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Spidey's Forgotten World

May 15, 2007

Tags Free MarketsOther Schools of Thought

An unexpected pleasure of watching any Spider-Man movie, and the new release of the third is no exception, is that it allows the viewer to be a voyeur of a largely abandoned ideology, the perspective of the old, old Left. The film, and the ideological structure of Spiderman's world, not only shows us how wrong the left was way back then; it reveals just how much the class-conflict view of economics has had to adjust in order to stay viable at all. In this old-left view of the social order, the essential conflict driving history was between the wealthy capitalistic barons who live in unrestrained opulence at the expense of the working poor who never get a break and never advance socially or economically.

In this unreconstructed version of leftism — which reached its height from the '30s through the '60s — issues like the environment, disability, sexual orientation, and the unmitigated evil of the European mind play no role at all. This was the Left of yesteryear that believed in socialism as a tool for economic development, the remedy for the intractable plight of the working poor. This is a view that has a dwindling presence in the world today.

Spider-Man is, of course, the archetype of the oppressed proletarian. He has all the makings of someone who should excell. He is smart, hard working, charming, and, by the way, possessed of amazing powers to climb buildings and dash around on webs. But he gets not justice: he still lives in a dingy, dumpy, broken-down apartment and can barely pay his rent. Whatever job he happens to find, he loses rather quickly. Bosses are arbitrary and uncaring. He takes great photos but has to sell them to J. Jonah Jameson at a fraction of what they are really worth, and hence the media mogul enjoys the surplus value. Part of his passion for social justice stems from his own consciousness of his economic class. Thus says the Socialist Worker: "Spider-Man is a superhero we can all identify with." Why he has to remain poor is not explained very well. He complains that the door on his apartment doesn't work right, but he doesn't think to hop over to Home Depot and pick up a new knob. The paint in his apartment is cracking and dingy but he somehow can't take a Sunday afternoon off to do some renovation work, and neither can his proletarian landlord across the hall. He has to use a payphone to make calls when he could just Skype (actually, it is rather interesting: I can't recall any computers in the film at all). He keeps selling his photos at below market rates, without thinking to offer them to a newspaper besides the Daily Bugle.

Get a life, Spidey! But for reasons that are unclear, he just can't. Nor can those in his immediate circle. His girlfriend can't get a break either. She lands a singing job on Broadway but (we saw it coming) she loses it rather quickly. Even though she is beautiful and talented, she ends up having to wait tables in a jazz club — an appropriate venue for her since jazz mavens can be counted on to embrace one of their own. Spidey's Aunt is in a similar situation, always on the verge of some economic disaster. None of this makes any sense unless you are willing to buy into the old socialist view that the capital owners are running everyone else into the ground via some kind of logic of history.

The third film in the series highlights the strange way in which Spider-Man's villains are unusually sympathetic creatures. Look at the life of The Sandman as the movie presents it. He was a perfectly normal working-class guy but he was faced with the terrible reality of a daughter who was desperately in need of some medical attention that he couldn't afford. So, he decided to steal the money — which, we are led to believe, is perfectly understandable. But during the robbery he became scared, and in an ill-fated moment of snap decision-making, he pulled the trigger on the guy he robbed. The victim happened to be Spider-Man's uncle, but once Spidey came to understand the background here, he too is sympathetic.

The Sandman is caught and goes to jail, but then escapes. On the run from the police, he runs through a field and falls into a hole that was being used for some nuclear molecular-decompression blaster thing. His body and sand are fused together and he somehow lives on to continue his search for money to help his daughter. So while he is ostensibly Spider-Man's enemy, they really share the crucial thing in common: class interest. The Sandman might steal, kill, and destroy with impunity but if you focus too much on these facts, you are blaming the victim!

The class interest issue arises again in connection with Harry Osborn (the new Goblin), the son of Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin, who is the ultimate Marxian prototype of the wealthy capitalist villain, who himself inherited wealth from his father Amberson Osborn. Here we have the capitalistic dynasty, which, despite living in a marbled-floored mansion, is rife with every pathology one can imagine, each brought on by the desperate struggle to retain possession of vast wealth. Harry is ostensibly friends with Peter Parker (Spider-Man) but is secretly involved in a private war to kill Spider-Man in revenge for Harry's father's death.

Tellingly, Spider-Man 3 has a period in which Harry and Peter are genuinely friends. In this period, Harry is sincere, charming, and truth telling. How does this come about? Harry has lost his memory, enough such that his class consciousness is changed. His is temporarily freed from his attachment to wealth and class. Once he recovers his memory by looking at an image of his father, his nastiness comes back again.

And so on it goes. Not that any regular viewer would recognize any of the underlying ideological dynamics at work here. Nor is this presentation particularly effective, since the old-line Marxist notions are about as fantastical as the whole superhero concept itself. It posited that capitalism was driving the working poor into the ground, but as it turns out, capitalism is undeniably the best thing that ever happened to the working poor. In the sweep of history, capitalism has, in fact, been the sole source for economic advance. When this became obvious even to the Marxists at the turn of the 20th century, there ensued a clamor to reformulate the historical dynamic that Marx had dreamed up.

But what is most interesting here is how far removed the movie has to be from reality in order to project this Marxian vision. People are not quite responsible for their social positions but rather come to inhabit them in some sort of Rawlsian way, and they live out their appointed roles as if controlled by some hyper-historical force operating in the world.

In the movie, moreover, one sees none of the real institutions that truly do serve the working poor. Peter Parker is never shown shopping at Wal-Mart for example. Indeed, it is capitalism that has created in reality all that the socialists of old imagined their revolution would achieve: an unbelievable variety of food, clothing, and life-style luxuries at rock-bottom prices. So you might believe that the socialists would cheer. On the contrary, they loath Wal-Mart more than any existing institution and implausibly claim that it is somehow an exploiter. The passage of time in the real world has also revealed the reality of what the working poor really want: not revolution against the capitalist class but more free ring tones on their cell phones.

It was only after it became perfectly obvious to every living person that the market was serving the poor that the socialist Left abandoned its goal of material prosperity of the working poor. Now they tell us that material prosperity itself is the problem (and actually Rothbard took note of this ideological turn in the late 1950s). If we want true justice, the new view went, we must all learn to live without. What should concern us is the destruction of the environment, the exploitation of cultural minorities, the hidden costs of industrialization, and even such bogeymen as warm weather.

What the Spider-Man movies show us is a simpler time when the socialists made a strong but empirically testable claim: socialism would serve proletarian interests whereas capitalism is always contrary to proletarian interests. That claim turned out to be 100% false. The movie makes one nostalgic for such simple-minded and easily refutable views. Perhaps it is appropriate that such a vision live on only in comic books and the movies based on them.

 


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