Monday, August 13, 2012

A Dark Knight for Entitled Times

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Handicapping presidential elections becomes, every four years, an American pastime. So, I’d like to offer an early prediction. Mitt Romney will defeat Barack Obama in November—not despite his neoliberal extremism which promises an apartheid America, but because of it. I say this given the stunning success of the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which opened July 20th. Not even two weeks old, it has already crossed the $300 million mark.

The Dark Knight Rises is a strange denouement to an otherwise fascinating triptych. The story takes place eight years after Batman has taken the rap for a crime he did not commit, the murder of Gotham’s crusading district attorney, Harvey Dent. Dent had been mounting an effective campaign against crime and corruption, with Batman’s extralegal assistance, of course, until he had to pay a severe personal price for his service. He then turned to crime himself, which Batman and (future police Commissioner) Gordon covered-up by implicating the man in the black cape. In the aftermath of Batman’s foul deed, Gotham is reborn, thanks to the awesome powers contained in the (posthumously named) Dent Act, a law and order bonanza granting near-limitless discretion to the city. Unlike Harvey Dent, Batman is willing to impose and endure sacrifices for Gotham’s greater good. He will play whatever role the city needs. And what it needs, to rally and unify itself, is a scapegoat. A tragic bind informs The Dark Knight, as Batman saves the city by also doing great harm to it, including himself, the latter leading to a life on the run. The new Gotham will be built on a lie and the ruins of a life.

The life also belongs to Bruce Wayne, billionaire, philanthropist, playboy. Stripped of cape and crusading, Wayne retires to his castle a feudal baron and recluse. When Gotham is once again jeopardized, however, Batman sounds the alarm and resurrects himself. He will do whatever is necessary to save Gotham, which, it is clear, he considers his personal domain.

Initially, Batman is no match for his new enemy, Bane. Broken and beaten, Batman suffers external rendition, which cannot stand. As Gotham moves closer to annihilation, Batman finds affective and physical reserves on which he can draw for the rematch. Since Batman is a comic book figure, I suppose it’s fitting that his ability to heal himself takes ludicrous form: he overcomes a serious spinal injury through a primitive kind of traction and lots of sit-ups. It might be tempting to invoke patriotism as the balm that heals, but the film’s conclusion makes it clear that Batman had no intention of making the ultimate sacrifice for Gotham, though he’s happy to let the people think so. He’s living the good life in Italy with his new love. When the legend threatens to become fact, build a statue to the legend. The only people who don’t know about Batman’s legerdemain, of course, are the people themselves. The film makes a mockery of patriotism, which it reduces to pablum served up to gullible citizens who need to believe in something or someone greater than themselves, which means they need, in this case, childish fictions.

The Dark Knight Rises shows contempt for regular people. Batman’s enemies plan to slowly destroy Gotham, with, of all things, the people’s help. They play the class warfare card and the people run amok, throwing the rich out of house and home and onto the streets in terror. Once they have tasted the spoils of war, they act like pigs and despoil their own booty. You can’t let just anyone into the world of the rich and famous, can you now? They won’t know what to do with it. The life of the one percent is for, well, the one percent.

Despite a nuclear threat, moreover, the people stay in their homes cowed. No one takes to the streets in the name of the civic. This is ultimately Batman’s war to win or lose—because it is his city. If The Dark Knight Rises makes a mockery of patriotism, infantilizing it, it also makes a mockery of democracy, demonizing it. This should come as no surprise. When a gang of virtue-obsessed vigilantes first proposed destroying a corrupt Gotham in Batman Begins so that it could rise from its own ashes, Batman, in its defense, pleaded for more time to do the job himself—if with a fewer casualties. Even so, every time Batman swings into action, accompanied by pulsating, deafening music, you can’t help but thrill to the violence about to be inflicted on his enemies. Given the fascist sensibility in play, you should be rooting for mutually assured destruction of Batman and Bane, but the film reaches a part of you that identifies with excessive force and yearns for its unrelenting expression against state-designated enemies.

Bruce Wayne—perhaps aided by secret Swiss or offshore accounts—finally abandons Gotham for Europe and a life of ease. Yet with his menacing statue left behind, Batman continues to rule—in absentia. He no longer needs to be present to govern the city. If a false hero such as Harvey Dent can inspire a new regime, imagine what a true hero can do with a little granite. And now that the people understand they cannot be trusted with power or wealth (they abuse one and squander the other), they know their place. Should they forget, Bruce Wayne can return whenever he desires. His economic empire may have been formally destroyed, but he has the connections to rebuild it. The one percent always has options, as Bill Connolly’s recent post nicely demonstrated. In the meantime, Batman has anointed his nominal successor, Robin, to the seat of extralegal power. But what Batman gives he can also take away.  It’s his city and the people live in it according to his rules. The social and economic elite can be trusted to rule the world, largely to their benefit, it goes without saying, and we are to live gratefully in it, especially since these elite cultivate and indulge an aspiration that one day we might actually join them. The Dark Knight would quickly come out of retirement should that remote possibility ever become an actual threat to the order of things. Still, in the United States alone the film is on its way to the half billion dollar mark in ticket sales—by the people. Start practicing now: President Romney, guardian of the regime.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Real Entitlement Crisis

