hardly neutral. In our comments someone described it as an 'anarcho-libertarian' - and I might agree, but I don't consider that a compliment. The show has become about the small guys beating the big guys, not by building their strength through numbers, but by being smart and lucky. I enjoyed it, but it didn't ring particularly true to me.
I prefer the indirect, realistic, politics of the show, to the straight-up, fantastic, politics of the movie. Give me Jaynestown over Serenity - I think I would have preferred Serenity if it had been told over a season - I think it would probably have been less fantastic that way (or maybe I just prefer TV to movies).
Also published on Alas