A philosophical review and analysis of Brazil (1985).
Imagine Mary Poppins has a drunken night out with George Orwell. Imagine they consummate their aberrant passion amongst enormous heating vents that snake through their bedroom, barely leaving enough space to dream. Imagine eyes peering at them through every peephole; ears listening through every crack in the technicolored walls that shift and pulse with the writhing air-conditioning pipes.
Their bastardized lovechild, the phantasmagoric acid-trip that results, is director Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil.
[If you haven’t seen the film yet, feel free to read on. This is a spoiler-free review.]
With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 98%, and a hallowed IMDB rating above 8/10, Brazil (1985) tells the story of Sam Lowry, a low-level governmental officer in a bureaucracy gone mad. The totalitarian state regulates every aspect of society with appalling ineptitude, from botched air-conditioning maintenance of the ubiquitous air vents, to torture of innocent civilians accused of treason.
Sam, who is unusually good at his job, notices a bureaucratic blunder. He finds a typographical error that results in the wrong man arrested for crimes against the state – family man Archibald Buttle, rather than air-conditioning terrorist Archibald Tuttle (played by the dashing Robert De Niro). When Sam attempts to rectify the error, he becomes an unwitting enemy of the clunky, but brutal, state of Brazil.
In addition to the gorgeously designed sets, hilarious social commentary, and megalomaniacal characters that are both absurd, and eerily familiar in today’s politics – in addition to all of this, Gilliam raises a tough philosophical question that we should all be discussing in our current political landscape:
Should citizens be allowed complete freedom (or liberty)? Put otherwise, is the state ever justified in stopping a citizen from doing what he wants?
To see the importance, and difficulty, of this question today, consider the dogged debates around gun control, gay marriage, and border control. If the state has unlimited reach, it can nullify your marriage and deport on a whim. On the other hand, if the state has no power, it can’t adequately prevent mass shootings. The question of how much power the state should have over its citizens is crucial.
Gilliam’s answer seems clear enough. In Brazil, the state is a polymorphous monstrosity, with tentacles that disrupt every aspect of private life. It destroys families (poor Archibald Buttle), drops commandos through your ceiling mid-coitus (not something you ever want to experience), and destroys personal space (Sam Lowry’s apartment is nine parts heating vent to one part living space). Gilliam, in other words, provides a case for Anarchism.
In this context, Anarchism is the position that the state is never justified in limiting a citizen’s freedom. You want to take your Pitbull, Roughage, for a walk? No problem. The state isn’t justified in stopping you. Not when you’re walking peacefully. Not when Roughage, who eats a balanced diet, decides to shit on the sidewalk. And not even when you decide to spice things up a little, by instructing Roughage to attack the irritating neighbor who stuck a note to your door last week.
On the other hand, Totalitarians hold that the state is always justified in limiting a citizen’s freedom, so long as it serves the goals of the state. These goals usually involve cohesion of the populace under a common ideal, such as social harmony, productivity, or in more flavorful regimes, world domination.
So, which side of the debate do you support? Anarchism or Totalitarianism? I’m guessing: neither. Both are too extreme, you say. There must be some middle ground.
There must be some principle that tells us when the state can intervene legitimately in the lives of its citizens, and when it can’t.
Libertarians argue that limiting a person’s freedom is alright some of the time, (e.g. preventing you from letting Roughage loose on the neighbor), but usually it’s not alright to limit a person’s freedom (e.g. stopping you from walking Roughage peacefully on a lead). If you’re looking for a Libertarian principle, look no further than the philosophical rockstar, John Stuart Mill.
If you have a philosopher in your life, you’ve probably seen it happen. You know what I’m talking about: their eyes glaze over; the craters in their perpetually bunched foreheads smooth; their gaze lifts to the heavens; and their voice rises an octave. Yes, that’s right. You know what’s about to happen.
They’re about to quote J. S. Mill.
Mill is the doyen, the Abraham Lincoln, of philosophers. Why? Because he’s one of the few of our kind who actually made a difference to anyone at all. Mill was instrumental in giving women the right to vote, in cleaning up Britain’s appalling 19th century sanitation system, and in developing the democratic process. Among all this, Mill came up with a principle for settling the dispute between Anarchists and Totalitarians, called the Harm Principle:
The only time the state may prevent its citizens from acting, is to prevent them from harming one another.
The Harm Principle captures why the state shouldn’t allow me to attack my neighbor, because that would harm the neighbor. The Harm Principle also explains why the state can’t stop me from walking Roughage peacefully, since that doesn’t harm anyone.