William E. Connolly
   Johns Hopkins University

According to the Republican Party, Wall Street, “Morning Joe”, Fox News and every neoliberal financial analyst we live in an Entitlement Society. And it is carrying us into crisis. All the entitlements they want to reform or eliminate are provided by the state. Medicare and Social Security are the biggest villains, with Medicaid hot on their heels. So the critique of the entitlement society goes hand in hand with the demand by neoliberals to divest more and more activities from the state so that the market can handle them in its way. The neoliberal claim, in contrast to both the Keynesian liberals and radical democrats they oppose, is that the more activities folded into the “impersonal” market the more rational the world will be and the less taxes the state will gulp down. You can thus have both tax reduction and deficit reduction according to this fantasy. This story is all too familiar.
But why is the fantasy so persistently pressed even amidst abundant evidence that it is not true? Well, part of the reason is a theme that lurks just below the surface of neoliberal rhetoric. The more that the state safety net is handed over to the private sector the larger the number of constituencies who will be totally dependent on the market; they will be locked into a logic of opposing taxes, identifying with entrepreneurs and corporate elites, resisting market regulation, demonizing the poor, and defunding state activities that cannot be defined as military, crime control, or subsidies for “job creators”. Many moderates and Independents are also tempted by this story, as they struggle to make ends meet and wish they could locate an automatic way to resolve our ills without intervening in a gridlocked political process. Neoliberalism both satisfies market ideologues and plays to many people trying to get through the day without adding close involvement in the political dynamic to their heavy agenda of responsibilities.
The most obvious thing to note about the above “entitlements”, of course, is that each generation pays into these funds and each promises to support the next in turn through its payments. They are funded through a cross-generational social contract that builds trust across the generations. They are not welfare, though Medicaid is an exception.  Neoliberals do not like such programs in part because they want all social trust to be funneled into market processes rather than into cross generational links between citizens.  They also don’t like the fact that these programs work well, setting dangerous counter examples to their chant that the “cumbersome” state can never be successful and efficient. 
Given that background let’s look more deeply into why the word “entitlement” applied to the poor and middle classes is so appealing to the neoliberal Right. Why choose that word as the title of choice? Let’s peel this onion to uncover its rhetorical power.
   Well, on the first layer there is the idea that too many people have come to feel entitled to benefits which they have not earned within the market place. The implication is that even if people pay into these programs they still have not earned a return on their investment by cashing quarterly dividend checks and profiting from the low tax on investment returns.  The mythic idea is that the corporate rich take risks to earn profits while others merely siphon off the largesse of the state. Very few remember to add that the rich can often pass their losses down the line to save themselves, or that the state is formally accountable to the electorate while the market is accountable only to itself.
The word “entitlement”, however, does much more than merely quarantine those who earn their income from jobs and pay into public programs from those who profit from market processes.  It also conceals under the rubric of this shaky private/public split how one constituency works both sides of it to become the most entitled constituency of all.  I refer here, of course, to the rich and the superrich. They demand and receive special entitlements in the shape of a news media that coddles them, huge subsidies from the state for their enterprises, undue deference by those who seek jobs or philanthropy from them, an amazingly low estate tax, tax laws that allow them to pay a lower percentage of their incomes than their employees, and special access to public officials to ensure that their activities are not closely regulated in the public interest. Indeed, as Paul Krugman details in a recent NYT column entitled “Egos and Immortality” this class feels entitled to curtail any criticism of its position, resources and excessiveness. They dismiss it as “class envy” when such charges are brought from any quarter. They confuse envy with indignation. Wall streeters, he says, “are spoiled brats with immense power and wealth at their disposal.” And they are using that wealth to “buy immunity from criticism.”  Let’s say, they feel entitled to put us at risk and to squash our attempts to hold them accountable for doing so. 
We do face an entitlement crisis, then. But it is not the one identified by Fox News and the Neoliberal Right. It is the one concealed by the nomenclature and attacks by the Right. What’s more, as the recent economic meltdown in 2008 demonstrated, these entitlements are not only unjust, they are extremely dangerous. A class entitlement to escape regulation while putting at risk a whole society, and indeed world, is nothing to sneeze at.  And as we have seen most recently, even if a world wide depression is avoided after such a meltdown, its costs and sacrifices gradually trickle down the social ladder until they, too, reach those at the middle and bottom layers of society. So, the rich and the superrich feel entitled to monopolize the largesse when growth occurs and to pass down the costs of their adventurism when the bottom falls out.  That is a hell of a lot of entitlement. That is precisely why so many are so eager to publicize the false version of “the entitlement society” today, within state legislatures controlled by the Republican Party, through Superpacs allowed by the gang of five neoliberals on the Supreme Court, and on the 24 hour News Media.  Reduce the deficit, they chant, by curtailing programs supporting the middle and poor classes. Quietly accept the double-trickle down process. But don’t you dare touch the entitlements of the rich that put everyone else at risk.
