Catastrophic politics:
the disaster film and
respite from privacy

by Todd McGowan

Capitalism’s peak

In the disaster film, the capitalist is always wrong. As a disaster looms for a region or for the world, those always looking for profit inevitably fail to see how the disaster’s destructiveness will neutralize possibilities for advancing the interests of capital. At the same time, while disasters impair the accumulation of capital, they also highlight a fundamental equality that capitalist relations obscure. Everyone is equal in the face of the disaster. Rather than enhancing people’s chances of survival, a capitalist mindset has a deleterious effect on their odds of making it, especially in the disaster film.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Nowhere is this clearer than in When Time Ran Out (James Goldstone, 1980).

When critics attempt to discern the worst disaster film ever made, When Time Ran Out often comes out on top (or on bottom, depending on how one looks at it).[2] It is almost universally credited with bringing an end to the first cycle of disaster films in the 1970s that began with Airport (George Seaton, 1970), due to its abject failure at the box office. But the critical and popular failure of When Time Ran Out does not result from its breaking from the generic tropes of the disaster film. This film follows these tropes too rigidly. However, for showing how the genre functions, this rigidity also makes it exemplary for my purposes here.

When Time Ran Out takes place on an island resort, where a volcano looms in the background of a luxury hotel. The film’s hero, Hank Anderson (Paul Newman), is an oil driller who strikes oil at the beginning of the film. His partner, Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), plans to use the money from the discovery to free himself from his wealthy patron, Shelby Gilmore (William Holden), and his spouse Nikki (Veronica Hamel), who is Shelby’s goddaughter. The film’s central conflict occurs between Hank and Bob: Hank wants to stop the drilling because of the volcano’s danger while Bob wants to go forward because of the well’s potential profit.

Dramatically, this conflict is enacted in the contrasting performance styles of Newman and Franciscus. Newman plays Hank with subdued restraint even in the midst of great success, while Franciscus’ character Bob bubbles over with enthusiasm at the prospect of becoming wealthy. No matter what the situation, Franciscus acts as if Bob can barely contain himself. Bob’s eagerness to accumulate constantly makes itself visible, while Hank’s concern is for the safety of his fellow workers. Later, the two characters split over how to respond to the volcano’s eruption. Hank leads a group from the hotel across the island to safety, while Bob encourages the majority of guests to remain in the hotel, a decision that ends up killing all of them. The hotel’s opulence contrasts with the rough terrain that the group must traverse, but opulence leads only to death.

As the disaster film reveals, a natural disaster politicizes the economy, transforming individuals dedicated to their private goals into political subjects engaged in the public world. Those who respond to the disaster by remaining in their private realms and resisting their public responsibility end up dying. In this case, fireballs from the volcano destroy the hotel and all those remaining in its luxury. The group that Hank constitutes survives through the mutual aid that they provide for each other. In this way, the survival plot acquires a political bearing. The film shows that by deciding to act collectively, this group poses a fundamental challenge to the logic of capital, a challenge that becomes clear only when disaster strikes. The disaster film reveals that we can approach natural disaster as a political event through paying attention to how the very situation foregrounds people’s universal equality in the face of catastrophe.

In the climactic scene of When Time Ran Out, characters traverse a decaying and burning bridge that goes over a stream of flowing lava. Although some members of the group die during the crossing, everyone works together to navigate the passage. As the characters aid each other in crossing the bridge, the film cuts to shots from above in order to highlight the flowing lava in the background. Visually, it becomes apparent that disaster mediates the formation of a group that acts cooperatively. The background of flowing lava is not just a danger that the group must surmount. It is the force that reveals the group as a public collective rather than as a mere collection of private individuals.[3] The natural disaster politicizes privacy in the logic of the disaster film.

The disaster film—and the disaster itself—initially appears as an apolitical event. But there is a hidden political charge to a disaster that these films almost always accentuate. In the face of the disaster, it becomes evident that to insist on one’s private interests leads to death and that survival depends on committing oneself to others, to the public world. The disaster film and natural disasters themselves reveal, when we interpret them correctly, a way past the depredations of our capitalist epoch.

The appeal of private life

Theorists on the Left often lament today that it is easier to imagine the world’s end than that of capitalism. While Hollywood has no problem creating spectacular and often credible fantasies of the world’s destruction in disaster films, not even leftist theorists can envision a workable path out of capitalism or a way to counter popular attachment to it.[4] The contrast between our capacity for imagining the end of the world and our inability to imagine the end of capitalism reveals not just the extent of capitalism’s psychic dominance but also the dismantling of the public sphere in favor of a retreat into privacy. Capitalism doesn’t just install itself as the only game in town. It also militates against the formation of a public sphere that expresses a collective bond, which would form the basis for contesting capitalist relations of production.

