Nightcrawler: neoliberalism, psychopaths and bullying culture
I’m looking for a job. In fact, I’ve made up my mind to find a career that I can learn and grow into. Who am I? I’m a hard worker. I set high goals and I’ve been told that I’m persistent. And I’m thinking, television news might just be something that I love as well as something I happen to be good at. Now I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. But I believe that good things come to those who work their asses off and that good people who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is, ‘if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket’.
This pitch is made by Lou Bloom in a television studio in the latest Jake Gyllenhall film Nightcrawler. Lou does indeed find a career in television news – securing and selling hard-to-get footage of crime in Los Angeles to attract viewers to the network and stoke white suburban fear in Los Angeles. Lou and the media industry in which he works are amoral – money matters more than respect or dignity: captured by the explanation Lou is given by TV News boss Nina (played by Rene Russo) that ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. While most of the online discussion of the film has focused on its depiction of US TV news and media ethics, Kim and Heather became fascinated by the way the film uses Lou to link the taking on of neoliberal values – hard work, persistence and aiming high – to psychopathic and bullying behaviour. In this post they explore the film’s messages about contemporary work.
Lou Bloom: ‘Good things come to those who work their asses off’
One of the most striking aspects of the film is Lou Bloom’s embodiment of the meritocratic ethic that hard work, entrepreneurship and positive thinking can overcome all obstacles. Bloom speaks only and always in ‘corporate’ speak – as though he’s read every ‘Business 101′ self-help manual around and lives his life according to their rules. What comes out of Lou’s mouth is not dissimilar from the kinds of statements you hear the latest batch of The Apprentice candidates speak to camera as they promote themselves as the best and brightest of the bunch. However, the film also brilliantly speaks to the demands made on all young people and graduates by contemporary capitalism – where to get ahead (or in fact even just get a foot in the door) means working for free in internships which offer no guarantee of permanent or even paid employment. Lou is acutely aware that he is part of a generation of young people hit hardest by the global recession and facing a very different job market from that experienced by earlier generations (as his speech above attests).
At the start of the film – before Lou finds his feet in journalism – we see him plead with a local scrapyard to offer him an unpaid internship to no avail, despite delivering a passionate speech about how much of a fast learner and hard worker he is. Hard work as an essential characteristic of potential employees is a constant theme in Lou’s various speeches (Lou doesn’t really have normal conversations with people – each interaction feels like a studied and pre-rehearsed performance).
Lou knows that his aspirations to get a job have to be accompanied by a commitment to and evidence of hard work. At least twice in the film Lou tells others about his motto in life (‘If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket‘). On one hand, Lou’s approach to work is perfectly in line with the cultural and political zeitgiest of ‘hard work’ we’ve discussed throughout this project as the key subject-making discourse of austerity. He is the ‘Striver’ of Cameron’s ‘hard working’ society. But on the other hand, he also offers a powerful critique of this, for we see that, in its extreme version, this neoliberalised self becomes psychopathic.
Lou sees the world through this corporate self-help business speak; every relationship is reduced to a matter of profit; every person and every encounter is a a potential opportunity to further accrue for his future success (another contact; another experience; another job; another death; another pay cheque). All done with a smile and an absolute lack of empathy and compassion. Lou embodies the self interested, ever-accruing, middle class subject of neoliberalism that Bev Skeggs and others have so powerfully analysed. But Lou Bloom is no poster boy for neoliberalism. He’s a murderer and a rapist. Indeed, Lou powerfully (and terrifyingly) represents the dehumanising power of neoliberal capitalism. And here perhaps there’s a message for those of us who work in universities…
Lou Bloom: ‘Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue’
Lou Bloom bullies and manipulates all of those who come into his orbit – from his hapless employee Rick (played by Riz Ahmed) to TV news veteran Nina. We see Lou jump on Rick for every small mistake he makes, including a missed turning as he guides Lou’s high speed pursuit of a gory photo-opportunity from the passenger seat. Lou responds to such mistakes by suggesting that Rick needs to work on himself and up his performance in order to keep his job. Thus Lou is not just a hyper-critical micro-manager, he is someone who uses the constant threat of unemployment to bully his employee into accepting poor pay, anti-social hours and hazardous working conditions. When Rick tries to turn the tables on Lou, demanding respect and a pay rise, he is summarily eliminated.
This film vividly portrays the synergy between neoliberal business-speak and psychopathic bullying behaviour. This can perhaps help us understand why we’re seeing a rise of bullying in universities as they become increasingly corporate. As one senior manager recently put it, “a few years ago we joined a public sector organisation. We are now moving more and more to the private sector”.
As sociologists, we see a close relationship between individual behaviour and the wider social context and power relations in which it operates. As Sam Farley and Christine Sprigg show:
Bullying may be further facilitated by organisational cultures and structures that permit it. In certain organisational cultures, bullying is a means of achieving goals, and in cultures characterised by high internal competition, it may be the most effective way of improving reputation and climbing the ladder. Reward systems can sometimes provoke bullying as aggressive tactics could be thought the best way to rid supervisors of either underperforming or overperforming subordinates.
Individual bullying thrives in a culture marked by competition, individualism and aggression. This culture was recently very apparent in the behaviour of universities who attempted to bully their employees into not taking democratically-agreed industrial action by threatening to dock 100% of their pay.
In one of Lou’s most revelatory statements, he asks: ‘What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?’ We are left wondering whether he offering us a terrifying vision of the dehumanised future of the corporatised university and of work more generally.
Tags: bullying, hard work, higher education, Jake Gyllenhall, neoliberalism, Nightcrawler, The Apprentice
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Neoliberalism has become psychopathy in action.