Can a heist be revolutionary? On Ocean's Eight

January 23, 2019 (1624 words) :: What makes a diamond necklace worth $150 million? Why does everyone act as if it is worth anything at all?
Tags: financialisation, ideology, cultural-criticism

This blog post is from day 23 of a personal challenge to write something every day in 2019. See the other fragments.

Ocean’s Eight is a tale about the symbolic power of capital. And it’s a tragic one, because that power is never challenged. Heist films are never about vanquishing power, even if the arbitrary nature of that power is made apparent through the plot; instead, the driving aim is to circumvent it, by finding loopholes that can be exploited for personal gain.

Exhibit A: a 6-pound diamond necklace owned by Cartier, and said to be worth $150 million. Why is it worth $150 million? Whence came this valuation? The source of this number is never really explained, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be, because we the viewers take that sort of thing for granted these days. Maybe it was purchased for that amount, or maybe someone inspected it and estimated its worth based on the quality of the diamonds, but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter; the logical reasoning behind the necklace’s worth never needs to be established. It’s enough that some Cartier executive declares the necklace’s worth in hushed tones for it to be deemed worth that much. Some things are just worth $150 million by fiat, if you have enough institutional backing to make your declaration seem authoritative.

Exhibit B: A necklace that looks exactly identical to the one above, except the gems are cubic zirconium instead of diamonds. What’s the difference? Well, for one, it’s less cold than diamond, and thus probably more pleasant to wear. Functionally, they’re equivalent. But the diamond necklace is worth nearly $150 million more than its cubic zirconium sibling. Why?

The value is obviously not immanent; diamond knows nothing of its own worth. And it’s not being traded on the market, which is where value is usually ascribed. So the value must be based in something else: ritual, perhaps, or performance. When the necklace leaves the Cartier vault, it is “worth” $150 million; when the cubic zirconium replica is returned in its place, it is assessed and quickly found to be (relatively) worthless. The assessor is in question is a man, presumably a Cartier employee, who is astonished to discover, upon inspectation, that the necklace isn’t what he expected.

But what if he had been careless, and had sent the cubic zirconium replacement down to the vault without taking a deeper look? Or what if he had been paid off to act as if the necklace was fine?

In that case, the “fake” necklace would then sit 50 feet underground in the Cartier vault, acting for all intents and purposes as if it were worth $150 million. As long as no one called into question the fictitious nature of the necklace’s valuation, it would still be recorded as an asset by the company, and the insurance company wouldn’t bother confirming as long as it wasn’t recorded as stolen. The circuits of capital valorisation would hum along nicely, in other words. And the heist crew would celebrate having gained (almost) $150 million in buying power, which would entail adding that much money to circulation without really “stealing” it from anywhere else, because the world would act as if Cartier still owned that $150 million necklace. A win-win, really.

This alternate ending seems entirely plausible in a way that feels unsettling, because it makes you think about the frailty of value. Maybe all capital is, in the last instance, fictitious. Maybe all the valuations we encounter in the world around us are nothing more than delusions, delusions that begin on the individual level but have a habit of spreading until they’ve permeated society as a whole.

I am suddenly reminded of the 2008 financial crisis. A financial instrument that was “valued” at a high price one day was rendered meaningless the next, because trust in the real-world value upon which that instrument was a claim had vanished. But if people hadn’t been following the news of unexpected subprime mortgage defaults, or simply hadn’t chosen to act on those news, then the system could have continued working as planned.

Without the finance equivalent of the scrupulous Cartier diamond assessor guy, who would know? The industry could have continued building sandcastles in the air, creating increasingly fictitious financial instruments in order to pump more and more value into circulation - most of it captured by those who don’t need more money, of course. In the end, it’s all just numbers made up out of thin air, resting on that bedrock of our economy that we call “belief”.

