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I’d Buy That Police Station for a Dollar!: RoboCop and America’s Awesomely Privatized Future

I watched X-Men: First Class a few weeks ago, and afterwards, Michael C remarked to me, “Didn’t it feel like it would have been better rated R?”

It did. We’ve lost a lot of great things from the 1980s: Ronald Reagan, neon clothing and The A-Team, but the most important thing we lost was the hard-R action blockbuster. Hollywood doesn’t want to make a movie that most of their audience (18-and-unders) can’t go see, like Michael C and me growing up in the eighties.

We used to beg our dad to let us see our hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the big screen, or in the case of the film I want to write about today, the movie with a robot cop. A robot cop! What’s more exciting to a seven year-old than a robot cop? Except our dad didn’t want his seven year olds watching movies featuring hookers, cocaine use and triple breasted mutants.

Fortunately, he had a solution: he’d take the televised versions of these movie--which already cut out the nudity and cursing--and then edit out the gratuitous violence, making them suitable for his seven year-old twins. He made a few awesome edits--Total Recall, Aliens, Terminator 1 & 2, Running Man, Predator--but his Mona Lisa was RoboCop.

A 48 minute version of RoboCop.

The hookers, Clarence Boddiker’s neck stabbing, the toxic waste mutant, the shotgun execution? All gone. (Oddly, our dad left in the cocaine factory battle. We assumed RoboCop attacked a powdered sugar plant.)

Now, since this is On Violence, you may think I’m going to write about the violence in RoboCop; I’m not. For the most part, it was cartoonish, more a statement on violence, media and modern culture than anything else. No, I want to write about RoboCop’s brilliant, prescient parody. (Lee Iacocca Elementary school! The 6000 S.U.X.!) When I tell people how visionary RoboCop is, they don’t believe me, dismissing RoboCop for the same reason two seven year-olds wanted to see it so badly: the main character is a robot cop. (Reviewers didn’t dismiss the film when it came out; it has a 88% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)

RoboCop literally predicted the future.

From Detroit’s decline into a crime ridden mess to the line, “Shifts in the corporate tax structure have created an environment ideal for corporate growth.” to cars that get 8.2 mpg (“Big is back”) to a destabilized Mexico, the writers of RoboCop saw the future coming.

Most importantly, they predicted military privatization. In RoboCop, OCP--the evil corporation --owns “hospitals, prisons and space exploration”. As OCP vice-president Dick Jones explains, “Good business is where you find it.” Wait, that’s America nowadays! I know. Ever since Eisenhower precogged the military industrial complex, we knew this was coming.

Michael C and I have been discussing--in an article for a long distant, second blog--what constitutes public goods and private goods. In that debate, most everyone agrees that the government should provide defense and protection. Even the most staunch libertarians (begrudgingly) agree that we need police and fire departments, a legal system and a military--public goods only the government should provide.

But the rise of military contracting and privatization has flipped this thought on its head. From weapons systems to mercenaries, the military is slowly but inexorably privatizing, for the ill of society. We need to reverse this privatization creep.

In the end, RoboCop shows us why. OCP, itself, isn’t evil but some of its employees are. The guy who runs the RoboCop program callously declares, “He’s legally dead. We can do what we want with him.” Dick Jones, the main bad guy, cares more about profiting off ED-209 sales to the military than protecting soldiers. “I had a guarantee military sale with ED-209. Renovation program. Spare parts for 25 years. Who cares if it worked or not?” Jones tells the lower level employee he’s about to have killed.

But that’s not the worst problem, which is the classified “Directive 4”. RoboCop can’t arrest senior executives at OCP. As Dick jones tells RoboCop, “You’re our product. We can’t have our products turning against us.” Which forces us to ask the question, “What checks and balances does the government have on the corporations it hires?” As Michael C pointed out to me, even if contracted products show up late or defective, the military contractors still get bonuses...and more contracts in the future. Crazier still, the Supreme Court heard a case last month on whether corporations can be held responsible for human rights abuses.

If they’re not, what does that mean?

three comments

One last thing, just check out the scene where the now-cybernetic Murphy takes his helmet off for the first time. Not only are the special effects amazing—they still hold up—the visual shock viscerally saddens any viewer. It’s an amazing film.


Oh, and: Two years ago I wrote about the First Blood series. In a way, both the Rambo series and RoboCop are action film bookends to the Reagan-era, even though Rambo’s message was unintentional and RoboCop’s was. Whereas Rambo became a right-wing celebration and redemption of Vietnam, RoboCop fights against the corporate greed that took over America in the eighties and continues unimpeded today.


That F-22 is surprisingly, and sadly, accurate since people have died when their oxygen systems have gone out. And Lockheed Martin keeps collecting bonuses.