The Portrayal of Capitalism and Free Enterprise in Catch-22

March 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 not only in order to make a statement about the absurdity of war, but also to illustrate the absurdity of the human condition itself. Through its style, language, and characters, Catch-22 vividly depicts the absurdity of life using World War II as its medium. One of Heller’s most significant parodies is that of capitalism and free enterprise, which he embodies in the character of Milo Minderbinder.The reader is first introduced to Milo in chapter 2 of the novel, where he is described as the most incredible mess officer ever, providing a luxurious dining experience complete with Italian waiters, tablecloths, and a lunch consisting of shish-kabob and asparagus tips followed by cherries jubilee, coffee, Benedictine, and brandy. Milo is mentioned again briefly in chapter 3 during the Great Big Siege of Bologna, when it is said that he had bombed the squadron. Already the reader has a taste for the absurdity to come with this character, such as, “Why did Milo bomb his own soldiers?”It is in chapter 7 where the reader gets a first glimpse at the madness behind Milo. Milo admires Yossarian for a letter Yossarian persuaded Doc Daneeka to give him. It says that Yossarian can have all of the fruit he wants (due to his liver condition which he feigns having). Milo is horrified, however, to learn that Yossarian simply gives the fruit away. Giving violates Milo’s most basic principle- extort as much as you can. He hopes to make tremendous profits from the black market syndicate he is establishing. As Milo explains his ideas (which are heavily intricate, not to mention convoluted), he tears up a bedsheet that was originally stolen from McWatt. To Milo, it’s a symbol of business, but to McWatt and Yossarian (and probably the reader), it’s just a torn sheet. Milo’s reasoning in this episode clearly illustrates Heller’s distrust in the power and complexity of capitalism, and he shows this through Milo’s absurd rationale. Also, Heller writes in this chapter, “They were like Milo’s disunited eyes, which never looked at the same thing at the same time. Milo could see more things than most people, but he could see none of them too distinctly.” All of this suggests that Milo could think of various economically profitable schemes that most people can’t, yet he fails to see what is truly important in life.In chapter 13, Milo is given the position of mess officer by Major ___de Coverly in exchange for fresh eggs and butter. De Coverly also grants Milo planes to go to Malta and Sicily for the food. Many other squadrons soon make the same deal, and Milo operates daily shuttles to procure everything from artichokes to lobster tails. Milo is made out to be a modern-day sleazebag/businessman. He is quickly making his way to the top through manipulation and he doesn’t care whom he hurts along the way. He is also obsessed with making profits and is constantly thinking about money. This is Heller’s warning, that if we don’t do something soon, to change “the system,” we will all end up like profit-hungry Milo.In chapter 22, Milo humorously reveals how his private empire has spread. Orr and Yossarian give up trying to grasp the intricacies of Milo’s business, meanwhile learning that grateful civilians have named him everything from city mayor to assistant governor. Thus, Heller is not only parodying the complexity of what Milo is doing (because it is so convoluted that nobody understands anything he is doing), but he is also showing the close and potentially harmful relationship between governmental positions and profit. Milo goes on to claim that “everybody has a share.” Later on, when Milo writes the word “share” on a piece of paper, the reader not only sees the absurdity of what Milo is pulling off, but also the absurdity of everyone around him falling for it. Also, Milo sums up his beliefs in one line- “…what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country.” So here we see that the satire includes the industrial and financial domains as well as the military.Chapter 24 serves to illustrate more of Milo’s power. He can get an uncooperative officer transferred and can even lure enemy planes and officers into his syndicate. The growth of his business through the war heavily parallels empires of the past and multinational businesses of today. Heller’s message- businesses can fall just as easily as the empires once did. Later in the chapter, we learn of various international contracts Milo has made including a contract with the Germans to bomb his own base which offsets his losses on Egyptian cotton. He gets away with maiming and killing Americans because he makes such a huge profit; the absurdity is disturbing. What Milo is doing is very similar to arms manufacturers who sell to both sides in a conflict.Later in this chapter, the reader is exposed to symbolism that points to Milo being evil. After Snowden dies, Yossarian takes off his uniform (because he hates what it symbolizes) and walks around naked. During Snowden’s funeral, Yossarian stays in a nearby tree. Milo comes to Yossarian, mourning only his loss on cotton. He claims that the only way to offset this loss is for the squadron to eat the cotton, and he practically begs Yossarian to eat this chocolate-covered cotton that he has created. The scene is strikingly similar to Adam and Eve, with Milo being the evil serpent tempting Yossarian to eat the cotton. Heller is now saying that capitalism and its ways are not only convoluted and money-driving, but it is also evil and immoral.By chapter 35, Milo’s trade goods have expanded and now include artifacts of Western culture from the “Piltdown man” (which doesn’t even really exist) to “Cedars from Lebanon.” His slogan has shifted from “everyone has a share” to “what’s fair is fair.” So he has truly shifted from sugar-coating his position, to pessimistically justifying his position. Heller is obviously cynical about the future of capitalism and large businesses; they might in the end use Machiavellian practices and beliefs- “The end justifies the means.”Milo Minderbinder builds his empire himself. Just as his eyes do not focus properly, so his mind cannot take in any other value than profit. Everything he does is designed to enhance his profitable black-market syndicate. He draws group after group into his plan by doubletalk, flattery, or blackmail. Milo operates entirely on his own, twisting the military system to his purposes. Nothing stops Milo, and Milo is the character through which Heller makes his satire on capitalism, free enterprise, and immoral international business practices. It is through Milo’s absurdity that the absurdity of the industrial and financial situation in this country can be seen.

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