I am attempting to write some stories about antifascist and anarchist superheroes, and this essay is an attempt at focusing my thoughts on the subject. I’m going to be inventing pieces of superhero lore, for a non-existent superhero universe, throughout this essay. We’ll call the universe ‘The City’, because it all takes place in one (let’s say American) city. This is actually an essay on literature, not on anarchism. I’m just writing it from an anarchist perspective, with essentially anarchist experiences motivating me, and quoting extensively from an essay by a famous anarchist — David Graeber’s “Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power”.
Graeber makes his first substantive literary thesis with the following:
The basic plot takes the following form: a bad guy… embarks on a project of world conquest, destruction, theft, extortion, or revenge. The hero is alerted to the danger and figures out what’s happening. After trials and dilemmas, at the last possible minute, the hero foils the villain’s plans. The world is returned to normal until the next episode when the exact same thing happens once again.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here. The heroes… simply react to things; they have no projects of their own… superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination… The villains, in contrast, are relentlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas. Clearly, we are supposed to first, without consciously realizing it, identify with the villains. After all, they’re having all the fun. Then of course we feel guilty for it, reidentify with the hero, and have even more fun watching the Superego pummel the errant Id back into submission.
So, we’ve identified the basic plot structure. Graeber, though, makes it clear for us why that basic plot structure is a big problem for any attempt at writing anarchist superheroes:
Costumed superheroes ultimately battle criminals in the name of the law — even if they themselves often operate outside a strictly legal framework. But in the modern state, the very status of law is a problem. This is because of a basic logical paradox: no system can generate itself… the power once held by kings is now held by an entity that they called “the people.” This created an immediate logical problem, because “the people” are by definition a group of individuals united by the fact that they are, in fact, bound by a certain set of laws. So in what sense can they have created those laws? When this question was first posed in the wake of the British, American, and French revolutions, the answer seemed obvious: through those revolutions themselves. But this created a further problem. Revolutions are acts of law-breaking…
So laws emerge from illegal activity. This creates a fundamental incoherence in the very idea of modern government, which assumes that the state has a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence… It’s legitimate for the police to use violence because they are enforcing the law; the law is legitimate because it’s rooted in the constitution; the constitution is legitimate because it comes from the people; the people created the constitution by acts of illegal violence
So, this plot structure has problems because the superheroes are continually using extra-legal violence to maintain a legal status quo. This is almost entirely the opposite of what you would imagine anarchist superheroes to be doing. In fact, it almost makes you think that the very idea of ‘anarchist superheroes’ is incoherent.
It seems as though one is left with two options — either lean into it, and just make your protagonists supervillians (it has been done before) or play the story as a tragedy: the superheroes genuinely want to fight the state and capitalism. They just never get around to it.
It’s not much helped that the one example of an anarchist with superpowers that I can think of is that Russian lady from Uber. And maybe it’s meaningful that she only decides to be an anarchist in a single panel, in the last couple of issues of the story, and then they don’t show it on screen at all — it just throws up a panel of text at the end of the issue, telling us that she successfully dismantled the soviet state in a matter of weeks.
At least in that case, imagination failed the writers and artists. How does one depict an absence? Perhaps this issue is why there is so little anarchist science fiction.
So, I’ll propose three characters. Three supers.
The first delights in their role as a villain, but is really more of a hero — at least from the perspective of the audience. He’s something like the Joker on a good day — he’ll be an anarcho-nihilist, though we won’t ever have him say those words. He’ll call himself “Mr. Nothing”, though. His full name, of course, is The Creative Nothing.
The second one genuinely wants to be an anarchist. He just lives in a world of fascism, and can only see fascism. Still, he valiantly struggles for freedom and equality. We’ll call him… Captain America. He’s Captain America, as portrayed in the Marvel cinematic universe.
The third exists somewhere off-screen. He’s not a portrayable presence, because there’d be no story. He maintains a permanent autonomous zone, somewhere close, but still too far away. We’ll say he’s somewhere in Latin America. We’ll call him… I dunno. Subcomandante Caesar.
Graeber, though, continues:
The obvious question, then: How does one tell the difference between “the people” and a mere rampaging mob?
…This, as I say, is how these matters are considered by the mainstream. For the radical Left, and the authoritarian Right, the problem of constituent power is very much alive, but each takes a diametrically opposite approach to the fundamental question of violence. The Left, chastened by the disasters of the twentieth century, has largely moved away from its older celebration of revolutionary violence, preferring nonviolent forms of resistance. Those who act in the name of something higher than the law can do so precisely because they don’t act like a rampaging mob. For the Right, on the other hand — and this has been true since the rise of fascism in the twenties — the very idea that there is something special about revolutionary violence, anything that makes it different from mere criminal violence, is so much self-righteous twaddle. Violence is violence.
And here, you see, Graeber has given me a third option (or, if we count ‘nothingness’ as an option, a fourth one) because I belong to a distinctly different generation of American radicalism.
Graeber was there for Occupy. And, of course, Occupy ended with everyone involved being severely beaten and arrested, and ended up spending most of its accumulated donations on housing and feeding their now-homeless activists over the coming winter. In a sense, I think, this brutal suppression of such a beautiful experiment paved the way for a much harder Left in the future.
I suppose, in my opinion, I believe that we must in some sense abolish “the people” — just as we must abolish all other such similar collectivisms, such as the nation.