The real entitlement crisis also puts democracy at risk, as Steven Johnston has shown in a recent post on TCC. It would take action on numerous fronts to expose, shame and tame the real entitlement class. Media exposes, blog assaults, public protests, electoral victories, teach-ins, new Supreme Court appointees to replace those now governed by neoliberal ideology—all these and more would be needed. The goal would be to galvanize the young and minorities of numerous sorts to take back this culture from the entitlement class.
The stakes are high.   Many leaders of the entitlement class believe that we are ordained to drink this socially toxic cocktail to protect their largesse, subsidies, social risk taking, privileges and expectations of deference. And too many outside the elite who aspire to the same entitlements identify too strongly with them. Some right wing Christians, for instance, celebrate such entitlements, now acting as if God himself has invested economic markets with divine dispensation. And many in the business elite actively support state lotteries, partly to create new business opportunities and also perhaps to build up false hope among the down and out who cannot get good jobs or pay accountants to minimize their taxes. It is worth noting that evangelists who once opposed gambling as much as they did sex out of marriage have more or less dropped their concern about the first activity. 
When the next meltdown occurs many identifying with the entitlement class will be tempted to impose a neofascist response upon those who protest against its irrational leadership and largesse. For, you see, those who are most intensely and totally committed to such actual or aspirational entitlements are apt to go to any lengths to preserve and protect them. You already see signs of this intensity in laws to disenfranchise poor voters, in the eagerness with which pseudo-doubts about Obama’s American birth and Christian faith are embraced, in the way Romney’s base welcomes the bald lies fueling his campaign, in the secrecy by which the corporate right funds Superpacs to weaken unions and support voter suppression,  in the ugly primary campaigns by Bachmann, Gingrich, and Santorum, in the racially fueled intensity of the gun lobby, and in the disconnect between the Supreme Court’s protection of corporate hegemony in the name of freedom and its treatment of regular citizens suspected of crime or its tolerance of voter disenfranchisement.  This is not a Supreme Court that “strictly” interprets the Constitution. It is one that folds a neoliberal, corporate ideology into its interpretation of key statements in the Constitution. 
Where will President Romney, if and when elected, turn as such right wing drives intensify? I recall that a lot of people said during the 2000 election that George W. Bush was a moderate, compassionate Republican.  Don’t worry too much if he is elected, they said. And, besides, a Democratic defeat will force the party to become more progressive. They were correct that the democratic Left needed to become much more active in the micropolitics of churches, schools, families, unions, localities, protests, consumption choices, and cross-state citizen movements. But two horrible, unfunded wars later it turned out that they could not have been more mistaken about the wisdom of handing an election over to the right wing. 
Now we hear that Romney, too, is a moderate playing to an extremist base to win an election. Or, sometimes we hear that he is a hollow, flip flopper who is not too dangerous for that very reason. I believe the latter is true, but this truth makes him an extremely dangerous man. Hollow men, if you scratch them, turn out to be loaded with existential resentment. They resent their own hollowness, and they seek others upon whom to vent that resentment. The young Romney at Cranbrook Boarding School could, for instance, recruit a gang to hold down a teen age boy and cut off his blonde locks, just because that boy’s distinctiveness assaulted Romney’s fragile sense of normality. Don’t believe his bullshit story that nobody in his generation was alert to the issue of sexuality.  I am older and more honest than Romney, and I grew up in southern Michigan too. I once even voted for his daddy for Governor because he opposed the Vietnam War before Democratic officials were prepared to do so. The issue of sexuality was a regular topic of nervous, ill-informed and defensive conversation in locker rooms. And yet nobody I knew took the sort of action Mitt Romney adopted. 
When the going gets tough for them powerful, hollow men revert to repression.  And this hollow man already has “a base” urging him on, one that could soon control both houses of Congress. If you seek to understand the psychology of a President Romney watch The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci. That hollow man first joined the fascists in Italy to protect the fragility of his identity and then attacked the fascists as traitors as soon as the Allied victory over Mussolini was complete. He was not merely a flip-flop artist. He was a hollow man.
The real entitlement crisis threatens democracy and economic stability together.