The ultra-right turn in the Batman franchise

‘Which of the two methods of cure for the social crisis shall be applied at present?’ This is the question Leon Trotsky places on the lips of the bourgeoisie as he imagined them contemplating the multiple crises looming over Germany in the 1930s. Would social democracy and the class it represents yield concessions to the masses in an attempt to stave off more radical demands of revolution? Or would it resort to the more brutal ‘surgical intervention’ of fascism to stop the agonising paroxysms wracking its body, mangled by economic depression and mass protest?

These themes are taken up again not ‘as farce’, but as epic pop entertainment in Christopher Nolan’s latest instalment of the Dark Knight trilogy: The Dark Knight Rises. As Mark Fisher points out, the film contains a definite rightward bias:

The sustaining fantasy of Nolan’s Batman films […] is that the excesses of finance capital can be curbed by a combination of philanthropy, off-the-books violence and symbolism. The Dark Knight at least exposed the duplicity and violence necessary to preserve the fictions in which conservatives want us to believe.

By anyone’s account, Nolan is certainly no Leon Trotsky. Fisher’s attribution of a ‘right-turn’ in the franchise under Nolan is correct but mischaracterised. There has always been a sense in which Batman represents a deeply conservative morality. Far from the view that criminal behaviour is produced and conditioned by poverty or social degradation, in the Batman films criminal lifestyles have always been freely chosen. Where they haven’t, they are the product of madness. Indeed, even the characters that are portrayed as mentally deranged are depicted as responsible for their actions and deserving of the justice meted out to them by Bruce Wayne, a mega-wealthy corporate superstar-turned-vigilante.

No other character more embodies this contradiction between personal responsibility and mental incapacity than the Joker. In the second film of Nolan’s trilogy, the numerous, conflicting explanations he gives for his macabre scars make him an everyman of the criminal world; he is Legion. The traumas the Joker invents to explain his troubled mental disposition all contribute to the suspicion that his madness is a performance. Paradoxically, this performance serves only to make his criminal behaviour an essential part of who he is. It’s an excuse for criminal behaviour, not its cause. In this respect, Nolan’s treatment of the films hasn’t shifted to the right; it has simply re-confirmed the reactionary attitude that was always there: madness is evil by another name, and evil cannot go unpunished.

Although there is nothing particularly new in Nolan’s depiction of criminality and madness, the political right-turn is certainly present in this latest film, but in a far more pronounced fashion than Fisher describes.

Gotham City is a trickle-down economist’s fairytale. The well being of the city rests in the hands of wealthy oligarchs, like the Wayne family. The novelty of Nolan’s final instalment is that he brings Gotham’s paternalistic capitalist economy into crisis. As Ann Hathaway’s character, a nod to Cat Woman and the voice of petit bourgeois sensibility in the film, says, ‘there’s a storm coming’.

The storm arrives in the figure of Bane, an ex-convict armed with a nuclear bomb secretly rigged to explode in six months and an arsenal of revolutionary rhetoric. The bomb handily transforms the Marxist ultimatum of ‘socialism or barbarism’ into its opposite. Unless normal (capitalist) relations are re-established, Gotham and the surrounding area will literally be destroyed. As such, the film acts as both a hysterical metaphor for the consequences of any victory for the Left and the dangers of left-wing rhetoric (I wonder if the term “debt time bomb” has any relevance here). Evil clothes itself in socialism and madness, it seems.

In many respects Gotham’s fictive bourgeoisie face a similar choice to the one faced by the German big bourgeoisie in the 30s. Trotsky writes: ‘For the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and fascist regimes represent only different vehicles of dominion; it has recourse to one or the other, depending upon the historical conditions’ (What Next? Vital questions for the German Proletariat). The millionaire philanthropist, Bruce Wayne, and his alter ego, Batman, aptly represent the dual tools of parliamentary, reformist concession and fascist violence available to big capital in the face of Kyle’s ‘coming storm’. However, Bane has already taken to the barricades and begun to expropriate the wealth of the rich. The only strategy left to the bourgeoisie is the “big stick” of fascism.

