the civil society gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now

Writing in the weeks following the The Dark Knight Rises‘ release, Jeff Spross and Zack Beauchamp described Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as a “layered defense of liberal democracy against its authoritarian components.” For Spross and Beauchamp, Nolan’s Bane-, Joker-, and Ra’s Al-Ghul-infused riffs on Gotham’s pervasive inequality, corruption, and moral decadence have their origins in an abiding concern for the interaction between anarchic criminality and an over-reaching state. As the authors observe, Nolan’s Batman is neither conservative nor liberal, but rather liberal-democratic: prompted by his butler and mentor Alfred, both Bruce Wayne and Batman find an equilibrium in Gotham’s civil institutions–in participation in “communal life and shared institutions,” and in the amorphous institution of public trust, which sustains Gotham amidst Bane and Ra’s Al-Ghul’s unwavering attempts at civilizational overthrow, as well as the Joker’s anarchic tests of spectacular violence.

Bruce Wayne and Batman’s stirring commitment to civic institutions transcends the film trilogy, and manifests itself in the original, comic-book representations of the Dark Knight, his millionaire-playboy personality, and his sidekick, Robin. After all, Robin’s origin story–the “real one,” rather than Nolan’s “Dick-Grayson-as-junior-cop” version–has its foundations in the demise of a Gotham civic association. Dick Grayson’s parents were trapeze artists in the Gotham circus; after his parents fall victim to a mob assassination, Grayson transforms, channeling his rage into Robin’s superhero-dom. Bruce Wayne’s Batman story is similar; his father, a business tycoon, maintained an extensive philanthropic enterprise, until he, too, fell victim to Gotham’s criminal violence. More than any other comic-book superhero, Batman’s history has relied on his robust relationship with his urban landscape; not just the physical structures, but the civic institutions, as well. Nolan’s spectacular, high-tech Batman makes it easy to forget that, at his core, Batman is a detective, reliant on common society’s resilience against organized crime to drive his heroism.

Batman’s multi-decade treatment of “civil society,” as a conceptual framework, undergirds a core distinction in philosophical treatments of civic association. I’ll address Locke and Tocqueville here, not because of their particular conceptual strength–indeed, “civil society” is one of the best-tread subjects in contemporary political theory and scientific inquiry–but because, due to my philosophy class, they’re at the forefront of my present thinking. John Locke, the English philosopher, frames civil society as a functional extension of political consolidation: fearing the descent from the state of nature into one of war, and subsequent infringements on personal life, property, and happiness, individuals establish institutions of governance, hierarchical power, and justice, which Locke describes as a “political society.” Political society is an institution, comprised of legal systems, jurisprudence, and common security assurances; civil society, on the other hand, is a state of being, determined by social interactions between individuals and communities within a political society. Civil society participation is a fundamental characteristic of membership in the political commonwealth, whereby the individual citizen forfeits his/her natural right to a vigilante defense of private affairs, in order to secure a state of persistent security. Locke’s civil society relies on the absence of authoritarian governance, within which justice and dispute resolutions are necessarily arbitrary.

But, as Batman’s Gotham demonstrates, