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Marx & Coca-Cola
This is an essay about Marxism, social change, and the film Marx & Coca-Cola. It will use scenes from the film to illustrate and explain several themes relating to Marxism and social change. The three themes—Marx’s idea of human nature, the Marxist conception of work, and the immiseration thesis—will be presented separately in turn, and through them, over the course of the essay, a general critique of Marxist theory will be delivered. The essay will end by reviewing the isolated critiques and filmic expositions to produce a unified, general recommendation for how social change should be approached in the real world.
Marx & Coca-Cola is set shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall during German reunification. Martin, a rich West German real estate developer, travels through the former East. His car breaks down in a rainstorm, and he takes shelter nearby in the house of a peasant family comprised of two grandparents, Innes, a schoolgirl, and her elder sister Anna, a proud former Communist youth leader. Martin and Anna develop a tense relationship, and attitudes mutate over time from contempt to love. The film ends with the marriage of Anna to Martin, and with plans for the redevelopment of Anna’s family’s farm into a traveller’s inn.
Symbolically, this film tracks the decline and fall of communism and its replacement by liberal democratic capitalism. Main characters serve as metaphorical representations of political and conceptual identities: Anna is communism, a proud reactionary and unyielding autocrat; Martin is capitalism, apolitical, cunning and business-savvy; Innes is the revolutionary vanguard who aspires to and agitates for change; the grandparents are the public, weakly hedonistic, who neither oppose nor accept change with any notable fervour. The marriage of Anna to Martin mirrors the historical introduction of capitalism into the East after reunification, and the subsumption of the East by the West. Interestingly, the progression of the film is not Hegelian: with Anna and Martin as thesis and antithesis respectively, it does not have a synthesis, as Anna is subsumed by Martin in marriage and ideology. The entire film is a dramatisation of capitalist ascendency, though on the micro-scale it is sometimes sympathetic towards Marxism, and is briefly critical of capitalism.
The following paragraph will briefly summarise the three main themes of this essay. Marx outlines his concept of species-being in Theses on Feuerbach. He writes: “But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations” (1969, 14). In brief, this means that there is no determined way that humans must be, that they are, to some extent, able to control and direct their behaviour. At any one time, “human nature” is no more than the status quo of social relations, which is the aggregate of individuals’ values. The Marxist theory of work is contrasted to the hedonist theory of work. The latter states that work is a means to an end, and that the end or purpose of human existence is luxury. Marx decries the hedonists’ rejection of work as the implicit acceptance of alienation; he instead suggests that humans are primarily productive, not consumptive, beings, and that work is the consummation of their potential (Sayers 2005). Closely related to this view is the immiseration thesis, a thesis which says that capitalism by necessity requires a reduction in wages and a deterioration of working conditions (MacDougall 1999).
The concept of species-being is replete throughout the entire film. Indeed, the main story arc involves a family of people transitioning from one set of social relations to another, demonstrating the absence of a fundamental human nature and the ease with which humans are able to change their behaviour. Marx believed that if placed under sufficient social pressure, humans could radically change their style of social organisation, such that the exclusionary, atomising individualism of capitalism could be replaced by the communitarianism of communism (Wilkinson 2005). On this view, prior to meeting Martin, and barring any future ideological imposition, it can be predicted that Anna’s “nature” would remain constant so long as the cultural memes about her farm remained constant.
To Marx, species-being was not something particular in each individual that was necessarily expressed through them; rather, it was an abstraction of the general character of a group (Marx 1969, 14). Thus, if the group is expanded, its character will be expected to change, and through this the species-being of the other members of the group will change too. This means that insofar as society is changeable, so too is human nature. The caveat above (“barring any imposition”) explains this: Anna would remain the same only if no ideologically opposed person encroached on her life; Martin, when he arrived, changed the species being of Anna and her family, and by film’s end he had married Anna, changing her completely.
This view of limitless mutability is the antithesis of biological determinism, which places the nexus of human agency and uniqueness solely in the genetic components of the human subject. These genetic components, unlike the Marxist Zeitgeist, are not apt to change—social change is restricted by genetics (Wilkinson 2005). The Marxist inversion of biological determinism, which nowadays has consensus, is, and has historically been, a cause of great suffering and confusion. As Will Wilkinson writes, “Marx’s theory of human nature [that humans are infinitely malleable] . . . is a biological fantasy, and we have the corpses to prove it” (2005, 11). This sentiment is visible in Anna’s reminisces about life as a Youth, during which she was attacked by state police. Socialism-Communism was a brief conflagration which was not fated to last long because it was incompatible with basic human drives, in particular, the inability of most humans to be true cosmopolitans (and thus to be classless), and our unconscious need to create “us” and “them” dichotomies (Wilkinson 2005, 12). In paradoxical contrast to the classless pretensions of Marxism, Anna lives alone with her family and is hostile to outsiders. On the other hand, Martin hosts large parties, with laden food tables, and, when Anna visits the West, the police are found to be helpful and pleasant. Marx’s theory of human nature is constantly yet subtly undermined throughout the film, yet it is also reinforced: there is every reason to interpret the conversion of Anna to be in line with what Marx believed would occur due to the introduction of new social elements and the changing of human attitudes to align with them.`
Important in any practical transition between political ideologies is a change in the attitude towards work. While hedonists believe work is a chore, to the Marxist it is a creative affair. Whereas the dominant hedonistic ideology suggests that work is an activity in conflict with play, a discomfort endured to allow us to purchase comfort, Marx discerned in this assessment the implicit acceptance of work as something alienating. To him it was obvious that humans are productive beings, who come into their potential as rational actors only when they consciously engage in creative endeavours; this, in contrast to the view of capitalism that humans are really only consumptive automata that who will work only when it is a means to the aforementioned gluttonous end (Sayers 2005). Thus, when, in the West, Martin interrupts discussion of his work by saying “this is not what I really am,” we see that hedonism and capitalism create similar ideas of work as an activity that is opposed to some fundamental human drive for indolence or non-action, or that productive work itself is not constitutive of the meaning of human existence.
It is also evident that Martin is alienated from his work, for he refuses to identify it with his intrinsic self. On the other hand, work on Anna’s farm involves such tasks as milking cows and caring for farm animals, maintaining machinery, growing, reaping, and cooking one’s own food, all of which involve hard manual labour, but which are enormously satisfying and rewarding—Anna is very proud of her labour, and says so. When Martin surprises her with the gift of a car, Anna is less impressed than when Martin hands her a worn, possibly second-hand shirt. The car does not carry in its price the labour value of Martin’s effort, and, angered and distrustful of accepting something that was not the product of her or the significant other’s own hands, she defiantly proclaims, “But where is your self-respect?” signalling a distaste for luxuries as such. The inadequacy of the hedonist account of work is further evidenced by Katrin’s attempt to escape from an atmosphere of luxury and her immediate acceptance of, and friendly attraction to, the innocence and simplicity of Anna and Innes, who seem to function just as well as she does despite their lack of accumulated mass-produced “things”. Even to the capitalist, rich with inherited money, the paragon of hedonistic apathy and indulgence, luxury is ultimately unsatisfying.
Marx criticises capitalist consumption because it alienates people: it may be that to have less is to come into the “more” of human potential. Hegel argued that human labour is spiritual and set apart from animal labour in that its primary aim is precisely not the satisfaction of immediate interests (Sayers 2005, 611). Indeed, the importation of cheap products after German reunification did not make luxuries more affordable but caused massive unemployment (Nees 2000). Martin shunned talk of his work; he did not enjoy it: but Anna revelled in it and completed it with pride. Consumption is meaningful only if there is a personal connection between the consumer and the thing consumed—a relationship that capitalists do not have. We can draw an analogy between the animal method of consumption and the practical effects of capitalist consumption: animals “satisfy their needs immediately and directly. In doing so, moreover, they devour and destroy the object” (Sayers 2005, 611).
The immiseration thesis asserts that capitalism and capitalist modes of production do just this: that the accumulation of capital degrades the human individual to the level of the beast, because competition drives down wages and forces people to work hand to mouth (MacDougall 1999). This is rendered evidently false in the film, as those portrayed in capitalist society are far from deprived. But the immediate satisfaction of needs can destroy not only the consumed objects but can destroy and consume the subject. In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx writes, ‘The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things’ (1959, 28). Mass creation and accumulation of capital in the German Democratic Republic after reunification led to massive inequality (Schwartz 2009). The more stuff Martin has, the less appreciative of it he is. The grandparents prefer second-hand appliances over new mass-productions. MacDougall (1999) argues that capitalism makes people poorer by increasing the number of necessities, such as a car, mass media to compensate for isolation and alienation, etc. The fact that Innes, symbolic of youth, prefers to move to places of abundance where items are plenty, that the grandparents, and even Anna, are won over by Martin’s many gifts and promises, says that the human desire for plenty is incompatible with capitalist accumulation due to the immiseration thesis and the historical fact, contingent upon reuinification-era Germany, that to receive much is to lose much and to despise that which one possesses. Social change is not invariably a good thing.
The conclusion of the film—the marriage of Anna and Martin, the capitulation of communism to capitalism, and the prospective renovation of the farm—is a vindication of Marx’s dream of a successful, inevitable communist revolution. Wholesale social revolution and the accompanying revolution of human nature are impossible because the brain is not homogenous and cannot change at the drop of a hat. Marx’s theory of human nature is scientifically bankrupt. Pragmatic social change must be predicated on a knowledge of modern science lest it be, like Marxism, prohibitively utopian and unrealisable. The Marxist theory of work acknowledges that sensual pleasures are ultimately unfulfilling and are limited in their ability to give self-worth. Indeed, the immiseration thesis states that too much of a good thing inevitably turns bad. The portrayal of social change in Marx & Coca-Cola is sympathetic to Marxism even while it concedes to capitalism, and leaves us with the feeling that the latter, while better than the former, is doing its fair share of harm too.
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