Enter Batman, literally a Black Shirt for the 21st century. Originally hunted and disparaged by the state for his vigilante justice, his ultra-violence and Nietzschean morality are the only thing capable of freeing Gotham’s state power, the police, from the collapsed sewers in which they’re trapped. What better metaphor for fascist brutality in the face of social-democratic, reformist impotence? As if to ram the metaphor home, in the earlier stages of the film as the economic crisis gathers pace, Bruce Wayne – the social conscience of capital – is literally unable to walk without a cane, whereas his fascistic alter ego, Batman, is conveniently able to overcome this disability with technologically advanced leg supports. Wayne and Batman are the fictive embodiments of big capital’s dual strategy.

In a determined swim upstream against the narrative of history, the end of the film turns Batman into a fascist martyr. Similarly, when the police finally face off against Bane’s revolutionary militia, it is the police who ‘take back’ their streets and it’s with them that Nolan has us side.

It’s in this respect that the portrayal of Gotham’s population is most interesting. They are conspicuously not present in the latter half of the film. Or rather, everyone seen on the cinema screen is a policeman or one of Bane’s goons. The aggrandising of fascist violence can only be achieved by an erasure of the people to which Bane claims to have given Gotham City. There is one moment in the film in which it looks as though “normal” people might be doing the looting (a wealthy man is dragged from under some furniture to face an uncertain fate as his house is ransacked), but they are depicted as feral, overcome by a deranged greed. The masses are either invisible, gun-toting disciples of Bane, or wild and mentally unstable members of a mob. The idea that Bane’s revolutionary message might attract a genuine following isn’t explored.

Of course to do so would be an abandonment of Batman’s basic mythology: people do bad things because… they’re bad people. This mythology insists on a denial that Bane could ever garner any support for his decreed revolutionary beliefs, and yet this is precisely what he must possess to engage in an armed conflict with Gotham’s finest. This is the film’s central contradiction. It’s in this respect that it isn’t an apology for fascist violence. The Batman mythology guarantees that within the world of the Dark Knight no such violence against any ordinary, working class person with a legitimate grievance against the system can exist. It is, however, an aggrandising of fascism’s role in political crisis; an attempt to put fascist political forces “on our side” by (ironically) removing the Gotham population, with whom we might find some identity, from the narrative.

Never mind the belief that philanthropy can ‘curb the excesses of finance capital’. The film’s ultra-right turn consists in a celebration of finance capital’s uniformed enforcer. This is the logical terminus of the Dark Knight mythology.

Folk, fascism and “progressive” patriotism

Given the general absence of postings from this blog over the last several months, there are one thousand potential topics to write about – the student movement, the economy, the pension strike, the demonstration of half a million people in London against the government’s so-called “austerity” measures, the war in Libya, the Arab Spring etc. You’d be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that the relationship of folk music to fascism was a weird choice of topic for a new posting. However, I’ve been quite involved in most of the things listed above and have come to the conclusion that saying anything new or valuable about them would require writing something much longer than a usual posting would allow. I simply don’t have the time to be involved in these struggles and write about them in any serious way at the same time.

The explanation for not focussing on something more cutting-edge aside, I’m writing this blog in response to a debate about folk music and “British culture” which was prompted by the British National Party’s attempt to co-opt the genre as a propaganda tool. The debate has itself led to the creation of an anti-fascist group of folkies called Folk Against Fascism (FAF). The group describes itself as ‘neither left-of-centre nor right-of-centre. It is simply a coalition of people who care passionately about British folk culture and don’t want to see it turned into something it’s not: a marketing tool for extremist politics’. Whereas FAF is more concerned with rejecting and condemning the BNP than advancing a coherent political position (which I think is a perfectly legitimate campaigning strategy), other anti-fascist interventions in the debate have gestured towards or explicitly grounded their arguments in an appeal to a so-called “progressive” kind of patriotism.

