not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in

I’m writing whilst debating whether to spend £6.99 on the iTunes download of Rollerball, the original Norman Jewison version of 1975. (There are of course other options, including renting the 2002 version for £2.49, but this is not really even an option). It’s not the money alone giving me pause, but the irony of purchasing a film about the rise of ‘corporate society’ from the worlds most powerful entertainment corporation. (To add further irony Apple inc. was founded in 1976…)

I first saw Rollerball when I was ten or so, at the start of one of those summer holidays that seemed to go on forever (at least until the last day of August when we went shopping for school uniforms and pencils and text books and it all seemed suddenly far too short) and I spent much of the holiday cycling a child size BMX around the concrete playground at the heart of the housing estate, pretending to be a motorcycling Rollerballer. I’m not sure I got the poltical sub-text of the movie then, but I thought the spiky gloves were cool and the Japanese death-blow was the coolest thing EVER.

(It’s likely that one of the most formative factors in my love of weird tings was being allowed to stay up late most nights and watch really quite weird and violent telly.)

Rollerball is set in 2018, in a utopian / dystopian (depending upon your viewpoint) future society where corporations control every aspect of society. No one is poor, no one is sick, but neither is anyone free and humanities darker side is expressed in the ultra-violent future sport of Rollerball. The trailer is really rather excellent:

As we come closer to 2018 Rollerball seems ever more prescient. Behind the the rhetoric of recession and austerity, the true process at work in the current economic collapse is the complete ceding of power from nation states to corporate structures. The vast debts now carried by the industrialised nations are a stone over which to break them. The only question is how much longer the puppet shows of national politics will continue, and whether our corporate structures will develop any form of democratic process beyond shareholder privilege.

The uncomfortable truth is that for those who value material comfort and wealth, the ‘corporate society’ will be as great a step forward as was the industrial society of nation states before it. The average person will have tremendous material wealth, almost unimaginable today. But at what cost? If the trends of today continue, the price will be conformity and inequality. For the masses life will come pre-packaged and perfectly tailored to fit your biometric profile. As long as you don’t ask too many questions, you might even be able to believe you have chosen your life. But you’ll never be more than a component in closed system designed to empower others. The elite controlling those systems will have unbounded wealth, and the pick of new technologies that will transform their existence so far beyond our own that it’s hard now to even imagine. A sci-fi fantasy? I might have said so a decade ago, but as the masks which covered the staggering inequalities in our society are stripped away by the recession, it seems an ever more likely future.

There is a mind-game which asks ‘If Steve Jobs ran the whole society like an Apple product – let’s call it iSociety – so that it functioned perfectly but gave no freedom of choice, would you rejoice or rebel?’ Your answer to that question may well determine your response to the decades ahead.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

10 thoughts on “not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in

  1. The best thing we could hope for in a corporate shogunate would be a sort of ‘democracy in negative’, where the masses stop buying certain products to get political change. A pretty shoddy democracy, but still…


    1. I think ‘democracy in negative’ is starting to look like a neccesary step at the moment. A coordinated boycotting of banks and consumer products is probably the best way to demand political change at the moment.


  2. Jim – lol: of late I’ve taken to (when opportunity arises) mentioning to people that the inevitable end of ‘data mining’ (another tool of the corporate shogunate) is arriving home one day to find a pile of deliveries at the door. Upon opening one, you discover a note that explains that, based on the future projection of your profile, these are the items you would have purchased during the ensuing week and your bank account has been suitably debited….

    Rollerball’s corporate future is one strain of the coming dystopia, but for a clearer picture that I believe paints a much more disturbingly accurate picture, I prefer Pohl & Kornbluths The Space Merchants, as the ‘take-over’ is predicated on marketing and advertising. It maps much more closely to what we’re seeing today.


  3. The uncomfortable truth is that for those who value material comfort and wealth, the ‘corporate society’ will be as great a step forward as was the industrial society of nation states before it. The average person will have tremendous material wealth, almost unimaginable today.
    Really? The corporate society at the moment seems more keen on creating permanent war than prosperity.


    1. All things are relative. Compare levels of peace and prosperity now to 200 years ago. Society has consistently become less violent and more materially wealthy. Much of what we see as wrong now is wrong relative to the general experience of peace and prosperity.


      1. I think you’re much more of a sunny optimist than I am :-)
        I’ve been reading quite a bit, and it seems that growing inequality in the US is reaching the absolute impoverishment stage for the middle classes, never mind the workers.


      2. I’ve been following the growth of the ‘Death of the Middle Class’ meme. I’m not denying the possibility that it is true. But it’s necessary to be as aware of liberal propaganda as any other self-interested political faction. Are the middle class being destroyed? What do we mean by ‘impoverished’? We see such a small part of the big picture and it is easy for our perceptions to be manipulated.


      3. While all of that is perfectly true, pension cuts, pay cuts, and lay-offs seem to be objective reductions to me.
        Establishment media economists have said that all the economic growth since 1970 has gone to enrich the rich. No-one seems to notice. Now we are in a down-turn. Is it a temporary phenomenon, or a cusp? I suspect that in Beijing they think it is a cusp.


      4. I agree with you in many ways. But my argument is that, even while the elite pull away in terms of wealth and priviledge, the material weatlth of the mass will still increase vastly. We aren’t going back to feudalism, or even mercantilism, much as some political idealogues would like to.



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