Weaponizing the Weapon: the State's Monopoly on Ultraviolence in A Clockwork Orange, by May Olvera
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) has been widely analyzed as a work that considers the question of individual free will. Likewise, Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel that the movie is based on, explores what he believes to be the natural moral transformation that is only possible through choice. However, the works—and the critiques that they make—are vastly different. Although it is claimed that Kubrick’s final scenes are different from Burgess’ final chapter only because Kubrick read a different version of the book, it is unlikely that Kubrick would have come to the same universal conclusions that Burgess came to, regardless. While Kubrick himself states in an interview that the central idea of the film has to do with the question of free will, the work itself seems to pose a larger question than simply what someone is capable of achieving—whether terrible or extraordinary—through ones own will. Rather, the film questions the entire basis of free will by considering exactly who has the ability to grant society and individuals the choices available to them.
Because of that, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange can be nearly perfectly analyzed through Max Weber’s Writings on Academic and Political Vocations as a critique of the State. Although Weber’s writings deconstruct the entire idea of what it means to be a political being, the work is mostly regarded for articulating the political and sociological theory of the state’s monopoly on violence. Weber states that, “the State is the human community that, within a defined territory… (Successfully) claims the monopoly of legitimate force for itself” (156). The key word in Weber’s definition is “legitimate.” Consequentially, the distinction—and simultaneously, the similarities—between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” force are a central theme in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. While the films main character, Alex DeLarge, spends his time engaging in ultraviolence with his pack of droogs, the State very obviously does not consider that to be a form of legitimate force. However, the State does, according to Weber, have the ability to absorb violent entities and grant them permission to be violent. This is also something that Kubrick expresses by saying, “the government eventually resorts to the employment of the cruelest and most violent members of the society to control everyone else—not an altogether new or untried idea” (Ciment). Likewise, Weber states that, “the specific characteristic of the present is that the right to use physical force is only granted to any other associations or individuals to the extent that the State itself permits this. The State is seen as the sole source of the ‘right’ to use force” (156). Far more important than analyzing the expressed intentions of the filmmaker, however, are the actual contents of the film.
One of the first scenes of the film shows Alex and his droogs terrorizing a drunken old man. The man exclaims that there is “no law and order anymore,” and the droogs begin to beat him. At that moment, a visual parallel between the delinquents and the police becomes evident; like the police, the droogs are dressed in their own, distinguishable uniforms. The canes that they use to beat the man are similar to police clubs, and when they return to the milk bar after they’re done engaging in ultraviolence, they first walk through a lobby reminiscent to that of the police station that Alex is taken to when he is arrested for murder. The other parallels become all the more evident when, later in the movie, Alex’s droogs trade in their own clothes for police uniforms and canes for batons. Here, the film both blurs the distinction between what legitimate and illegitimate force look like, and implies that the State will seek out violent people and offer them employment in order to continue to hold a strong monopoly on violence when they cannot be “reformed.” The film also depicts Alex’s relationship with his droogs as a failing State, reinforcing the idea that for a State to be a successful and legitimate one, there must be a monopoly on violence. When Alex is still in control of his droogs, they decide to go against Alex by peacefully establishing a “new way.” Alex reacts to this by throwing them into a body of water and slashing Dim’s hand rather than helping him out of the water. His voiceover says, “Now they knew who was master and leader. Sheep, thought I, but a real leader knows always when like to give and show generous to his unders.” Alex arrogantly believes that he still holds control over his inferiors, so he decides to be “nice” to them by, as the head of their metaphorical State, granting them permission to engage in violence. They end up at the cat lady’s house, where Alex murders her and the droogs sabotage him by smashing a milk bottle in his face, making him incapable of running away from the police. Based on his voiceover, this can be interpreted as a sort of coup d’état.