The central heist of the film takes place at the Met Gala, itself a display of the symbolic power of capital. On the one hand, it’s a predictable setting that allows the film to inject a high-stakes dose of glamour, and also serves as an excuse for way too many celebrity cameos. On the other hand, it serves to validate Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock’s character, and the mastermind behind the heist) and her motives for embarking upon this way-too-complicated scheme.

At one point, one of the women involved in the heist asks if they can just go to the gala and enjoy themselves. To which Debbie Ocean answers: no. One cannot go merely to have fun; the event is so clearly hollow, so transparently a means for conspicuous consumption, that the only way it can be redeemed is as something to be subverted. It’s so clearly a lavish facade - dazzling on the outside, but empty on the inside - that there needs to be a deeper purpose for attending, which is what the heist is about. That’s our protaganist’s way of saying that she understands how it works, and is able to participate within it, but is above it. Simply being there is a fool’s game; the real challenge is to expose it as the fraud it is, even if the only person who sees that is you (and 7 of your confederates).

There’s something thrilling about a film where the (anti-)heroine is so blatantly focused on exposing the absurdity of capital. The direct enemy here is Cartier, sure, but the larger enemy is the system of property rights upon which Cartier depends - the system that includes the laws that got Debbie imprisoned, and also created the incentives for her to flout those laws in the first place. Cartier thinks they own, and will perpetually own, the $150 million dollar necklace, because that’s how property works, but the heist mocks that claim and reveals its fundamentally suspect nature. If all value is made up, then inequality is a construct, and it can be changed.

That’s not to say that the film is in any way anti-capitalist, of course. But the potential anti-capitalist reading is worth investigating. How is it that Debbie Ocean, a noted thief whose only goal is to capture the value created by others, can be seen as a semi-ironic hero? Why does Hollywood keep making movies where the audience is expected to vicariously revel in the jouissance of a well-executed heist?

The thing about theft is that even though it requires subverting and outsmarting individual sectors of capital, it’s never driven by a desire to subvert capital in toto. Instead, the thief’s function is to reify capital. Stealing from the vaults of capital does not really challenge the hegemony of the system, because the cost of theft will simply be incorporated into capital’s P&L statements. All the thefts do is implicitly affirm the legitimacy of the system from which these stolen values arise, and while some unexpected individuals may make their way into the top 1%, the system that generates such a stark division still stands. The sanctity of capital, and of capitalism, is never in question.

Watching the film - seeing how much money is at stake on a pretty insignificant necklace - you get a sense of how trivial it all is. You see that capital is fundamentally a spectacle: a few diamonds glued together in a pleasing shape, some security guards following a pretty socialite at a bacchanal for the rich and famous … But you see, as well, that just because something is a spectacle doesn’t mean it’s not real, with real-world effects. People act as if these gems are actually worth their alleged worth, and they will stand around guarding them for an entire evening under that assumption. Whether or not they themselves believe this, there are enough people in the value chain who do, and who will pay them to behave accordingly, that it doesn’t really matter what their individual beliefs are; collective beliefs, when held at enough scale, determine societal outcomes regardless of whether they are “true” or not. A diamond necklace can be worth $150 million if the right people say it is.

You can’t challenge the hegemonic system of value by stealing a diamond necklace. That doesn’t diminish capital’s very real power over our imaginations, and over our lives. The real challenge to capital comes when you refuse to believe in value at all - when you act as if this purportedly $150 million diamond necklace is nothing more than the clump of dead carbon that it is.

You could imagine a revolutionary version of the film, where the goal is not to enrich a few who had been previously excluded from the top, but instead to overturn the entire social order on behalf of all those who will never make it to the top. Where the protagonists, who often have formidable talent at evading and misleading capital (hacking into corporate systems; posing as employees; audacious shoplifting), aim to achieve more than taking a little piece of the pie for themselves. Where the final prize is not just a necklace, but emancipation.

I don’t think we’ll get a Hollywood film about that anytime soon, though.

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