I have a terrible personal struggle with consumerist ideology. To be absolutely forthright, I hate it.
I hate the fact that those with money automatically have power. I hate the fact that the justice system is tilted toward those who can afford better and more lawyers. I hate the idea of “the bottom line is the bottom line” and how that perspective skews thinking from multi-national corporations to religious organizations to humanitarian non-profits. I hate the manipulation of the consumer, convincing them that what they want is what they need. I hate the debt culture and the destruction that it brings to so many.
Am I done? Yes, I think that’s enough for now.
All of that is by way of confession, to help you understand why I appreciate Fight Club so much. Because the presupposition of the story is that consumerist society is destructive to individuals. It preaches this point as strongly as any African American pastor on a roll. It shows us this destruction in mild ways, such as the IKEA lifestyle, to a philosophical ideal, describing how consumerist society rejects reality, to more graphic ways, as post-accident service workers joke about aspects of rotting corpses. In the end, our society reflects dehumanization, which separates us from others, from life and even from ourselves. (I recognize the irony that while the Fight Club franchise critiques consumerist society, it also is one of the big winners in the deeply consumerist publishing and film industries).
The focus of the film and the book is not that consumerist society is “bad” per se, but what we, as individuals, should do about it. This is where there are multiple paths to take in the film, multiple ideals to pursue.
First, there is the path of The Narrator (Edward Norton). This is primarily an escapist path. Norton is fed up with consumerist society and he sees the Fight Club life as an alternative existence. He no longer pursues personal comfort or rigid obedience to his employee’s demands as the corner of his existence. Instead, he leaves his apartment (not pursuing the restoration of his former existence), living in a dive, fighting on the weekends in a club designed for exuberance and safety. The climax of his path is the manipulation of his boss to grant him finances without him having to work. At that point, his escape from consumerist life is complete and he can embrace the edgy life, the “real” life that he has longed for, without the dehumanization of modern society.
As a contrast, we have Norton’s muse, Tyler (Brad Pitt). For Tyler, it is not enough to escape consumerist society. Because when one escapes, there is always the possibility of returning. And one must have some sympathy for all the sad sacks still living in the condition of a half-life, blood being drained by debt and cable television. Tyler demands that consumerist society must fall, for the sake of the individual and for all humanity. That is the second path, the path of organized anarchy.
Rather than fill you will recollections of some of the most radical scenes of the movie, and thus becoming remarkably spoiler-full, I would just like to recount the rules of Fight Club, the most well-known portion of the film. They are:
1st RULE: You do not talk about FIGHT CLUB.
2nd RULE: You DO NOT talk about FIGHT CLUB.
3rd RULE: If someone says "stop" or goes limp, taps out the fight is over.
4th RULE: Only two guys to a fight.
5th RULE: One fight at a time.
6th RULE: No shirts, no shoes.
7th RULE: Fights will go on as long as they have to.
8th RULE: If this is your first night at FIGHT CLUB, you HAVE to fight.
If you skipped these rules, go ahead and read them again. From the Narrator’s perspective, these rules strike the perfect balance. They clearly are a separation from the controlled, manipulative, comfortable consumerist society. To obey these rules is to embrace danger, but not too much. Although charged with testosterone, at the same time they encourage safety. It is about separation from a society of comfort, but the changes are private, individual, safe.
But Tyler sees something completely different. He sees the core of an anarchist army. Everyone who participates in Fight Club is learning to accept violence as a way of life. They are learning to embrace life with only limited rules, an alternative set of rules from the rest of society. This is a group of rebels.
But only rebels to society. Fight Club becomes its own rule, its own society. Some of the rules are arbitrary (“No shirts”?), and some are demanding (“you have to fight”). And the most important aspect is secrecy. From the Narrator’s perspective, secrecy is safety. From Tyler’s secrecy is freedom. It illustrates the idea that Fight Club is only a seed. From here, this training in violence, it can go any direction as long as the direction is different from where society is at.
So what should we get from the film, what is its message? Perhaps it is just a testosterone-driven fantasy with a wake up call about spiritual death. Perhaps it is just a clarion call to drift away from a dead-end society with a warning not to go too far. Or perhaps it is saying that the natural conclusion of freedom from consumerism is anarchy. And that such anarchy must be embraced and planned.