David Graeber on superheroes, comics, and politics.
I. Let me clarify one thing from the start: Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight Rises really is a piece of anti-Occupy propaganda. Nolan, the director, claims the script was written before the movement even started, and that the famous scenes of the occupation of New York (“Gotham”) were really inspired by Dickens’ account of the French Revolution.
This is probably true, but it’s disingenuous. Everyone knows Hollywood scripts are continually being rewritten while movies are in production, and that when it comes to messaging, even details like where a scene is shot (“I know, let’s have the cops face off with Bane’s followers right in front of the New York Stock Exchange!”) or a minor change of wording (“let’s change ‘take control of’ to ‘occupy’”) can make all the difference. Then there’s the fact that the villains actually do attack the Stock Exchange. Still, it’s precisely this ambition, the filmmaker’s willingness to take on the great issues of the day, that ruins the movie.
It’s sad, because both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight had moments of genuine eloquence. In the first films of the trilogy, Nolan has some interesting things to say about human psychology, and, particularly, about the relationship between creativity and violence. The Dark Knight Rises is more ambitious. It dares to speak on a scale and grandeur appropriate to the times. And in doing so, it stuttered into incoherence.
II. Dark Knight Rises offers an opportunity to ask some potentially enlightening questions about contemporary culture. What are superhero movies really all about? What could explain the sudden explosion of such movies—one so dramatic that it sometimes seems that comic book-based movies are replacing sci-fi as the main form of Hollywood special effects blockbuster, almost as rapidly as the cop movie replaced the Western as the dominant action genre in the ‘70s?
Why, in the process, have familiar superheroes suddenly been given complex interiority: family backgrounds, ambivalence, moral crises and self-doubt? And why does the very fact of their receiving a soul seem to force them to also choose some kind of explicit political orientation? One could argue that this happened first not with a comic-book character, but with James Bond. Casino Royale gave Bond psychological depth for the first time. By the very next movie he was saving indigenous communities in Bolivia from evil transnational water privatizers. Spiderman, too, broke left in his latest cinematic incarnation, just as Batman broke right.
In a way, this makes sense. Superheroes are a product of their historical origins. Superman is a Depression-era displaced Iowa farm boy; Peter Parker, a product of the ‘60s, is a smartass working-class kid from Queens; Batman, the billionaire playboy, is a scion of the military-industrial complex that was created, just as he was, at the beginning of World War II. But again, in the latest movie, the subtext became surprisingly explicit (“You’re not a vigilante,” says the police commander, “you’re an anarchist!”): particularly in the climax, where Spiderman, wounded by a police bullet, is rescued by an outbreak of working class solidarity as dozens of crane operators across defy city orders and mobilize to help him. Nolan’s movie is the most ambitious, but it also falls the most obviously flat. Is this because the superhero genre does not lend itself to a right-wing message?
III. Let’s start at the beginning, by looking specifically at the comic book stories where the TV shows, cartoon series and blockbuster movies ultimately came from. Comic-book superheroes were originally a mid-century phenomenon, and like all mid-century pop culture phenomena, they are essentially Freudian.
Umberto Eco once remarked that comic book stories already operate a little bit like dreams: the same plot is repeated, obsessive-compulsively, over and over; nothing changes; and even as the backdrop for the stories shifts from Great Depression to World War to post-war prosperity, the heroes, whether they are Superman, Wonder Woman, the Green Hornet, or the Mighty Thor, seem to exist in an eternal present, never aging, always the same.
The plot is almost always some approximation of the following: a bad guy, maybe a crime boss, more often a powerful supervillain, embarks on a project of world conquest, destruction, theft, extortion, or revenge. The hero is alerted to the danger and figures out what’s happening. After trials and dilemmas, at the last possible minute the hero foils the villain’s plans. The world is returned to normal until the next episode when exactly the same thing happens once again.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here. These “heroes” are purely reactionary, in the literal sense. They have no projects of their own, at least not in their role as heroes: as Clark Kent, Superman may be constantly trying, and failing, to get into Lois Lane’s pants, but as Superman, he is purely reactive. In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination: like Bruce Wayne, who with all the money in the world can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to indulge in the occasional act of charity; it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily carve free magic cities out of mountains.
Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything. The villains, in contrast, are endlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas. Clearly, we are supposed to first, without consciously realizing it, identify with the villains. After all, they’re having all the fun. Then of course we feel guilty for it, re-identify with the hero, and have even more fun watching the superego clubbing the errant Id back into submission.
