Without a Massive Wealth Gap, There is no Rise of Joker
After being kicked around by youth, losing his job, losing his healthcare and access to the medication that helped treat his mental illness, and now, being bullied by three wealthy suit-wearing men on the subway, Arthur Fleck snapped. Fleck, wearing full clown-make up, pulled out his gun, pointed it at the three men attacking him, and shot them. One of the three, having had survived his bullets, tried to run away; Fleck chased him down and shot him in cold blood on the subway stairs. The newspapers reported these deaths as the acts of a man angry and jealous of their wealthy status. Gotham’s wealthy elite lambasted the clown as a madman. Much of the city, however, glorified the murderous clown and championed him as a “man of the people.” Why?
Economic inequality was driving the city apart. The city had divided along these two lines: the super-wealthy and everyone else — bourgeoisie and proletariat. When Fleck, aka the Joker, shot these men, he inadvertently released a tension that had been building up in Gotham for some time. He became a working-class hero, despite having no intention to, by murdering members of what the public perceived to be “the elite” bourgeoisie. Further, Gotham was allowed to become this unequal because elites co-opted the city’s government and rigged things in their favor while at the same time cut programs and services intended to help the poor.
It was these conditions of inequality that allowed the Joker to rise. It was the public’s disgruntlement at Gotham’s leadership and lopsided capitalism that laid down the framework for disarray. That is, Gotham, by the end of this film, was being torn apart due to class warfare that the government failed to prevent. It was capitalism’s natural tendency to divide its citizens into these opposing classes — to generate widening inequalities — that created the tension which eventually burst open and elevated Joker as the leader of their cause. In reality, the Joker wanted nothing more than to achieve significance — after having lived the life of an invisible and mentally ill man — through nihilist destruction which the disgruntled proletariat confused for a class conscious rebellion.
As people like Andrew Yang have pointed out, capitalism has a tendency for this sort of class warfare. It has been evident throughout US history and is always in danger of resurfacing. It’s the government’s role, by rolling out safety nets like Universal Basic Income and regulating markets, to prevent this from happening. And, the division between economy and politics is, in reality, non-existent; they don’t exist in separate realms. In fact, the economy and the government are inseparable. The government sets the rules. And, depending on who controls the government, it can rig the rules in favor of the elite, or try and keep the game “fair” so that all can have an opportunity to gain in the market. Most importantly, the government has the role of keeping capitalist society from destroying itself due to class warfare.
This is, in a nutshell, a Marxist critique of capitalism: that it produces massive inequality and that massive inequality is destabilizing for society. But, are we doomed to follow down the same path that Gotham went down? Is there any way to prevent chaos and class warfare that broke out at the end of the film? Is capitalism necessarily bad and to be replaced?
Karl Marx was critical of capitalism because he believed it to be founded on the exploitation of one “class” of people by another — as was the case in Gotham. For this reason, many believe that Marx was anti-capitalism —but that’s not true. In fact, Marx was kind of a fan of capitalism. He believed that, due to capitalism’s hyper-productive nature, true “socialism” can only properly exist after capitalism has helped develop the “means of production.”
“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” — Karl Marx
That is, “capitalism” is more productive than other economic modes because it forces the owners of the tools for production, known as the “bourgeoisie,” to compete against each other on price, and sometimes quality, by driving down costs and looking for more efficient ways to produce. Marx argued that without these efficient methods for production, created by capitalists, socialism cannot exist.
Therefore, from this perspective, to be a Marxist requires you to acknowledge that capitalism is not all bad. In theory, to further capitalist production is to further society down a path towards a potential “Marxist socialism.” But, if capitalism has the capacity to provide for many in a more efficient way, why would anyone choose to rebel against it in favor of socialism? For example, why would the average factory worker — who relies on the existence of the factory for her own survival — rebel against that factory?
In Gotham, citizens were already at the point where they were rebelling against that metaphorical factory. Yet, it wasn’t that automation had taken away their jobs that caused the uproar. It was the feeling of being screwed over by the elite. It was the presence of inequality that led to their disenchantment. Further, it was that hyper-rich people, like Thomas Wayne, were allowed to exist by a system rigged in their favor which caused them to feel such resentment and anger.
But, what if someday that factory ceases to need her as an employee? What if her labor is replaced by advanced machinery and AI and she loses her way of generating an income? What happens next? Marx argued that it is when capitalism reaches its “inevitable” destructive end, in which human labor has been replaced by advanced machinery and the working class rises up in revolution, that socialists can pick up the pieces and form a new kind of society in which economic classes no longer exist — “the end of history.”
Capitalism will, as have other “modes of production,” end someday. Marx argued that it’s doomed to destroy itself due, in part, to an internal contradiction and built-in conflict that is always trying to bubble to the surface. It was this built-in class conflict that we saw in Gotham right as Joker was rising to infamy. How exactly?
First, Capitalism condenses society into two opposing classes: Those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and those who sell their labor and time to them (the proletariat). These two opposing classes have different interests due to their different positions within the capitalist “mode of production.” They’re in a constant power struggle with one another; each attempting to further their own interests at the expense of the other.
The owners of capital have to compete against other owners in order to stay in business and remain members of the “bourgeoisie.” Eventually, the cost of doing business knocks many out of the competition. In other words, as the means of production become more advanced, they also become more expensive; not all business owners can keep up with the costs required to stay in business and compete. Therefore, business owners have an interest in breaking the competitive nature of markets (e.g. by forming cartels and merging with one another) as well as preventing members of the working class from being able start their own business to compete (e.g. by pushing for government regulation which makes the cost of entry into a market too high). They also have an interest in lowering their costs by eliminating the need to hire and replace workers with machinery and automation.