On the level of folk music, this position has been implied in comments by Eliza Carthy (along with others), who writes: ‘I have been lucky enough to perform all over the world and I have held my head up among the most stunning, proud people because I know who I am and where I come from. My country has its ugliness. But I feel part of the positive side of us [my emphasis]’. More generally, it’s been an approach adopted by the likes of Billy Bragg in his book, ‘The Progressive Patriot’ and it has a contiguous relationship with phenomena on the Left like Blue Labour, who argue for an ideological return in the Labour movement to “faith, flag and family” (although it should be noted Bragg criticises Blue Labour by – erroneously – equating its economic philosophy with New Labour). In short, the “progressive patriotism” intervention in the folk music debate can be more broadly framed in relation to wider debates on the Left over the progressive value of patriotism.

The fact that the outcry against the use of folk music as a fascist propaganda tool is seemingly dominated by this patriotic perspective is frustrating (although I should say that I agree wholeheartedly with other elements of Carthy’s Guardian article). The position is politically wrongheaded because it unwittingly buys into a chauvinistic ideology – that there is something intrinsically valuable in an aesthetics grounded in nationalist sympathies, which there isn’t. This perspective is damaging when the nation state in question has been responsible for the imperialist plunder and enslavement of more than half the world. Moreover, it’s intellectually problematic because – in some versions – it assumes that there is such a thing as a homogenous, hermetically sealed British culture and that the history and values that distinguish that culture from other cultures are in some sense uniquely British.

One might make the case that patriotism needn’t constitute an apology for the crimes of British imperialism – that progressive patriotism should instead constitute a celebration of the struggles of ordinary British working people throughout history (John Mullen comes close to doing so here). However, in sidestepping the one trap it’s easy to fall neatly into the other. The driving force of those struggles was not the fact that the workers involved were British, but that they were oppressed. The Chartists, for example, weren’t driven to political action by their Britishness, but by their desire to see working class people given social and political rights. “Progressive” patriotism arbitrarily cordons off the struggles and achievements of workers in Britain from those of the rest of the world. Although I’m in no doubt that the intentions of those who advocate this position are honourable, ultimately this arbitrary cordoning-off tacitly accepts the chauvinistic framing of the Right.

In the specific sphere of folk music, “progressive” patriotism translates into the view that the music should be valued because it documents a very British experience – as expressing a British identity and corresponding culture. The principle argument between adherents to “progressive” patriotism and the fascists is over what the essence of this British experience is – progressive political struggle or white, protestant pastoral. Either narrative ultimately suggests an essentialised tradition in which outside cultural interference is “Other”.

Of course, in actual fact the folk tradition (as in any tradition) is anything but a homogenous, essential essence. It’s a vulgarised Leftism that sees cultural practices as the mirror image of a specific social movement because the cultural field is itself an arena of political struggle. Whilst certainly more honourable, attaching folk music to a tradition of British working class struggle is as futile as attaching it to a fascist mythology of untainted racial purity. Whilst emphasising the (brilliant!) songs of resistance sung by the likes of Roy Bailey, it ignores, for example, the racist song selection of the influential (petit-bourgeois) folk song collector Cecil Sharp.

My own enthusiasm for folk music doesn’t come from an attempt to reconstruct or “revive” a shared British political history. Instead it comes from viewing folk music as an accessible, living art form which is constantly in a state of flux. Accordingly, influences in contemporary folk music are multicultural, ranging from old English tunes, to the blues and jazz. Its institutions – folk clubs, sing-arounds and song writing circles – are all arenas in which the songs of the canon are incrementally changed, new songs added and different musical forms integrated not by record company executives, but by ordinary people irrespective of national boundaries. It’s DIY pop music.