Sounds good? You agree with Mill? Well then, think about these cases …
We don’t think of fetuses or animals as citizens. So, on Mill’s Harm Principle, the state should allow me to perform medical experiments on my 8 month-old fetus. And the state should have no issue if I want to use fetuses as pothole filler. Since fetuses aren’t citizens, the state can’t prevent me from abusing fetuses in any way. Similarly, suppose I adore the soothing sounds of animal shrieks. Specifically, every Sunday morning, I enjoy performing vivisection (live dissection) of dogs and chimpanzees. I record the sounds, compile the Best of Vivisection soundtrack, and make millions of dollars on YouTube. The state, on Mill’s principle, shouldn’t intervene.
Wait! you shout. We can avoid these counterexamples by including fetuses and animals as protected citizens. That way, Mill’s Harm Principle protects them just as it would protect anyone else. But if that’s the case, then the state is justified in forcing all citizens to become vegetarians (since we can’t very well go around eating other citizens). Now you might think that vegetarianism is good, but forcing all citizens to be vegetarians seems a little too Draconian. Not many Libertarians would be happy with this result.
There are other types of problem cases too. What exactly does it mean to ‘harm’ another citizen? Do we harm another person when we cause them distress (or mental anguish)? If distress doesn’t count as harm, then Mill’s principle sees no issue with parading oneself nude in front of the neighbor’s children. Or renting music-concert-worthy speakers, cranking them up to maximum volume, directing them at the neighbor’s bedroom window, and blaring Tom Jones’s Sex Bomb on repeat all through the night. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, unit 6 of my apartment building.)
You might defend Mill’s principle, and avoid these cases by including mental anguish as harm to another person. But then the state would be allowed to prevent gay people from having sex because the mere thought of it causes homophobes anguish.
And the problem cases for Mill’s principle don’t stop there. If I consent to you harming me, is it actually harm? Suppose I enjoy rough sex: whips chains, teeth and all. I beg you to tie me up, and have your way with me. It seems you’re not harming me when you do so – at least not harming me in a way that the state should be able to prevent. But if you agree that consensual harm isn’t really harm, then on Mill’s Principle, the state can’t prevent me from selling myself into slavery, or from selling my organs to pay off a loan shark, or from instructing my GP to give me a lethal shot of potassium because I haven’t enjoyed the recent rainy weather.
So where does this leave us? Anarchism is too weak – it doesn’t allow the state to prevent me from attacking my neighbor with Roughage. Totalitarianism is too strong – Nazism was never a great solution. And Libertarianism isn’t convincing – Mill’s Harm Principle doesn’t provide a good way to distinguish when the state can and can’t intervene in the lives of its citizens. Libertarianism can’t handle problem cases involving harm to fetuses and animals, mental anguish, and willful slavery.
I have a solution to the problem for you, but first, I want to know: what do you think? Answer in the poll below.
If you trawled the trove of political articles prior to the last election, everyone and his Pitbull seemed to know the answer to this problem. But it seems there’s no good solution. What’s interesting is: why? Why there is no good solution to the problem of state intervention?
The reason, I think, is that politics is nonsense.
What do I mean by this?
The question of how much power the state should have over its citizens essentially comes down to the question: “how should the state act towards its citizens?” But this question, I think, is fundamentally misguided.
We think of the state as an institution that governs a collection of people – its citizenry. But it doesn’t make sense to think about the actions committed by institutions as actions that ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ happen. This is because it only makes sense to think about ‘shoulds’ in terms of morality, and morality involves individuals (rather than institutions and collectives).
When I do something right or wrong, it’s because my action (as an individual) impacts other individuals in a positive or negative way. It’s wrong for me to attack my neighbor, because that attack impacts the neighbor, as an individual, negatively. If you want to know whether you, as an individual, should intervene in my action, consider whether doing so will have a net positive benefit for everyone involved. Should you stop me from attacking my neighbor? Yes, because that will prevent his suffering.
The solution, then, is to drop discussion of politics altogether, and talk about the morality of individuals instead. Don’t ask what the government should or shouldn’t do. There’s no good answer to that question. Ask instead what individuals should or shouldn’t do to other individuals. Should I, as a border guard, let through this immigrant? On balance, would it benefit everyone to do so?
Think in terms of individuals, and the problem of state power becomes a different beast. A beast we can grapple with.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s your solution to the problem of how much power the state should yield?
About the Author
Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.
He’s the author of the sci-fi thriller trilogy, Defragmenting Daniel, two novels, Hedon and The Solace Pill, and the short story anthology, Obsidian Worlds. His books will make your brain hurt. And you’ll come back for more.
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