Synopsis from IMDB:
Late one night, a beautiful and well-dressed young woman, Grace, arrives in the mountainous old mining town of Dogville as a fugitive; following the sound of gunshots in the distance which have been heard by Tom, the self-appointed moral spokesman for the town, the town agree to hide Grace, and in return she freely helps the locals. However, when the Sheriff from a neighbouring town posts a Missing notice, advertising a reward for revealing her whereabouts, the townsfolk require a better deal from Grace, in return for their silence; and when the Sheriff returns some weeks later with a Wanted poster, even though the citizens know her to be innocent of the false charges against her, the town’s sense of goodness takes a sinister turn and the price of Grace’s freedom becomes a workload and treatment akin to that of a slave. But Grace has a deadly secret that the townsfolk will eventually encounter.
AMERICA: A RUNAWAY PROPOSITION
Lars Von Trier’s Dogville is considered to be a polemical anti-American movie. The montage of images of the dispossessed underclass appended to the closing credits is seen as unequivocally positioning the movie as a critique of America, but since America dominates the cultural and political sphere of the West an anti-American stance inevitably involves a larger critique of modernity. While the movie draws upon the European stage tradition of Brecht and Shaw the characters are not mere ciphers in a didactic exposition because there is no alternative ideology being expounded beyond an unflinching examination of secular liberal concepts. The schematic chalked out arena where the action is staged dispenses with the naturalistic context available to film but retains the use of camera close-ups to place the focus on the personal interactions. The minimal references to the historical context of the era and the town’s isolation from the city render it much more a character study than a social critique. The characters are nevertheless imbued with an ideology that, like Grace herself, is a fugitive from its origin. America is a colony of Europe and founded itself upon the Puritan and the Enlightenment inheritance, both of which originated within European culture. Having no heritage beyond this to draw upon it became the social experiment that Lincoln described in the Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
Any critique of this abstract proposition can only take its stance in the older tradition of Europe, the heritage of Church and Monarchy from which the colony sought independence. The movie progressively strips away the propositions of this ideology through the treatment of Grace and the final destructive consequences of the attempt to escape our bonds to the past.
The narration by the English actor John Hurt has a laconic detached tone of irony and cynicism as well as a certain condescension, if not outright mockery, from the perspective of European tradition toward an ideology as insubstantial as the chalk outlines of the stage. The movie takes place in the period just before America’s ongoing ‘Crusade for Democracy’ as described by Yockey:
In the 20th century, when the Rationalist type of ideology had been discarded by the advancing Western Civilization, the American universalizing of ideology turned into a messianic mission: the idea that America must save the world. The vehicle of the salvation is to be a materialistic religion with “democracy” taking the place of God, “Constitution” the place of the Church, “principles of government” the place of dogmas, and the idea of economic freedom the place of God’s Grace. The technique of salvation is to embrace the dollar, or failing that, to submit to American high-explosives and bayonets.( Francis Parker Yockey: Imperium)
The written Constitution of America was a legal document intending to preserve individual liberty and prevent the abuse of power by instituting a series of checks and balances and a separation of powers. As such it was a symbol of the rational and materialistic conception of life attempting a reconfiguration of the traditional European form of power relations. Yet it was ultimately unable to prevent the rise of corporate power which operates under the unassailable rights of ‘free trade’ and far exceeds the tyranny of any monarchical power.
Anti-Americanism in Europe is a rejection of that messianic project, especially the moral posturing which sanctions its economic imperialism. In a twist of fate the colony of America has become a colonising power over the cultural discourse of Europe through the predominance of its entertainment industry which propagates the ideology of liberal democracy. Dogville and its violent finale raises the question of whether such a situation ‘can long endure.’
TOM: PIMP FOR THE PLUTOCRACY
Tom has positioned himself as the moral conscience of the town in the absence of a Church Minister and regularly uses the empty church to preach his secular gospel of humanism. He dreams of ‘articles and novels and great gatherings that would listen in silence to Tom after the publication of yet another volume that scourged and purged the human soul‘. He attempts to use Grace as an ‘edifying illustration’ of his claim that the townsfolk ‘have a problem with acceptance.’ As a humanist he lives in the world of abstractions and ideals, an alienated rationalism which is unable to engage with reality without first filtering it through a prism of ideology. Grace is necessarily reduced to a cipher to be manipulated within his social experiment, his own miniature ‘proposition nation.’