But I wasn’t there for Occupy. I was in my mid-teens at the time. I was there for antifa. And the antifascist project was both much less ambitious and much more successful. Far-right organizing has been largely obliterated at this point, and far-left organizing energized. The long war isn’t over (it will never end) but we are winning.
So, I have an entirely different perspective on “The People” than Graeber does. In my opinion, we are the people, whenever we decide that we are the people — and whoever we decide isn’t the people isn’t the people. If I believed in the goodness of the state, or hierarchy in general, this would — of course — make me essentially a fascist.
Fascists have always been evil, mirror universe, reversed anarchists. They even evolved out of us! Fascism comes from national syndicalism, which comes from anarcho-syndicalism, which comes from anarchism. Obviously, of course, there were other influences — but certain ideas about naked power remain. Both are honest about power — it’s just that anarchists see that and think ‘and that’s bad’, while fascists see that and think ‘that’s good, actually’.
As such, I’ll propose some things about the setting.
Firstly, it’s one with active communities and social movements. Spiderman, or his equivalent, has a gofundme — he can and does translate that gratitude into cash. Everyone else has a political ideology that they support, or a subculture, or something — and, when these ideologies fight in the streets, the supers are there supporting their fellows. What’s more — when supers go out to fight the sorts of battles that even a-political supers fight, they always find volunteers ready and willing to help them.
The people are not willing to let constituent power be created without them — and the supers are not the sole deliverers of violence. The people matter.
…what do they learn from these endless repeated dramas? …that imagination and rebellion lead to violence; second, that, like imagination and rebellion, violence is a lot of fun; third, that, ultimately, violence must be directed back against any overflow of imagination and rebellion lest everything go askew. These things must be contained!
…It’s in this sense that the logic of the superhero plot is profoundly, deeply conservative. Ultimately, the division between left- and right-wing sensibilities turns on one’s attitude towards the imagination. For the Left, imagination, creativity, by extension production, the power to bring new things and new social arrangements into being, is always to be celebrated. It is the source of all real value in the world. For the Right, it is dangerous; ultimately, evil. The urge to create is also a destructive urge. …This is also what separates conservatives from fascists. Both agree that the imagination unleashed can only lead to violence and destruction. Conservatives wish to defend us against that possibility. Fascists wish to unleash it anyway. They aspire to be, as Hitler imagined himself, great artists painting with the minds, blood, and sinews of humanity.
Well, clearly, this leads to several characters.
One really does represent the right-wing fears of the imagination. We’ll call her Dreamer. When she dreams, her dreams come to life and slouch through the world. Her neighborhood is mostly empty at this point — it’s come to be nicknamed “Dreamland”. The only people who stay there are those attracted by the extremely low property values. Dreamer does stimulants constantly, desperate to stay awake.
The second represents the left-wing love of the imagination. She is another common superhero trope — the superscientist. Tony Stark. Reed Richards. Ozymandias. She makes things. She’s a one-woman third industrial revolution. However, by nature of her genius, she’s also the ‘natural aristocrat’ of the sick fantasies of the neo-reactionaries. As such, though, she’s desperately lonely. Desperately bored. Everyone around her just ends up doing what she says — all her ideas just seem so good. Everyone around her is reduced to an Igor — another mad science trope. Show her building herself some sort of super suit — have it represent her isolation, inside that metal shell. Have her house filled with a room of nothing but computer screens, showing a thousand different newsfeeds. Like that scene in Watchmen, but more chaotic. Like all great geniuses, in her boredom and in her mania, she does stimulants — though in a more controlled manner than Dreamer. We’ll call her… Techne.
Another character should represent the conservative response to imagination. He’s a cop, working the vice unit, trying to cut off the city’s supply of illegal drugs. He should have superpowers, but what those are doesn’t terribly matter. His name also isn’t important. He probably just uses his actual name, like a fucking loser. This dude bores me.
The final character is the fascist response to the imagination. He’s the head of the local neo-nazi party. Calls himself ‘Overman’. His neo-nazi party partially funds itself through selling meth, because neo-nazis. Also, I’ve got a meth thing going at this point. One of his distributors probably sells to Dreamer, and another to Techne. So, I suppose, when/if Techne ever defeated Overman, she’d go into withdrawal.
Now, though, we have largely run out of useful bits of Graeber’s essay — and the work is not yet done.
While Dreamer, Techne, Cop, and Overman form a sort of meth-fueled thematic universe together, they need a bunch of bit players and details about themselves to make things make sense — and, while Mr. Nothing and Captain America can fight each other round and round forever, they are both unconnected to the other four… and need something to end that eternal dance.
Now, I suppose, we must start with the obvious — the distribution chains from Overman to Dreamer, and (separately) to Techne. At the same time, of course, we must talk about what has finally given Mr. Nothing an advantage over Captain America (perhaps the good Subcommandante sent him help?) — and what it is that finally forces Captain America to choose whether he is a rebel, or a coward. And, of course, there can be great moments in the plot when Mr. Nothing finds himself, eventually, forced into something beyond destruction — or when, with Overman defeated, Techne goes into withdrawal. The subversion of the eternal cycle of superheroes can provide ripe fruit for exploring the crushing weight of victory — perhaps, eventually, Mr. Nothing and Techne could only find themselves fighting each other; after all, they are in some ways opposed.
Who knows — for now, though, I’m out of ideas. Please, loyal readers — send me some recommended fiction or essays to inspire me further. I can be reached most easily on twitter, @BlackCatSociet1