Universal values like equality or solidarity no longer attract our belief or compel our action. Instead, we become preoccupied with safeguarding our private lives. Private life serves ironically as the most commonly shared and recognized value. Prevalence of fantasies about the world’s end testifies to the prevalence of this value, which in fact evacuates value. That is, the consequence of private life becoming the only value is that existence loses the values that give it worth and inspire struggle.

Political fights depend on people’s capacity to invest themselves in the public world, which is why the ubiquity of prioritizing private life has such devastating political consequences. Rather than struggling for values that might lead us to oppose capitalism, we struggle to secure our private world from violent intrusion, which ensures the dominance of capitalist relations of production. The struggle for equality has lost ground to the struggle to better my private world, which is the struggle of a depoliticized subject, a subject losing the capacity to experience the world in political terms. As we turn to privacy, our mode of living dramatically transforms how we experience and interpret contemporary events.

For example, consider the rhetoric around “crisis.” In the privatized world of contemporary capitalism, there are fewer political catastrophes; instead, there are humanitarian crises.[5] Great problems seem to concern a threat to private lives more than reveal the structure of a political situation. For example, the response to the Serbian or the Rwandan genocide was not to take up a political position and become engaged but to provide humanitarian relief. As a result, political catastrophes often appear described in the form of natural disaster. Pierre Bourdieu describes this process of transformation in his analysis of journalism in On Television. He notes that the news presents political events around the world as if they occur outside of politics. As he puts it,

“Stripped of any political necessity, this string of events can at best arouse a vague humanitarian interest. Coming one after the other and outside any historical perspective, these unconnected tragedies seem to differ little from natural disasters—the tornadoes, forest fires, and floods that also occupy so much of the news…. As for the victims, they’re not presented in any more political a light than those of a train derailment or any other accident.”[6]

Understanding the structure behind this kind of rhetoric mean understanding that it’s not just bad news reporting that describes events as natural disasters when, in fact, political events are taking place. Such blindness to politics and a consequent monocular focus on the humanitarian dimension of every catastrophe are first and foremost ideological effects of our capitalist universe.

At the same time, although today we tend to interpret political events as natural disasters, the natural disaster itself has a latent political content. Thus, we should turn the tables and learn to interpret natural disaster as incipient political events. Disasters make political universality readily evident. We quickly see that everyone is equal in the face of disaster, that it can strike the rich as ruthlessly as it does the poor. In the midst of the loss that all suffer, we share this loss. The universal nature of our status as lacking subjects becomes apparent. We can recognize in the natural disaster the universality of a shared loss that binds everyone together. This doesn’t just appear in actual catastrophes but also appears in imaginative works about disaster. In the case I am looking at here, disaster films, the dramatic discovery of a universality in the face of shared loss is the feature that characterizes the genre, a genre that can instruct us on how to interpret the disasters that befall us in our reality.

A disastrous epoch

Genre is not eternal. Genres arises in response to social antagonisms that they express and often attempt to solve aesthetically. This is why the western can disappear and the disaster film can emerge in its wake. The disaster film arose as a genre only at an historical moment when the public sphere disappeared and capitalism succeeded in locking people into their private worlds. The 1970s marked a worldwide retreat into privacy, a retreat from the political engagement that characterized the 1960s.[7] This retreat coincided with the rise of the disaster film, which attempted to engage this political moment aesthetically as it responded to a world in which securing one’s private existence had become a primary value.

Though films depicting disasters existed prior to the 1970s, the disaster film as such did not emerge until this time, the onset of the epoch of privacy. George Seaton’s Airport (1970) was the first disaster film. Following Airport, the 1970s witnessed a spate of various filmic disasters—Earthquake (Mark Robson, 1974), Avalanche (Corey Allen, 1978), Meteor (Ronald Neame, 1979), and so on—that culminated with the total failure of When Time Ran Out. Although the disaster film lay dormant through most of the 1980s (perhaps because of the failure of When Time Ran Out), it reappeared in the 1990s and continues to thrive today with films such as 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009), San Andreas (Brad Peyton, 2015), and Geostorm (Dean Devlin, 2017).

Because a disaster or catastrophe stands as an ultimate threat to private life and human survival, the disaster film necessarily plays a central role in the contemporary landscape of cultural fantasies. It engages spectators with the threat of wiping out their private lives. The genre depicts a struggle to survive. But where contemporary journalism translates political catastrophes into terms of natural disasters, the disaster film treats the natural disaster as a political opportunity and that’s the key to its value for us as spectators.

The destruction unleashed by the disaster is a political opportunity. The public world trumps privacy in the disaster film like The Day After Tomorrow. It is significant that the group that survives in New York City does so in a public library.

