Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

It’s no Batman Returns, is it?

A slightly odd line from Gavin Mueller’s post about The Dark Knight Rises:

The Dark Knight has nothing to do with Occupy, and no one who sees it will make that connection, unless they gleaned everything they know about Occupy from newscopter footage.

Isn’t “newscopter footage” precisely where most people will have got most of their knowledge of Occupy from? Likewise Gavin’s quibbling about how the villain, Bane’s, authoritarian command of his loyal mercenary band is unlike the leaderless process-fetishism of Occupy: yes, the bad guys in The Dark Knight Rises  aren’t a very accurate representation of what the Occupy movement is actually like, but they do accurately represent a right-wing media narrative about Occupy. In this story, Occupy is a carefully orchestrated plot by ACORN or Saul Alinsky or somebody designed to spread anarchy for some ill-defined elitist purpose (I guess Frances Fox Piven is Ra’s al Ghul). Hence we get Bane wandering around Gotham making hollow populist-sounding speeches, in scenes which I found a bit boring because this revolutions-as-elite-plots story is so old, going back to nineteenth century reactionary theories about the French Revolution being the work of freemasons. This is primarily a right-wing position, although perhaps it is accepted by some liberals in the form of claims that militant actions are the work of “outside agitators.” Presumably the familiarity of this plot, though, plays a part in the success of the film, as following an old script makes the film’s political references legible and widely acceptable (I don’t necessarily mean that audiences agreewith the politics of this story, just that they recognize that the film is “saying something” political).

I think Gavin makes a similar mistake in his claim that the economics endorsed by the film are feudal rather than capitalist:

Batman/Bruce Wayne is not a capitalist. Sorry. This Batman-as-financier stuff is a trick played by casting the actor whose greatest role was a psychopathic i-banker. Yes, Wayne is rich, but that’s not the same as being a capitalist. The guy running the bodega down the street is more of a capitalist than Bruce Wayne. Wayne has no interest in profit, in accumulation, in investing his wealth to produce more wealth. If you don’t see M-C-M’ you don’t have capitalism.

Again, I agree that Bruce Wayne in the film isn’t an accurate representation of the way capitalists actually function, but that’s, again, not the point: Wayne does accurately represent a particular story about capitalism, and this story about capitalism is a relevant one  because it’s the misunderstanding that capitalist society has of itself: that capitalism is defined by individual control of private property. As Marx puts it in the Manifesto:

We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence. Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily. Or do you mean the modern bourgeois private property? But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation.

In other words, the political economy of The Dark Knight Rises isn’t, as Gavin says, a feudal defense of the aristocracy; it’s a defense of capitalism from the point of view of the bourgeoisie’s own (mis-)understanding of capitalism, a liberalism descended from Locke and underpinning the position of almost everyone in America except Marxists. You can see it, for example, in Chris Hedges’ insistence that he is not opposed to capitalism as such, only to “corporate capitalism,” or those populist anti-Romney ads Newt Gingrich was running. Once again, the film isn’t making a particular political point as much as it is presenting us with an inflection of political “common sense.”

More generally, I’ve been wondering about the tendency of people to read the Nolan Batman films didactically, that is, to see them as presenting a more-or-less coherent political philosophy. Now, in a blockbuster industry dominated by Michael Bay and Zach Snyder, Nolan’s ability to come up with neat ideas and present them in reasonably coherent narratives shouldn’t be dismissed, I suppose, but that doesn’t add up to a reason to take his films seriously. Perhaps his films are read as directly political more than those of his competitors because Nolan himself is an extraordinarily literal film-maker, as seen, for instance, in his widely-praised preference for model shots over CGI. K-Punk pointed out that, despite being a film nominally about dreams, Inception is aggressively anti-oneiric, rejecting any uncanniness or confusion for a logic of place and causation which is, if anything, even more strict than reality.

Likewise, although characters in the Batman films are always talking about symbolism, the films themselves seem designed to strip the character of any mythical or symbolic resonance at all, for instance with the insistence on explaining in detail the R&D and supply chain behind Batman’s costume and gadgets. This seems pointless in a superhero film; if you want to make a film about superheroes, why undermine the mythical quality which gives superheroes their appeal? And if you want to make a realistic film, why include superheroes at all, when the superheroic elements will just look silly, as the (presumably toy-marketing-led) transformation of the Batmobile into a motorbike did in The Dark Knight, or as Ra’s al Ghul and Bane’s Dr-Evil-level supervillain plots did in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises?