Comics and Revolutions

A recent Cracked article deals with various attempts to push political and philosophical messages via the medium of comic books. Comics, I mean. The article’s a mixed bag. It criticises a Superman story in which the Man of Steel[1] tackles an environmental crisis at a chemical plant: in response to appeals from the workers to let them keep the plant open to preserve local jobs, he consents – but warns them that they must clean up and cut the pollution, and that he’d be back to ensure they were doing so.

Article writer Henrik Magnusson presents this as Superman putting the economy over the environment, and implies that the weird omnipotent god-man is happy for the pollution to continue as long as jobs are saved. This doesn’t appear to be the case.

This image was in the Cracked article.

Then we’re on to Marvel’s attempt at whatever it was they were trying to do when they had three of their big bad guys moping round Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks and crying about The Humanity. What on Earth possesses comic writers to touch something like this, I have no idea.

No, of course I realise why: they were trying to show solidarity by presenting 9/11 as something that went beyond the normal divisions of society, such that even those traditionally thought of as opponents of society were, for that moment, sympathetic. Those few days of utter global unity that arose after 9/11 – when even America’s traditional rivals were expressing shock and horror at what had been done – was a shining example of the worst bringing out the best of humanity. It’s a crying shame the opportunity was wasted.

The problem is that comics are, figuratively speaking, painted in glaring primary colours. They can’t do nuance or subtlety (I exclude Neil Gaiman’s work from this – he being about the only person usually found on comic-book shelves whose work I’d accept as ‘graphic novels’). It might have been better if the creators of the strip in question had simply put in a page of text saying how they felt, than risk looking as though they were making 9/11 about their characters. Finally (at least, the last bit I’m going to mention here), the article addresses the story of ‘Anarky’, a Batman villain who keeps assaulting people while spouting socialist catchphrases about injustice and inequality. And he turns out to be a twelve-year-old, whom Batman drops in prison (as always, without any legal oversight, procedural constraints or due process). But Batman says several times that he agrees with the boy’s ideas and that, in a way, but for their methods, they’re basically kindred spirits.

Wait, hang on. Batman is a guy who takes it upon himself to act as judge and jury (if not executioner); he regularly commits acts of violence against people he judges to be criminals and detains them without rights, charge, or trial – and he disagrees with Anarky’s methods? The same basic methods he uses himself? And, as the article points out, when Bruce Wayne, Batman’s bazillionaire alter-ego, sympathises with Anarky’s belief that low-rent housing should be provided for the homeless, an obvious question arises about why Wayne isn’t providing it.

I’m a socialist of sorts, so I do find it hard to oppose Anarky’s basic position: society exists as a way for people to act collectively for mutual protection. That’s the whole point. Socialism is, at its heart, the belief that society should be structured in a way that those in a strong position will use their strengths to support those in a weak position. Those that are weak now can still contribute; and if their fortunes change and they find themselves stronger, then they can contribute more. If the once-strong fall on hard times and become weak, they will be supported. I find nothing objectionable about these ideas at all. If society isn’t working that way, then it’s faulty and needs to be fixed.

But the question is how to fix it. The problem for me is where socialism gets wrapped up with ideas about anarchism, revolution, and the destruction of society for the greater good. These notions (generally espoused by anyone who wants to be seen wearing a Guy Fawkes mask) represent a simple-minded solution. Anarchy as a goal concept fails on moral and practical grounds. Morally, anarchy (literally “without leader”) is inadequate because it represents the most absolute return to animalistic principles: it is the Law of the Jungle embodied. There will be no constraints on the exploitation of the weak by the strong. The strong will have no compulsion or encouragement to act in support of the weak.

Anarchists object to the above description, and call it simplistic in itself. They say that anarchy isn’t about having no structure in society. It’s about doing away with governments, political parties and nation-states in favour of free association and free agreement between citizens (what they’re citizens of we’ll put aside for now) But even accepting this distinction, this utopian ideal brings us to anarchy’s practical failing: it’s inherently unstable.

Take away government and the rule of law and, for a time, there will be chaos. Many will die. And anarchists may either deny that, or they may accept it as ‘collateral damage’, or in extreme cases they may assert that those who die are weak and deserve no better. But this state of affairs will not continue for long before people begin to band together for mutual protection. Five people working in concert can protect themselves against individuals or smaller groups. And the groups will grow bigger and bigger; strong personalities will emerge to lead the groups, and the result will be a multitude of tribes. These will ally, and merge, and the leaders will establish themselves as monarchs. Tribes will become states will become nations. Nations will demand a say in their own governance, and monarchs will be overthrown, or retained in systems of constitutional monarchy. In other words, society stripped of all rule and the intrinsic oppression of leadership will free-association itself right back into it. It’ll take time, sure, but it’ll happen as surely as the tide comes in.

And revolution? Aside the Thirteen Colonies, whose revolution led to the creation of the United States of America by revolting against a geographically remote governing power and then changing virtually nothing else, when has history ever seen a revolution that’s worked? France? Hardly. Although they’re now a proud, prosperous and pretty stable nation, that’s what happened once they recovered from the effects of their revolution. The direct results of it were pretty damn unpleasant.

Russia? Oh, sure: the Soviet utopia where everyone would be equal, товарищ. Or, to put it another way, the oligarchic quasi-dictatorship where the Party loyal enjoyed benefits far out of the reach of the starving masses. Russia’s still feeling the effects today. China? A nascent superpower, without a doubt – but one that’s truly thriving only now that it’s beginning to get over the effects of its revolution.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t dream of a better world, or even work towards one. I’m saying we should be realistic in how we hope to achieve it. The idea of overthrowing the established order in one glorious day and replacing it with an enlightened, peaceful and universally just society is a ridiculous pipedream. No, seriously; I mean it. No, however good your intentions – if you’re dreaming of revolution, then you’re not helping. Have you heard the word ‘slacktivism’? It’s a coinage that describes what we do when we forward outraged campaigns on Facebook demanding an end to some injustice or another, and encourage our friends to ‘like’ the post to show they agree… and then, generally speaking, we forget about the said injustice. We’ve done our bit by passing on the message. Slacktivism: talking and looking like an activist without actually having to really do anything. And if you’re talking up revolution, that’s what you’re doing. If you’re actually engaging in revolution, then you’re whole extra barrels of wrong. People are going to suffer, and die, because of your dreams of a greater good – and in the end, you’ll have a society that will either snap back to what it was when you started, albeit with a different leader in the top spot; or you’ll have a new order that’ll last only for as long as you apply the force required to keep it the shape you want it.

Not achieving much – but damn, they feel good about themselves.

If you want to change your society then you have to change not only the leadership, but the morass of interwoven influences and vested interests that made it what it is in the first place. That takes engagement. Opposition, yes – but still engagement with the system; even if you hate it.  You may need to use force to change society’s direction – but use a lever, not a hammer (unless you’re Thor, in which case, swing away).

Oh, and if you’re producing comics, probably best to stick to zap, pow and kablooie.

—–
[1] – It’s a rule. Unwritten, but a rule all the same. You have to call him Superman the first time, and then The Man of Steel the second time. If you’re of a comics bent, you can also use ‘Supes’. It’s like the Pope. News articles have to call him ‘The Pope’ the first time, and ‘The Pontiff’ the second time, and sometimes maybe ‘His Holiness’ (depending on the political stance of the publication, of course).

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