Feudal Superheroes in an Age of Empire

We are in an era of renewed imperial aggression. The evidence is all around us: ongoing American military interventions in six different nations, including a multi-nation proxy war in Syria; the Saudi Arabian bombardment campaign in Yemen; impending Japanese re-armament; military posturing in Eastern Europe between Russia and NATO; and military tensions rising in the South China Seas.

The world looks very much like it did at the start of World War One: carved into zones of influence, with capitalist states expanding their interests as they search for a dwindling set of profits on an increasingly tapped out biosphere. Like all projects of imperial expansion, competition from rival networks is inevitable.

Allies and Central Powers 1914
Allied Powers (Green) and Central Powers (Yellow) and their Territories and Colonies, August 1914

Empires thrive not just on a monopoly of force but of data as well: control over the tools of communication has been crucial to imperial expansion since before the Qin dynasty. Thus we take for granted, in today’s world, that all of our emails, telephone conversations, search histories, credit card purchases, utilities payments…everything is effortlessly tracked, traced, and compiled for easy recall when the state apparatus needs it. There is no such thing as privacy: the state is inside our machines of pleasure, work, banking, communication, and credit…our machines of life.

We also accept nepotism as a central feature of our political systems. Money produces connections produces power: the critical triumvirate that links the Ivy Leagues to Wall Street to Washington and back again. Our rulers are not now, nor have they ever been, commoners. The current Canadian prime minister would be the most popular high school teacher in Vancouver if it wasn’t for his family name, while a Clinton political dynasty deeply connected to authoritarian powers abroad is about to take flight in the United States. In the UK, one Oxford graduate was replaced by another as Prime Minister of the country, both from well-connected families with deep ties to the financial and political elite. In China, political power in the CCP long ago become enmeshed with lineage networks that combine blood, money, and brute force.

The young person of conscience today is faced with two stark truths: the digital apparatus tracks all aspects of our lives, while influence over dominant political and economic institutions remains out of reach. We are the subjects of state and market control, while having no ability to hit back upon the forces that bind us. To even speak of “democracy” in this age- in which the war machine, the financial machine, and the digital machine are so smoothly linked- can only be thought of as a bitter joke. In the age of transnational empire, δημοκρατία- Rule by the Commoners- is certainly a gallows prospect.

When you control nothing, own nothing, know nothing,  what form of Rule can possibly be open to you?

This is the question dramatized by the successful Bourne movie franchise, which has returned again this summer in its latest installment. The films by now follow a well-worn formula: a violent event triggers the former black-ops agent Jason Bourne to return from the shadows, while the American state-apparatus that fears the secrets in his head chases him around the world. The films relentlessly tell the audience what we already know: the war-machine is digitally and politically supreme, capable of intervening into “areas of interest” at any time, leaving a wave of human destruction in its wake.

The vicarious thrill of these films is to watch Bourne hit back upon the war machine that turned him into an inveterate killer. The film’s most iconic scenes take place in dark rooms filled with the soft glow of computer screens, with harried bureaucrats desperately trying to track Bourne across the world while he moves effortlessly amongst the cobble-stoned alleyways and glass-encased train stations of European capitals. Always the winner in hand to hand combat, always the escapee in vehicular pursuit, Bourne gets away from his CIA foes time and again. He is an icon of dogged victory for the damaged little guy.

 

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The audience in the darkened theater can revel in this anarchic play for two hours, yet when the lights come on they return to a life that is the exact opposite of the fantasy they’ve seen on-screen: rooted in-place, limited by the black-box of technology, with no ability to disrupt the system one dwells within. We can only dream of jumping off rooftops, scrambling state surveillance networks, and riding motorcycles through the heart of our city streets. Even if we wanted to, there would be no way to do what Bourne does: generate fear in the masters of state power who lord over us.

In standing as a fictive symbol of that impossible dream, Bourne only reinforces our actual real-world impotence. No matter how loudly we shout about secrets everyone already knows, no matter how much corruption we uncover in the everyday institutions in which we dwell, we cannot destabilize the smooth flow of the system itself. And of course, by going to see the Bourne movie, we have actually only further lined the pockets of the American media industry. The joke is, definitively, on us: our fantasies of disruption are turned into their streams of revenue.

