Brazil and the Economic Problems of Socialism

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Terry
Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil
was recognized at the time as a brilliant work of social commentary
and a stunning feat of visual imagination. I believe that it is
the strongest statement of classical liberal views in a work of
popular culture to emerge since that time. It shows the connection
between socialism the use of a police state to create a state of
terror.

In
this essay, I will concentrate on the film Brazil as a critique
of economic central planning. In a subsequent essay I will address
Gilliam's foresight in depicting a dystopian political system that
resembles today's domestic and international political developments.

Many
fictional representations of totalitarianism in science fiction
films have been created by script writers unaware of the Mises-Hayek
critique of socialism. Films often portray an economic system that
is a centrally planned economy wealthy far in excess of today's
world. Totalitarian powers in these films are depicted as technologically
advanced, omnipotent, omniscient and in total control of their populations.

Mises'
critique of socialism holds that only a market economy can produce
technological advancement, refuting the coexistence of totalitarianism
and economic efficiency often seen in film. I think that Gilliam
understands this problem. Brazil 's political world is oppressive,
and it exemplifies the tension between the totalitarian desire for
absolute power and the incompetence and lack of individual responsibility
inherent under such a regime, which makes the exercise of power
less effective than it otherwise might be.

In
Brazil, technological progress has gone into reverse, stupidity
has won out over innovation, shirking takes the place of productivity,
and the absurd is accepted as normal. There is a repeated visual
motif of overly complex technologies that perform simple tasks badly.
Many devices are broken, malfunctioning, or otherwise not user-friendly.
For example, data entry workers peer at tiny computer monitors through
huge magnifying glasses. A breakfast machine sprays coffee and produces
soggy toast. Alarms will not shut off. These are all clear examples
of bureaucratically imposed solutions that have not passed a market
test.

When
the internal security policy arrive to arrest terrorist suspect
Mr. Buttle — himself an innocent citizen wrongly fingered due to
a mechanical problem in a computer system — the Department of Works
who come in after them to clean up the mess have brought along the
wrong size repair kit to fix the hole in the floor that they drilled
to facilitate a surprise entrance.

JILL:
There must be some mistake … Mr. Buttle’s harmless…

BILL:
We don’t make mistakes.

So
saying, he drops the manhole cover, which is faced with same material
as the floor, over the hole in the floor. To his surprise it drops
neatly through the floor into the flat below.

CHARLIE:
Bloody typical, they’ve gone back to metric without telling
us.

A
mechanical problem that produced the mistaken identity brilliantly
ties together in a sinister closure the destinies of two otherwise
unrelated characters. This device was introduced in the script by
the anti-Communist playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard was one of
several writers who wrestled with the script before it reached its
final form.

At
one point, Sam Lowry (the protagonist), wakes up to find that the
heating and cooling system in his apartment is severely malfunctioning.
The call routing system that takes his call for help is also broken.
The agency that maintains the cooling system is aptly named "Central
Services."

Sam's
call is intercepted by the renegade plumber Harry Tuttle. Tuttle,
who is one of the two heroic characters in the film, had once worked
for Central Services, but resigned because he wanted to do home
repairs without the administrative burden. He pursues his career
outside of the law as a combination of Spiderman and heating engineer.
The seriousness of this choice is shown in an armed near-confrontation
between Tuttle and two Central Services engineers.

SAM:
Sorry. Wouldn’t it be easier just to work for Central Services?

TUTTLE:
Couldn’t stand the paperwork, couldn’t stand the paperwork.
Listen, this old system of yours could be on fire and I couldn’t
even turn on the kitchen tap without filling in a 27B/6…. Bloody
paperwork.

SAM:
Well I suppose one has to expect a certain amount.

TUTTLE:
Why? I came into this game for the action, for the excitement
– go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there’s
trouble, a man alone. Now they’ve got the whole country sectioned
off and you can’t move without a form. I’m the last of a breed.

Tuttle
quickly locates and repairs the problem. Unfortunately, working
on home equipment without proper authorization by Central Services
is a crime, which has placed Tuttle on the Ministry of Information's
wanted list, which leads to the wrongful arrest of Mr. Buttle in
his place. Brazil is a world in which entrepreneurs are outlaws.
Doing good quality work on short notice to satisfy customers makes
you an enemy of the state.

Another
contrast between private enterprise and government bureaucracy is
shown in one of the funniest scenes in the film in which Sam uses
Central Services' own procedural rules against them to prevent them
from discovering the presence of Tuttle.

Another
recurring visual motif is the massive amount of paper that is delivered,
routed, stamped, sent through antiquarian pneumatic tubes, and otherwise
shuffled by the vast bureaucracies that pervade the film. Paperwork
records and tracks real events, and more importantly paperwork tracks
other pieces of paperwork, leading to an exponential growth in the
amount of paper that is generated.

