Sunday, 9 October 2011

To boast when we should be ashamed. The mind binding of capitalism in Catch 22

“Can’t you see it from my point of view?” pleads Milo Minderbinder, the irrepressible capitalist, in the novel Catch 22.

He is hurt that Yossarian, the Second World War airman who has this insane desire not to be killed, can’t appreciate the intricacies of capitalism. Milo’s M & M Enterprises has a contract with the Americans to bomb a bridge from the air and a contract with Germans to shoot down the aircraft.

Contracts have to be honoured even if people get killed.  Like the dead man, whose belongings lie untouched in Yossarian’s tent, shot down over the bridge the day he arrived.

I didn’t kill him, insists Milo adamantly. I wasn’t even there. Can’t you see it from my point of view?

“ ‘No,’ Yossarian rebuffed him harshly”

Catch 22, the blackly comic story of an American bomber squadron on the Italian island of Pianosa in 1944, has entered everyday consciousness. In the novel, Yossarian fakes insanity to get out of combat, but his desire to avoid combat is taken as proof of his sanity. Catch 22 is being trapped in an inescapable paradox. At the end of the novel, it is revealed that Catch 22 does not really exist, but everyone acts as though it does, so its non-existence doesn’t make any difference.

Published in 1962, and written during the 1950s, Catch 22 was seen as a wonderful satire of inhuman bureaucracy. But like all great novels, different features stand out depending on the age in which it is read. Now what shines through is Joseph Heller’s treatment of the contortions of capitalism, and its seductive accomplice, public relations. Heller worked in advertising while he was writing the novel and it shows.

Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, who run the squadron and keep raising the number of missions the men have to fly, are obsessed, above all, with how they will be perceived. They congratulate themselves on dealing with the embarrassment of Yossarian missing the target on one mission, by awarding him a medal and making him a captain.

“You know that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail,” Korn says.

The trick is still not failing. Alastair Campbell storms into a news studio to register his outrage of the BBC’s exposure of the government’s sexed-up dossier on non-existent Iraqi WMD. The Conservatives resolutely pledge to fix a “broken society” with tougher prison sentences demands that the unemployed look for work 23 hours a day to get £60 a week. Society is indeed broke, and we know who broke it.

The figure of Milo Minderbinder and his wounded bemusement that his beneficence is not understood, embodies today’s capitalists’ shameless refusal to see the terrible consequences of what they do. Milo boasts when he should be ashamed. Worse, he simply cannot see why he should be ashamed.

Milo becomes the mess officer for the squadron and forms a syndicate to buy fresh food through the black market. But M & M Enterprises grows and grows until Milo signs a contract with the Germans to bomb his own sides’ planes and men.

At first, the public in the US in outraged but they are turned around when they realise just how profitable M & M Enterprises is. “Everybody has a share,” is Milo’s constant refrain about the syndicate, a metaphor for how post-World War Two capitalism justified itself. Forget about how wealth is produced, just look at the money.

But “everybody has a share” no longer works as a trump card, a way to silence misgivings. Everybody plainly doesn’t have a share. The American middle class, for example, is rapidly disappearing

John Yossarian is the “hero” of Catch 22, the reluctant subversive, who finally refuses to fly any more missions. Yossarian doesn’t understand Milo, but his refusal is not heroic, simply human. While figures like Milo and Colonel Cathcart embrace malignant social roles and others like Major Danby know better but don't resist, Yossarian follows his instincts into eventual rebellion.

Late in the novel he is psycho- analysed by an army doctor, Major Sanderson. “You don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs or hypocrites,” concludes Sanderson. “You’re antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, humiliated or deceived ... Don’t try to deny it.”

“I’m not denying it, sir”, says Yossarian. “I agree with all you’ve said.”

That’s why Yossarian doesn’t understand Milo, because he retains human reactions and is not indoctrinated.

“Can’t you see it from my point of view?” plead banksters, hedge fund managers, private equity investors and food speculators.


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