an anti-capitalist reading of american psycho

i recently learned about the stock market — not against my will, just to help me consume the new things i am discovering, namely hbo’s succession and trueanon’s latest three-part series on elon musk. i learned what an ipo is and what it means to make a company public/private, but most of all i was just baffled by the idea of the stock market.

the fact that a secondary (not even primary!!) market for the selling and buying of corporation ownership — basically, a casino for the very rich — dictates the economic health of the world is extremely absurd. indexes like the s&p 500 or the nikkei 225 which people often use to indicate the economic health of a certain country is basically just an aggregate of the stock prices of the top corporations of a certain country. and all of this on who’s expense? if the world’s economic health rises does that mean the health and welfare of its citizens does too? history have shown us that it doesn’t.

anyway, after going on a 4-hour investopedia rabbit hole, i wanted to rewatch a film related to the stock market to flex my newfound knowledge. i decided to rewatch american psycho, since i haven’t watched that film in a while and i didn’t want to sit through three hours of the wolf of wall street. i saw that film in middle school in a filmbro, imdb top 250 perspective; i recognized christian bale’s brilliant performance in the film and i liked the eerie, unsettling vibe of the movie. however, i didn’t have the critical eye for capitalism that i have now. rewatching it, i felt that i understood the movie so much better, but i also felt very uneasy, which i will explore in this spoiler-filled piece.

american psycho is a hard film to watch. it has an unhealthy sprinkling of misogyny, racism, and exploitation uttered by its finance moguls that won’t pass through today’s audiences. patrick bateman’s dictating of his secretary’s weight and fashion, antisemitic remarks that his colleague made at dinner, and just the general treatment of women as disposable objects illustrate how vile these wall street people are. 2016 liberal me would comment on these remarks to be “problematic”, but a liberal analysis of this film would miss the fact that capitalist excess itself is tied towards misogyny, racism, and exploitation. an anti-capitalist won’t be surprised that these wall street execs would say these things.

from all of these vices, misogyny is the most apparent in american psycho. most of bateman’s victims are sex workers or women that he had sex with/dated, and outside of his killing sprees we see him belittling the women in his life — abruptly breaking up with his fiancee evelyn with no clear reason, constantly objectifying his secretary jean, and most explicitly positioning and instructing the sex workers he hired to pose as if they were mechanical mannequins. feminist marxist scholar silvia federici addressed marx’s blindspot in caliban and the witch by stating that a woman’s body is a center of primitive accumulation, that in the reproductive body lies a mode of privatization and that reproductive labor is exploited way before the industrial revolution. federici argues that the birth of capitalism is inherently tied to the objectification of women and the exploitation of reproductive labor. this is true and well-described in american psycho — bateman’s high society power and upbringing in new york’s upper class informs his attitude towards women. he understands very well that much like capital and labor, women are there to be exploited. i think director mary harron understands this well. a lot of liberal viewers couldn’t comprehend how this extremely misogynistic character is in a film directed by a woman, however, even harron’s portrayal of violence and detachment from humanity is way less vivid than bret easton ellis’s original novel. harron understands that the exploitation of women is tied to capitalism, and she wants to make her viewers uncomfortable.

another unsettling thing about american psycho is how artificial it all is. patrick bateman’s infamous morning routine describes us how polished he wants to look with his skincare regimen and intense workouts. however, when we head to the office, everyone looks exactly the same, with their designer suits and slicked back hairstyles and everyone being straight white men. even so that the characters mistake each other for another. (that’s another thing that is rarely discussed about this movie — this movie could be extremely hilarious at times. too bad it has made to be consumed as a serious movie by those imdb filmbros). in a famous scene, we see these characters compare namecards, and we see bateman unleashing his murderous instinct at a slight insult against his namecard. i don’t know if i’m just too young (or disconnected from the wall street ceos) to understand the namecard trend of the 80s, but this scene (and the uniformity of these businessmen) reminds me of those capitalism breeds innovation memes. these people want to climb the wealth ladder so bad that they don’t have anything to set them apart.

a lot of people have argued for a reading of this film that touches on this artifice; that bateman wants to be set free from the uniformity of the corporate 1% by committing all these killings, until he realizes that it’s all in his head or it’s part of a dream sequence. however, i would like to present a different reading of this film. most of bateman’s victims are women he slept with (mostly sex workers), and the rest are unhoused people and the help (in the last shooting scene most of the people he killed are night staff in various financial district offices), with the exception of paul allen. before paul allen, these murders have gone unnoticed — which reminds me of a term coined by the lapd, “no human involved”, where cases of crime wouldn’t include sex workers or unhoused people as significant victims. the film spotlights how paul allen’s murder catalyzes bateman’s guilt for these “no human involved” cases. it’s clear that paul allen’s murder is a result of bateman’s jealousy but how about his murders of the working class? my reading of american psycho is that bateman’s murders represent capitalism’s murders against the working class.

this film is set during the 80s, which signifies an economic boom under reaganomics and the bull market between 1982 and 1987, where the s&p 500 rose to up to 229%. however, this was ended on the stock market loss on black monday in 1987, but picked up again soon after. the last clip of reagan at the end of the film is no coincidence. as the stock market boomed, the ceo pay gap became wider, and more working people are exploited. we are horrified by bateman’s murders of the working class, but the stock market and the greed of the one percent is literally killing the working class. while energy companies spend thousands of dollars to lobby politicians to pass anti-climate justice laws, hundreds of people die from the west coast heat wave. while mckinsey profits off of the opioid epidemic, it ravaged the american working class. all of these real life, wall street businessmen aren’t holier than bateman, and bateman isn’t merely a fantastical lunatic in a fictional movie — the ruling class, too, often go on a working class killing spree.

near the end of the movie, we find out that bateman’s killing spree might not be happening in real life — paul allen’s apartment (that bateman used to dispose of the bodies of his victims) is sparkling clean and up for sale, and it is revealed that bateman’s lawyer had dinner with allen a few times in london. he thought he was going to be held accountable, but no one is even recognizing the atrocities in his mind. the one percent’s atrocities against the working class is a hidden genocide. whenever we see the s&p 500 index rise, we view it as the health of the american economy. however, the s&p 500 index won’t mention worker exploitation, climate change, or violence against women — things that kill the working class. the only way to bring these atrocities to the mainstream is by political education and class consicousness, and the capitalist model won’t give that to you — it will continue its rampage unless the working class unites.

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