This is not to say that the contemporary folk music scene is an entirely democratic space free from the ideological constraints of the general social situation. Of course, “folk music” is as much a mainstream phenomenon as it is an alternative music scene. However, its institutions allow for a shared artistic agency in a way that other musical genres and their associated cultures do not. The scope of this agency – what can and cannot be included as a creative influence in the interpretation of a particular song – isn’t arbitrarily delimited by the geographical boundaries of a nation state, nor should it be.

It’s not just that Griffin and the BNP are wrong about the historical character of folk music and the collective experience it supposedly expresses – they undoubtedly are. It’s that their underlying understanding of culture is deeply flawed. There is no essential British culture to which we can return, or revive. Cultural processes are forever shaped and changed by political, social and economic processes. Folk music is valuable not because it expresses a particular national pride, but because in some small degree it allows people to wrest control from traditional power-brokers and play a role in shaping the artistic culture around them. It’s this inclusive, democratic impetus that the British National Party and fascists everywhere stand against.

“We Are Bradford” demonstrates winning tactics for the anti-fascist movement

The We are Bradford event, supported by Unite Against Fascism, has clearly demonstrated the tactics required to defeat the English Defence League. We are Bradford staged a one day 1500-2000 strong rally and celebration of multiculturalism in Bradford city centre at the same time as approximately 800 thugs gathered, chanting racist slogans, for their EDL “protest”. The We are Bradford rally took place roughly half a mile from the EDL enclosure and passed peacefully. The rally heard speakers from all sections of the community voice their opposition to the racist politics of the EDL. It gave a clear, unambiguous message that racism of any kind, including Islamophobia, should not be tolerated, and that Bradford’s Muslim community should not be afraid to enter their city centre.

In order to combat the racist politics of the EDL, we have to understand their ascendancy as a street movement and its relationship to wider political forces. The rise of the EDL is certainly linked to the electoral success and breakthrough of the British National Party in the European elections. Under Nick Griffin, the BNP has changed its strategy. Eschewing the jack-booted violence used by organisations like the National Front, it now seeks legitimacy through electoral means. This has necessitated a re-orientation of its fascist political agenda to emphasise more publicly acceptable forms of racism – Islamophobia. A fact acknowledged in leaked BNP memos.

Mainstream political attacks on the Muslim community in the name of the so-called “War on Terror” have lent legitimacy to the racist position of the BNP. This explains the electoral rise of fascism over a period of relative economic prosperity. The gains of fascism in this time also dismantle the economistic arguments of both the ultra-left and the right, who say that the BNP have grown as result of working class disillusionment with the Labour Party. This flawed explanation fails to account for the Islamophobic character of a vote for the BNP. YouGov found that 79% of those polled who voted for the BNP saw Islam in any form as the greatest threat to western civilisation. If disillusionment with the Labour Party alone is the source of supposed working class support for fascism, why is there no similar exodus to the Left? “Legitimate” mainstream racism, with its roots in wars abroad, is the cornerstone of BNP electoral success.

Following their election to the European Parliament, the BNP’s new found legitimacy, and the public visibility this engendered, rallied those on the far-right who were willing to engage in more violent, extra-parliamentary activities – the EDL. Far from being a separate strategy, this complements the BNP’s electoral politics. It’s no accident that EDL organisers have links with the BNP and other European nationalist groups. The EDL are the street wing of the broader fascist movement in Britain. As the precedent of Nazi Germany illustrates, fascist politics cannot be successful without an extra-parliamentary movement to intimidate, demoralise and physically attack the groups it scapegoats. Tactically, this division of labour suits the BNP because it allows the disavowal of any relationship with violence and overt forms of “illegitimate” racism on the streets, thus maintaining their “legitimate” parliamentary persona.

Like the BNP, the alleged purpose of the EDL – to campaign against Islamic extremism – is partially legitimised by mainstream politicians. In Holland, the electoral gains of EDL hero, Geert Wilders, the islamophobic leader of the Party for Freedom (unless you’re a Muslim, of course…), is a symptom of the broader political attacks on Muslims in the European mainstream. All of these attacks are committed under the guise of rooting out extremism.

