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“Chernobyl” Undermines True Socialism at a Time When We Need It Most

We can’t hope to get out of the climate crisis without massive state intervention and economic reorganization.

A still from the HBO docudrama, "Chernobyl."

In contemporary society, ideology functions in really complicated ways. Take HBO’s “Chernobyl,” which is currently the top-rated show on IMDb. Since the show’s recent finale, partisans of the left and right, Democrat and Republican, have seen within it reflections of their ideological positions.

A recent dust-up on Twitter encapsulates the parameters of the debate. It began when author Stephen King tweeted the following:

In predictable response, conservative radio personality Dan Bongino tweeted back:

Even the creator of “Chernobyl,” Craig Mazin, jumped into the Twitter beef:

The old man with the cane is a reference to a party ideologue within the show that, through his adherence to the party line, guarantees the unfolding calamity that Chernobyl will become. Thus, Mazin sides with King, asserting that the show should be interpreted not only as a condemnation of the Soviet Union’s brand of totalitarianism, but more universally, and does indeed apply to the Trump administration (the man whose portrait Bongino worships) — in particular around its denial of pending catastrophic climate change.

If we read the tweets closely, something becomes apparent. Notice the right-wing critique is against a system — socialism. Notice also that Bongino defined socialism as “the govt owning the means of production.” Here, Bongino links Chernobyl to an ideological and flawed definition of socialism, essentially redefining what the term actually means. In reality, socialism means socializing the means of production, with the workers themselves directly owning the means of production.

In seeming opposition, the “left” critique is about a person, an individual. It is not a systemic critique. It is a critique of President Trump, not a critique of capitalism, per se. The logic of the criticism is that if we remove Trump and had a Democrat in power, all would be fine. The problem is not with the system, but with who is its figurehead.

Therefore, the positions staked out in the debate are:

  1. Socialism is the problem.
  2. Trump is the problem.

These are also the two dominant positions of the Democratic and Republican parties.

The notion that capitalism is the problem, a systemic criticism from the left, is excluded from the debate. But what we know is that, even under President Obama, climate change escalated to crisis levels. You can change the figurehead, but if the system is maintained, its crises will be perpetuated.

One of the primary ways by which ideology functions is to propose two binary positions — one on the “left” and one on the “right” — rendering any thinking outside of its parameters insensible. In the case of “Chernobyl,” the allowable opinion within the mainstream is that the show is a critique of socialism or a critique of Trumpism.

The position outside of the spectrum, that which is made non-sensible through the debate around the show, is an analysis which reads “Chernobyl” not as a critique of any given ideological position, socialism or Trumpism, but as an ideological vehicle in itself — as a defense of capitalism. The show functions as a defense of the very institutional arrangements that guarantee the consequences of catastrophic climate disruption.

“Chernobyl” is itself an ideological vehicle, as are the debates that surround it — whose effect is to firmly locate us within capitalism as the only horizon of possibility, as the differential opposition to the type of system which in its failures produces catastrophe.

But catastrophic climate disruption doesn’t occur from failure and incompetence of the Chernobyl variety, nor does it result from the “mediocre intelligence” of Trump or from his lack of “understanding,” as King’s tweet asserts. The situation is much more horrific and dangerous.

Catastrophic climate disruption occurs when everything functions as it should. It happens without the breakdown; it is a production of the system itself. Capitalism produces climate change like it produces commodities, resulting in catastrophe of the same quality, only in orders of magnitude larger. The only way to break its unfolding logic is to engage capitalism systemically.

The “Truth”

How is the reinforcement of capitalism as the only horizon of possibility performed by the show “Chernobyl”? One way is in its depiction of “socialism.”

The show has been lauded for its realism, its verisimilitude — everything from set and costume design, to what it must have been like on the roof of the exploded facility, to the way the nuclear reactors work. Even in moments in which the show got creative with historical events, the show told “the truth” of events. As the The New York Times notes:

How the show gets to its truth, however, is less important than that it gets there. Viewers may come away from “Chernobyl” realizing that, together, people and machines can do awful things — like create a nuclear catastrophe for the ages. If they also come away understanding that in this case, that outcome was more the fault of a government and its apparatchiks, so much the better.

This is the ideological key to the show. What it depicts, over and over, is the worst excesses of state totalitarianism. In its fidelity to “the truth,” what is depicted is the unquestioning obedience to party, the willingness to ignore contradictory evidence, the brutality and ideology that was Soviet-style “socialism” and how it generated disaster. We can concede that this depiction of Soviet-style socialism is the truth of the matter, the truth of Soviet state communism.

