Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Lex Luthor and the Joker: The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

We use the word “contradiction” in relation to capitalism not in the literal sense that capitalism contradicts itself: it cannot do that because no historical event or agency can ever contra-dict itself. In this sense, both Hegel and Marx abused the literal meaning of the word, although mostly they intended it in the “dialectical” sense. We use it rather in the sense that there are historical tendencies or forces that capitalism unleashes that work in historical, political and socio-economic directions that threaten not just the institutions of capitalism but also and above all its “society”. For we no longer have a “society” – which itself would be an abstraction – but rather a social formation that we have called “the society of capital” in the sense that capitalism has gradually and relentlessly come to dominate every aspect of social life and indeed of global life.

In the narrative of Superman, Lex Luthor constitutes the fifth column, the traitorous internal foe that threatens the very society that nurtures and promotes it. Lex Luthor represents an expression of greed, of rapacity in a purely monetary form that comes to threaten the existence of capitalist society itself. Luthor is not interested in this or that aspect of material wealth: he is interested in wealth in its most ethereal and abstract form - in the form of money. Of course, what is “evil” about Luthor is the fact that in his pursuit of abstract wealth he is prepared to betray the very society that produces the wealth to which he aspires and in which indeed wealth has any significance whatsoever. Luthor is prepared to break the law and any other social norm in order to obtain wealth and, consequently, social power. In this sense, his wealth-seeking constitutes an infringement of “legitimate” laws and social norms. And yet, it is quite clear that the supreme goal of capitalist enterprise and its society is precisely that – the attainment of infinite or indefinite wealth. Clearly, therefore, from the outset and at its very core, capitalist society involves this “contradictory” tendency: namely, that its essential goal is the destruction of social norms and ultimately of the social fabric itself.

Lex Luthor is a “disruptor” – he might as well be a Schumpeterian “innovator” or entrepreneur – a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerman or a Musk or a Bezos. The fact remains that he is not the only one to embrace disruption or transgression of social norms and laws to attain abstract wealth and real power. The horrifying reality is that he represents the extreme version of what every other “citizen” in capitalist society is aiming to achieve – the pursuit and attainment of indefinite and infinite material success. It follows that all of capitalist society is complicit in this insane pursuit – a pursuit that turns every citizen into a cowardly philistine desperate to hold on to her or his possessions and therefore ultimately reliant on Superman to rescue her or his society from total destruction.

Superman or Batman. Superman and Batman. The “complicity” of all citizens in capitalist society in this cowardly pursuit of abstract wealth and power – of what we call “success” – is illustrated quite explicitly by Lex Luthor’s evil counterpart in the Batman cartoon epic. Here the Joker defies Batman’s defense of “law and order” and of the citizenry by pointing out that the crimes or “disruption” he is perpetrating are not motivated by money or wealth but are meant singularly to expose the inveterate and insatiable greed of the very citizenry that Batman so gallantly endeavours to protect. Protect from whom? Asks the Joker. Not from me! You can’t protect them even from themselves! For in their quotidian pursuit of self-interest they have already torn apart the “community” that they pretend exists.

This is nothing more than a prosaic version of Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s invective against the State: Folly! To think that the State and society constitute the sharing of common and agreed values and interests. Madness! To fail to see that the State exists solely with the purpose of keeping its “citizens” from devouring one another like beasts! The State is not Society: the State is Police, and that’s that!

So here is the central cultural contradiction of capitalism: that so long as capitalist society and its citizenry are enriching themselves, they are prepared to defend it. But once what we call “economic growth” begins to wane, few are prepared to defend the society of capital. One of the enduring ideological myths of capitalism – a myth that becomes reality once its propagation of greed spreads to the entire “citizenry” – is that every social formation will eventually and “naturally” follow in the path of capitalist accumulation – the path of secularism and “rationalism”. That is why capitalist societies are naively and perversely incapable of dealing with social formations whose real fabric is composed of religious or military beliefs. We are referring, of course, to Islam and to Chinese and Russian nationalist militarism. For the sake of preserving our own “Western” civilization, it is high time that we looked beyond “economic interests” in the Middle East and in Eurasia and started to confront the true Evil that is threatening our very existence – and capitalism with it.

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