Civil disobedience has changed. While the past year reminded us the will to physically mobilize is still alive, it doesn’t address the rise in political vigilantism.
In “The Ethics of Government Whistleblowing,” Candice Delmas defines political vigilantism as criminal activity meant to affect existing political order. When a piece of privileged information makes its way from a secure server to the public, someone in its chain of custody, or someone who compromises it, committed a crime. This includes people like Mark Felt, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and groups like Anonymous and the Shadow Brokers.
Though the reasons behind their actions are diverse, and with governments and corporations unable to keep up with technological change, we’re constantly given examples to inform our opinion of what they do, it’s Mr. Robot, one of the most tech-accurate pieces of fiction, that perhaps gives us the greatest insight into the world-view of the modern political vigilante and why they do what they feel must be done.
When Elliot Alderson isn’t at his Allsafe desk keeping corporate America in tact, he’s targeting elements of that same power structure as a vigilante. As Mr. Robot repeatedly shows us, the decision to take up this task is rooted in childhood, affixed to his understanding of the word through movies and personal tragedy.
Back to the Future Part II, Elliot’s favorite movie, puts its protagonist, Marty, in a futuristic Hill Valley where his future self dines on fake food, outfits his home with the latest unnecessary gadgets, and squirms under the thumb of a demanding and corrupt boss before losing his job. In this same future, the self-interested people manage to game capitalism and avoid these problems, which is all concentrated in the aging body of Biff Tannen.
2015, the movie’s setting, also connects to Mr. Robot. The year Biff’s Pleasure Paradise situated him high above Hill Valley is when Mr. Robot premiered, when fsociety declared war on Evil Corp, where that fight remains, and its when Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign.
Trump and Biff are identical by design, as screenwriter Bob Gale has gleefully pointed out. The worst example of American excess as seen from 1989 also influenced Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail’s portrayal of unchecked capitalism. Scenes of Evil Corp’s interior were shot on location at Trump Tower, and Esmail has said that he had Trump in mind when drafting Elliot’s monologue about the 1%. But if anyone needs confirmation of Esmail’s feelings about Trump, they need only hear former Evil Corp exec Terry Colby bemusedly ask “Can you believe that cocksucker is actually running this time?”
Then there’s the Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie. We’ve seen it’s influence throughout Mr. Robot but it only gets clarification when Darlene returns to New York on Halloween, 2014, the greatest departure from the main time line, and Elliot decides to hang out with his sister. It’s a slasher flick where a formally dressed killer with a sharpened polo mallet cracks open yuppie skulls while wearing a sinister Rich Uncle Pennybags mask, the future face of fsociety.
When Darlene tells Elliot this movie is “the source of all our psychological dysfunction,” she’s tapping into Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Bandura argues that in early childhood direct and vicarious experiences provide models of behavior that are processed in so similar a manner they reinforce one another and eventually help shape morality. Edward Snowden shared a similar observation of himself with Glenn Greenwald:
Snowden told me that at the heart of most video games is an ordinary individual who sees some serious injustice, right? Like some person who’s been kidnapped and you’ve got to rescue them, or some evil force that has obtained this weapon and you’ve got to deactivate it or kill them or whatever. And it’s all about figuring out ways to empower yourself as an ordinary person, to take on powerful forces in a way that allows you to undermine them in pursuit of some public good. Even if it’s really risky or dangerous. That moral narrative at the heart of video games was part of his preadolescence and formed part of his moral understanding of the world and one’s obligation as an individual.
For Elliot, New York and Hill Valley exist in the same version of 2015. There may not be as many hoverboards and dehydrated pizza, but people are tethered to their jobs even at home, purchases accent all aspects of life, and both are supported by an economic system set up for perversion by the Biff Tannens of the world, one of which is leaving his own Pleasure Paradise for a true seat of power.
That view of the world narrows when Elliot’s father, Edward, is diagnosed with leukemia and the family suspects Evil Corp is to blame. Families banded together to demand answers over the cancer developing in the bodies of workers at the Washington Township site, and Evil Corp managed to exhaust their defenses and make money off their tragedy in the process.
It would take 20 years for Elliot and Darlene to get confirmation that Evil Corp had killed their father. That’s 20 Halloween viewings of the Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie, vicariously living through the deaths of privileged kids with fathers like Terry Colby and Philip Price.
Mr. Robot donning that signature mask and telling Evil Corp to “Meet these demands or we will kill you” is responding to the wealthy the way Elliot wishes he could have when the leukemia was first discovered. It played a role in Darlene’s decision to kill Susan Jacobs, the lawyer that smiled knowing her father would die but the corporation she served would escape the scandal.
Death is easy to embrace in fiction, and it’s common in the archetype of the vigilante hacker character. Just look at Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But even with those story justifications in place, Elliot never crosses that line. When he goes after Rohit, owner of Ron’s Coffee and the facilitator of more than 100 terabytes of child pornography, distributed to 400,000 users through a network made possible by his businesses, Elliot encounters a familiar character.
Rohit first attempts to bully Elliot by threatening to report his criminal hacking to the police, then resorts to bribery to make it all go away. Using capitalism to indulge in the suffering of others, bullying those he perceives on a lower social rung, manipulating them in order to get what he wants–Rohit is Biff Tannen without the rug-lint wig. And in the presence of this caricature of evil, Elliot, someone who spares no opportunity to tell us how much he hates the existing power structure of his world, calls the cops.
Part of Elliot’s vigilante hacks is making sure there’s enough evidence for the NYPD or the FBI to respond to his anonymous tips with urgency and make a solid case tat will secure them in prison. Handing people over to the police isn’t about punishing them. Elliot is most interested in reducing harm directed at vulnerable people.
