Rollerball’s Anti-Individualistic Capitalism

Rollerball (1975) – dir. Norman Jewison

Jonathan E. is the world’s greatest rollerball player.  He holds all significant records and even fans of opposing teams cheer his name.  For a game designed to “demonstrate the futility of individual effort,” this is a problem.

Both capitalism’s advocates and detractors have marketed it as pro-individual and anti-collective, in order to contrast it against socialism.  The best-selling dystopian writer on this issue, Ayn Rand, pressed the point as far as it could go.

“When “the common good” of a society is regarded as something apart from and superior to the individual good of its members, it means that the good of some men takes precedence over the good of others, with those others consigned to the status of sacrificial animals….

But “the good of the majority,” too, is only a pretense and a delusion: since, in fact, the violation of an individual’s rights means the abrogation of all rights, it delivers the helpless majority into the power of any gang that proclaims itself to be “the voice of society” and proceeds to rule by means of physical force, until deposed by another gang employing the same means.” – Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal

And yet, this socialistic nightmare is present in the throughly capitalistic world of Rollerball.  The corporate executives have ended war, famine and hunger, seeking only to do the common good.  Jonathan E. must be the sacrificial animal for the good of others; he must give up his wife and give up his sport.

Capitalism as a dehumanizing force has been best demonstrated by previous films in this list, including Metropolis and The Trial, as well as others like Modern Times and The Apartment.  In every example however, the target doesn’t seem to be the market per se, but rather corporatism and corporate culture.

It never made sense for Rand or for today’s advocates of individualism to defend corporate bodies.  All the problems inherent in government are equally inherent in corporations; decisions are made by “no one,” individual will is suppressed in favor of the disembodied Collective, and rewards are based on schmoozing skills rather than production and effort.

Now, this isn’t to say that collective effort is meaningless; we’ll see the futility of atomism later in this dystopian series.  But, and especially given the public ownership of traded corporations, American corporate structure has more in common with the ideals of socialism than those of free market individualism.

It is interesting to note how apolitical Rollerball is.  There’s a hint that states might no longer exist, but it’s never really spelled out.  If you eliminate a few anti-trust laws and workplace safety regulations, the Rollerball story is perfectly possible in today’s liberal democracies.

An interesting side scene involves a trip to the library.  Books no longer exist, and instead knowledge is summarized in computerized form.  An accident deletes the entire 13th Century.

Wikipedia has backup servers, right?

Rollerball is the 18th entry in my 45.1 Essential Dystopias list.

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About Adam Call Roberts

I'm counting down through the list of 1,000 Greatest Films. Follow my journey here.
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