The Bourne franchise is in fact only a slightly grittier version of the new dominant in corporate American entertainment: the superhero film. There is no coincidence that as our political options have become ever more diminished over the last fifteen years, so too have our imaginative outlets. The unending orgy of superhero films we have been subjected to simply confirms our collective disempowerment. Their very structure is feudal: they tell us that a chosen few will battle it out for control of the city/world/galaxy, while the rest of us can sit by and watch it take place.

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You the commoner can do nothing to change your realities, only those with sublime powers can do so. House of Cards, for all of its Fourth-Wall breaking playfulness, is similarly disempowering: it tells us, again and again, that only the elite wield power, doing so from oak-paneled rooms and mahogany bed chambers. We can sit back and watch as flies on the wall, yet what we cannot ever do is intrude into these rarefied networks.

Underwood Oval Office

Jason Bourne, Batman, Superman, Frank Underwood…they are all deeply un-democratic cultural figures, repeating the same imaginative bait and switch time and again. We’ll give you two hours of projected empowerment, and in exchange you give us your lives: 9-5 in the sluggish institution, taxes, down payment, 2 weeks of vacation, alcohol and sports to keep you buzzed and distracted.

The incredible popularity of these cultural products with the general public only tells us how deeply such a public thirsts for the sense of empowerment these films offer, even when they know it is an illusion, a contact-high that will wear off once the final credits role.

Faced with our collective disempowerment, and the entertainment fantasies that reinforce it, what are we to do? When our own protests, articles, films- our own words and deeds- seem to have no force whatsoever, where are we to turn for hope that a more progressive age is possible?

One solution is to reject the logic that all of these superhero films have embedded within them: that the minor few will rule over or save the many. This exclusionary logic must be turned on its head: it is only we-the polyglot, unaccomplished many, who have been shut out of the networks of authority and power-who can bring about real destabilizing change.

But of course, the only thing we can say with any certainty about such a polyglot is that it is defined by difference: a plurality of languages, ethnicities, races, backgrounds, genders, and human experiences. To build a force strong enough to dislodge political and economic power will require organization amongst this polyglot mass. One must try to bring these fellow human beings together, in full recognition of all of the embodied difference that has been imposed upon them, that they experience as an everyday reality, for which their life strategies have been formulated.

One must foreground some common idea that can bind them together into a sustained movement. What is this idea, this X, that would have binding force? What is this project in search of a name?

X

This is the core question of organizational life, and it must be worked through in a social world in which we are always already atomized (into nations, religions, ethnicities, families, couples, individual bodies) and harassed (we must, after all, work for a living, harried constantly by market pressures). How do we overcome this condition of disjunction, this cut up, riven existence?

I have no magic formula, no secret answers. But, one can insist with no reservation that we must work towards the common project, we must find pathways towards X, undermining all logics of exclusion and violence as we do so. Though the roadmap is unclear and the way messy, one thing is certain: we will not be saved by a secret agent jumping off rooftops, nor will superheroes come down from the sky to rid the world of exploitation…these celluloid fantasies only anesthetize us to our own condition, despite their many slick-surfaced pleasures.

If salvation is to be found, it must be the multitude- in its infinite diversites and contradictions- that struggle for it, using the squalid, modest tools of writing, speech, protest, and aesthetic creation we have open to us.

There is no doubt that this struggle will fail, over and over again. What did Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president show us? Even the most well-organized of progressive social movements, sophisticated in their use of digital fundraising and public outreach, hit up against the machine of the established state/capitalist network, who was much more comfortable with the moderate Clinton than the social-democratic Sanders. And even Bernie, with all his eloquence about the ravages of inequality in America, didn’t go so far as to question the very way in which wealth is produced in that society (the wage labor form). He was still fairly moderate in his economic and political platform.

Yet, even admitting Bernie’s limitations, his movement still needs to be recognized as a historically important one. Few places on earth are as hostile to socialist discourse as the United States, and Bernie broke up decades of ossification on that front: for the first time it was okay to talk about the greed of big banks, the monopolization of wealth by the 1%, and the exploitation of the many by the few. Universal projects for health care, education, and racial justice were given vigorous public defenses. And a new generation of millennials saw what systemic critique in action actually looks like.

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Like Bernie’s revolution, our incursions will not be on motorcycles thrashing through the air, or winged battles across the night sky…our incursions will be in the far more dull, grey, slow realm of the human everyday.

But when we do mobilize, we will have one advantage over Bourne, Underwood, and the caped demigods: our actions will be for real, and not consigned to the sepulchral dreamscape of a darkened theater.

Certainly, our motto must be a simple one: fail now, fail later, fail better.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

 

 

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