She functions as a proxy for Tom’s ideals in the same way that ethnic and sexual minorities are exploited as political capital under the cloak of human rights and equality. The secular ecumenicism of liberalism wilfully ignores the disruptive real-world effects of its policies and prefers to engage in moral preening and rhetorical evasion. The ‘problem with acceptance’ of which Tom accuses the town is the excuse for his attempt at social engineering which ultimately leads to their complete destruction. The covert motives of self-aggrandisement and manipulation are dissimulated in the cliches and platitudes of humanitarian rhetoric. When he approaches a revelation about his own desire to use Grace physically, like the other menfolk, and doubts begin to emerge about the integrity of his idealistic pose, it proves unbearable and he advocates her expulsion and return rather than his own exposure. So invested is he in his self-image that the expulsion is rationalised as being ‘for the good of the community,’ the same community which he denounced as illiberal.
The liberal rationalists of the American colony attempted to shape society according to an ideal image derived from an ethics and an aesthetic of the Greco-Roman heritage which could replace the Church and Monarchy of Europe. The Puritan heritage of the colony is more firmly grounded in an awareness of the negative pole of human nature which the rationalists cannot incorporate:
The type of mind which believes in the essential “goodness” of human nature attained to Liberalism. But there is another political anthropology, one which recognizes that man is disharmonious, problematical, dual, dangerous. This is the general wisdom of mankind, and is reflected by the number of guards, fences, safes, locks, jails and policemen. (Ibid.)
Between these two anthropologies a paradoxical hybrid is emerging of the puritanical liberal. The refusal to confront the baseness of human nature leads to the irony of liberal governments instituting hate-speech laws and state surveillance in order to prop up a failing ideology. Their unshakeable faith in human nature is demonstrated by the fervent persecution of the secular sins of racism and sexism and intolerance. The impotence of the liberal class before the exertion of actual power is symbolised by the initial refusal of Tom to acknowledge the rape of Grace by Chuck. This weakness is connected to his devotion to the idealised over the real. In much the same way corporate power in America has being allowed to pursue its own self-interest as long as it gives lip-service to the feel-good rhetoric of liberalism:
The election of Obama was one more triumph of illusion over substance. It was a skilful manipulation and betrayal of the public by a corporate power elite. We mistook style and ethnicity – an advertising tactic pioneered by Calvin Klein and Benetton – for progressive politics and genuine change. The goal of a branded Obama, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand for an experience. This is why Obama was named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008, beating Apple and Zappos. ( Chris Hedges: Death of the Liberal Class )
GRACE: THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
If Tom lives in an unreal idealised future then Grace lives in an all too real past from which she seeks to escape. She is in thrall to an idealised ‘storyville’ America from the pages of Tom Sawyer; a place far removed from her life among the criminal underworld. She shares with Tom the ability to subsume the real complexity of human nature under the political mythology of the ‘good simple folk’ as employed by President Roosevelt in his fireside chats on public radio of which we hear a brief clip. The alliance of these two idealists is a project which aims at manifesting an alternative dynamic in human relations, an open and accepting embrace of the ‘stranger.’
Grace, with Tom’s help, is positioning herself as the archetypal refugee, the immigrant, the vulnerable outsider seeking shelter. As such she becomes a pawn in Tom’s ideological project of liberalism but Grace herself is far from innocent and her game is infinitely more subtle. Her own motives are rooted in a quasi-ascetic renunciation of her power, an attempt to find a path in humility to counter the ‘arrogance’ of her birthright. She refuses Tom’s offer of food because, as she explains, she stole the dog’s bone and ‘Now I have to punish myself. I was raised to be arrogant, so I had to teach myself these things.’