An
example of the overgrowth of paper is shown when, after the wrongful
arrest of Mr. Buttle, a bureaucratic official arrives to do the
paperwork with Mrs. Buttle before he is hauled away:

OFFICIAL:
(tearing out sheet from pink book) That’s your receipt
for your husband. (taking blue book from her)

MRS.
BUTTLE:
Thank you. And this is my receipt for your receipt.

Gilliam
has an astute eye for the subtleties of spiritual corruption that
occur under a police state. In the above scene, the sudden arrest
of her husband leaves Mrs. Buttle in a state of intense trauma,
near total panic. When presented with the paperwork to sign, Mrs.
Buttle emerges from her panic to become momentarily lucid while
signing the paperwork, and then lapses back into her state of trauma.
This moment reveals how the population of Brazil had become
so conditioned to signing receipts that it is like a basic metabolic
function.

The
large volume of paper that is moved through pipes and tunnels is
both a part of Gilliam's visual motif of overly complex technologies
that don't work, and serves as an elaborate system for the dispersion
and denial of responsibility by any one individual so characteristic
of governmental bureaucracies.

Gilliam
uses denial of responsibility as a key plot mechanism. After a random
mechanical error wrongly identifies Mr. Buttle as a terrorist, the
mistake must then be covered or the responsibility shifted to a
succession of ever more sinister governmental departments by those
responsible. The protagonist, Sam Lowry, is a low-level clerk in
one such entity. In this scene, Sam's boss Mr. Kurtzmann is constitutionally
unable to exercise the accountability to sign a form:

KURTZMAN:
How do I authorize a cheque?

SAM:
Here we are. Pink and blue receipts. All you’ve got to do
is sign these and the back of the cheque.

KURTZMAN
takes out his pen and tries to sign the papers but his hand is
giving him trouble.

KURTZMAN:
(exhausted after all the emotion) Oh God! I think I’ve
broken a bone. What a pathetic thing I am.

SAM:
(taking the pen from him) Here.

SAM
signs the cheque and receipts. A big CLOSE UP shows that he is
scribbling KURTZMAN's signature. SAM pockets the papers and the
pen.

SAM:
Right, I'll be on my way.

KURTZMAN:
You are good to me Sam.

The
theme of denial of responsibility is also reiterated by the visual
motif of the Executive Decision-Making Machine. It appears
several times in the film, once on the desk of arch-bureaucrat Harry
Lime and is also is given back and forth as a gift. It consists
of a weight that randomly falls off a sloping edge into either a
"yes" or a "no" box. The user, presumably an
executive, makes important decisions by random chance using this
device.

In
addition to denial of responsibility, Gilliam illustrates other
unproductive aspects of non-market bureaucracies. One is the principle
that the incompetent advance. Sam's co-worker at the Ministry of
Information Retrieval does not know how to use the computer on his
desk.

Gilliam
has the ability to make his political-economic points in a humorous
way. One of the funniest scenes shows how paper-shuffling departmental
drones have developed the skill of shirking to a high art, coordinating
their goofing off precisely to the opening and closing of the boss's
door in order to avoid discovery.

Gilliam
also conveys the decline of aesthetic life under bureaucracy. Massive
grotesque heating ducts span interior spaces. Gourmet cuisine consists
of small lumps of texturized food substances colored with food coloring.
Women are obsessed with plastic surgery that makes them uglier than
they were before. People live in hideously ugly concrete housing
projects (resembling government housing projects in modern Britain
and America) with names like "Green Pastures" and "Shangri-La."

In
this essay I have only touched on a few of the gems in this film.
It bears repeated watching to pick up actions of background characters
in many of the frames. In the family scene before Mr. Buttle is
arrested, for example, his children are playing with action toys
resembling the troopers who burst in to arrest him. Later, when
Sam arrives at the Buttle's apartment complex to deliver a refund
check to Mrs. Buttle, the children outside are playing at re-enacting
the arrest sequence.

Gilliam's
great gift in Brazil is his ability to take the darkness
of totalitarian central planning and illustrate it in a way that
is humorous and at the same time terrifying. It is my view that
Gilliam's film reveals him to be an astute economic commentator
whose work can only be fully understood as an expression of classical
liberal political values.

Favorite
Brazil Sites

  1. FAQ.
  2. Script.
  3. Buy the
    new DVD release
    featuring a documentary about the film and
    Gilliam's commentary.

May
27, 2003

Robert
Blumen (send him mail)
is an independent software consultant based in San Francisco.


     

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