Liberal Democratic Equality and Superheroes

Over the past 15 years, or so, films based on superhero comic book franchises such as Spiderman, X-Men, The Avengers and The Fantastic Four have become particularly common and popular in liberal democracies like the US and Canada. It seems obvious that a large part of the reason for this is comic book franchises offer a wide breadth of characters, stories and other source material, and thus many movies can be made with these source materials without having to worry about coming up with new characters or arcs. One particularly shining example of this is that the third live action take on the Spiderman franchise is being developed as we speak, and if the other two editions were any indication than this new take will consist of at least two films. Clearly, the various versions of the Spiderman comic offer a wide variety of materials that studios can draw on, or put more cynically, rehash and exhaust, to create many Spiderman films. But the preponderance of comic book source material does not fully explain why these films are so popular in liberal democracies. Consequently this raises the question of what underlies their popularity. Surely, many things underlie the popularity of these films in liberal democracies, but I would like to focus on two such factors. The first is quite obvious and is that comic book franchises already have a relatively wide audience to draw on which helps to guarantee that the film will be relatively successful. In addition, and perhaps less intuitively, superhero comic book films are popular because they provide occasion to sublimate certain non-democratic desires in the context of a society that does not offer many opportunities to express this set of desires.

The first reason is that the existing fanbase of the comic book means that studios don’t need to worry as much about if there will be an audience for the film, and less effort is required to market the film as the movie already has an audience that will be interested in seeing it. Furthermore, even if the film only appeals to the core fanbase of a comic book it will still have a significant audience, and thus there is far less risk to using comic books for films than trying to write an original story that has no existing fanbase.

Now, the second reason for the popularity of film adaptations of superhero comic franchises may seem quite elusive and odd, as typically superheroes in these films stand up for democratic principles such as equality and liberty. Spiderman is not someone who aims to overthrow democratic principles, rather he seeks to defend the democratic rights and liberties of all people to be free from harm, fear and violence. But, there is one element of Spiderman that speak to the relation of superhero comic book films to non-democratic desires. Spiderman flouts the rule of law and takes the law into his own hands; he may be a good vigilante, but he is a vigilante nonetheless. Taking the law into one’s own hands can be seen to be non-democratic in that unlike a feudal aristocracy in which great individuals must take care to protect their serfs and vassals without the help of a modern state, a liberal democracy uses a body of laws in conjunction with distinct branches of the state to enforce laws and protect the weak. For example, social welfare in liberal democratic society is defined by principles of law, rather than the generous care that is expressed through the spirit of Noblesse Oblige. The former is rule/law based, while the latter is not formally codified in rules and laws, but flows from the character of the good ruler or lord. Superheroes like Spiderman or Wolverine are not recognized agents of the state that must follow particular rules to ensure the common good, but are rather like anonymous lords who generously offer their protection and support to those in need. Consequently, the mode of doing justice that superheroes embody is non-democratic, and specifically aristocratic. The Avengers are an exception here as their authority is more tied to the state, but despite this exception, from what I have said above, it still seems plausible to say that superheroes embody non-democratic principles as their mode of doing justice fits quite well with the aristocratic spirit of Noblesse Oblige.

What makes this non-democratic element of the superhero comic book film genre appealing to us is that because we live in a liberal democratic society we often feel powerless as individuals, and helpless to right injustice or do great things, and thus we tend to have a desire to be able to act as a force that can truly punish the guilty or do great things. Tocqueville points out that individuals in a democracy typically feel powerless as they are weak and cannot accomplish much on their own, as everyone has equal power. In particular he notes:

Aristocratic societies always contain, at the very heart of a multitude of individuals unable to achieve anything on their own, a small number of very powerful and wealthy citizens each of whom has the ability to perform great enterprises single-handed.

But among democratic nations all citizens are independent and weak; they can achieve almost nothing by themselves, and none of them could force his fellows to help him. Therefore they all sink into a state of impotence, if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily.” (597)

As democratic citizens we recognize that there is not much we can do and change on our own; unlike an aristocratic lord I cannot simply will that some great act will occur and draw on those dependent on me for this to occur. Instead I must work with others voluntarily in order for this act to possibly come to fruition. In this context Tocqueville is noting that the use of public associations in democratic America acts to counteract this powerlessness, but nonetheless it still points to the sense of powerlessness that is experienced by citizens of a democracy.

