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the neoliberalism of the adjustment bureau

June 18, 2012

I ended up watching The Adjustment Bureau last night, and I was surprised by how much I actually liked it. I’m not really a big fan of Matt Damon, or of romantic comedies in general, but I found the plot to be a lot more engaging and involved than most films about two lovers surmounting obstacles to their inevitable reunion. A friend of mine also reviewed it when it first came out, and I think he and his fellow reviewer make some interesting points.

For example, I agree that it’s a relatively conservative film where the contradiction between freedom and determination found in Christianity, and to some extent the business world, is raised to an outright tension. I myself thought that it presented an odd mixture of individualism vs. collectivism (i.e., David Norris’ desires vs. the centralized planning of the Chairman) with a tentative deference to authority (i.e., it presents no real challenge to the Chairman himself, who allows Norris the freedom to challenge his plan and eventually remolds it to fit Norris’ new love interest) that’s never fully resolved.

As my friend points out, there’s freedom, but only when it can be made to serve ‘the plan.’ Which, in his opinion, “reflects a lot of post-fordist management theory and practice…where alienation and exploitation are obfuscated with things like choice and meaningfulness,” suggesting that “it’s more of a struggle between market corporatism and the kind of individuality it relies upon to function” than a struggle between individualism and collectivism.

From this perspective, I think the film evinces a sort of cosmic neoliberalism in which the Chairman can be viewed as a combination of the invisible hand of the market and government, with the ‘ripples’ created by adjustments to people’s lives going ‘off plan’ representing market disruptions. So the moral of the story is, freedom’s cool so long as it doesn’t prohibit the efficiency and efficacy of the market in any serious way.

In this, I think the film illustrates some of the unresolved contradictions within neoliberal ideology, where producers and consumers in a rigged free market are allotted only enough freedom to keep the system running as smoothly as possible from the vantage point of capital, arguably the ultimate authority in a capitalist system. If people utilize their free will to go off plan and begin to disrupt the market, their lives are ‘adjusted’ (i.e., screwed with by market forces/capital without their knowledge or consent) in such a way as to minimize the ripples/market distortions.

So, in reality, the free market of neoliberalism isn’t really as free as the name would imply, just as the free will of those inhabiting The Adjustment Bureau‘s world isn’t as free and unrestricted as they’re lead to believe by the vaguely Christian-esque, corporate authority overseeing the evolution of the plan. And considering all the shenanigans that occur when only two people go off plan, it makes one wonder what would happen if everyone became aware of the Bureau’s machinations and decided to follow suit.

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