I have frequently found myself fascinated by Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth’s 1967 short film The Perfect Human. Leth films a white female and white male, focusing on how they look, how they eat, how they dress, how they move and more, and includes a narrator to dictate the life of the perfect human. This opens a thoroughfare to the audience through which one can observe and understand the way in which dominant ideologies shape human beings. For all but one of the 13 minutes in the film, the perfect human is remarkably silent, unquestioning, and uncritical of his/her own ways. Leth is able to show how the dominant ideology that produces bourgeois normativity in 1967 imagines human perfection to be white, heterosexual, physically able, and as valuing lavish wealth, materialism and uncritical thinking—unintellectualism.
The dangers of the perfect human are apparent in Leth’s film. Racial, gendered, sexed, cultural and physical “others” are completely absent from the realm of the perfect human. The imperfect are rendered obsolete, cultural diversity is unnecessary, and the intellectual skepticism essential to democracy (state implemented or not) and human growth is nowhere to be found.
If we look around in 2015, almost 50 years later, it is safe to say such an ideology remains dominant—the major difference being its increased pervasiveness and the new technologies at its disposal—and still extols the supposed virtues of the perfect human. Today’s perfect human is still ideally white, able, heteronomative, and still strives to obtain live a life filled with wealth and luxury. In today’s purported “colorblind” society, other ethnic groups have been partially permitted to adopt the bourgeois normativity represented by the perfect human. If one subscribes to the ideology that informs the perfect human, strives to live a life just like that of the perfect human’s—no matter his or her ethnicity—he or she too can achieve this normative idea of perfection.
Such a powerful ideology, one that is capable of turning a human being into this perfect human, negatively influences society and the world in countless ways. This current way of thinking, that only really started to dominate global ideology soon after the time Leth’s film debuted, is called neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism infuses its power in capillary ways, extending its tentacles to all parts of life and all corners of the Earth and beyond. Neoliberalism is the ideology of the market and of consumer culture, confining all thought within the cell of unfettered capitalism. It is the offspring of the Gilded Age’s unregulated, laissez-faire robber barons, fully grown in the form of today’s economic elite. It is the ideology of oligarchs and plutocrats, military, political and economic elites. It is the way of (not) understanding the world, or social Darwinism, employed by the likes of Donald Trump. Neoliberalism is an ideology subscribed to by both parties of the American political duopoly. And, in the end, neoliberalism operates as a way of sustaining white, heterosexual, male supremacy.
Neoliberalism has the ability to permit and direct nations to illegally occupy others, commit violations of human rights and international law, and wage wars of profiteering. It allows corporations to plunder the world’s natural resources, exploit the socioeconomically disenfranchised, and to march our biosphere over the cliff of climate change. It encourages mass, corporate media outlets to distract us with the flashing lights of reality TV, professional sports, or celebrity gossip, and to deliver “news” with absolutely no critical analysis of important issues. And it leads those who hold the reigns of our education systems to implement the hollow, mind-numbing and uncritical pedagogies of textbooks, STEM and standardized testing.
Neoliberalism is a major factor in chaining humanity to the dead weights of NAFTA, the TPP, corporate personhood, continued American militarism and more. Neoliberalism is the modernized version of the ideologies of mercantilism, colonialism and imperialism; it is inegalitarianism.
When one considers the famous Chomskyism, “propaganda is to democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state,” we can begin to see how hegemonic power operates in our society. A totalitarian regime maintains its hegemonic status through rule characterized by fear, force and terror. Meanwhile, hegemony is sustained in a democracy through controlling the way people think. Controlling peoples’ thinking or ideology is tantamount to controlling their actions. If we all are informed by the ideology of neoliberalism, we will all act as neoliberals, striving to be the present day incarnation of Leth’s perfect human, unquestioning of the exploitive nature of hegemons and elites.
By giving this oppressive ideology a name, similar to the way in which Leth gave it a face, we can begin to break away from it in the ultimate expression and realization of our own uniqueness and humanity. We can begin to critique such ways of thinking and living. In literature, famous characters like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Somerset Maugham’s Larry Darrell, and Ivan Turgenev’s Yevgeny Bazarov exemplify this realization of their own unique humanity as they deny or break from the dominant ideology-producing institutions in their lives (the Catholic Church, bourgeois society, and Russian aristocracy respectively). In contemporary reality Russell Brand can be considered representative of such a break from normative thinking, as he has transformed from being a hard drug addict and cog in the wheel of celebrity culture to a reasoned voice of truth for the oppressed.
