What #TDKR gets right: totalitarianism

There seems to be a fair amount of discussion of The Dark Night Rises’ politics. Since I’m going to be discussing the movie assuming readers have seen it, this post will be below the fold.

Some people have been saying that #TDKR has a “right-wing” message, but it seems to me that the only political message it makes is that Bolshevik totalitarianism is, um, bad.

I fervently, fervently hope that this is a belief also shared by the vast majority of the Left.

Ross writes that the movie makes the small-c conservative point that even a corrupt order is preferable to anarchy, but again, while I guess it’s fair to call that “small-c conservative”, I believe (and hope) that the vast majority of the Democratic Party and left-wing blogosphere also adheres to this.

What happens in #TDKR is so extreme that it defies contemporary political classes. Can you argue that #TDKR, say, shows that redistribution leads to mass deprivation? Well, sure, only if by redistribution you mean Soviet-style redistribution.

If you want to look at the politics of #TDKR, you have to look beyond the classic left/right divisions. #TDKR’s political content is first and foremost an examination of totalitarianism. And in this regard it gets it very, very right. (Which is also why it was a very frustrating movie.)

For a quick review, I enjoyed #TDKR but ultimately came away unsatisfied. To my mind, the movie had serious drawbacks:

  • Weak female leads (Anne Hathaway was a serviceable Catwoman but by no means outstanding, and Marion Cotillard is everywhere and always unbearable);
  • Underwhelming action considering the budget and expectations (some might argue that “expectations” are too high a standard, but that’s how I came into the movie and I embrace my subjectivity in that regard). The standout action sequence was the opener, not because it had whizbang pyrotechnics (it didn’t) but because it was perfectly set-up, choreographed and edited. If your standout action sequence is your opener, and doesn’t include the movie’s hero/title character, you’re doing it wrong;
  • The utterly boring, overdrawn prison sequence. (Did anyone doubt how it would progress and end? Then why spend an hour on Bruce’s time in the belly of the whale? (Was it less than an hour? Didn’t feel that way.))

But the biggest drawback of the film to my mind by far, what made it so frustrating, was that it sets up this outstandingly, extremely interesting idea, and ultimately does very little with it: I’m talking, of course, of the Paris Commune on the Hudson. (Really, the Paris Commune is the obvious historical parallel: a totalitarian experiment limited temporally to a few months and geographically to an alpha world city.)

#TDKR sets up this totalitarian regime and, against all hope, actually gets totalitarianism fundamentally right, when the conventional wisdom gets it wrong.

What it gets right is that totalitarianism is anarchy, not order. (And the corollary: totalitarianism is not the state, it is the anti-state; totalitarianism is not ideology, it is anti-ideology.)

The common idea of totalitarianism is that you give up your freedoms, but at least the trains run on time. (Did you know that during the War, they used condiments as fuel? Yes, Mussolini made the trains run on thyme.)

But, of course, this is false advertising: not only do you give up your freedoms, but the trains run worse. The new regime doesn’t just not get the criminals off the streets, it gives the criminals the run of the town. And so on.

That’s the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. In Singapore there are many liberties you don’t have, but if you “play by the rules” you will be safe. Under Hitler, Stalin or Mao, literally nobody is safe. Whether you are a Party bigwig, a member of the Resistance or “just trying to get by”, your odds of the gulag over time are the same, and that is ~1.

That’s the profound perversion of totalitarianism. You pervert yourself, you avert your eyes from the horror, you denounce the Jews (or enemies of the people or whatever) next door, thinking you’re buying your security, but you’re not even buying that. It’s what Niemoller’s famous poem got to: totalitarianism is a self-eating monster. Even when you get rid of the Jews, you need other Jews, increasingly vaguely defined, to fuel the furnace, ad infinitum, implacably.

(The historiography of Stalin’s inner circle is fascinating and revealing in this regard. If you consolidated power, Stalin would purge you as a potential rival, but if you did not consolidate power, Stalin would purge you anyway because you were weak.)

This is also what 1984 got: the CW is that totalitarianism is ideology, but totalitarianism is actually anti-ideology, because the ideology changes daily. Thus Communism is explicitly anti-nationalist, but the war against Nazi Germany is the Great Patriotic War. (As Vladimir Volkoff once wrote, this is why Pravda (Truth, and in Russian “Truth as Justice”) was so aptly-named: Pravda did not print lies, it printed a truth that changed with every issue. In the totalitarian world, the Pravda is truth, axiomatically. Hate is love. War is peace.) Thus you buy another day’s reprieve by applauding the current Party line, but the Party line inevitably changes the next day, making you an Enemy of the People who yesterday supported sedition. The regime does not just condemn you and others, it makes you condemn others and yourself. Literally everyone is a criminal.

Thus, to circle back to #TDKR, the best scene in this regard is the sentencing of Bane’s henchman in the “court of the people.” The henchman doesn’t understand: hasn’t he faithfully served the regime? Hasn’t he been useful? But of course, none of that matters. The beast must feed, and it feeds on its own just as well as on others. That’s how totalitarianism works.

