Don’t write Cerberus off as a caricature. It misses the complex picture of political activism it actually provides us with.
One of the most hotly debated topics of one of the biggest game franchises ever is just whether Cerberus was the villain or the anti-hero in Mass Effect. It’s been over ten years since the launch of the first game, and still it’s a debating point that draws hot tempers from across the galaxy (or, specifically across the internet). Yet, Cerberus offers a much deeper analysis of politics which is still relevant, than many would like to admit.
The player is introduced to Cerberus as a pantomime villain. They spring up causing havoc for no real reason but there are no limits they won’t sink to – including experiments on husks (indoctrinated people). It’s not until the second game that we get to explore this enemy because all of a sudden, they are the ally and the cornerstone of the fight against the reapers. This terrorist organisation the player is supposed to hate now has nowhere to turn but to Cerberus.
Cerberus is often compared to UKIP because it is unashamedly a pro-human group. However, this badly misses the mark. Cerberus represents a much more complex movement, one which is trying to fight privilege but only for itself. The right represent the establishment, and try to ensure that those who have always had power remain in power. Cerberus wants to upend all of that.
In this galaxy, humans don’t have the power. Eventually they get a seat on the Council, but that’s still in a galaxy that utterly resents humanity. Politicians are allowed to run on anti-human platforms and are actually popular, there are old grudges in the galaxy too, batarians often targeting humans, lingering animosity from some turians and to make it worse, when the reapers do arrive the Council believes that it’s better for Earth to be attacked so that their own worlds have time to regroup and prepare for the reapers. Even when humans do have power – it counts for nothing. No more so is this true than when after saving the Citadel (the heart of the galaxy), Shepard is completely isolated, fighting a quest to save humanity as entire populations are being kidnapped, while the Council shrugs its shoulders.
Cerberus wants that establishment destroyed and for humans to finally get some power in a galaxy that just doesn’t care if humans live or die. They were labelled as terrorists by a Council that is invested in humanity not really being a political force. Their actions can be awful but they don’t align at all with the right wing movements which have gathered pace in the last ten years. They hate the old stifled structures of the Alliance, they hate upholding order, and they want to challenge oppressive forces rather than find a new way to enforce them. Yet, that is still incredibly frustrating.
They want humanity to stand on its own two feet, have its own power and have a say in the galaxy. They want to set their own destinies. Cerberus wants the liberation of humanity from the galactic oppressive forces. Humanity doesn’t have the political power in this galaxy, but that Cerberus aren’t avenging angels.
Cerberus are basically radical centrists – or they might be if people like Nick Clegg actually had any convictions. They’re allocisgay rights campaigners that don’t give a shit about the rest of the queer community. They want liberation, but just for themselves. Cerberus doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the galaxy who also experiences oppression. Synthetics? They’ll use them and chuck them out again. Quarians? The migrant fleet having no home world means absolutely nothing. They aren’t actively oppressive. Hell, there’s near constant xenophobic chat from the Alliance and almost non from Cerberus workers. They just don’t give a shit about the oppression others face, and indifference is just as dangerous.
“They want liberation, but just for themselves”
Cerberus will go to any lengths to protect itself and humanity, but at the costs of others. They’re the leftbro activist that thinks it is okay to throw sex workers under the bus because they don’t deem sex work as important as the wider class struggle. Ultimately, they are radical in tactics perhaps, but not in ideology. They’re the same as most movements led by those who harbour the most privilege within their oppressed ‘class’. They’re utterly about empowering themselves regardless of those who face other marginalisations.
It’s why that Miranda Lawson quits, tired of the all or nothing ways that the (white allocis) Illusive Man keeps pushing, even though she idolised him. She won’t be his tool anymore to be used. It’s why Jacob (a black man) can’t stomach staying loyal to Cerberus and even when he first joins them, he treated them with utter suspicion and was ready for them to commit some sort of betrayal. All of the people who experience marginalisation, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, who work with Cerberus (for whatever reason) don’t stay loyal. They just can’t stick it out. They try to change the organisation, they work with them to stop the reapers but even that isn’t enough to stick with Cerberus. The Alliance is doing nothing, the Council couldn’t care less about millions of humans being abducted but working with Cerberus is still not something anyone can stick out forever without becoming completely corrupted.
This is why the story of Cerberus is still so important. Cerberus isn’t a binary story of right or left politics, but it offers greater insights into movements who exploit the labour of marginalised people and aren’t committed to liberation against all oppression. Cerberus is a lesson in community activism and a warning that it is exactly what movements should not be, if empowerment is truly desired. It’s why Cerberus and the Illusive Man are the ones to make humanity “undone”. They sacrificed everything and all it did was destroy humanity through selfishness and egotism. Cerberus is the gaming lesson of our times.
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