Cloud Atlas and Neoliberalism


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In 2004, when David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was published, the dominant economic and political orthodoxy could be described as neoliberalism, or at least an aim or trend towards a neoliberal society. I will use David Harvey’s definition of neoliberalism: “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade”. The manner in which these aims are achieved is through cuts in public expenditure and privatisation, with the intention of creating a smaller state, as well as deregulation of the financial sector, and cutting top rate and taxes on business in order to stimulate “wealth creation”. The New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (1997-2010) clearly followed such an orthodoxy. They cut corporation tax, made the Bank of England independent (thus reducing the level of government intervention), and increased private involvement in state owned institutions, through the use of PFI contracts in the NHS and schools. One of the seminal texts of neoliberalism is Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Hayek’s argument focuses on the idea that free markets create individual freedom, because they reduce state intervention. In contrast, he asserts that socialism fails because it places economic power in the hands of the state, and this has implications for personal freedom. Cloud Atlas rejects the conclusion that neoliberalism promotes individual freedom. The references to the “corpocracy” are the most explicit suggestions of this. The definition of “corpocracy” is “a corporate bureaucracy , characterised by ineffective management. A society where the interests  of large corporations control economic  and political decisions”. Thus, it is a society in which the power of corporations has expanded, presumably through lack of state intervention and regulation, and they have effectively become the governing body. The fact democracy can be overruled by corporate power suggests that a free market does not inherently guarantee freedom. Cloud Atlas paints a vision of the illusion that unfettered capitalism creates freedom.

The freedom present in Sonmi’s tale is a deception. At its most simplistic level, the story of the fabricants living in an enclosed space suggests the illusion of freedom because it is reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave- where there is an illusion of freedom because the cave is all its inhabitants know of the world. For example, Sonmi-451’s mention that “Hour four-thirty is yellow-up” is referring to sunrise. The very literal acknowledgement of this in the form of “yellow-up” emphasises the artificiality of their environment, and therefore their entrapment, as they are denied access to the real world. The term “yellow-up” is reflective of the artificiality of the light in the cave, emanating from a fire, compared to the light of the sun outside, which represents the source of intellect- the Form of the Good. Indeed, the conclusion of Sonmi-451’s “confession” is that it is a fabrication; she says that “free will plays no part in my story”. Thus, any freedom Sonmi-451 is seen to gain in her narrative is an illusion, in the same manner neoliberalism’s freedom is also an illusion.

The fantasy of freedom is achieved, not just by keeping the fabricants deluded, but also the purebloods. The fact that the fabricants are situated underground acts rather like Karl Marx’s notion of “false consciousness”- the illusion that capitalism is a benevolent system, as Marx speaks of a surface and reality of capitalism. Such a concept is appropriate when we consider an example from contemporary culture. The surface of a mobile phone is attractive, but its appearance does not reveal the narrative of the labour which brought it into being. In contemporary society, such labour may well be in poor conditions, underpaid, and outsourced to nations in the “global south”. Hence, the distance of these workers from the lives of those in the “global north” creates the same kind of ignorance as in Mitchell’s novel towards the fabricants. For example, Sonmi-451 mentions how “to enslave a clone is merely like owning the latest mass-produced six-wheeled ford”. She goes on to explain that fabricants are “as singular as showflakes” but “Pureblood naked eyes cannot discern these differences”. Thus, the fabricants assumed lack of individuality acts as a justification for their use of the fabricants.

Mitchell’s novel portrays capitalism as engaging in the same kind of homogenisation, for which thinkers like Hayek and Alexis de Toqueville denounced socialist societies, and which they saw as undermining individual freedom. The use of the term “consumers” in “An Orison of Sonmi-451” far from focusing on individuals, commits the kind of homogenisation which de Tocqueville claims destroys individual liberty, because it treats them as a bloc, and refers to people via an economic function, not through specific names. There are also suggestions of homogenisation in the form of widespread monopolies in Sonmi’s world. Monopolies undermine, even at an economic level, the supposed luxury and freedom of consumer choice in a free market. For example, all car-like vehicles are now homogenised as “fords”. The replacement of a generic name for a particular product “type” (e.g. cars) by a brand name (Ford) suggests that the choice, and competition, between brands has been sucked out of the market. Indeed, the presentation of these brand names in lowercase is indicative of this: they are no longer proper nouns because they no longer denote a company name- the company name has become the type of product. Thus, “consumers” are forced to buy from one company only. It is the unrestrained nature of the capitalist society presented in the “Sonmi” section which is the cause of this total lack of choice because it is implied that totally free markets encourage monopolies.