And the “court of the people” is very totalitarian, because it drapes itself in the accoutrements of the state’s power, but is actually powerless. The “judge”, high on his pedestal, makes no choices, and Bane, down “among the people” actually calls the shots. Nothing is what it seems, everything is a lie.

This is a great symbol of why totalitarianism is not a regime of the omnipotent state, but of the destruction of the state. When the Nazis took over Germany, they only took over the levers of the state for a transitional period, what they did was actually replace the levers of the state with those of the Party, keeping the state as a hollowed shell. In Communist regimes this is even more obvious given that the end of the state is explicitly part of Marxist ideology. China today is not a totalitarian regime anymore, but still cities have “Mayors” who are powerless figureheads, with the real power resting in the local Party chief, because that’s how Communist regimes are set up: the fa├žade of the state and the reality of Party power.

(Another thing the #TDKR show trial gets very cunningly right: the henchman gets to choose between “exile or death”, but of course “exile” also means death. This is totalitarianism distilled: no choice is actually a choice, and they all lead to death.)

So #TDKR groks totalitarianism. Bane is explicit about it in his opening speech in the football stadium: to him, there is no difference between his new regime and anarchy. It’s totalitarianism gone full circle: from ideology as a fig-leaf for anarchy to anarchy as ideology. And yet, while this is true in a deep sense, it’s still a lie, of course: Bane likes anarchy just fine, but only as long as he’s the Supreme Leader. And that, too, is a lie, since it’s revealed at the end that even the Supreme Leader is just another disposable henchman. Totalitarianism’s endgame is total destruction, and that includes everyone. And even its truths are lies.

This is why the symbolism of the Bomb stalking around the City is perfect: if you rebel, they will detonate the bomb—but the bomb will detonate anyway. There is no escape, there is no safety; under totalitarianism you are condemned. The regime cannot just do with individual murder; mass murder, and ultimately total destruction, is required.

Now, is this a “right-wing” message or a “left-wing” message? Well, certainly the righties don’t like anarchy, but the lesson of totalitarianism is that while the state can be a tool of oppression, it is also a bulwark against totalitarianism. Totalitarianism emerges when the state is too weakened to guarantee order (or, indeed, its own continuation), not when it is strong. And I should hope that in today’s world, neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on anti-totalitarianism.

But, again, given how deeply #TDKR gets totalitarianism, it’s very frustrating that its portrayal of the Manhattan Commune was so superficial.

There are other things we are shown, for example the mass deprivation and the anarchy with the street urchins fighting over an apple. That was a great little moment; where were the 10 others like that?

The subplot of the compromission of Commissioner Gordon’s colleague who in the end redeems himself leaves much to be desired. It’s a bit all too neat. (Oh and why does he still have a house? Hasn’t private property been abolished?)

A completely unexplored storyline is religious oppression. After all, any totalitarian regime must and does quickly subvert or destroy religion, not just because it is along with the state a center of power, but because the regime brooks no moral/metaphysical/eschatological rival. The last martyr Bishop of Paris fell under the Commune’s bullets… (Am I wrong or did Robin call the head of the orphanage that makes up a subplot of the movie “Father”? If so, what a missed opportunity!) Particularly in America, any totalitarian regime would have to “deal with” religion in some way, through subversion, oppression or most likely a mix of both. Silent commentary on contemporary Manhattan’s godlessness? Fear of seeming un-PC/“even more right-wing”? Lack of time? (But again, why spend so much time in the boring prison pit…) Or, maybe Bane started out destroying America’s religion of the Stock Exchange, the Star-Spangled Banner and Football, but if that’s the message it’s delivered exceedingly subtly…

The other dead obvious thing about totalitarianism in an American context that the movie leaves completely untouched is the Second Amendment. Shouldn’t Bane’s troops go block to block confiscating private guns? Or, if Bane wants to have anarchy, wouldn’t he leave them be (“If you attack my henchmen, we’ll detonate the bomb, but other than that, have at it”), which would lead to some people defending themselves, but regular folks becoming warlords of their blocks? (This would be a more left-wing spin on the guns thing if you’re afraid addressing the guns thing is too right-wing.) Silent commentary on big cities’ anti-gun campaigns? But we know that for all of Bloomberg’s efforts, there are still plenty of legal guns left in Manhattan. But again, this obvious thing that’s got tons of storytelling potential is left completely unexplored.

To me, that was the weakest and saddest thing about the movie: it sets up this extremely interesting and enticing premise, and shows such an understanding of it, but ultimately taps very little of its potential. #TDKR could have been the greatest exploration of totalitarianism in film since Brazil, and the smartest action movie I can remember. But, frustratingly, infuriatingly, it stops both very close and well short of that.

(Also the action scenes were underwhelming and I did not see NEARLY enough of Anne Hathaway’s catsuited curves.)