Elliot has a wealth of experience with the worst society has to offer, starting at home, yet he sees redeemable qualities in people. This is in spite of being a misanthrope. In his assessment, the average person lives in fear of losing what they have and having their secret selves exposed. When Elliot says “fuck society” he’s identifying institutions of capitalism, government, and culture that promote envy and competition in an effort to coerce people away from their natural selves for the sake of progress. Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau summed up this observation in the Social Contract: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.”
Rousseau suggested that presocial humans, those before complex society, were disinterested in excessive material possession and competition, making them internally complex and altruistic. This was in part influenced by accounts of Native Americans and the transformation of their nations after prolonged interactions with European colonists. Communities that were once small, intimate, and philosophically rich, had been absorbed or destroyed by expanding colonies. Native Americans would now know wanting excess, vices, and competition to satisfy both. They would come to know the concept of progress as Rousseau had.
Europe was experiencing rapid progress in Rousseau’s time. These were the early days of the industrial revolution. Goods were being made faster, traveling further, and money made its way into more hands regardless of skill set. It was the beginning of capitalism as we know it today, and in Mr. Robot’s 2015 we see that trend continue with technology advancing it daily. Yet the benefits of progress dwindle with time.
The process of production, consumption, and invention in a capitalist setting ultimately leads to amour-propre. Rousseau’s idea of “self-love” begins with responding to encouragement from society to want more, resulting in valuing the opinions of others relative to one’s self-worth, and ends with submitting to a system that requires a tiered structure in order to propagate itself. In other words, the progress that creates a technologically advanced society needs to keep the poor concerned with frivolous things so they won’t notice the powerful looking down on them.
Darlene glibly asks “why can’t the world just take care of itself?” when thinking about this class separation and the inability to break free. Even Rousseau admitted he couldn’t identify how or why we transitioned from presocial nature to complex society the way we did. Elliot, however, manages to live in this interstitial place between the two, starting out in a submissive position in society while entertaining a rich internal world. But, like many people in the 21st century, that personal space is compromised by disorder.
Hosting several mental illnesses gives Elliot opportunities to practice talk therapy with his psychiatrist Krista, Mr. Robot, and us. Then there’s some prescribed and recreational medication to help him limp between those conversational partners. This fractured state has become pretty common in recent decades, as philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychotherapist Felix Guattari noted in Anti-Oedipus–Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Like Rousseau, Deleuze and Guattari agreed that free-thinking humans are oppressed by a society that controls through distraction, but they saw the problem as substantially worse.
Delueze and Guattari argued that capitalism cannot exist without making most people anxious. To lose employment, faith in recognized institutions, or a desired partner, is to be fractionally separated from society. To avoid this we agree to follow the existing “structures of exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy” by denying desires that would otherwise challenge them. We allow ourselves to be guided by the “invisible hand” for fear of having essential needs denied. In Deleuze and Guattari’s view, society responded to this collective worry through psychology.
By designating certain desires as antisocial behavior and pushing them into a realm of fantasy distorted a fundamental understanding of freedom, this converts the mind into a theater, a place for play rather than production. This reinforces the worry and panic inherent in capitalism. When Elliot is his most anxious, he yells at himself for not listening to Krista. Mr. Robot, Elliot’s most rebellious thoughts personified, tells him that his doctor and the medication she prescribes is only there to keep him from acting on his desires, from being his true self. On the more relatable end, Darlene denies the seriousness of her anxiety disorder, saying “I mean, trust me, in this day and age it’s sicker not having panic attacks.”
This isn’t to say mental health isn’t a real concern. It is, and psychology has changed in how it’s applied and how critics view it since Anti-Oedipus was written. Despite this, it’s been misapplied in support of unchecked capitalism. Chill corporate offices, Dove beauty ads, and posters encouraging sleep deprivation convince us into thinking we’re taking control of our lives, have a say in society, and long for the abuse directed at us for the sake of the economy. In truth, we’re being reminded where to locate the parameters of acceptable behavior and the consequences of stepping out of bounds. Most of us are quite receptive to this.
Political vigilantism exists to disrupt that societal order. Revealing the deaths of civilians and journalists that were covered up, unveiling the existence of a sprawling surveillance infrastructure birthed from the marriage of corporate America and the federal government, the destruction of the world’s consumer debt–these are crimes against society in service of a distracted public, even if they’re unaware. And oblivion extends to political vigilantes as well.
A short history on this subject will reveal an inconsistency of behavior and action from some notable people. Journalists have gone from calling political vigilantes heroes under one administration to outing sources of privileged information and leaving them to face prosecution alone under the next. Even Snowden went from thinking leakers should be “shot” to fleeing the US because of his own leaks. Yet it would be somewhat unfair to ask for ideological purity. Often times these are the same people asked to play a role in maintaining society’s structure and to betray that requires a change in opinion, but the purpose of the crime is defeated if we fail to recognize these conditional positions as being part of the divisions inherent in society.
Elliot bypasses this circumstance. Being a victim of society at a young age and provided with vicarious examples of how to deal with those injustices, how to channel that anger, provided him with the tools necessary to find solutions. Because Elliot exists mostly outside society and mostly in his own world, society’s negative aspects don’t reach him.
When Mr. Robot argues that being the result of a conversion disorder makes him no less real than the dollar standard, forced emotions on social networks, or the frankenmeat in a Big Mac he’s bemused that we allow ourselves to remain part of something so clearly manufactured. So, why do we? The obvious answer is we don’t know better, but perhaps with time and the right vicarious explorations of what makes up our world we can eventually transcend this state.