Furthermore, there is an additional layer to the powerlessness of democratic individuals in contrast to aristocratic lords that Tocqueville did not explicitly point out, but can be seen by examining the relationship of leaders of associations and corporate bodies in liberal democratic societies in contrast to the power of aristocratic lords. Many people think of a CEO of a corporation as someone who much like an aristocratic lord has great power, but while the CEO is very powerful, his power is conditioned to a far greater degree, and in a different way than the aristocratic lord’s. The CEO, in contrast to the aristocratic lord, is not guaranteed his position for life, but only based on his performance, which is typically determined by share price, growth and profits. Likewise public associations are also tied to existing goals. If I am the leader of a public association that is setup to support the disabled, I cannot just decide that I now want this association to fight for adult literacy instead or in addition to the initial goal. As a leader of this association I must uphold the stated aims of the association. So, unlike aristocratic lords leaders of public associations and private institutions are very much tied to specifically stated goals, and thus while they are powerful, they are not free. The freedom to do great things in a democratic society is not provided to those who lead public associations, or private institutions, but in our ability to collectively create these associations or institutions. Once the act of creation has occurred the institution will have to operate according to its own logic and consequently its leaders will not be free.

Furthermore, the power and freedom of the superhero is very much like the aristocratic lord’s as they both need to pay homage to no person or goal and they are able to do what is necessary to ensure that good prevails, or a great act is performed. In addition, human beings seem to have the desire to be free and powerful in the way that the aristocratic lord or the superhero is. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do great things on their own and be free from having to answer to another person or corporate body? This would eliminate many of our everyday problems, and it seems likely that many attempts to climb the corporate ladder are driven, albeit misguidedly, on the idea that once you get to a certain point in the corporate ladder you will be free from the fetters of others, and able to do what needs to be done. Similarly, further evidence for this desire is provided by the fact that children typically rebel against parental authority and want to do whatever they want. Therefore, while it may be the case that if we made a considered choice we may not want to become a superhero, I think it is plausible to say that humans have an engrained desire to have the power and freedom of the superhero. Thus, in the context of a liberal democratic society the superhero comic film is popular as it allows people to sublimate their desire to have the power of a superhero through vicariously experiencing the hero’s perspective. As the viewer experiences the life of the superhero, he is able to temporarily pretend that they too can do great things fairly effortlessly and through so doing he momentarily overcomes his sense of powerlessness.

Works Cited
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. Gerald Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

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A Polemic on Modern Liberal Democratic Politics

It seems fairly obvious that a political system in a society needs to have a way of guaranteeing that the long term interests of the society, including the interests of future generations are taken care of and respected (intergenerational justice.) This seems to simply flow from the recognition that all other things equal we want a society to develop to the fullest of its potential, and to be structured so that future generations are not sacrificed for the present desires of existing generations.  According to some, like Burke, one way of ensuring this is through the presence of an aristocratic land-owning class. This class is tied to their estate and has a long term interest in the well-being and health of their state as they want to pass on a fine legacy to their descendants.

However, nothing like this class exists in modern liberal democracies, so what methods do liberal democracies have to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice? One method is through trying to create institutions that serve to ensure that these long term interests are safeguarded. However, I will argue that in themselves institutions are not enough to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice whether in an aristocracy, mixed constitution or a democracy. Instead, a particular kind of culture and public ethic needs to exist that actively condemns sacrificing genuine long term interests to immediate self-interest. As such a culture will help to ensure the long term good of the society is actively maintained.

To serve long term interest and the justice of future generations some modern liberal democratic states have tried to create certain institutions to secure these goods. One such example of this is the US Senate.  In contrast to the House of Representatives in which Representatives have a two year term US Senators have a term of six years. Part of the justification of having these two bodies separate is that the House of Representatives would tend to be more dominated by the needs of political expediency as members of this body have to be extremely concerned with how they vote as their term is so short that they are likely to be punished in an election if they vote against their constituent’s avowed interests. Consequently, members of this legislative body would be more likely to simply vote in a way that got them re-elected rather than in a way that necessary served the long term interest of the community. Contrastingly according to this justification due to the fact that senators have a six year term they are more free to vote according to their best judgment about the interests of the community as their term is long enough that the senator can show their constituents that while their constituents may have initially disagreed with the senator’s actions, his or her actions are actually supportive of their interests, and the long term interest of the state.