In the face of the danger to private life that the disaster represents, we paradoxically see in these films a concern for the public reemerge and replace mere survival as motivation. Though the disaster film may provide spectacular images of the end of the world or other destruction, the narrative trajectory and tropes of the disaster film articulate a pointedly political rejection of private life’s evisceration of value. In his analysis of the disaster genre, Stephen Keane suggests that “disaster movies are innately passive and survivalist (in the sense that when their central disasters occur the characters have no choice but to try and make their way up, down or out into safety).”[8] But this interpretation fails to account for the number of characters in disaster films who put their survival—their private lives—at risk for others. The disaster film envisions a politicization that would counter the monopoly that private life itself has on our actions. In this sense, the disaster genre, despite the millions required to produce these spectacles, calls into question the ideology of privacy that underlies the capitalist universe.

Disaster capitalism

The politics of capitalism is depoliticization. Though it relies on the creation and appropriation of surplus value, capitalism destroys the values necessary for political subjectivity and struggle. This is what Marx and Engels recount in The Communist Manifesto when they proclaim,

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, … has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”[9]

Under capitalism, measured cynicism manipulates a hypocritical politics.[10] Even though political revolutions have helped to facilitate the development of capitalist relations of production, the genuine political revolution is always at odds with the structure of capitalism, even if that revolution contributes to the rise of capitalist relations. In this sense, the Thermidorian Reaction that ends the engaged political climate of the French Revolution has more to do with capitalist relations of production in France than does the Jacobin Terror that inaugurates it.[11]

Politics are anathema to the structure of capitalism because political struggle interrupts the accumulation of capital. When engaging in political activity, I momentarily cease producing and consuming commodities. I advance values that cannot be reduced to the value of a commodity. The field of political struggle is an alternative terrain to that of the capitalist economy. It is a terrain that inherently connects us with others, which is what the logic of capital tries to impede.

Marx and Engels suggest capitalism’s destruction of politics in The Communist Manifesto. They call for a political response to capitalism. Political activism interrupts accumulation, even if this activism is not explicitly anti-capitalist.

In order to function as a capitalist subject, one must view oneself as an isolated monad. Only in this way can one constantly maximize one’s accumulation of capital. A connection with others—a recognition of universality—lifts the subject out of its private world and interferes with a person’s ability to profit from others. Once this occurs, capitalist society loses its hold on the subject’s psyche, as other values challenge the accumulation of capital for supremacy in one’s imagination and way of thinking.[12]

Even though capitalism is constantly revolutionizing the conditions of production, it has a profound allergy for political revolution. The struggle for liberty, equality, and solidarity has nothing to do with capitalism’s political goals and values, despite the apparent connection that these values have with the onset of capitalism. Political liberty is not economic liberty; the equality of disparate citizens is not the equality of capitalist subjects in the market place; and the solidarity of engaged subjects is not the bond felt by consumers enthralled by the sublimity of the commodity. Under capitalism as we experience it today, political values always become economic ones: freedom ceases to be the freedom to intervene politically in the direction that the society might take and becomes instead living with unlimited consumption, the absence of a social safety net, and a lack of responsibility for ecological damage.[13] Capitalism’s transformation of political values into economic ones produces a world in which private life—and the self-interest necessary to defend private life—is the only persistent value.

For the purely economic individual, existence is essentially private. The privatization of parts of the public world—roads, prisons, schools, and so on—assists in the eradication of our political being. By contrasting capitalism’s apotheosis of privacy with the attitude of the ancient Greeks, Hannah Arendt makes evident the turn away from politics. She says,

“A man who lived only a private life, who like the slave was not permitted to enter the public realm, or like the barbarian had chosen not to establish such a realm, was not fully human. We no longer think primarily of deprivation when we use the word ‘privacy,’ and this is partly due to the enormous enrichment of the private sphere through modern individualism.”[14]

The problem with this retreat into privacy, as Arendt sees it, is not just its deleterious effect on the public world but its destruction of our political being. Private life concerns itself only with its own reproduction. When it becomes our exclusive domain, it leaves us disengaged from the world.

In its ultimate form, capitalist ideology does not emphasize the importance of the individual subject, the values of the free market, or the evils of collective action. Instead, it passes itself off as the absence of ideology, proclaiming that everyone simply follows self-interest in order to best survive and that all other values represent an ideological mystification. This is why Neo-Darwinist explanations have achieved the status of common sense today. Darwinian individuals pursue their self-interest and that of the species without regard for the epiphenomenon of ideology. From this perspective, survival and propagation become the only valid explanatory principles because they speak to fundamental “natural facts” rather than their ideological structures.[15] The old ideological justifications—sacrifice for the family or the nation, loyalty to the company—are no longer necessary. The apparent absence of all ideology installs itself as the most effective capitalist ideology.