Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

Human Become Coin: Neoliberalism, Anthropology, and Human Possibilities in No Country for Old Men

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

Human Become Coin: Neoliberalism, Anthropology, and Human Possibilities in No Country for Old Men

Article excerpt

No Country for Old Men begins with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell reminiscing about the only criminal he sent to the gas chamber. The man in question killed his fourteen-year-old girlfriend, and Bell's testimony was decisive in his conviction and sentencing. During their conversations, the killer admits that "he had been plannin to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again. Said he knew he was goin to hell" (4). In response to this candor, Bell confesses, "I thought I'd never seen a person like that and it got me to wonderin if maybe he was some new kind" (McCarthy 4). This "new" kind of human does not appear irrational or unreasonable: "He was not hard to talk to. Called me Sheriff' (4). He shows no regret; he expects no mercy or forgiveness. In fact, he is utterly clear that he will be held responsible for his actions: he knows he is "goin to hell" (4). However, he is also incapable of acting differently, knowing he would do it again if given the chance. This combination of horror and reason gives Bell pause, after all, "[w]hat do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul?" (4-5).

We see here the overarching concern of No Country for Old Men, namely the emergence of a "new" type of human being, one frighteningly devoid of any recognizable humanity, yet one that remains reasonable, principled, and calculating. Bell, from the beginning, associates this new humanity with the character of Chigurh, "a true and living prophet of destruction" (5). Moreover, Bell parallels this emergence of a new humanity with a "breakdown in mercantile ethics" that "reaches into every strata" of society (304). It is a large-scale change in economics that, Bell suspects, has brought about the emergence of this new humanity. Hence, No Country for Old Men, a novel set at the beginning of the period of neoliberal reforms1 (1980), takes up the convergence of economics and human nature, the emergence of a new kind of humanity arising from a shift in economic processes.2 Key to this shift will be the conviction, embodied in the character of Chigurh, that a competitive market logic governs all human nature, social decision making, and even reality itself. In what follows, we show how No Country for Old Men details the anthropology of neoliberalism both in the character of Chigurh and in its framing of the characters and narrative of the novel as a whole. In addition, we look at how the novel presents sites of resistance to this anthropology, particularly how it challenges neoliberalism's claim that society as it currently exists is the necessary and natural outcome of our "competitive" human nature. We begin with the anthropology of neoliberalism.

Homo economicus

In "A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity," Jason Read argues, following Michel Foucault, that neoliberalism is more than a political or economic program. Rather, it is ideological transformation, "generated not from the state, or from the dominant class but from the quotidian experience of buying and selling commodities from the market, which is then extended across other social spaces" (Read 26). The conviction that market logic and market forces determine all spheres of human life (social, political, economic, juridical, etc.) defines neoliberalism. As Foucault writes, "the starting point and general frame of reference for economic analysis [in neoliberalism] should be the way in which individuals allocate . . . scarce means to alternative ends" (Foucault 222). Neoliberalism frames all human interactions as economic choices, choices about how to use one's limited resources to achieve one's desired ends. Significantly this formulation interprets all social life through the singular lens of cost to benefit, as every individual decision becomes an attempt to garner the maximum return on one's "investments" while managing the risk of loss. Hence, under neoliberalism "[everything for which human beings attempt to realize their ends, from marriage, to crime, to expenditures on children, can be understood economically' according to a particular calculation of cost for benefit" (Read 28). …

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