Based on real experiences, the movies Wave (2008), by Dennis Gansel, and The experiment (in the version of Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2001 and Paul T. Scheuring in 2010) talk about how easy it is for free citizens of democratic societies to become satisfied members of a totalitarian community in just a few days.
The first, Wave, is a German movie based on the real experiment called Third Wave and made in 1967 by history teacher Ron Jones, at a Palo Alto institute in California. Californian lads of the sixties were supposed to be puffed up on understanding how non-Nazi Germans ended up showing acquiescent and tolerant behavior regarding the persecution of Jews, xenophobia, and the ultra-nationalist belligerence of the Nazi party. So the teacher proposed to them to create a kind of brotherhood, a national community, with attributes, clothes and rules. In a few weeks the fiction had transcended the borders of the institute, affected the real life of the students and began to reproduce the tyrannical, violent and excluding behaviors of a totalitarianism based on the difference between the U.S and the them.
The story was adapted to the cinema several times and there is even a musical, but the interest of the German version of 2008 is that it explains it to the German children and grandchildren of the protagonists of the Holocaust.
That historical reason is surely the one that also explains why the first of the two versions of the film The experiment, is equally German, although the story is also based on something that happened in the United States. In this case, we are talking about a crazy project from Stanford University from 1971 on the fragility of the citizen of a liberal democracy in environments perceived as extreme: they put two groups in a jail, some to act as guards and others as captives, to observe how they behaved in a fictional prison. The thing, which was actually a development of the so-called 1963 Milgram experiment on obedience, got out of control so fast that it had to be stopped the first week.
These experiments and fictions illustrate the fragility of democratic consciousness and how close we are always to tyranny
Both experiments and the fictions that adapt them have been very controversial, discussed and questioned from psychology, sociology and even anthropology, but as a parable and warning they work as well as any of the fictions that play with the idea of the fragility of the democracy.
For example Lord of the Flies, the novel by Nobel laureate William Golding that cleverly dismantles Rousseau’s myth of the good savage, and tells how some abandoned children on a desert island set up a proto-democratic organization that ends up experiencing tensions between knowledge and force, between the legitimate ruler, Ralph, and the military power, Jack, who leads the group of hunters. Although it is a novel (twice made to the cinema, in 1963 and 1990), and not a real case, it also ends up as the rosary of dawn. With several murdered children.
One of the most interesting novelties of Golding’s idea is that it places children in a small paradise with a friendly climate and with sufficient resources to survive without going through great hardships, beyond their limited capacities for being children. So scarcity and lack of freedom will not be the alibi for tyranny and violence.
Which brings us to another much more recent fiction about a self-regulating community installed in a paradise: The beach, Alex Garland’s novel made by Dany Boyle starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Richard (DiCaprio) finds a secret beach on an island in Thailand that is a small hidden paradise where a community of Westerners turned into hobbits lives. That is, dedicated to cultivating the land, drinking beer, smoking and enjoying the small pleasures of a quiet life. But hobbits in a neoliberal key: it is a secret corner for a rich and blond youth who abhor the tourists who fill Thailand and who build a community in which “there is no ideology or nonsense of that”, in the words of Richard. In other words, it is a PAU, as Jorge Dioni López, author of the essay, would say The Spain of swimming pools.
What is curious is how this paradise of an egalitarian community of privileged people collapses: three young Norwegians are attacked by a shark, two die and one survives. But it does not recover. “Either you die and we cry or you recover, that’s the deal,” repeats Richard’s voice-over. The community, tired of hearing the moans of the survivor, who has a gangrenous leg and is screaming and delirious, decides to take him to the forest, where his laments do not spoil the party for others. Surprisingly, everyone agrees with the idea, except for Ethienne, the young Frenchman who arrived with Richard on the island and who decides to watch over the sick man in the forest. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t explain better what happened in Madrid on May 4.
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Neoliberalism is Leo DiCaprio in a swimsuit