In the final moments of the 1976 film Network, we find one of the most perspicacious and prescient comments on global capitalism in quite possibly the entire history of Hollywood. The film itself is a scathing indictment of the corporate media (that “will do anything for a rating… anything!” writer Paddy Chayefsky correctly observed in an interview), and a sardonic satire of ’70s culture (it even features a spoof of the Symbionese Liberation Army).
What is perhaps most fascinating is how successful the film was in its day. A $4 million production, it made $24 million at the box office. It received raving reviews from the New York times, and other prominent corporate media rags. It even won four Academy Awards, including best screenplay. If anything, such accolades and popularity attest to the accuracy of the film in its challenges of power–and the degree to which the average American can relate to its infamous “mad as hell” protagonist, Howard Beale.
Beale, an anchor for Union Broadcasting System, upon discovering that the Communications Company of America (CCA), who owns UBS, is going to be bought buy a large Saudi Arabian corporate conglomerate, is taken to meet CCA’s CEO, Arthur Jensen. Jensen explains to Beale his technocratic ideals of a global, plutocratic future (and present).
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear?! You think you have merely stopped a business deal—that is not the case!
The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West!
There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars!, Reichmarks, rubles, rin, pounds and shekels! It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today!
And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?
You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.
What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state—Karl Marx? They pull out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do.
We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.
The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr.Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality—one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.
Written over 35 years ago, the monologue and its sociopathic, dystopian spirit ring ever truer to this very day. Chayefsky could hardly have gotten it more correct.
The film is ultimately apolitical, in that, in a kind of unguided populism (that ultimately wrings itself dry by the end), it recognizes and condemns not only systemic problems but also all parties involved, arguably equally, without contending that a given party might be more justified in its actions than another, regardless of faults, and without suggesting alternative socio-politico-economic frameworks or paradigms. Yet what else can one expect from Hollywood? This is as good, and as subversive, as it gets.
Besides, perhaps it is not the role of every art work to do such contention and suggesting. At the end of the day, Network is a brilliant and insightful comment of the all-pervasiveness of global capitalism, a most accurate reflector of the ’70s American zeitgeist, and simply a masterful work of art.