Once Alex is taken to the police station and his struggle with the cops goes downhill, the Inspector utters a line that is profoundly important to this particular theme of the film. In response to Alex being beaten he says, “Violence makes violence. He resisted his lawful arrestors.” Of course, the line is purposefully confusing because it can be interpreted a multitude of ways. On one hand, the State’s violence is what Alex’s is based upon. However, the Inspector likely means that because Alex was aggressive, the police had to exert force against him in order to extinguish his violence. In his analysis of the State, Weber examines the exact sentiment: “For while it is a consequence of the ethic of unworldly love to say: ‘Do not resist evil with violence,’ the politician is governed by the principle: You shall resist evil by force, otherwise you will be responsible for its spread” (197). Weber’s analysis of the politician’s mindset holds true for the remainder of the film. It is very literally expressed by the Governor when he says, “An eye for an eye, I say, if someone hits you, you hit back, do you not? Why then should not the State very severely hit by you brutal offenders not hit back also?” However, the Governor is saying this in disdain for the Ludovico treatment. In his view, the idea that a treatment can force people to become “good” is absurd, not in that it is impossible, but in that it is too tame of a punishment.
When his treatment is over, the Minister of the Interior arranges for Alex’s “reformation” to be displayed at an auditorium with other politicians in attendance. Here, the Minister states, “Our party promised to restore law and order and to make the streets safe for the ordinary peace loving citizen… The problem of criminal violence is soon to be a thing of the past.” He makes the differentiation between the violence that they bestowed upon Alex, and criminal (i.e. illegitimate) violence; he, as one controller of the State’s monopoly, explicitly and physically denies Alex the permission to use force. After they demonstrate Alex’s response, the Priest, having been labeled by Kubrick as the “moral voice of the film,” stands up in disgust for the fact that Alex has no real choice anymore (Ciment). To this, Weber says, “No ethic in the world can get around the fact that in many cases the achievement of ‘good’ ends is linked with the necessity of accepting ethically dubious, or at least risky means and the possibility or even the probability of evil side effects. And no ethic in the world can predict when and to what extent the ethically good end ‘justifies’ the ethically risky means and side effects” (199). Kubrick also states that, “When [Alex] is eventually transformed by the State into a harmless zombie you can reach a meaningful conclusion about the relative rights and wrongs. If we did not see Alex first as a brutal and merciless thug it would be too easy to agree that the State is involved in a worse evil in depriving him of his freedom to choose between good and evil” (Ciment). Neither Weber nor Kubrick make a distinction between which is a worse evil, but instead Kubrick places the viewer, for the majority of the film, in the role of the ethic that Weber mentions: After Alex was chosen for his treatment, he is subjected to commodification after commodification in a political tug-of-war for the remainder of the film. First, as already examined, the State reforms him into a “good citizen” in order to restore law and order and be seen favorably by their electorate. Next, when Mr. Alexander serendipitously finds Alex after being abused by the now-police-officer droogs, and finds out that he was the young man who was “cured” by the state, he calls him a “victim of a modern age” who will be the “most potent weapon” against the government. Just like the government, he has absolutely no interest in Alex’s wellbeing, rather his interests lie in legitimizing his power and force. This becomes especially true when he finds out that Alex is the delinquent who left him crippled and raped his wife at the beginning of the film. Having learned about the triggers that cause Alex to become physically sick, Mr. Alexander and his “very important friends” torture him into attempting suicide.
Once Alex wakes up at the hospital, his parents visit him and tell him that the papers said the government drove Alex to do himself in. Because Alex is no longer useful as a “good citizen,” the government begins to re-cure by returning him to his original violent state. In the most on-the-nose manner possible, the Minister comes to visit Alex at the hospital and tells him, “There are certain people who wanted to use you for political ends. People who would have been glad to have you dead because then they would have been able to blame it all on the Government.” He then offers Alex the ability to have any job he wants for whatever compensation he believes he should have for what he has suffered. This is in line with Weber’s theory in that he states that, “whoever wants to establish absolute justice on earth by force needs supporters: a human ‘apparatus.’ He must offer this apparatus the prospect of the necessary inward and external rewards— heavenly or earthly in character— otherwise it will not function” (203). In this sense, the State ends up winning in being able to use Alex for their political ends. However, Alex also wins in that his character journey hinges on the State’s decision to grant him the access to the legitimate violence that Weber describes; his journey is complete when he is once again “cured” in the last scene, and he effectively becomes part of the State’s monopoly and is, one can assume, able to engage in ultraviolence freely. Burgess, however, wanted the final theme to be one of redemption. In one introduction he wrote for the book, he states that, “there is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters” (III). To his displeasure, the film’s purpose lies not in demonstrating the growth possible when giving the individual free will, but in keeping with the idea that, as long as the State exists, it holds the power to exploit and legitimize that will.
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