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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Some thoughts on The Wolf of Wall Street

After having watched The Wolf of Wall Street I went online to do some reading about it. It seems that there has been a tendency to see this film as merely a critique of white collar crime and its treatment within the USA, or as a glorification of a hedonistic, money-obsessed way of life. While neither of these descriptions of this film is entirely inaccurate, it seems to me that this film has a meaning that goes beyond this opposition. This film helps us articulate the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one`s self, and suggests that the latter is not expendable and should not be replaced with purchasable sensuous pleasures.

The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of the rise of Jordan Belfort, and is based off his memoirs. Jordan Belfort becomes a stock broker in the late eighties and after the crash of 1987 finds a way to make vast amounts of money off penny stocks through very dishonest and manipulative sales tactics. His ascent continues as he begins to engage in more explicitly illegal activities to make more money such as money laundering and stock fraud. Ultimately, he makes his fortune largely by cheating people. At the end of the film Jordan is caught and he informs to the FBI about his associates and friends in order to get a reduced sentence. In the end he only serves three years at a ritzy country club prison, and after he is out he continues to make a fortune as a motivational speaker and sales trainer.

Jordan’s life seems to be a never-ending series of parties and money making schemes. He is a drug addict with a particular weakness for Alcohol, Quaaludes and Cocaine, and is presented as being nearly constantly high or drunk. Furthermore, while he has two beautiful wives over the course of the film, he has regular encounters with prostitutes to satiate his urges. His life seems thus to center around the pursuit of sensuous pleasure; this sensuous pleasure takes various forms for Jordan including the pleasure of making the sale, taking drugs or having casual sex. However, somewhat surprisingly, Jordan does not present his life as meaningless, empty or shallow instead he presents his drug and sex fueled escapades as being exhilarating, engaging and fun. In fact, late in the film Jordan gets sober and he comments to his friend that being sober is extremely boring and that he wants to kill himself. These words reveal Jordan’s genuine sense that the life that he ought to be living is one filled with as much drugs as possible. Consequently Jordan Belfort is a person who is totally committed to the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. He is uninhibited by any sense that the pursuit of this set of goods is ultimately unimportant, and there seems little in his life besides these sensuous pleasures.

Our first reaction to Jordan Belfort is likely one of contempt. He does not seem to be doing anything good or meaningful with his life, and he lacks any visible empathy for the victims of his crimes. And this is the sense in which it is true that this film serves as a critique of white collar crime, as we are presented with a wholly unsavory white collar criminal who seems to have little to no redeeming qualities and goes relatively unpunished for his misdeeds. But on the other hand while we feel contempt for Jordan, I think we also have a hidden desire to have a life like his. Many inhabitants of contemporary liberal capitalist society spend a good portion of their free time drinking and pursuing casual sex. While this kind of activity is distinct from Jordan Belfort’s debauchery it is similar in being also directed at sensuous pleasure, and thus we are not so distant from Jordan Belfort in that we too are often driven by the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. Consequently, while we have contempt for Jordan we also see his life as rich in a certain variety of pleasure that we also tend to desire. This conflicting set of judgments about Jordan and his life shows the way in which The Wolf of Wall Street can be said to illuminate the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one’s self, as we at once disrespect Jordan because he has failed to develop what is best in himself, but recognize that we too participate in the desires that he seems to be absolutely driven by. In this way this film helps us articulate a tension that exists within us between our desire for sensuous pleasure and our concern that we develop what is best in ourselves.

The pursuit of sensuous pleasure should be fairly self-evident by this point in the entry, but I do need to say a few things to clarify the notion of developing what is best in one`s self. The development of what is best in one`s self offers no guarantee of sensuous pleasure, and instead is a form of striving to see that one`s best qualities are fully realized. For example, if I have the capacity for courage I only realize this capacity to its fullest by facing situations that I fear and facing those fears with courage. Over time, this practise will begin to shape who I am and I will become more courageous. As a result the development of what is best in one`s self takes time, commitment and practise, and unlike sensuous pleasure cannot be purchased through money.

Jordan seems to have little concern for developing what is best in himself, rather his ultimate concern seems to be sensuous pleasure, whether it is the sensuous pleasure of drugs, sex or the sale. Whereas most members of the audience are likely in conflict between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in themselves, as they wander between moments of pursuing one goal to pursuing the next, Jordan is only driven by the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. Consequently, the character of Jordan shows us what a person is like when they are only driven by sensuous pleasure. This person who is solely driven by sensuous pleasure may not be evil per se, but they are contemptible, shallow and misguided, as they seem to be pursuing fleeting moment of pleasure that will not assure them any significant meaning in their life. In this way, the character of Jordan shows that eradicating the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one’s self by ignoring the latter leads us to a life that while rich in certain regards seems ultimately vacuous and superficial. In this way the film reveals that there is a still a need for the notion of the development of what is best in one’s self, and that the striving this requires is not something that we can forgo in favour of easily bought pleasurable experiences.