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“The Dark Knight” as an Unnecessary Sovereign Essay

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Updated: Jun 23rd, 2022

Soon after the infamous terrorist attacks of 9/11, issues of national security became dominant in political discourse – and popular culture was, as always, quick to grasp the major problem of the time. However, the problem was much older than international terrorism – already in the 17th century English philosopher and political theorist, Thomas Hobbes was preoccupied with the questions of liberty, security, and balance between the two. The policies of President Bush in the War on Terror were reminiscent of Hobbes’s principles since he sought an expansion of his authority to act foregoing rules for the sake of greater security. The protagonist of The Dark Knight 2008 movie acts in a similar manner, styling himself as an unaccountable sovereign willing to go as far as necessary to provide security for the people. Yet The Dark Knight puts a spin on this dilemma and suggests that trading liberty for security is unnecessary in a society of rational and accountable individuals. Thus, popular culture suggests that American political culture allows for maintaining a reasonable balance of security and liberty, meaning that the people do not need the all-powerful, unaccountable sovereign as an integral part of their life.

Thomas Hobbes is known as one of the first proponents of the social contract theory – and the one whose views on the nature of humanity and government were rather pessimistic. According to Hobbes, there is a large number of people and limited resources, so “if any two men desire the same thing, which, nevertheless, they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies.” Therefore, this “natural state” of humanity, where everyone has the right to everything, becomes a war of everyone against everyone. Since even the weakest people can – by wits, diligence, or simple luck – overcome the strongest, no one, no matter how endowed, can ever feel safe. To ensure minimal safety, people can submit their right to everything through the mutual contract and create a higher power – the sovereign.

The sovereign is the key figure of Hobbes’s political philosophy – an embodiment of government, whose only purpose is to prevent people from slipping back into the “natural state.” In accomplishing this task, the sovereign has absolute power – he is not restricted by anyone or anything. When people create the sovereign, they make an agreement with each other, not with him, so he is not on the side of the contract and cannot breach it. Therefore, “none of his subjects, by any pretense or forfeiture, can be freed of his Subjection,” and the sovereign’s will cannot be denied (Hobbes). It is not hard to notice that Hobbes’s political theory is consistently authoritarian – after all, it is based on at least one attribute of authoritarianism, namely, the “vilification of the human” (Perrin 177). The idea of strong authoritarian power that efficiently acts without regard to common rules and provides security by doing so becomes increasingly interesting in crisis situations, as in the USA after the 9/11 attacks.

There are several features that allow analyzing President Bush via analogy with Hobbes’s sovereign. First of all, he acts in an environment where free execution of violence threatens to destroy social order, as the world where terrorists can capture planes and use them as guided missiles ominously resembles Hobbes’s “natural state.” Secondly, he acts to prevent society from slipping into this “natural state,” and, in doing so, he strives to rise above the rules and act as if he does not abide by them. For example, Bush’s administration sanctioned the use of torture and coercion “despite legal prohibitions both at the domestic and international level” (Ip 2017). Thus, the tendency to bend the rules or outright violate them is quite evident in Bush’s proclaimed crusade against international terrorism.

This tendency to rise above the rules was displayed on a wider international level as well. In 2003, the USA invaded Iraq, a sovereign state and a UN member, without any sanction from the organization. As it turned out later, the pretext of the country supposedly having weapons of mass destruction proved fairly dubious as well. Some authors state that this decision “confirmed the long-evident exhaustion of the United Nations Charter as a source of authoritative normative guidance on the use of force” (Farer 621). In other words, the actions taken by President Bush showed that current principles of international law could be safely ignored by someone acting in the name of security. Therefore, one may assume that, in several aspects, President Bush can be regarded as a Hobbesian sovereign who exercises his power regardless of the common rules to provide security for his people.

It is useful to analyze The Dark Knight as a piece of popular culture in this historical and political context, especially since it largely uses the same ideas and raises the same problems. The main difference is that, by virtue of using fictional characters in a darker setting, the movie takes this analogy much further. It was already noted that many stories about the Caped Crusader “call to mind the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes” (Patterson 42), and this is definitely the case with the movie in question. Batman’s antagonist, the Joker, who “threatens and inflicts violence and mayhem upon a civilian population in furtherance of his anarchic ideological purpose” (Ip 213), can serve as an archetypical illustration of the “natural state.” As a threat, he is just as alien and frightening to Gotham’s society as fanatic terrorists willing to ram buildings with planes are to the American public.

Batman, with his crusade against social chaos and complete disregard for rules, has strong Hobbesian connotations as well. His use of interrogation technics is anything but humane: he can easily break a gang mobster’s ankles or brutally beat the Joker in order to get the information he seeks. He also acts without any regard for international law: when money-launderer Lau escapes to Hong Kong, the law enforcement is powerless, since China would not extradite him, as the Joker sarcastically observes, Batman “has no jurisdiction” (Nolan). John Ip is right to mention that the Dark Knight’s kidnapping of Lau is not performed with the purpose of torture or similar mistreatment (215-216). Yet it does not change the fact that Batman completely ignores legal procedures as far as the Knight of Gotham is concerned, the rules do not apply to him. Just like Hobbes’s sovereign, Batman is independent of the people he protects – they may praise him or demand him to cease his activities, but, in the end, it is not up to them to decide.

