Not being old enough to have experienced feudalism, whenever I think of arbitrary, dictatorial power this haunting film comes to mind as how life would be without the constraints placed on individual ambition by the contemporary bureaucratic, and nominally democratic, regime. Salo’ is loosly based off de Sade’s infamous book, and I was hoping that this paper, focused on power and bureaucracy, could continue along this smutty trajectory. We seem though, to have gone from a mode of power summed up in that Pasolini quote “the only true, great, absolute anarchy is that of power” to a mode of power that a popular Italian phrase, used conversationally when discussing the elusive, cunning power of Machiavellian political manouvering that Italy is famous for: “they piss on our heads and tell us its raining”. Pasolini’s death, 35 years later – and still an open investigation – is just such an example of this subtle yet all the more terrifying mode of power: the faceless men hatching complex plots behind an arcane state bureaucracy. Beyond pizza, wine and the mafia, per Braudel we have Italy to thank for state-enforced monopoly capitalism, and what Baudrillard back in ’83 called the Italian simulacra of democracy, which like pizza and wine, is no more limited to Italy than MacDonald’s is to California. With either mode of power, its victims/subjects still bear the brunt of structural violence. Privatising profits and collectivizing debts is the well-established formula of monopoly state crony capitalism, or to use another Italian phrase to describe the sexual orientation of those in power that roughly translates as “gay but with other people’s asses”.
These popular Italian phrases that conflate political power with non-consensual sexual activity, and I wish I could spend the time here recounting horrifying but irresistibly fascinating stories straight out of American Psycho or Wolf of Wall street. Sadly, for the grey world of corporate work in the CBD, this wanton high life is probably as rare as it is for academia, (or maybe I haven’t been invited to secret all-night parties?). Most have been or still go to amazingly debauched parties, but probably few ever went into the office determined to get that paper finished and were greeted with rented Velcro-clad midgets and a supervisor furiously masturbating whilst high on Quaaludes. This persistent image of thought surrounding the corporate world – the libertine trader or Patrick Bateman-style white collar psychopath – is a fantasy similar to Salo’s portrayal of absolute power. It is often taken uncritically by those on the left, or as aspirational fantasy by those corporate and finance workers themselves that grants temporary escape from the grey bureaucratic reality of their day jobs. Like Scarface or The Godfather have become the films that wannabe gangsters watch and imitate, rather than depicting the everyday drudgery and chronic fear of organised crime, so seems to persist the Patrick Bateman fantasy. Yes Baudrillard strikes again. Nick Land cogently asserts that Baudrillard is the philosopher of the end of the monetary gold standard. That is, while ostensibly Baudrillard was the theorist of the much lamented or celebrated postmodern reign of cultural relativity, from a ‘sober’ political economic perspective – and Baudrillard was a sober thinker – it was the end of any standard of value not amenable to political manipulation. I am not arguing that psychopathic financiers or CEOs do not exist, but rather that while glorious psychopaths make for great novels and film, the statistically-relevant quotidian day in corporate office life is much more prosaic and dominated by stultifying bureaucratic processes and structures.