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Occupy Gotham?

July 25, 2012

Tags Free MarketsMedia and CultureOther Schools of Thought

There have been a few articles and snippets on the Mises Blog about Batman, but most are about the Batman Chronicles issue where German Batman saves Ludwig von Mises's library — this just goes to show that I'm not the only student of Austrian economics who's a recovering comic-book nerd — though there is a short and sweet review of Batman Begins by Joe Salerno and a well-thought, in-depth analysis of The Dark Knight by Jeffrey Tucker. Let this article be the corresponding piece to The Dark Knight Rises.

One of the remarkable things about this Batman series is the way Hollywood — a bastion of tired, often-rehashed, leftist propaganda — has unwittingly allowed an obscenely wealthy capitalist who lives a decadent bourgeois lifestyle (when not fighting crime) to be the hero! It was noted somewhere that Murray Rothbard was a fan of the James Bond films partly because Bond was unrepentantly bourgeois and knew how to live it up in style. I think Rothbard — who has forgotten more about Austro-libertarianism than I could ever hope to learn in my lifetime — would have liked Christian Bale's portrayal of Bruce Wayne, neither afraid to make large investments nor afraid to be seen driving the ladies around in his European sports cars.

Another thing about Bruce Wayne/Batman is that he's a shining example of what can be accomplished by the private sector. None of Wayne's state-of-the-art technology is sponsored by government grants, though there would be little doubt Wayne Enterprises sells to the government. Nonetheless, Wayne's research is fueled by his own profits, not government grants or subsidies, and with the help of his top man, Lucius Fox, he develops the technology that enables him to be an effective one-man army and fight organized crime that borders on terrorism, while responsibly avoiding the corruption of the military-industrial complex.

Jeffrey Tucker was correct to note that the mob's extensive operations and violence (as well as law enforcement often turning a blind eye) are fueled by prohibition — that is, government intervention — much the way Prohibition fueled the gang wars and the rise of organized crime in the 1920s. The utopian idea held by leftists and neoconservatives alike that people can be legislated into healthy, responsible behavior is responsible for the damages caused by neo-Prohibition — the war on drugs — fueling not only organized crime but also the chaotic drug war/civil war that has left 55,000 dead in Mexico.

The Dark Knight featured a number of private-sector innovations, including a new Batmobile from which Batman is able to eject with an emergency motorcycle. The writers and producers of The Dark Knight Rises outdid themselves imagining the type of free-market ingenuity that brought a flying Batmobile chopper to outdo armored paramilitary vehicles used by looters. Tucker may just have to update his Jetsons book! I can guarantee everyone, while this technology may or may not be in the works by the defense contractors and private military companies, it never would have been dreamed up for the Soviet army or the Chinese PLA during the Cold War. As a matter of fact, the majority of times the Eastern bloc — with near-nonexistent civil liberties and planned economies ever controlled by the centralized grip of the Communist Party — made any great leaps in military technology was when they shot down a CIA spy plane and salvaged the wreckage for ideas.

But it's easy to pick on the commies; the defense contractors in the real-world private sector deserve to have light shed on their greed and laziness. These contractors might be closer to the development of such remarkable technology as seen in Batman or the James Bond films if they weren't busy lobbying to lengthen the Afghan war (now extended until 2024) and to expand the United States' military presence around the world, nursing off of endless government contracts and continuing to produce the same old military weapons and equipment while the government gravy train keeps on rolling. While government contracts are effective in cutting costs and spending through eliminating bureaucracy in production of goods and services via the private sector, they are a double-edged sword in the way firms often rely on government for continued business and government contracts for particular goods and services transformed into Keynesian-style welfare programs. This is what brings big business to lobby in Washington DC, polluting the free market with unbalanced legislation and corrupting republican democracy.

It was the neo-Keynesian economist Paul Krugman who said in his recent televised debate with Ron Paul (and I paraphrase), "I believe in the market economy, but there are times when the free market fails and government must take action to slow recessions and stimulate growth." Were I a Marxist — per Mises's "The Conflict of Ideologies" — simply stating the orientation of Krugman's ideology would be enough to denounce him for all eternity (given that the "end stage of history" is near), but luckily the Austrian School prides itself on having solid logical foundations outside of fallacious class-warfare propaganda and ad hominem attacks. Excellent refutations to the Keynesian idol worship of central banking and government intervention in the market economy can be found in Rothbard's Economic Depressions. Easy-to-understand explanations of these theories are found in chapter 3 of Kel Kelly's Case for Legalizing Capitalism and in chapters 9 and 10 of Robert Murphy's Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism.

In the face of the neo-Keynesian idea that government bailouts — today almost universally reviled by the American public — are good for the economy and for overall prosperity, I'm pretty sure Wayne Enterprises never needed to be bailed out, although General Motors and JPMorgan/Chase certainly did! Even though Bruce's eight years of solitude take their toll on the company, it still survives from its basic profits and no assistance of any kind.

Throughout his private-sector career, Bruce Wayne is a savvy businessman unafraid to take risks. In Batman Begins he fires the chairman of the board of directors for his bad business plan and bitter belittling of Lucius Fox, and takes the risk of promoting Fox to occupy the newly vacant position — a risk that pays off as Fox is given the authority and resources he needs to develop works of tactical and technological genius that help Batman fight the villains seeking to deprive the people in Gotham City of their rights to life, liberty, and property.

