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Spiderman: A Class Act

July 20, 2004

The skinny on Spiderman 2 is that this is a movie that even movie snobs can love, and there's certain truth in this view. Its characters are more introspective and thoughtful than other superhero fare, and its social-critical undercurrent isn't overtly political enough to become annoying. In fact, its leftist core is barely discernable to most viewers; indeed, the over-arching critique of socialized crime control makes this a movie libertarians can love.

Leftist core? Let me explain. Spiderman has long been the approved superhero of the left, and the movie shows why. Peter Parker (Spiderman as civilian) is brilliant and gifted, but he is of working class origins, lives in a dumpy old apartment, and barely makes ends meet. His intelligence can only be employed to his advantage so long as he is in costume, at which point his gifted powers can be used to maximum effect (so long as he believes in them).

Otherwise his intelligence and powers have a limit in this bourgeois world: they cannot help him avoid his grasping landlord or bail out his aunt whose house is being taken by the bank. Parker's employers are cruel to him, a fact that seems to be necessitated by the cash nexus. Parker's only real source of income is to sell photographs of Spiderman to the newspaper. Hence is he forced to commodify himself into visual imagery just to survive.

This has all the makings of a dialectic that calls down the need for revolutionary change. The dialectic encompasses not only Parker but everyone around him. The class origins of others in his circle are barely disguised. His girlfriend Mary Jane is from the same background, though she has landed a part in a theater production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," Oscar Wilde's hilarious send up of the London upper class and an exposé of its essential phoniness and artificiality. This is a wonderful play but "no accident" (as the Marxists say) that it was chosen as the fiction-within-the-fiction.

Mary Jane's face appears on thousands of advertisements all over the city — she is beautiful after all — but even her act of image commodification doesn't somehow pay the bills. Her face is merely exploited in the service of consumer vanity and corporate greed. As a way out, she considers marrying "up" by attaching herself to some handsome young society man, but we discover later that he is the son of a newspaper editor who himself is probably one generation away from proletarian roots, and she doesn't love him anyway. Her true love is Peter, who embraces his class identity.

The villains in Spiderman emerged, predictably, from the milieu of the techno-corporate world where the pressure is always toward making gizmos of ever more power and might that will supposedly supply the world with energy, light, food, or whatever it may be. But the attempt to feed the voracious appetites of the mass consumer end up creating hubristic monsters bent on world hegemony. In this film, the corporate-villain is Ozcorp — no need to comment on the message behind that name.

As for Spiderman's choice — he can give up his superhero status and marry the love of his life, or he can dedicate himself to his calling above all else — is merely the re-rendering of the mythical professional revolutionary of socialist lore. In the stories told on the left, history is filled with great heroes who gave up private pleasure to dedicate themselves to the cause of bending history toward its rightful path: Marx, Lenin, Che, et al.

Thus can we see why Political Affairs, the Marxist journal, praised Spiderman as allegory of "populist identification with an ordinary character's day-to-day frailties in corporate America, but also the desire to escape them and flee from the mundane cruelties of life. There is a hope here for something better, a higher striving, another freer existence." (For the same reason, the left has always hated Batman, the aristocrat of inherited wealth whose powers are not granted but built by private innovation.)

But you know what? All this talk about this class and that class means nothing at all to the American middle class, which imagines the category as so fluid in reality as to be meaningless in any structural way. Perhaps an ideological theory of class really stung in London in the 1890s and perhaps it still does overseas, where the institutional structure limits class mobility. But the idea of fixed stations in life stemming from class origins has never had any serious resonance in the United States, where all classes are commercial classes to some extent and there remains an essential truth in the observation that one can buy oneself social position.

The old planters of the original American "aristocracy" were self-made. The same was true of the industrialists. Even the upper class in the Gilded Age was unashamedly self-made. To be one generation away from the gutter has always been a badge of honor in the United States, while membership in the rolls of "heritage organizations" that classify people by birth origin are restricted to aficionados.

When Americans are shown an image of a working class kid with superior intelligence who is behind on the rent, they don't think: "overthrow the capitalist system!"; they say: "get that kid a scholarship!" When we hear of an old lady being evicted from her home, we don't think: "Expropriate the expropriators!"; we say, "she should contact her pastor right away and get her local church involved." We can't imagine that there is any contradiction between being pro-market and being working class.

As for the bad-guy corporate big wigs inventing gizmos to run the world, we enjoy the fantasy but in the end, we know that the only way a business ever really gets "out of control" is when it is linked with the state. Otherwise, they are wholly dependent on the consumer to grant and take away "power," such as it is.

Thus are the class-based socialist themes in Spiderman completely lost on American audiences. What is not lost on us is the fabulous portrayal about crimes and government in American cities. The cops seem to do nothing but buzz around and get in wrecks. The government is simply invisible as a service-providing agency. After Spiderman gives up crime fighting, crime soars to 75% and no one seems to have any idea what to do about it, certainly not the police.

Fighting crime is a purely private activity, and Spiderman himself functions as a kind of private vigilante, making up for the failures of the supposed "public good" provisions that the state never gets around to providing. It is these themes — the chaos of the city, the inability of government to stop crime, our dependence out private solutions — that connect with us. The equivalent of Spiderman in the real world is the not the mayor, police chief, or cop on the beat, but the private security agency, the entrepreneur who started the gated community, the manufacturer of the stun gun.

As for Spiderman's choice of private life over public service, this is not a choice that confronts only the Marxist revolutionary, but also the intellectual or activist dedicated to liberty. Mises might have landed a position at Harvard after his immigration to the US had he been willing to go along with socialism or Keynesianism. There can be no question that Rothbard would have been in the Ivy League had he been willing to forego his political attachment to anarcho-capitalism. The history of liberty is strewn with great men and woman who paid a heavily professional price for their dedication.

To be dedicated to the defense of liberty, property, and commercial freedom is to stand up against the state at home and abroad and to be wedded to the wonderful ideal of freedom itself. And yes, there is always price to be paid. Like Spiderman, many freedom-minded intellectuals have had to look out over the horizon and imagine how much simpler and easier life would be if they would just be willing to give an inch here and there. They are usually right. The libertarians are the real idealists, giving up pecuniary reward for the sake of a larger goal!

Spiderman fits not the leftist model of sacrifice for the revolution but the Misesian genius, who is far from being rich for it:

It may well be that he who gives new values to mankind, or who is capable of so giving, suffers want and poverty. But there is no way to prevent this effectively. The creative spirit innovates necessarily. It must press forward. It must destroy the old and set the new in its place. It could not conceivably be relieved of this burden. If it were it would cease to be a pioneer. Progress cannot be organized. It is not difficult to ensure that the genius who has completed his work shall be crowned with laurel; that his mortal remains shall be laid in a grave of honor and monuments erected to his memory. But it is impossible to smooth the way that he must tread if he is to fulfill his destiny. Society can do nothing to aid progress. If it does not load the individual with quite unbreakable chains, if it does not surround the prison in which it encloses him with quite unsurmountable walls, it has done all that can be expected of it. Genius will soon find a way to win its own freedom. (Socialism, p. 167)

But just as Spiderman saw his calling more clearly as the crime became rampant, so too do libertarians see their calling more clearly when they imagine a world where the state faces no opposition at all. Also making that choice are people who donate money to the cause of liberty, knowing that governments and large corporations are the last to support principled scholarship. In order to do what is right, we must all make a sacrifice of ourselves. This was the lesson Spiderman learned, and this is one we can learn from him.


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