Utopia after the Disco Age
Kyle Alexander Thompson (@wiegraf_) is a member of the Anticiplay team and PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Geosciences. He is also the co-host of the General Intellect Unit podcast on the Emancipation podcast network, and a designer of tabletop role-playing games.
This article contains major spoilers for the game Disco Elysium: consider this your SPOILER WARNING before you continue reading!
At first glance, ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium is a game about 19th and 20th century political concerns, focusing on the catastrophe of the communist project and the wreckage left in its wake. However, this widely acclaimed indie role-playing game is more relevant to our present moment than it might first appear. The “crisis of the imagination” found in the post-communist and post-disco city of Revachol, which evokes in equal measure the tragedies of the Paris Commune and Post-Communist Eastern Europe, is linked to the crises that afflict our current imagination in the face of impending ecological collapse and a regime of capitalist realism that offers no credible promises of global freedom and justice.
In this article I want to focus on the utopian dimension of Disco Elysium, and how it can be related to our current crisis of the imagination. In order to do so I will analyze the pivotal character of “the Deserter” and his connection to what the 20th Century German Marxist Ernst Bloch called the “double aspect of utopia.” As philosopher Ruth Levitas summarizes the term, it is “lack and longing counterposed to the imagination of fulfillment.” When we experience the utopian impulse it brings both of these powerfully emotional aspects into our hearts and imaginations. Through the Deserter we are able to examine a world where the imagination of fulfillment that utopia evokes is barred and the concept exclusively makes us feel the pain of lack and longing. As it turns out, this barred utopia is not so far from our experience of the world today.
The Deserter is Iosef Lilianovich Dros, a political commissar of the fictional Commune of Revachol who has refused to surrender his fight for almost a half century and who, in the words of the games’ narrator, “hates everything.” Dros was indoctrinated into “Mazovian Historical Materialism” (The game’s analogue of Marxism-Leninism) at the young age of 16, and was sent to the front lines to ensure that the soldiers under his care followed civilian orders and communist ideology.
When the “Moralist” (read: liberal) Coalition began to shell the city’s defenses he abandoned his post and hid in a bunker from the conflict, only returning to his post after the shelling to find all of his comrades dead. Out of a terrible sense of guilt at his dereliction of duty and longing for the return of “Girl Child Revolution” he carried on his duties even after the last Communards in the city were rooted out and destroyed by the occupation forces. Ever since that day Dros came to be defined by his guilt and his status as “the Deserter.” He carried on the fight by scavenging for supplies in the city at night and using his sniper rifle to kill citizens of Revachol who offended his sense of what the city ought to be.
Under normal circumstances he would have died or abandoned the fight, but his behaviour was warped by his encounter with the Insulindian Phasmid, a bizarre cryptid insect, whose psychoactive secretions emboldened his hatred of post-revolutionary Revachol and his lust for the fugitive spy Klaasje, who he spotted staying at a hotel in the district of Martinaise.
Prior to the events of the game, the Claires, a power-hungry social democratic family, used the Deserter to seize control of the Dockworkers’ Union, and therefore over the district of Martinaise. They exploited his skills as a sniper and his revolutionary fervor by making a deal with Dros to assassinate the moderate head of the union so they could take control for themselves. In exchange they promised to work to incite socialist revolution in the city. After the assassination was complete the Deserter saw that the Claires’ promise had been disingenuous, and he considered this a final betrayal from the socialists in the city.
At the end of his story, the Deserter is discovered by the protagonist, after he has murdered the foreign mercenary Ellis Kortenaer in a fit of jealousy for having sex with the object of his lust, Klaasje. This crime of passion is what finally reveals his location to the police and ends his self-imposed exile. He is a wretched shell of a man, terminally ill from cancer, with all his life and vitality taken by his dedication to the communist cause.
The Revolution Versus Disco
When we consider the events described above, we can begin to see the broader symbolic structure of the Deserter’s story. Dros represents the specter of the revolution, which has fallen out of sync with historical time but continues to somehow have effects upon the world. In Mark Fisher’s terms, he is an “eerie” presence: something that should not be there but is. The revolution was soundly defeated by the Coalition’s forces, but through the Deserter it still manages to incite the events that the player’s detective work seeks to unravel. Repeatedly, the protagonist’s partner doubts the line of reasoning that brings the player to the Deserter as implausible and not worth investigating, simply because it is so far outside the conceivable reality of what the present is supposed to be. Yet despite all of this doubt, it is in fact the Deserter who committed the murder of the mercenary Kortenaer.
Even this point seems bizarre, but at least conceivable. The Deserter’s story is reminiscent of the tales of Japanese soldiers who were stranded on Pacific islands and carried on the fight on their own well after the war had been lost. Yet what makes the Deserter’s story truly beyond belief is the role of the Phasmid, which takes the Deserter’s motivations and amplifies them to the point of having broad historical significance. In the end, it is Dros’ phasmid-fuelled hatred and lust, not his utopian imagination, that change the world.
The Deserter is aware of how the world around him has moved on and changed, but he cannot forget the terrible insight that he had on the day he saw all of his comrades slaughtered by the Coalition forces: that “the bourgeois is not human.” In seeing the destruction wrought by the Coalition bombardment the Deserter believes he has seen behind the mask of “Moralism” to the monstrous core of capitalism, and he cannot forgive the world for pretending that this monstrosity does not exist.
