Vultures and Starlings: Class and Debt Feudalism in Ozark

Daniel Avatar

The European Starling was first introduced to America by a Shakespeare enthusiast who felt that New York city, already a booming theater-going town in the early 1800’s, must have every species of bird Shakespeare ever wrote about. Just last year, 1.7 million of these foreign Starlings were poisoned and put to death. It’s now legal to kill Starlings in many places in America.

This is not the first time Shakespeare was responsible for upending the social and natural order in America. The Astor Place riot of 1849 was sparked by a feud between two Shakespearean actors, one British actor named Macready and the other American, named Forrester. Forrester was the first major American Shakespearean actor to travel the world and perform Shakespeare; he gained a folk popularity and working class following, indeed he was one of the first entertainment celebrities in America. That America is currently ran by an entertainer should thus come as little surprise.

Americans would rather protect their celebrity ambassadors than wage a struggle-based class war on the rich and the powerful. This strange tendency is perhaps the most refined form of voluntary servitude ever invented. The celebrity enters the scene to extol class pride of the plebs, whether the celebrity is from that class or not. It’s the identification that matters, the pride and the refusal of shame that the celebrity represents is all that matters. The class mobility ideal, or the idea that one can rise out of one’s class through hard work is only one part of the Protestant work ethic, it is one that has begun to disappear along with the wider Fordist organization of the economy.

The other part of the Protestant work ethic, the one that should concern us most today, is the one that places class as a more fixed and stagnant thing. The more fixed class becomes, the more stubborn the pride necessary to maintaining one’s pre-ordained place in the class order becomes. The celebrity enters to provide that perverse joy in inhabiting that place. The Astor Place riot ended in a bloody display in pride of class, with the partisans of Forrester, rocks in hand, getting gunned down by the police in the streets.

When pride becomes resentment, class instability abounds. But when pride is fulfilled, class dynamics ease back into their stable place. Today’s bourgeoisie have been upended with the rise of the celebrity billionaire who gave some pride of place to the lower and downwardly mobile middle class. Part of the irony of this upending is that their very attempts to create a world beyond class differences was torn open for what it is, an insulated world for a particular privileged class. Perhaps now, as the neoliberal version of meritocracy begins to face the hurtle of the Trump ascension, we can see that its conception of class was fixed all along, that its meritocracy was pre-ordained.

The Netflix series Ozark (spoilers ahead) hits on the theme of class rigidity in the age of Trump. It is set now, at the crisis stage of ongoing economic stagnation that has been brewing for over 35 – 40 years. Much like Breaking Bad, Ozark is about the deterioration of an economy of Fordist American dream stability, it is a dark dystopian alternative version of our present class dynamic that focuses on the drug economy to find the missing surplus money one needs to regain missing stability.

In the background of this hyperbolic presentation are characters that are in moral disarray from debt servitude and stagnation. These shows reveal what happens to competition in the turn to informal work. It turns out that competition and the market go away and a form of neo-feudalism replaces it. Even though Ozark and Breaking Bad are about participation in various forms of illicit economy, mostly drug markets, they reveal more reality of our fragmenting neoliberal order than the day-to-day order itself.

At the center of the drama of Ozark is Marty Byrde, the antihero, a frugal and pragmatic financial advisor based in Chicago. Marty adopts a small illicit drug money laundering scheme to ensure that his wife doesn’t have to work as they have a second child. In the first episode, Marty’s world comes tumbling down: we learn his partner was taking millions of dollars more than he ever expected from the drug dealers they were consulting, he learns that his wife as cheated on him and it all ends with a gruesome murder of his partner at the hands of the cold but charismatic drug dealer. Marty convinced the drug dealer not to kill him by whimsically saying that he will re-locate to a small town in the Ozarks to begin to launder him millions of dollars. He convinced him on a whim and the Byrde’s rush out of town and re-locate on the Ozarks.

Thus begins the drama of the show. Like Starling birds in a foreign land, the Byrde’s begin to set up investment schemes at a number of local businesses and quickly form relations with the locals. Marty emerges as the boss of the town without bosses. But we learn that the town is already ran by a drug kingpin family named the Snells, a Hillbilly family that harbors a vendetta for the state who allegedly attempted to kill off their family several decades ago. The Snells run a thriving heroin trade for the region and they obsessively accumulate money to steadily expand their property.

What motivates the Snells calculated business scheme is revenge for the trauma their family faced when the state attempted to flood them out of their property. This fear of ethnic or familial genocide gives resonance to the madness of far right pockets of the Trump coalition and the alt-Right. The Snells have the Sheriff under their control through debt obligations. As Marty establishes his financial schemes in the town, we are introduced to a prototypical redneck family named the Langmore’s. They begin to plot a scheme to steal Marty’s cash upon learning about his dealings in the town. Once they steal the money Marty flips them and slyly script on them and ends up hiring the youngest daughter to assist him in his various schemes.

As Marty’s money laundering schemes expand throughout the town, he begins to become a financial alpha dog. Some of the Langmore’s begin to think again and so they plan a heist of his money once again. But in a tragic move, the young girl Ruth Langmore ends up electrocuting her two uncles, preventing their heist. Ruth’s negative solidarity with Marty over her own family is a wicked sign of a class allegiance to her new boss Marty exceeds that of her own class position.

The best way to read Ozark is through the youngest child Jonah Byrde. Jonah is obsessed with birds and he studies the Starling and tries to attract Turkey Vultures to their house. The neo-feudal world of Ozark is a vulture economy, an economy where scraps are distributed by two kingpins of capital accumulation. The other bird Jonah obsesses over is the Starling, the bird which upends the natural harmony.

If you find the Starling in your backyard, you can shoot them on sight. If they enter your town unannounced, you can shoot them on sight. The song of the Starling is annoying because it is an imitation of other bird calls. The Starling has no song of its own, it’s caught in the desire of the other birds around it.

Maybe the world is now made up of Vultures and Starlings?

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