In this context, it is all the more important that the American response to the 9/11 crisis demonstrates no significant rise in authoritarian spirit. It demonstrates that Hobbes’s pessimism, which regards authoritarian government as the only way to provide security, is not universally shared in American political culture. Terrorist attacks gave rise to authoritarian sentiments, but this development was accompanied by a similar rise in anti-authoritarian opinions, even though the latter rose “less dramatically” (Perrin 187). More than that, 12.3% of the letters to the editor, which Andrew Perrin used as his sources, “contained at least one element of pro-authoritarianism and one element of anti-authoritarianism” (180). Both pro- and anti-authoritarian sentiments rise simultaneously and on a similar scale, demonstrating that American political culture has no propensity for either of these when considering questions of security. Americans are acutely aware of the perils of the “natural state,” but, despite what Hobbes would like them to think, they do not see authoritarian government as the only reasonable way to provide security.

The same issue is explored in “The Dark Knight” through the Joker’s social experiment near the end of the movie. The villain plants bombs on two ferries and threatens to blow them both at midnight, but passengers on each ferry have the detonator for the other one, and if they decide to use it, they will be spared. If one defines political culture as the “particular pattern of orientations to political action,” this episode seems irrelevant to the issue because the choice that passengers make is not political (Chilton 419). However, the Joker’s actions are, basically, a Hobbesian experiment: he places people in a situation where they compete for the same thing (staying alive) and provides them with equal opportunities to destroy each other. Thus, it illustrates the major premise of Hobbes’s political philosophy – the “natural state” – and, therefore, is closely linked to political problems.

If people on the ferries would act as Hobbes thought was natural, they would rush to blow each other as quickly as possible and secure their own survival. However, passengers “act against their self-interest” (Ip 221), and no one is able to destroy the other ferry. It is interesting that “Batman is at that point locked in combat with the Joker” (Ip 221) and unable to influence the situation – but even without him, people make the morally right choice. By using this turn of events, the movie suggests that the authoritarian Batman who acts as if he were above the rules might not be essential to maintaining social order in Gotham.

In terms of political theory, the people of Gotham on the two ferries demonstrate ab approach that is Lockean rather than Hobbesian. John Locke, another prominent proponent of the social contract theory, argued that people were naturally reasonable and did not need the unaccountable sovereign to keep them in line. One of Locke’s central premises is that “nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy,” meaning that people should treat each other with respect and care (Locke 12). He also vigorously opposes the idea of an all-powerful sovereign. According to Locke, all humans are equal unless “God, the lord and master of them all, were to declare clearly and explicitly his wish that someone person be raised above the others” (3). From his perspective, when people maintain social order, they do so not because they fear a harsh punishment from the even-watchful sovereign who is above them all. Locke argues that people are benevolent by their very nature and will support the social order on their own with no need for coercion – much as the Gothamites do even without Batman’s direct influence.

In this light, one can certainly interpret The Dark Knight as a popular culture comment on the dilemma of liberty and security in the contest of the post 9/11 USA. From this perspective, Batman’s “resignation” at the end of the movie also looks different. Batman stops his activities not simply because he is hunted for a murder he did not commit. Rather, he does so because the people of Gotham proved able to resist the perils of the “natural state” even without a vigilant sovereign like himself. It is this fact that makes him realize he is “not the hero Gotham needs right now” (Nolan). While Batman – and President Bush – seem to operate on Hobbesian premises, Gothamites – as well as real-life Americans – are reasonable and benevolent enough to maintain social order on their own without descending to chaos.

As one can see, The Dark Knight, as a product of this time, is a popular culture comment on the dilemma of liberty and security in the historical context of the American response to the 9/11 attacks. Both President Bush and Batman try to act as Hobbesian sovereigns – wielder of unrestricted power who uses it to provide security through an authoritative government barely bound by rules. However, evidence shows that, after 9/11, the American population demonstrated a similar rise in both authoritarian and anti-authoritarian tendencies. Similarly, the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight successfully resisted the perils of the “natural state” even when Batman is not around, showing themselves in no need of an absolute sovereign. The Dark Knight suggests that American political culture, both in real life and in its artistic representations, is based not around security at any cost but around a precarious balance between security and liberty.

Works Cited:

Chilton, Stephen. “Defining Political Culture.” The Western Political Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 3, 1988, pp. 419-445.

Farer, Tom J. “The Prospect for International Law and Order in the Wake of Iraq.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 97, no. 3, 2003, pp. 621-628.

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Project Gutenberg, Web.

Locke, John. “Second Treatise of Government.” Early Modern Texts, Web.

Nolan, Christopher, director. The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008.

Ip, John. “The Dark Knight’s War on Terrorism.” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, vol. 9, no. 1, 2011, pp. 209-229.

Patterson, Brett Chandler. “No Man’s Land: Social Order in Gotham City and New Orleans.” Batman and Philosophy, edited by Mark D. White and Robert Arp, John Wiley and Sons, 2008, pp. 41-54.

Perrin, Andrew J. “National Threat and Political Culture: Authoritarianism, Antiauthoritarianism, and the September 11 Attacks.” Political Psychology, vol. 26, no. 2, Special Issue: Authoritarianism, 2005, pp. 167-194.

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