One thing all the villains in this trilogy seem to have in common is the desire for chaos and disorder. What Ra's al Ghul, the Joker, and Bane share — in their own twisted ways — is the desire to see Gotham City burn and descend into anarchy and chaos, even if they themselves must catalyze the process. While I'm philosophically far less inclined to anarchy than I am to localized, limited constitutional government, the anarchy the villains try to create in the Batman trilogy in no way resembles the anarcho-capitalist society envisioned by many libertarians. The chaos sought by these villains more closely resembles the inevitable chaos of anarcho-communism in a failed state, where harmony never occurred and the proletarians can neither plan effectively nor produce nor cooperate — thus they resort to looting and fighting over dwindling resources.

The image I saw during the segment where the mercenaries and convicts take over Gotham City reminded me of the Russian Revolution but combined with Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Vanguarded by Bane's mercenaries and the released prison convicts, common people allow themselves to become ravenous mobs. They seize and detain all wealthy people, confiscating (wildly and destructively looting) their property and then subjecting them to show trials in which the defendants' guilt "has already been established." These show trials, reminiscent both of the Jacobin-led show trials of the French Revolution as well as Lenin's show trials of the kulaks, are given the euphemism of "sentencing hearings" (led by the vengeful Scarecrow) in which the already-guilty defendant can choose death or exile (which will surely result in death).

Throughout all of this the looters arrest some, shoot others, and loot the property of them all in the name of "the people of Gotham City," even though the self-appointed warlord Bane never intends to share real power (much like Lenin and Stalin). The heroes, on the other hand, are the industrialists — the Hank Reardens, Dagny Taggarts, and Midas Mulligans — who use their minds, their superior technology, and their unbreakable spirits to defeat the looters and save the lives of the innocent (though many don't deserve it).

Libertarian philosophy stresses a supreme importance in the respect of life, liberty, and private property (or the pursuit thereof) for every individual, whereas Marx's end stage of history — envisioned to be spontaneous order and harmony in the form of communism after the final abolition of the state — can result only from the total abolition of private property and the dissolution of the bourgeoisie. The destruction of the latter comes in two forms: one is the conversion of all people into proletarians and the other is the physical destruction of "the most fanatical bearers of counter-revolution" during the socialist stage of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (see documentary film The Soviet Story for more on revolutionary genocide). Bane sets to bring about the next phase of Western civilization by completely destroying the old (with a nuclear weapon).

Ra's al Ghul and his secret society — believing that every great civilization is doomed eventually to fall — not only believe in the inevitability of Gotham City's collapse into chaos; they believe that they must be the catalyst to seal Gotham's fate. This is no far cry from Marx's warped take on Hegel's dialectic, reinvented by the former as dialectical materialism — the belief that humanity advances in historical stages by opposition and struggle — and even more Marxist in the belief that they, the revolutionary vanguard, must launch the final struggle.

While the Joker is a fascinating character because he personifies pure evil, he represents real people in this world who seize opportunities to spread chaos and violence simply for the nihilistic joy of witnessing disorder and destruction. Picture the Unabomber becoming one of those uneducated young leftists who advocate for anarchy and an end to government without actually knowing what the heck they're talking about, and voila! We have the Joker.

Bane is a fascinating and unique character. He is cold, calculating, very detail oriented, and well trained in the disciplines of hand-to-hand combat and pain management. Bane is similar to Ra's al Ghul and the Joker in sharing a common goal for Gotham City, but different in his motivations (both his love for his leader and his twisted dialectical mission). Ra's al Ghul believes he does the work of history whereas the Joker does what he does for the sadistic fun of causing havoc. Bane, on the other hand (as well as his leader, the daughter of Ra's al Ghul), resembles Hitler and Stalin in that he lived a horrible childhood and derives his motivation from a special grudge he holds for the world. He will not stop until all are punished as he sees fit. When holding Bruce Wayne captive and torturing him, Bane proclaims, "When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die." Like Hitler and Stalin, Bane targets specific people for death, beating and torturing them with cruel precision before murdering them, meanwhile inflicting widespread terror on society in order to make his message painfully clear.

Selina Kyle/Catwoman, played by the lovely Anne Hathaway, is a beautiful walking metaphor for the modern bourgeois anticapitalist. Always seen wearing exquisite designer clothing and ever an economic opportunist, she enjoys many of the finer things in life while deeply resenting the wealthy. Regarding the coming state of emergency for Gotham City caused by Bane and his terrorists, Kyle says to Bruce Wayne, "There's a storm coming, Mister Wayne.… When it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."

Throughout much of the film Kyle favors the assault on the rich by gangs looting mansions and "liberating" private property. This type of behavior was common practice after the October Revolution in Russia and "Liberation" in China. With her misdirected anger and such an attitude of entitlement, Selina Kyle sure would have fit in beautifully with the Occupy Wall Street crowd! Luckily for her she eventually joins forces with Batman to stop Bane's terrorists from turning Gotham to ashes. Much the way Hayek abandoned his socialist views and became a student of Mises, Selina Kyle sees the error of her ways, and Catwoman joins Batman in fighting the terrorists she helped empower.

Bruce Wayne/Batman is unique in that his sacred honor is his most prized possession. "You don't owe these people anymore," Catwoman chastises him, "You've given them everything!"

"Not everything," Batman solemnly replies, "Not yet."

Even if he must give up his life fighting evil so that the innocent may live, he will never give up his integrity. While the looters destroy, Wayne creates. While the villains attack the innocent, Batman goes out of his way to protect them. Despite the darkest trials — and the hard times seen in the Batman trilogy are especially dark — the forces of good will never give in to the forces of evil. Ludwig von Mises and the students of the Austrian School he inspired have adopted as their personal motto the phrase Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito: Do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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