In this state of rage the Deserter is the opposite of another ideological element of the game: disco. In the aftermath of the Coalition invasion and the restoration of capitalism the citizens of Revachol coped with their historical trauma by turning to the feel-good haze of disco music, much like the party atmosphere that was seen in Eastern Europe and China after market capitalism’s return. Examples of this history, the protagonist and Klaasje are two characters who seek solace in drugs and disco in order to ignore the painful capitalist reality they face. In context, we can see disco as forming one point of an ideological square that structures Disco Elysium’s narrative, as below:
At the top row of the square we see communism on the left, and disco on the right. Communism here is the communism of “girl child Revolution” which represents the “imagination of fulfillment.” It is a utopia where the free play of desire can coexist with a just prosperity, and is barred in Disco Elysium as impossible. Disco on the other hand not only did exist, but has come and gone as a fad. It represents the free play of desire alongside the pain of an unjust world. The protagonist and Klaasje are leftovers of this attempt to ignore reality, which like the protagonist’s youth has come and gone.
At the bottom of the square we see Mazovian Historical Materialism opposite Moralism. Mazov’s doctrine represents the heroic austerity of Marxist-Leninist revolution, which represses desire today in the name of its just fulfillment tomorrow. This ideology is best represented by the Deserter, who sets himself apart from society in the name of its eventual, though inconceivable salvation. On the other hand we see Moralism, the ideology of the liberal coalition, which claims to work towards a more perfect world but in fact seeks to keep it the same. Unlike disco, which releases the free play of desire, Moralism represses desire in the name of its morality. When the coalition bombarded the commune into oblivion, they did so without any sign of enjoyment but rather with a sense of sadness at the fallenness of the world. This mimics liberal doctrines like “containment” and “humanitarian intervention” which enact violence behind a mask of pious austerity. The Deserter claims that in the moment of the invasion he saw this mask slip and the inhumanity behind it revealed.
The Deserter hates Moralism as his enemy, but yearns for “comfort” in Klaasje’s arms because disco represents for him a release from austerity. His austere revolutionary commitment keeps him from giving in to his desire, but the continual repression he imposes on himself leads him to murder Kortenaer in an outburst of jealous rage, an act which proves his undoing. In the absence of communism his commitment has driven him to self-destruction.
Disco Elysium poses the question of whether or not a revolution that is playful, and joyful, and therefore humanized can ever be possible. It is a utopian horizon that the game gestures at but cannot imagine. Our choices are between disco excess, “Moralist” drab hypocrisy, or the spectral misery of a historical materialism out of time. The excluded fourth possibility calls to us in its absence. This square is of considerable relevance to our current moment. In the thick of the COVID pandemic and in a moment of at least vague awareness of the severity of the climate crisis we are confronted with a similar problem.
The square above maps roughly on to the coordinates of that found in Disco Elysium, however it takes into account the deeper multispecies level of the critique of capitalism that has been developed since the late 1990s. Disco Elysium gestures in this direction with the protagonist’s encounter with the Insulindian Phasmid, who explains to the protagonist that the rest of the natural world fears that humanity’s destructive power will destroy all existence. However, this is an oblique and brief reference to sustainability that leaves its broader implications to perhaps be explored in some kind of sequel. Today, we have the benefit of the work of authors such as Foster and Burkett, who have developed the ecological thought of Marx and Engels into a deep critique of capitalism. As Burkett writes: “If people want to develop as natural beings, they must develop further as social beings, and achieve an explicit socialization of the natural conditions of production.” In other words we must enter into “a real social communality” (Marx) with other natural beings, where we appreciate what things are instead of simply how much profit they can realize, and act accordingly to avoid the future the Phasmid fears.
Looking at the top row of the square above we see the dream of a playful and sustainable existence at the top left, opposite a consumerist hedonism that ignores grim realities with a parade of commodified delights. On the bottom row we see the barracks mentality of eco-austerity envisaged by many dystopias as “Eco-Stalinism” or “eco-fascism” where survival is maintained through the strictest self-denial and rationing, counterposed to a “climate leviathan” that uses the most advanced technology and the most strict global governance to draw out capitalist accumulation as long as possible without making any fundamental changes. We have seen already the degree of our reliance upon consumerism for our psychic wellbeing during this terrible pandemic, where it has formed a crutch for those who can afford it to ignore the pain of isolation and austerity. No doubt it will be offered into the future as a salve for our climate grief, no matter how destructive it is. The question remains whether the dream of eco-communism is possible, or whether it is barred, as in Disco Elysium.
In the end, Disco Elysium begs the question of communism, and through play it brings players of different political persuasions to differing perspectives on it. Whatever conclusion the player arrives at, they part ways with the game’s protagonist as he returns to a kind of mundane existence as police officer as the game ends. The questions the game raises carry on as a process that the player carries with them into their lives and do not terminate at the game’s end. My hope is that the game can act as our own kind of Insulindian Phasmid, one that can intensify our imaginations of future scenarios and our ability to feel the “lack and longing counterposed to the imagination of fulfillment” that they bring to our hearts and minds.
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