While this justification of the US Senate is somewhat plausible, given the current state of US politics it seems that this institutional structure is not enough to secure intergenerational justice and long term interests.  Currently, in the US, at all levels of government including the Senate political expedience seems to dominate over genuine deliberation concerning long term interests. The deliberations within both the lower and upper house have become but theatrical precursors to an election in which senators strut before voters and make sure that their actions translate into electability rather than ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice.

If the example provided by the US Senate is at all typical then it seems that institutions structured in a particular way are not enough to ensure some semblance of intergenerational justice and the safeguarding of long term interests. Even when these institutions are present we tend to see politics in modern liberal democracies dominated by political game playing that serves to ensure an official is re-elected rather than that long term interests are taken care of.

One element that can ameliorate this problem in modern liberal democracies is a culture and public ethic that condemns political activity that puts immediate self-interest ahead of the pursuit of long term interests and intergenerational justice. The trouble with modern liberal democracies is not just that institutions are not perfectly setup but that as a whole we have come to accept the unabashed pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law as legitimate. Just as we do not condemn someone for leaving a company at a challenging time for that company because they have received a tempting job offer, so to in politics we do not condemn voters, or politicians for pursuing their immediate self-interest at the expense of long term interests and intergenerational justice. There is a mild distaste for the crass pursuit of self-interest by politicians, but by and large we do not condemn them and view these agents as having violated some important principle. Instead we see it as the norm for politicians to act this way, and while this norm may bother us we are resigned to accept it as natural.

However, if a culture condemns political activity that pursues immediate self-interest at the expense of all other goods and positively affirms the value of defending long term interests and intergenerational justice, then this would help to ensure that long term interests and intergenerational justice were taken care of.  In this kind of culture all will be more likely to recognize the value of the goods of long term societal interests and intergenerational justice, and act from these principles as the culture affirms them, and consequently people would be honoured for ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice, and dishonoured for sacrificing these goods before the goddess of immediate self-interest. Therefore, a certain kind of culture and public ethic would help to ensure that politics in a liberal democracy serves long term interests and intergenerational justice.

Similarly, this point does not merely apply to liberal democracies, but to other forms of government as well. What ensures that long term interests are served in an aristocracy is not the presence of a landed gentry itself,  but rather the presence of a landed gentry that recognizes that as powerful members of their community they have the responsibility to ensure the long term interests of their state by taking care of their estate and subjects. If an aristocrat in an aristocracy were to act based on crass self-interest they would not ensure long term interest and intergenerational justice as there is no reason inherent in being a member of the landed gentry that determines that one will take care of one’s estate and subject and pass on a fine legacy to one’s descendent and future subjects. What ensures that the landed gentry secure long term interests and intergenerational justice is the culture and public ethic that they act from, not the institution of the landed gentry itself.

However, in putting forward an argument for this kind of political culture that condemns sacrificing long term interests for immediate self-interest we are faced with a huge challenge on three fronts. The first and most obvious challenge is how such a culture comes into being while respecting the independence and freedom of persons. Many historical attempts by states to make a certain kind of culture have been utterly disastrous and cruel such as the Terror in the French Revolution and attempts to assimilate groups like Canadian First Nations. This should make us very cautious about how state policy is used to try to purposefully shape a culture.

The second challenge is that acts that pursue the long term interest and intergenerational justice are not immediately transparent. It is fairly easy for a politician, voter or activist to do something that only furthers their immediate self-interest and yet present it as something that furthers long term interests; in the case of a politician they just need to espouse an argument that shows how their actions will serve long term interests even if this argument is particularly facile or weak. Consequently, it is not always easy to determine when we are dealing with overt acts of immediate self-interest versus at the expense of long term interests and acts that are meant to pursue the overall good of the community including its long term interests and intergenerational justice.

The other challenge is more particular to modern liberal democracy, and that is that these societies carry a heavy mark of consumerism, and consumerism is dominated by the pursuit of immediate self-interest and instant gratification. This raises the question of if the kind of political culture that I am gesturing towards is compatible with our current consumerist economic way of life as there is something quite schizophrenic about rejecting the uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law within the economic sphere, while rejecting it in the political sphere.  Unfortunately, if it turns out that these two modes of activity are incompatible then we will have to choose between a politics that can help us secure intergenerational justice as well as long term interests and the maintenance of our current economic practises.