Politically speaking, superhero comic books can seem pretty innocuous. If all a comic is trying to do is to tell a bunch of adolescent boys that everyone has a certain desire for chaos and mayhem, but that ultimately such desires need to be controlled, the implications would not seem especially dire, especially because the message still does carry a healthy dose of ambivalence. After all, the heroes of even the most right-leaning action movies seem to spend much of their time smashing up suburban shopping malls, something many of us would like to do at some point in our lives. In the case of most comic book superheroes, however, the mayhem has extremely conservative political implications. To understand why requires a brief digression on the question of constituent power.
IV. Costumed superheroes ultimately battle criminals in the name of the law—even if they themselves often operate outside a strictly legal framework. But in the modern state, the very status of law is a problem. This is because of a basic logical paradox: no system can generate itself.
Any power capable of creating a system of law cannot itself be bound by them. So law has to come from somewhere else. In the Middle Ages, the solution was simple: the legal order was created, either directly or indirectly, by God. God, as the Old Testament makes abundantly clear, is not bound by laws or even any recognizable system of morality, which only stands to reason: if you created morality, you can’t, by definition, be bound by it. The English, American, and French revolutions changed all that when they created the notion of popular sovereignty—declaring that the power once held by kings is now held by an entity called “the people.”
“The people,” however, are bound by the laws. So in what sense can they have created them? They created the laws through those revolutions themselves, but, of course, revolutions are acts of law-breaking. It is completely illegal to rise up in arms, overthrow a government, and create a new political order. Cromwell, Jefferson, and Danton were surely guilty of treason according to the laws under which they grew up, as surely as they would have been had they tried to do the same thing again twenty years later.
So, laws emerge from illegal activity. This creates a fundamental incoherence in the very idea of modern government, which assumes that the state has a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence (only the police, or prison guards, have the legal right to beat you up). It’s okay for police to use violence because they are enforcing the law; the law is legitimate because it’s rooted in the constitution; the constitution is legitimate because it comes from the people; the people created the constitution by acts of illegal violence. The obvious question, then, is: how does one tell the difference between “the people” and a mere rampaging mob? There is no obvious answer.
The response, by mainstream, respectable opinion, is to try to push the problem as far away as possible. The usual line is: the age of revolutions is over, except perhaps in benighted spots like Gabon or Syria, and we can now change the constitution, or legal standards, by legal means. This of course means that the basic structures will never change. We can witness the results in the US, which continues to maintain an architecture of state, with its electoral college and two party-system, that—while quite progressive in 1789—now makes us appear, in the eyes rest of the world, the political equivalent of the Amish, still driving around with horses and buggies. It also means we base the legitimacy of the whole system on the consent of the people despite the fact that the only people who were ever really consulted on the matter lived over 200 years ago. In America, at least, “the people” are all long since dead.
We’ve gone, then, from a situation where the power to create a legal order derives from God, to one where it derives from armed revolution, to one where it is rooted in sheer tradition—“these are the customs of our ancestors, who are we to doubt their wisdom?” Of course, a not insignificant number of American politicians make clear they’d really like to give it back to God again. For the radical Left and the authoritarian Right the problem of constituent power is very much alive, but each takes diametrically opposite approaches to the fundamental question of violence.
The Left, chastened by the disasters of the 20th century, has largely moved away from its older celebration of revolutionary violence, preferring non-violent forms of resistance. Those who act in the name of something higher than the law can do so precisely because they don’t act like a rampaging mob.
For the Right, on the other hand—and this has been true since the rise of fascism in the ‘20s—the very idea that there is something special about revolutionary violence, anything that makes it different from mere criminal violence, is so much self-righteous twaddle. Violence is violence. But that doesn’t mean a rampaging mob can’t be “the people,” because violence is the real source of law and political order anyway. Any successful deployment of violence is, in its own way, a form of constituent power.
This is why, as Walter Benjamin noted, we cannot help but admire the “great criminal”: because, as so many movie posters put it, “he makes his own law.” After all, any criminal organization does, inevitably, begin developing its own—often quite elaborate—set of internal laws. They have to, as a way of controlling what would otherwise be completely random violence. From the right-wing perspective, that’s all that law ever is. It is a means of controlling the very violence that brings it into being, and through which it is ultimately enforced.
This makes it easier to understand the often surprising affinity between criminals, criminal gangs, right-wing political movements, and the armed representative state. Ultimately, they speak the same language. They create their own rules on the basis of force. As a result, they typically share the same broad political sensibilities. Mussolini might have wiped out the mafia, but Italian Mafiosi still idolize Mussolini. In Athens, nowadays, there’s active collaboration between the crime bosses in poor immigrant neighborhoods, fascist gangs, and the police. In fact, in this case it was clearly a political strategy: faced with the prospect of popular uprisings against a right-wing government, the police first withdrew protection from neighborhoods near the immigrant gangs, then started giving tacit support to the fascists. For the far-right, then, it is in that space where different violent forces operating outside of the legal order interact that new forms of power, and hence of order, can emerge.