A spoiler warning before I get to the heart of the discussion: This blog entry is being posted the Monday after the release of The Dark Knight Rises. The blog post deals with material presented in the film, plot elements, as well as some dialogue, so consider this a warning. While I am not going to go out of my way to spoil parts of the plot intentionally, some revelations about the film is inevitable. So, if you still have not seen the movie, you probably do not want to read this discussion.
The Batman trilogy has concluded. The trilogy satisfied both my preference for solid comic book films as well as engaging some interesting academic topics through film; some of the material in the series is ready-made for the classroom. The previous movies have delved into topics including economics, politics, and game theory and the conclusion to the series is not an exception. When I wrote about the Dark Knight, I focused on the game theoretic outcomes of the ferry situation produced by the Joker. Other bloggers noted that scene as well as a few others that contained game theoretic elements; there is some debate about whether or not the characters within the movies behaved how we would expect them to in the real world or if their cost-benefit calculus was altered due to the presence of under-explored elements such as living in a world that contains both the Joker and Batman. For this movie, I was struck by how the film seemed to be recreating a modern day Paris Commune in Gotham. Given that I have not seen any other mentions of this parallel thus far, I figured it was appropriate for me to illuminate the historical precedent for the Dark Knight Rises‘ Gotham City.
The story as we know it from the film. Bane, the main villain for the Dark Knight Rises gains possession of a nuclear weapon and provides an ultimatum to the United States as well as the citizens of Gotham: no one can leave or enter the city and if anyone does either of these things, the bomb will detonate and destroy Gotham. This effectively adopts a strategy of disproportionate response; given that Bane does not have too many bargaining chips, he does not want to allow the existing government any inroads that could ultimately thwart his plan. After trapping the vast majority of Gotham’s police beneath the city, he functionally separates Gotham from the rest of the country’s political and economic structures and returns the rule of Gotham “to the people.” This turning over of Gotham to the people is a mix of mob mentality combined with disproportionate control of force in the hands of criminals in the city. Jonathan Crane (the villain known as the Scarecrow from previous films) establishes a court to try the remaining elite within the city.
To clarify, before going further, Bane’s liberation of the people from the economic and political shackles of daily life is a false promise to the citizens of the city. Bane tells the protagonist, Batman, that he is merely giving Gotham some hope before destroying the city, and, after 5 months, the device will detonate automatically due to nuclear core’s instability. This torture of false hope is the same punishment he plans to inflict upon Batman. As such, Bane’s attempt at local control and advocacy for anarchism is merely a ruse, a faux-anarchism. However, the 5-month time frame where he enacts his social and political project is still of interest. Consequently, the rest of this discussion is taking his advocacy at face value. Also, as a side note, I will be describing Bane’s public advocacy as either anarchism or as libertarian-socialism, a decentralized, workers’ or peoples’ control over the economic and political institutions. This type of anarchism, one with limited, local government should not be confused with the abolition of all hierarchy or an advocacy of pure political chaos; the latter of which is best exemplified by the Joker in the previous film. Instead, the intent in these philosophies is to disestablish the nation-state and return to local governance by local actors in non-authoritarian manners.
The historical analogue to this fictional drama is the Paris commune. The Paris commune was a 2-month project in 1871. France, embroiled and losing the Franco-Prussian war started in 1870, lost control over the capital to its citizens. Radical, pro-democratic insurgents grew in numbers and threatened the existing regime. The political and civil elite evacuated the capital, including the police, with hopes of retaking the city later. The commune held hostages initially and attempted to use them as bargaining chips with the existing government as well as adopted several policies to help the common people of the city. The increasing disparity between the rich and the poor gave way to several reforms such as (directly taken from the Wikipedia article):
- the separation of church and state;
- the remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which, payment had been suspended);
- the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries;
- the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service;
- the free return, by the city pawnshops, of all workmen’s tools and household items valued up to 20 francs, pledged during the siege; the Commune was concerned that skilled workers had been forced to pawn their tools during the war;
- the postponement of commercial debt obligations, and the abolition of interest on the debts; and
- the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner; the Commune, nonetheless, recognized the previous owner’s right to compensation.
In essence, Bane’s criminal take over of Gotham is not too ideologically distant from Paris in 1871. The gap between the rich and the poor in both cities had become noticeably problematic for those on the wrong side of the distribution. Bane, nominally, attempted to put “the people” in charge and used force to redistribute wealth. The trials of the rich and their subsequent execution (through exile by the order of Crane), is more like the French Revolution than the Paris Commune, but other aspects of the revolutions are similar. As mentioned, the police are not present in either city and traditional political institutions are not present within Gotham or Paris. The nation-state has every interest in retaking the city and putting an end to the city’s secession.
There are differences as well. Bane’s separation was much more violent than those in Paris. The majority of the violence resulting in death from the Paris commune comes from the government’s reacquisition of the capitol (between 20,000 and 50,000 people died when the state reasserted its authority over Paris). Peter Kropotkin, writing in 1880, describes the creation of the Paris commune as relatively benign; “the government evaporated like a pond of stagnant water in a spring breeze, and on the nineteenth the great city of Paris found herself free from the impurity which had defiled her, with the loss of scarcely a drop of her children’s blood.” However, while the Paris commune served as a positive example for anarchists and communists alike (with some critique by Marx and Engels), not all observers saw the rebels as freedom fighters, but as criminal thugs who had taken control over the city. Bane’s liberation of Gotham was quite bloody as was the reacquisition of Gotham by the state. Additionally, Gotham city lasted longer as an experiment, doubling the lifespan of the Paris commune. This may have been purely for the plot device of allow Bruce Wayne’s spine to heal in a more believable time frame (though that is not an overly compelling recovery time for a spinal injury). Finally, the commune of Paris had a more functioning decision-making body that was intended to offer long-term democratic decision-making, while there does not appear to be much of a functioning governmental body in Gotham.
So, the question is whether Gotham is an accurate representation of what would have to happen for a major city in the US to be allowed to be a Paris commune. The result of Gotham was not something to be modeled, unlike the vision adopted by leftists from Paris. Bane’s rhetoric was hollow, but did contain the components of redistribution usually attributed to leftist movements. While Batman is fighting to save his city from destruction, it is not hard to see the juxtaposition between the espoused radical politics of Bane (and Catwoman) versus what Bruce Wayne epitomizes as a member of Gotham’s elite. The conclusion of the film results in Bane being thwarted, Gotham re-annexed by the nation-state, and the voluntary redistribution of Wayne’s assets to the people outside the coercive politics of the villains.
A separate message is that a commune enacted through evil criminals is not a desirable commune—perhaps a too obvious lesson. Given that Bane has no long-term incentive in institution building, he does not appear to do much of it at all. He acts as a warlord and not really a leader of the people. As opposed to a libertarian-socialist commune, he creates a anarcho-totalitarian commune.
Of course, this anti-leftist message in the movie is the opposite of what has been proposed recently due to Bane having a name similar to Bain Capital.