Anyone who’s seen an EDL action knows Islamic extremism is not the intended target. You only have to listen to the racist chants or witness the Nazi salutes of EDL members to see this. Criticism of Islam functions as a smoke-screen for out-and-out racism. While not all members may be hardened racists, the EDL, as an extra-parliamentary wing of fascism, puts those who attend its rallies on a racist political trajectory. The EDL functions as the recruiting ground for future fascist ideologues. After all, it’s absurd to imagine anyone emerging as a paragon of liberal, enlightenment rationalism after attending EDL meetings, even if their only concern beforehand genuinely was with religious extremism.

It’s with all this in mind that the tactics employed in Bradford were correct. If the role of the EDL is to act as the street wing of British fascism, it was crucial to argue for a ban on the march (which both UAF and Hope not Hate did). A march would further serve to intimidate Bradford’s Muslim community and could easily turn into a physical assault. However, the Bradford police refused to entertain a ban on a static demonstration. If the role of the EDL is to promulgate their racism under the auspices of campaigning against “extreme Islam”, some kind of anti-fascist presence on the day is necessary to challenge, expose and marginalise this position. It’s also necessary to say quite explicitly that the Muslim community should not be hounded from the centre of their own city – intimidation of this kind is precisely the aim of the EDL.

In this respect, the critical difference between We are Bradford and HnH was their respective attitudes to an anti-fascist mobilisation on the day. HnH argued that a mobilisation could lead to a repeat of the riots ten years ago – they urged people ‘to leave the EDL and UAF to it’ and, presumably, stay at home. To this writer, this seems like a tacit capitulation to the EDL agenda. In contrast, We are Bradford and UAF correctly and consistently argued for a city-centre presence. Doubtless, there would be people who wanted to confront the EDL. Violence is engendered by disorganisation. Without an organised, positive pole of attraction, there definitely would be a repeat of the riots. We are Bradford’s tactics were vindicated when roughly 200 locals spontaneously confronted the EDL. The We are Bradford rally acted in exactly the way it was intended – as a positive pole of attraction for this group of people.

It was important that the We are Bradford rally was peaceful and didn’t itself confront the EDL. As previous demonstrations have shown, UAF haven’t summoned the requisite number of activists willing, or able, to clash with the EDL, and by extension, the police. This is no failing. Contrary to the views of some, it would require 10s of 1000s of activists to accomplish this – such extraordinarily large numbers of people rarely turn out for any kind of demonstration. If they did, we’d be living in an entirely different political situation! In any case, UAF is itself a disparate “united front” campaign. It does not have the discipline required to engage in any kind of street battle with the police or the EDL. Calls for it to do so, even in the event of a massive mobilisation, are therefore pure fantasy. The anti-fascist movement must use the resources it has, not those it wishes it had.

Given the absence of a mass mobilisation of disciplined activists, the key task for anti-fascists– to which other considerations are subordinate – is to mobilise the broadest possible support for a multicultural rally which explicitly opposes the racist politics of the EDL. The origins of the EDL are in the legitimacy Islamophobia has gained in public political discourse. The breadth of support for the rally therefore determines the extent to which this legitimacy is challenged. In lieu of the huge numbers of disciplined activists required for an actual physical confrontation, the role of the We are Bradford rally was political – to marginalise the EDL and consolidate, in the broadest possible terms, opposition to its racist agenda. The breadth of the platform and the respectable turnout at the rally itself certainly meant it fulfilled this role.

The tactics of We are Bradford are an instructive lesson in how UAF can campaign effectively in the future. Anti-fascist tactics should relate to both a plausible explanation of the twin racist political movements of the EDL and BNP, and a realistic assessment of the resources available to the anti-fascist movement. The We are Bradford rally certainly fulfilled both criteria.