Systemic and Subjective: The Violence of 'The International' and the Global Financial Order

Clive Owen in The International (2009)

The weapons deals in The International and the back-door negotiations between corporate lobbies and Congress are two sides of the same coin; both use overwhelming systemic violence to further their ends.

The International

Director: Tom Tykwer
Cast: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts
Distributor: Sony
Release date: 2009-06-09


Publisher: Picador
Author: Slavoj Žižek
Publication date: 2008-07


Publisher: Zuccotti Park Press
Author: Noam Chomsky
Publication date: 2012-05

By the time Tom Twyker’s 2009 film The International reaches its conclusion, Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is out for blood. Having realized the extent of the corruption in international banks and the utter lack of accountability they face, Louis finds the only way to genuinely strike at the heart of the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) is to take out their corrupt leader, Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen). His job as an agent of Interpol has only taken him so far, and the help he gets from his American counterparts certainly hasn’t gotten him any closer to catching the IBBC. In the film’s final moments, after a prolonged, picturesque chase across Istanbul rooftops, Louis confronts Skarssen at gunpoint.

“I want some fucking justice,” Louis says, his face forming a furious snarl.

His anger is understandable. The events of The International are grim; despite all of the evidence and knowledge Louis has of the IBBC’s crimes, any chance he has to indict the bank is promptly shut down. Pulling the trigger seems the only option. But Skarssen knows better; he’s seen worse than a gun barrel pointed at him. In a few sentences, he reveals the extent of his power.

“Executing me won’t change anything. There will be a hundred other bankers to take my place. Everything will continue… the only thing you’ll succeed in doing is to satisfy your own bloodlust. You know it.”

Moments later a gun fires, but it’s not Louis’. Skarssen is killed by a hitman for the Calvinis, a family of Italian politicians, whose father was killed earlier in the film by order of the IBBC. Louis stands in the heat of the setting sun, realizing that he had just been shot with a metaphorical bullet, of sorts. There’s no “solving” the banking crisis, at least through the mechanisms suggested earlier in the film. No matter how many convictions an international body could possibly get (and, considering the International Criminal Court’s conviction rates, there isn’t much hope to begin with), this will do nothing to change the global financial scheme. Indeed, the International Criminal Court is complicit.

Though touted for its stunning cinemaphotography and locales, The International was largely overlooked at the time of its release. Currently, the summary of the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes reads: “The International boasts some electric action sequences and picturesque locales, but is undone by its preposterous plot.” The last part of that sentence is rather interesting; if anything, The International is too accurate in the depiction of the influence of financial institutions. (And, to the screenwriter’s credit, the film is loosely, although somewhat fairly, based upon the Bank of Credit and Commerce scandal in the ‘80s.)

The IBBC’s actions in the film, which have to do with brokering small-arms deals between China and third-world countries so as to have control over the debts resulting from military conflicts, may not be a perfect corollary to the situation of the global financial scheme, but they certainly aren’t too preposterous to imagine. The point of the film is not that international banks are secretly arms dealers: instead, the resounding claim is that banks are anything but storehouses of money.

Due to the powers attributed to financial institutions, banks have the ability to exercise quasi-governmental power. Their ability to control any situation to their benefit is now legendary; the rounds of bailouts that led to equally pricey bonuses attests to this. So long as the wealthy continue to perceive money as speech, it’s their voices we will continue to see influence all facets of modern life. The world we live in now may not be as grey and paranoid as the world of The International, but so long as the one percent of the world continues to hold the massive power it does, there remains room for concern.

The dramatic storylines one could craft out of the financial crises rocking the world now, whether Greece’s debt crisis or America’s slow crawl back to normality, are many. But of all of the films to address the corruption of financial institutions, The International shines a light on the most problematic issue societies face in addressing the mass injustices of the banking industry.

This problem is very realistic; so realistic, in fact, many might take it as commonplace. Some might go throughout their whole lives and never fully realize the state of affairs in the global order. The issue of concern here has to do with the real violence of financial institutions, which is not only the violence done to families rendered homeless. The reality of the situation is infinitely more complex than that.

The dichotomy of financial violence illustrated in the film is best explained by philosopher, psychoanalyst, and film theorist Slavoj Žižek’s three-tiered formulation of violence. In his 2008 book Violence, Žižek isolates three types of violence: the subjective (crimes such as murder, or the things we would commonly call “violence”), the objective (racism and discrimination) and the systemic (the catastrophic results of systems, e.g., capitalism). To illustrate, Zizek begins with an ironic little tale:

”There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing; every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves…”

When thinking about violence, what most people leap to identify are those subjective acts of violence, which in this example are the items they expect the worker to be taking. Ultimately, however, what we miss are the systemic acts of violence that enable much larger devastation; in other words, we become so focused on isolated incidents that we overlook the real acts of violence taking place. We perpetually chop the head off of the hydra, and are then surprised when two more spring right back up.

These two forms of violence play out in all sorts of public debates. For example, we are often concerned with gang violence related to drugs; people perceive drug addicts as inherently violent threats to society. Rarely, however, do we ever think about the systemic violence that occurs as a result of America’s ever-failing war on drugs. It should come as a surprise to no one that a Mexican drug lord thanked the United States for keeping drugs illegal (Huffington Post, 26 March 2009); it only allows the much larger mechanisms of systemic violence to play out. Subjective violence is a problem that needs addressing; however, unless the underlying systemic factors are addressed, then we will get nowhere.