If society were able to break from the control of the ideologies that engender the dominant systems and institutions that maintain the socioeconomic hegemony of elites, indigenous peoples like Native Hawaiians—and all peoples more generally—could be themselves, free to practice their culture and beliefs, further enriching all life.
In Hawaii’s history, neoliberalism, its forbears and related ideologies have caused much continuous damage. The insatiable desire for European and American colonial-imperial expansion brought Captain Cook and the deadly diseases he and his men carried. Capitalism’s lust for profit and inequitable allocation of its surplus brought wealth extractors like Sanford Dole, the racially and economically stratifying plantation system and, later, tourism. Along with such economic lust, the thirst for imperial expansion brought American militarism, making Hawaii a prime target for the Japanese Empire in 1941. These ways of thinking have even wielded the wonders of science as a weapon of cultural imperialism, knowingly defiling spaces sacred to Native Hawaiians.
These ideologies have supplanted or attempt to replace the rich, sustainable culture and ways of living aloha practiced by Native Hawaiians with the hyper-individualism and narcissism of consumer culture. The very geology and biology of Hawaii has been ravaged for the purposes of capitalist and neoliberal development: nature is paved over for malls, hotels and prisons; ridges are sliced into to build luxurious neighborhoods of bourgeois houses; the sustainable polyculture of the lo`i is replaced by the soil-depleting and pesticide-spraying of corporate monoculture agribusiness; and many beautiful endemic species of flora and fauna are wiped from the Earth due to the introduction of disease and invasive species. It was these very ideologies that fueled the desire for annexation.
What is most insane is the rapid rate at which this has occurred, beginning a mere 250 years ago in 1778 and accelerating at an ever-increasing rate up to today. Viewing the city from atop Tantulus in Makiki, or from the ocean, one can see the incredible physical changes and the manufactured landscape that is now Honolulu. These ongoing changes—physical and cultural—experienced by Hawaii are a testament to the power of hegemonic and inegalitarian ideologies like colonialism, capitalism and neoliberalism.
Those of us living in Hawaii during the present time bear witness to how such ideologies (where the racial and cultural “other” is obsolete) have wreaked, and continue to wreak, varied forms of havoc throughout, not only the history of Hawaii and Native Hawaiians, but the world as a whole. Not only do we witness the destruction of other indigenous cultures and languages, we witness the violence and cultural homogenization of neoliberalism on a global scale.
On a micro scale, the pervasive oppression of neoliberalism is varied: the nature of oppression for indigenous peoples in the Pacific is different from that of Bangladeshi textile factory workers, just as their suffering is different from that of the impoverished in the so-called developed world, just as their oppression is different from the suffering of someone like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. But from a macro perspective, common to all of this suffering and oppression is the ideology that drives it.
As was famously discussed by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, we must be aware of the dynamics of oppression and the need for compassion for all. Just as the victims of oppression are oppressed, so too are those who commit or call for acts of oppression because of the unconsciousness of their own oppressive actions. Just as the oppressed need help and compassion, so do the oppressed oppressors. If we are to combat the suffering caused by neoliberalism and remove ourselves from its circle of destruction, we must recognize that oppressors need help, just as the oppressed need help.
Thus, we are all oppressed. And what that means is that we all must critically examine the complex forces behind our varied forms of oppression and act together, compassionately recognizing the universality of human oppression. We must connect issues and movements, from Native Hawaiians’ defense of culturally and spiritually significant spaces, to human-induced global warming and environmental degradation, to Black Lives Matter, to Occupy Wall St., to Spain’s 15M movement, to Greece’s fight against neoliberal austerity, to reproductive rights, to equal pay for women, and to all struggles for greater human freedom and happiness. As neoliberal oppression has been globalized, so too must our resistance.
To rid us of such an entrenched ideology of oppression like neoliberalism takes time, and probably will not be fully realized in any of our lifetimes (weather permitting). But we can start or continue the early beginnings of the long process by naming the collective source of our suffering, approaching it critically, and implementing solutions. A person’s absolutely beautiful capability for self-transformation affirms in my mind our power to resist neoliberal ideology and cultural hegemony, and to change from perfect humans to actual humans. Doing so will help create a freer and more culturally rich Hawaii and world; one filled with aloha, of which we can all be proud.