To understand how the show is ideological, though, one must first take into account the context within which the show is received, particularly in the United States and the Western democracies — that is, within capitalism. For decades, the populations of the West have been systematically subjected to anti-socialist propaganda, from both the right and the “left.” These propaganda efforts have been so successful that most Americans couldn’t tell you the difference between socialism, communism and totalitarianism. They have become terms of equivalency; metonymically sliding between one another.

Whether or not Mazin intends the show as an anti-socialist vehicle, there is an ideological trap laid for him within the culture, beyond what he wrote — a context of interpretation, which any author has the responsibility to confront. It is a deadlock for any attempt to render a nuanced depiction of socialism.

Mazin’s presentation of Soviet totalitarianism nests right within the framework of interpretation carefully crafted by reactionary ideologues for decades. Within this context, the “truth” of “Chernobyl” becomes anything but; the “realism” becomes an ideological political fantasy.

The show accurately depicts the uniforms people wore and the time at which events occurred. The reactor control room looks just like the real one. It depicts what radiation sickness does and how reactors work. This realism anchors its claim to truth.

But all of this functions as a sort of ideological Trojan horse to pass through another claim of greater import, not entirely the responsibility of the show’s creators, but due to its context of reception — that the show also represents the unmediated, realistic truth of socialism, that socialism equals Soviet totalitarianism.

It is an ideological sleight-of-hand. Through the show’s realism, it must accurately depict the universal truth of socialism in its essence (as opposed to one particular failed and horrendous totalitarian state).

The representation of Soviet totalitarianism in “Chernobyl” comes to stand in for socialism in U.S. ideological imagination in toto. The partial truth becomes the whole truth. Soviet-style “communism” is socialism, and socialism is Soviet-style communism.

When we see Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s image hanging over lines of youth being sent to their death to perform horrendous tasks, or unqualified shoe-makers overruling the expertise of nuclear physicists, this is not just the Soviet Union. This is not how totalitarianism works, despite the economic system. This is how socialism works.

In the U.S. imagination, any attempt to socialize — from health care to challenging inequality — are ideologically linked to and challenged as the worst excesses of state totalitarianism. Reactionary ideologues have spent decades articulating these connections, and have been enormously successful.

Mazin has received a lot of praise in leftist circles for creating a vehicle that speaks against the institutionalized lie in place of truth, for its capacity to challenge the Trump administration for its incessant lying. If we take a step back from this interpretation, can we not interrogate the ideological role the show is playing? Should we not ask, What about the damage done to the concept of socialism?

It is precisely socialism of the state variety — centralized planning and economic controls — that are the only vehicle through which climate catastrophe can be averted. Achieving this kind of socialism will require massive state intervention, economic reorganization and challenges to the dominance of capital.

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, floats the plan for a Green New Deal, its most effective ideological challenge comes from those who link it back to the worst excesses of “state socialism” of the Soviet variety. We’ve heard this a million times.

Americans have been conditioned to see all socialized programs as essentially totalitarian. “Chernobyl,” through its depiction of individual monstrousness within an even more monstrous system, contributes to this obfuscation.

The context in which we tell our stories and which stories we choose to tell matter. Floating a narrative about the horrors of state socialism, when the state needs to socialize many of its functions in order to ensure the survival of the species, betrays a particular ideological investment: a defense of status quo capitalist arrangements, a mistaken ideological assumption that capitalism has the capacity to see us out of this mess as opposed to being its primary causal agent. The show throws us back within capitalism as the only viable option.

The last episode of “Chernobyl” aired on June 4 in the Unites States. Less than a week before, on May 29, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a press release describing hydrocarbons as “molecules of freedom.” This is not a production of socialism nor of “Trumpism.” This is a totalitarian logic inscribed at the heart of capital.

In its attempts to tell the truth, “Chernobyl” in a way performs a lie of its own, a lie on behalf of party, on behalf of a system; a lie that also denies science and gets in the way — that we can confront climate change without a massive restructuration of the social.

Will “Chernobyl” function more to develop a consciousness around the Trump administration and its lies, leading people to reject such a politics in greater number, perhaps influencing his supporters to change their ways, their politics? To reject lies? Is the show working in a progressive way? That’s the assertion in much leftist commentary. I remain cynical.

It is much more likely that the show will reinforce the collapsing in the American mind of the concepts of socialism and social programs, into an amalgamation coterminous with Soviet-style totalitarianism. It will function as a reinforcement of a great lie: that capitalism can get us out of this mess, that socialism is totalitarianism.

In the universe of praise within liberal circles that the show has received, it is important to ask of the show’s ideological effect: Does it further what needs be done to avert catastrophe, or inhibit it? The future is uncertain.

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