On the other side of the dichotomy, the working class seeks to make it easier to break into the middle and upper classes. For this, they gain leverage from things that help push up their wages — like raising state-mandated minimum wages, public access to education, and unionization. They also benefit from expanding worker rights which are generally more costly to employers. In essence, workers seek to use tactics that benefit them at the expense of employers and their business costs. Paradoxically, this can actually serve to benefit the largest firms — those who have the capital to keep up with worker demands — and pushes smaller firms out of business. In other words, capitalism over time “naturally” produces uncompetitive markets, inequality, and conflict.
Therefore, capitalism left to its own devices is self-destructive. As Friedrich Engels (Karl Marx’s closest friend, co-author, and supporter) concluded, class warfare, which pulls and tugs in the direction of opposing class interests, has the power to rip the fundamental fabric of capitalist society. The government must interfere, and regulate, in order to rescue capitalist society from itself. Later Marxists, such as Karl Polanyi, have made similar observations.
“But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in sterile struggle, a power seemingly standing from above society became necessary for the purpose of moderating the conflict, of keeping it within the bounds of “order”; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it, and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.” — Friedrich Engels, The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State.
That is, without a government to play “referee” for markets, society goes down in flames due to constant class struggle. Without the government to make sure the lower classes don’t become too resentful and hating of the elite, chaos and disarray ensue. And so, capitalism is good only when it’s well-regulated by the government standing above it and having some autonomy from the rest of society. But, things don’t always work out the way they “should.”
The government doesn’t always succeed in regulating capitalism for fair play and maintenance of competitive markets; capital has a way of overriding government in its favor. Again, this is exactly what we saw in Gotham city. Wealthy elites, like Thomas Wayne, controlled the wealth which allowed them to gain control over the government. This is also, according to many Marxists, an inevitable feature of capitalist society. Because capitalists have an interest in maintaining the status quo in their favor they will tend to use their power to influence to infiltrate government and affect legislation.
There are those like Fred Block who argue that capitalists gain power over governments during the “good times.” During these economic good times, governments want to please business owners and their employees by deregulating and pushing for policies that promote further economic growth (for example, pushing for the federal reserve to lower rates). However, the government regains the power to regulate during economic downturns — when citizens demand that politicians mitigate the damage caused by inevitable recessions. It’s the act of deregulation which causes capitalism to implode upon itself and regulation which helps it become stable once again. The cycle repeats.
Along the same vein, there are those like Richard D. Wolff who argue that no matter what you do to regulate the economy, capitalists will always chip away at regulation and revert to unregulated “self-destructive,” capitalism. He argues that there’s no point in attempting to regulate capitalists due to the fact that they will always use their influence to deregulate in their favor. Further, he argues that capitalism’s time has come to an end; we are due for a new economic system in which employees own the firms, not just the “elite.” Both Block and Wolff agree that capitalism is fundamentally “flawed” in the sense that it inevitably crashes due to greed and short-sightedness by capitalists. I tend to agree with a bit of both of these perspectives, but I also believe that we shouldn’t give up on capitalism …not yet.
Why not yet? Because, as previously stated, capitalism is demonstrably productive. The industrial revolution, arguably, pushed humanity out of its Malthusian trap and allowed for life to outnumber the pace of death. That is, it helped feed and sustain a growing population by revolutionizing the process of food production. Capitalism has helped produce more medicine and better healthcare, less death, more efficient methods of transportation, better ways to communicate with people all over the world, more nutritious food, and an overall (relatively) better quality of material life. In fact, I would go as far as to say that we owe almost all of modern civilized life, and all of the excesses that come along with it, in part, to capitalism. Marx and Engles said this in a…less than politically correct way.
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation.” — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
But, the word “yet” implies that someday there will come a time to leave capitalism behind. Marx predicts — a prediction that I agree with — that one-day capitalism will cease to be able to provide for the vast majority of people. But, it doesn’t happen because of evil Marxists throwing wrenches in the machines; it happens because of capitalism’s own tendency to innovate upon the means of production to the point where man no longer has a place within the process of production. It happens when artificial intelligence, automation, and technology replace a majority of all the jobs traditionally carried out by human beings. At this point, reached because of capitalism’s own mechanisms, the working class will be left without a way to provide for themselves and their families. At the same time, wealth will be concentrated into the hands of a select few. Will this also be a time of class wars and revolutions which will bring about a new type of economic structure? Only time will tell.
And so, without capitalism’s natural tendency to produce inequality that becomes worse over time, there would be no joker. Without a government that stopped caring about its people and served only the interests of the elite, the people wouldn't have rallied around a masked murder and made him the symbol for their revolution. Yet, capitalism is not irredeemable. Despite its flaws, it’s the best mankind has been able to produce hitherto. It has pulled millions out of poverty, saved many from starvation, produced many medicines which save even more lives, and improved our quality of living beyond anything our ancestors could’ve ever imagined. Yet, I know that someday the time will come for a transition into a new kind of society — one which can continue to make use of capitalism’s advanced means of production and distribute its fruits to the vast majority of people eventually replaced by advanced machinery, AI, and automation.
Someday, perhaps, the furthering of capitalism will bring about a new phase in history — one in which working people no longer have to sell their time, labor, and freedom in exchange for money. In this phase, people would be free to pursue their passions and their intuitions without the need to turn themselves into commodities to be bought and sold on a market. And, this new phase, perhaps, wouldn’t put our environment and planet at risk by creating unnecessary waste, pollution, a need for exponential economic growth, and catastrophic climate change as a result.
Until then, capitalism is what we have.