There is a brief honeymoon period in Dogville where Grace is accepted and begins to feel part of the community but the intrusion of an outside authority in the form of a Marshall is the encroaching reality which their project has to negotiate with. She is made to work harder to retain her protected status, her increased vulnerability as an outlaw whom the town is harbouring distorts the dynamic and we come eventually to the sixth chapter: ‘In which Dogville bares its teeth.’
In an ironic echo of her own self-abnegation the first exploitation of her vulnerable status is by the schoolboy who demands to be spanked or he will tell his mother, who doesn’t believe in physical punishment, that Grace hit him. The psychological and emotional manipulation of an adult by a child shatters the sentimental image of childhood innocence so pervasive in the liberal mythology and projected onto the infantilised recipients of their humanitarian concern. The negative qualities of the human which the liberal mentality has spurned internally, just as Grace attempts to spurn her former life, return externally in the form of a provocation. The threat of exposure renders her vulnerable to blackmail and abuse in the movie but her ongoing submission is impelled by her own refusal to face facts, to see the ‘dog’ in Dogville, so to speak. There is likewise a fundamental dishonesty operating within the liberal ideology where the disturbing reality of human nature is held at bay by a false anthropology propagated ceaselessly through all the channels of communication. As her father expresses it :
A deprived childhood and a homicide really isn’t necessarily a homicide, right? The only thing you can blame is circumstances. Rapists and murderers may be the victims according to you, but I, I call them dogs. And if they’re lapping up their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with a lash…Does every human being need to be accountable for their action? Of course they do. But you don’t even give them that chance. And that is extremely arrogant.
Grace becomes an economic slave, the property of the town which has democratically voted to double her workload and tacitly agreed to her gradual degradation. The implication that she is enduring the lesser evil of the towns punishment rather than the full force of the law results in the rationalisation that she should be grateful to them. Grace capitulates because she wants to believe in the liberal anthropology which depicts a world other than her father’s brutal and stark realism. Her forgiveness of her abusers is a self-serving manoeuvre as it holds at bay the realisation that she is guilty of hiding from her true nature and projecting onto the townsfolk a liberal mythology. She is a fugitive from the truth and a criminal in hiding from herself, in denial of her place in the gangster world. The vision of humanity which Chuck discloses to her is the reality she knows but refuses to accept:
This town is rotten from the inside out……people are the same all over, greedy as animals. A small town is just a bit less successful; feed them enough and they’ll eat till their bellies burst.
The ‘fooling act’, as Chuck calls it, is the idealistic mirage of progressive liberalism which renders the subject impervious to the obvious and susceptible to the malevolent.
THE SHACKLES OF LIBERALISM
It was not Grace’s pride that kept her going during the days when fall came and the trees were losing their leaves, but more of a trance-like state that descends on animals whose lives are threatened – a state in which the body reacts mechanically in a low tough gear, without too much painful reflection. Like a patient passively letting his disease hold sway.
The level to which she is reduced is an indictment of the liberal project of Tom who has proven impotent to resist the encroachment of the baser aspects of human nature because he cannot incorporate those aspects within his anthropology. The shackles of liberalism are forged from the desire to evade reality:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute newgovernment, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness
The ideal of America is founded on this legal rhetoric which sprang from the salons of the Enlightenment and contains the wishful-thinking of eighteenth century rationalists. The reality of America is the rapid submergence of this ’emancipated’ people within the technology of mass media and industrial development, severed from the roots and traditions of Europe and defenceless against the emergence of a corporate plutocracy and a militarised ideology. The Declaration of Independence enshrines the same faith in human nature which Grace attempts to cling onto until the realisation that such faith renders her complicit with her tormentors who do not hesitate to take advantage of her in their own pursuit of happiness:
How could she ever hate them for what was at bottom merely their weakness? She would probably have done things like those that had befallen her if she had lived in one of these houses. To measure them by her own yardstick as her father put it. Would she not, in all honesty, have done the same as Chuck and Vera and Ben and Mrs Henson and Tom and all these people in their houses? Grace paused and while she did the clouds scattered and let the moonlight through and Dogville underwent another of those little changes of light. It was as if the light, previously so merciful and faint, finally refused to cover up for the town any longer…. The light now penetrated every unevenness and flaw in the buildings and in the people. And all of a sudden she knew the answer to her question all too well. If she had acted like them she could not have defended a single one of her actions and could not have condemned them harshly enough. It was as if her sorrow and pain finally assumed their rightful place. No. What they had done was not good enough. And if one had the power to put it right it was one’s duty to do so – for the sake of other towns, for the sake of humanity. And not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.
The gangsters of her father’s world are not fooled by the rhetoric of liberalism because their concern is with exploiting the baseness of human nature for profit. They remain as a cohesive outside group rooted in a basic reality and retaining the instincts for survival which become attenuated in the groups subjected to an ideological distortion of that basic reality. The clarity of her father’s perception is in stark contrast to the equivocations of Grace and recall an older tradition of political thought still rooted in a realistic view of human nature and its relation to power.
Carl Schmitt, from whom Yockey borrows considerably, defined the political as comprising of the distinction friend/enemy, just as aesthetics distinguishes between beautiful/ugly, morality between good/evil, economics between profitable/unprofitable:
The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. These conflicts can neither be decided by a previously determined general norm nor by the judgement of a disinterested and therefore neutral party. Only the actual participants can correctly recognize, understand, and judge the concrete situation and settle the extreme case of conflict. Each participant is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s form of existence. (Carl Schmitt: The Concept of the Political)
Such thinking is far removed from the political theorists of our day. It remains embedded in the concrete particularities of the situation and resists the temptation to promulgate a universal rule. It remains alive to the importance of ethnic and cultural boundaries which are so often subsumed under the specious word ‘humanity.’ It is under just such a word that Tom and Grace sought to provide an edifying illustration to the townsfolk and it is under the same word that Grace justified the towns destruction:
The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism. Here one is reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon’s: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat. To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolise such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity. (Ibid.)
The actor James Caan plays Grace’s father. Known for his role in the classic movie The Godfather (1972) his appearance evokes the mythology of the gangster in American culture and it is worth examining its relation to the dominant discourse of liberalism.
Ruthless to anyone threatening their position but operating within established codes of conduct which prize group loyalty, the Mafia is a type of family business, a dynasty of power which is exclusive, ethnocentric and territorial. Classical liberalism on the other hand invokes the opposite values of inclusiveness, egalitarianism and universalism:
Classical liberalism has four principle features, or perspectives, which give it a recognisable identity: it is individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against any collectivity; egalitarian, in that it confers on all human beings the same basic moral status; universalist, affirming the moral unity of the species; and meliorist, in that it asserts the open-ended improvability, by use of critical reason, of human life. (John Gray: Liberalism)
The attempt to invest these largely intellectual and philosophical values with the antithetical real-world power and authority embedded within the ancient feudal and clerical traditions of the European heritage results in the compromised messianic liberalism of the American empire which promulgates the gospel of unfettered capitalism and globalisation. This is the Faustian pact of liberalism and corporate power which has rendered liberalism synonymous with oligarchy:
The liberal class once ensured that restive citizens could settle for moderate reforms. The corporate state, by shutting down reform mechanisms, has created a closed system defined by polarization, gridlock, and political theatre. It has removed the veneer of virtue and goodness provided by the liberal class. The collapse of past constitutional states, whether in Weimar Germany or the former Yugoslavia, was also presaged by the death of the liberal class which created a power vacuum filled by speculators, war profiteers, gangsters, and killers, often led by charismatic demagogues. It opens the door to totalitarian movements that rise to prominence by ridiculing and taunting the liberal class and the values it claims to champion. The promises of these totalitarian movements are fantastic and unrealistic, but their critiques of the liberal class are grounded in truth.(Chris Hedges: Death of the Liberal Class)
Dogville can be read as an examination of the liberal propensity for self-deception and its co-opting of minority groups as a tool of its universalising ideology. The broader critique sketched out here is that the discourse of liberalism has itself been co-opted by the political enemy as defined by Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political.