The final scene of The International is especially applicable to these types of violence. Louis is desperate to punish Skarssen for his acts of subjective violence, such as ordering the hit on Calvini. But when Skarssen tries to talk him out of killing him, Louis realizes that a gun will never be able to give justice to those who Skarssen has harmed. This is not because he suddenly realized that vigilante justice is a wrong way to go about things; despite its hefty criticisms of financial institutions, The International is a conspiracy thriller above all. No, what Louis sees is simple: he’s pointing the gun at the wrong person.

As the camera cuts back to reveal more of picturesque Istanbul, it becomes evident what he was up against the entire time: the very order of the world itself. Picking off a corrupt banker here or there will do nothing to change the way banks arrange their positions of power. If Louis were to pull the trigger, he would only participate in the subjective violence that feeds the systemic violence of global capitalism, the very system that drove him to subjective violence in the first place. He cannot win. Calvini’s hitman may not know this, but he doesn’t care. The Calvinis are a family of wealthy weapons manufacturers, who also happen to be involved in the Italian political process; they’ve got plenty at stake in the status quo.

Louis’ blindness to systemic violence is seen very early in the film. In a conversation he and Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), an Assistant District Attorney from New York City (who, for some reason, is involved with Interpol) have with Umberto Calvini, their myopic understanding of violence is clear:

Eleanor: Mr. Calvini, we’d like to know why the IBBC, a bank, would be purchasing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of missile guidance and control systems from your company.

Calvini: The IBBC has purchased billions of dollars worth of missiles from the People’s Republic of China, which they have re-sold to clients in the Middle East, contingent upon the missiles being equipped with Vulcan guidance systems. My company is one of only two in the world, which produce the Vulcan.

At this point, Eleanor and Louis are still confused by the situation. Calvini, by contrast, completely understands the situation; not just because he himself participates in these deals, but also because he thinks just like the bankers at the IBBC.

Louis: But billions of dollars invested simply to be a broker [between China and the third world]? There can’t be that much profit for them.

Calvini: No, this is not about making profit from weapon sales. It’s about control.

Eleanor: Control the flow of weapons, control the conflict.

Calvini: No, no. The IBBC is a bank. Their objective isn’t to control the conflict; it’s to control the debt that the conflict produces. You see, the real value of a conflict, the true value, is in the debt that it creates. You control the debt, you control everything. You find this upsetting, yes? But this is the very essence of the banking industry, to make us all, whether we be nations or individuals, slaves to debt.

Inter-state conflicts hold no interest for the IBBC precisely because no matter the outcome, they hold enormous influence over the post-war situation. Best of all, they do it in complete secrecy; as Michel Foucault’s theory of biopower tells us, there’s a much greater dominance to be had in deceptive tactics of manipulation. The simple leader/underling dynamic is easy to predict, which is why institutions that seek power must adapt.

The crony capitalism in the United States now is emblematic of precisely this issue; though banks and corporations are not perfectly analogous, there are some helpful parallels that can be drawn. The problem isn’t merely that corporations have a lot of money; it’s how the money is used. The line between the government and major corporations, especially in the political post-Citizens United landscape, has been blurred to the point where one should question even making that line in the first place.

The weapons deals in The International and the back-door negotiations between corporate lobbies and Congress are two sides of the same coin; both use overwhelming systemic violence to further their ends. As far-fetched as the actions of the IBBC may seem, there’s a harsh truth ringing from The International that we cannot ignore in light of the crises we face now.

But if pulling the trigger will not suffice, what will? This question, especially in light of the ever-sprouting Occupy movements, is pertinent, though difficult to solve. One of the implicit points made by the Occupiers is that no one solution will fix all of the transnational, systemic faults of the capitalist scheme. The reaction of the news media to many of the Occupy protests, which claimed the protestors “weren’t saying anything” or that they “didn’t have any suggestions”, further goes to show how pervasive the current system is. If those in power know what the Occupiers want down to a single sound bite, then they can control it. Knowledge becomes a weapon to be used in further acts of systemic violence.

As with any complex, stratified issue, no one fixer-upper will stop systemic violence. In the recently published pamphlet Occupy, famed academic Noam Chomsky makes many suggestions that could potentially take power out of the hands of major corporations and institutions, namely ceding control of manufacturing plants to local owners rather than the corporations themselves. Despite our burning desire to have the power to be like Louis in The International, with a gun pointed directly at the guy running the whole enterprise, it’s prudent to focus on the long term. There’s a reason he didn’t pull the trigger, and it’s for that same reason that we shouldn’t pretend that one presidential election or one piece of legislation will unshackle us from the powers of big banks and big businesses. Pretending that is the case will only enable those institutions to continue manipulating the system, thereby allowing the systemic violence to continue.

So while the conclusion of The International may seem hopeless, when considering recent developments we can take the lessons the movie teaches to heart. The power of international banks and corporations may loom, but so long as we don’t delude ourselves into pulling the trigger, we might be able to make our way forward. As Louis says in the film, “Sometimes the hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn.”

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