This hypothesis is best explained by laying out a major contradiction in free market capitalism. A free market is based upon competition- the market is free, in theory, because it allows a multiplicity of companies to compete against one another, thus giving the consumer choice and supposedly lowering prices. For a market to be free, it is supposed to have no intervention, or as little intervention as possible, by governments; instead government trusts, to use Adam Smith’s phrase, the “invisible hand” of the market. However, the “invisible hand” approach becomes problematic when we consider the fact that companies are supposed to be based upon a profit motive, and that competition is based upon trying to gain dominance over other competing companies. It may be profitable for companies to merge, in order to strengthen themselves against a rival, and therefore, maintain higher profits. Such mergers undermine the concept of a free market, by limiting the freedom of consumer choice. The alternative to avoid this situation is for government to intervene in the market to break up potential mergers to maintain competition. However, as has been established, government intervention defeats the point of a free market; it is called free precisely because government intervention is avoided. Thus, we are surely to take from this that Sonmi-451’s world has a very literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the term “free market”, which has been pursued to the point where mergers have created widespread monopolies. Hence, the individual freedom many theorists believe comes from a free market in the form of consumer choice is totally undermined in the dystopian world of Sonmi-451.

The individualism championed by many neoliberals and libertarians has its roots in self interest. Ayn Rand, for example, advocated laissez-faire capitalism for the precise reason that it liberated self interest. Cloud Atlas presents the self interest upon which unrestrained capitalism is based, as the reason why neoliberalism stifles freedom. For example, Henry Goose follows his own self interest in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”. Goose poisons Ewing for monetary gains; in doing so, he has to cut off Ewing’s wedding ring. Thus, what Ewing describes as “this symbol of my union” is cut off. The ring which represents a binding contract to another is destroyed, and put into Goose’s “safekeeping”. Goose tells Ewing “he knows a Spanish goldsmith in Honolulu who will repair it for a reasonable price”. The fact that “a reasonable price” is placed upon something which represents a relationship demonstrates that human relationships have been commodified: they are valued only by how they can profit another, just as Goose attempts to profit from Adam. Thus, Goose’s actions are purely individualistic, and yet they impact upon Ewing’s freedom because it is not in his self-interest to protect Ewing’s freedom. Goose’s actions result in Ewing being trapped in his quarters because two sets of self-interest conflict. Similarly, the fabricants in “An Orison of Sonmi-451” are trapped in their workplace, because their unpaid labour brings profit to their employers.

However, this form of self-interested individualism is shown to be incompatible with the survival of humanity. As Adam Ewing states, “for the human race, selfishness is extinction”. Ewing’s statement summarises how self-interest ignores and tramples on the freedom of others because self-interested actions does not take the well being of others into account. This is why Ewing comes to the conclusion that “a purely predatory world shall consume itself”. Precisely because neoliberalism and unfettered capitalism are based upon self-interest, they are self-devouring philosophies, because they take no account of community and the damage that may be done to others when an individual pursues their self-interest. Indeed, the fruition of Ewing’s hypothesis is in the recycling of the fabricants from a workforce to a food supply. Such a cycle is reflected in Ewing’s own section with the line: “That amiable boy, lifeless as a sheep on a butcher’s hook”. Phrases such as “butcher’s hook” and “slaughtered” suggest that he too has been commodified into a food source, as the fabricants are.

Mitchell’s novel offers a critique of the neoliberal system’s claims to provide freedom. The use of brand names for types of products, such as a cup of coffee becoming a cup of “starbuck”, demonstrates how unfettered capitalism fails to provide a free market, instead creating monopolies, which limit freedom by destroying consumer choice. Indeed, the use of the term “corpocracy” calls the compatibility of democratic freedoms and neoliberalism into question, with the suggestion that corporations have overtaken the democratic will. It is  a situation which has occurred in our society, with the Health and Social Care Act 2012 being passed, after Andrew Lansley’s private office was bankrolled £21,000 by Care UK, in spite of an election pledge of “no top-down reorganisation” of the NHS. The enemy being the “Union” in “An Orison of Sonmi-451” is intended to accentuate the little freedom that is available in the current economic system, by contrasting it with a twisted view of the alternative communitarian and socialist systems, which neoliberalism often accuses of homogenisation and stifling freedoms by chaining individuals to others’ needs. However, Henry Goose’s actions suggest that the self interest is in fact destructive of the freedom of others, because it takes no account of them. The callous disregard of self interest is, in Mitchell’s novel, the key to self-destruction. The six interlocking narratives promote communitarian values over self interest. Frobisher’s tale is a parallel to the book’s narrative structure- with the six instrument composition of a sextet representing the six characters different narrative strands. The book, like the musicians in the sextet, can only function if the narratives work together; with one narrative propelling the subsequent one. Frobisher’s disregard for those around him, in the pursuit of his own self interested pleasure and profit, and the self interest of Ayrs, results in Frobisher’s self destruction. Frobisher’s tale offers a metaphor for self interest as the destruction of the human race. Therefore, the novel’s structure promotes communitarian values as securing the future of humanity because it requires co-operation between narrative strands. This value, of individual action building a greater whole, is summarised in the final line of the novel, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” In one line, Mitchell attacks common neoliberal and libertarian arguments that co-operative values, such as progressive taxation to pay for publicly owned services, are an affront to individual freedom because they chain people to others in society. Instead, the final line of Cloud Atlas argues that everyone’s own individual action counts towards a larger picture, imbuing these individual actions with a value and significance, which provides an alternative freedom to the deceptive liberty of unrestrained capitalism.


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