[Dark Knight Rises] is an ode to conservatism and the free market: Important charities close down without businesses to support them. A kangaroo court is established to try the wealthy—and any dissidents who don’t like the new regime—for crimes against society. Citizens loot with impunity, and the men and women who don’t stoop to informing on their neighbors simply lock their doors and cower in the dark. At one point, a pair of characters stumble into a penthouse apartment which has been ransacked and turned into a flop house. One of them picks up a broken picture of a family, and notes sadly, “This place used to belong to someone.” Her friend cheerfully replies, “Now it belongs to everyone!”I too came to the same conclusion as Mr. Last, that DKR contained some right-wing moral overtones somewhat subtly inserted into a three-hour paean to action-movie excess. The masked Bane--himself a Nietzschean uebermensch flexing his will to power, in other words, the ultimate expression of liberal/sec humanist morality--gives the mass-man populace what they want, good and hard. While the script was written before the OWS phenomenon of last year, it could have been custom made for it. Want to soak the rich in payback for accruing their wealth on the backs of the 99%? Or maybe confiscate all property and declare it henceforth held in common with everyone else? And wouldn't it be great if those evil police, the footsoldiers of the 1%, weren't around to keep the lid on unbridled human passions? Check, check, and check. Ya want it, ya got it in this movie, and disaster was not far behind.
Yet despite appearances, The Dark Knight Rises is not an attack on the Occupy Wall Street movement (the script predates the Occupy movement by nearly a year). Nolan is out for bigger fish: Reacting to the 2008 financial crisis, he asks, Can liberalism survive its own excesses?
What Nolan is driving at in The Dark Knight Rises are two deep truths. First, that however stable and pacified Gotham appears—and however good the fruits of the liberal order—we must realize that it is still part of the City of Man, imperfectible and subject to our inherent weaknesses. Liberalism is necessary, but not sufficient, for justice and peace. And left to run its course, it can create terrible chains of events. Nolan’s second argument is that the men who arise to command these events (Robespierre, Stalin, Bane) are not to be trusted. This is a deeply conservative reading of human affairs.
It was also interesting to see what may just happen if one were to remove Conservatives from the political equation, as they were in DKR. Even more interesting was to consider just how long it wouldn't take before society utterly collapsed into anarchy, were it not for the determined efforts of right-illiberals to slow-roll the full and rapid realization of liberalism's policies. The Bane character in DKR locked right-illiberals out of the equation, and fast-forwarded liberalism along its leftist totalitarian trajectory. With the modern leftist ethos fully in charge, society quickly collapsed into chaos. So, no, in answer to Mr. Last's rhetorical question, liberalism cannot survive its own excesses, and I contend it is only right-illiberals...the Conservative grass-roots base...who keep society and the culture from falling off the cliff.
Speaking of Nietzsche, I found DKR's critique of the vulgarity of rule by the monied elite to be itself very reminiscent of Nietzsche's (probable) take on modern sec-humanist (e.g., liberalism) social theory:
It is also doubtful that Nietzsche would be particularly enamored of [the] vulgar reduction of social life to that of homo economicus. The rise of the classical bourgeoisie in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was accompanied by all of the social and political trends that Nietzsche detested: mass democracy, the centralized nation-state, imperialism, and massive national armies. If he regarded the hereditary European nobility as decrepit, he would have regarded the rising bourgeoisie upper middle class as even more degenerate than the aristocracy it aimed to replace. If the Christian foundations of the ancien regime represented a deterioration of classical civilization to Nietzsche, how much more deplorable would he have found the economism of the bourgeoisie?
Future historians will likely look back on the contemporary West as a madhouse where the classic virtues of heroism, high culture, nobility, self-respect, and reason had almost completely disappeared, along with the characteristics of adulthood generally. The present era is the era of the Last Man. The legacy of mass democracy and the values of therapeutic liberalism has been the creation of a culture of infantilism. The morality of ressentiment is now the public morality. The guiding principles of contemporary liberal democracies are an all-pervasive consumerism and loudly proclaiming one’s own status as an official victim of historic or cosmic injustices, whether real or imaginary. Self-indulgence has been surpassed only by self-pity as the guiding principle of an individual’s relationship to the wider society. The commercial values of capitalism, the egalitarian values of Marxism, the psychological values of therapeutic culture, and the tendency toward mob rule inherent in mass democracy have been synthesized by modern societies in such a way as to make the wider and more fundamental values related to the preservation and perpetuation of civilization itself virtually impotent.
Nietzsche was one of the great visionaries who recognized this process as it was unfolding even in its early stages. In contrast to the notion of progress that dominated so much of nineteenth century thought, Nietzsche regarded much of the history of Western civilization itself as a process of degeneration and decline.Putting aside Nietzsche's famous hostility to Christianity, I find myself largely agreeing with this assessment. Modern liberalism has abandoned it's birthright heritage of classical Western thought, namely natural law, amplified and expanded upon through the ages by Scholastic thinkers, in favor of the untested and frankly revolutionary values of the Enlightenment. As a result, the West is dominated by the ethics of homo economicus, with all the baseness and the crassness that results. Personal virtue matters little, and a libertine sexual morality has replaced religion as the opiate for the masses. To keep order over this teeming morass, homo economicus institutes Leviathan; so long as the bread and circuses and payouts continue, the polis doesn't really mind Leviathan's iron fist in a velvet glove.
No doubt Nietzsche would have found this effete orgiastic sort of communitarianism offensive, one that degenerates and denatures man, a far cry from the strong, noble man who lived life dangerously. No wonder then that the League of Shadows sends Bane to reduce Gotham to rubble. The League sees that Gotham as ruled by liberalism is dying, and Bane's purpose is to finally put it out of its misery.
Thus Mr. Last is on to something in his claim that DKR is an ode to conservatism. The message is indeed that the the left-illiberal-libertine order cannot sustain itself. While it would be a stretch to assert that a corollary message in DKR is that in the values of the illiberal Christian right, as opposed to that of the liberal-libertine left,* society will find salvation, one may offer this alternative. A third way, one likely more preferable to the pagan Nietzsche, would be to transition toward a meritocratic society, administered by
an elite comprised of individuals of superior ability and virtue who came to be regarded by the larger community specifically and the wider society generally as deserving of their position due to their greater merit. [For example, t]he scholars who comprised the Mandarin class were drawn from the ranks of those demonstrating superior skill and ability. This was not a hereditary class but one where even the lowliest peasants with remarkable talents could achieve self-advancement.Presumably the people from whom these Mandarins are drawn would reflect Nietzsche's pre-Christian, classical morality, and would eschew Christianity's "slave morality". Perhaps this was the objective of Bane and his League of Shadows all along, a kind of social "reset" button, to return Gotham's people to a time the League thinks thought better, more orderly, and less decadent.
Where I differ with Mr. Last is in his characterization of justice and peace, and liberalism's relationship to both. Large-L Liberalism is neither necessary for justice nor peace, for both are more easily and effectively secured by an authoritarian government than a democratic one. Indeed, in a right-wing, Classical Liberal society, where the sphere of government is narrow and the autonomy of the citizen is broad, justice and peace are only possible where the people themselves are moral and ethical. If not, justice disappears, and with it, peace, and the sphere of the individual is drawn down in an effort to ensure order. And given that modern liberalism is synonymous with libertine-ism, where neither objective morality or ethics are welcome, justice and therefore peace are impossible sans authoritarian government.
* Click here for an explanation of what I mean by illiberal left, illiberal right, etc.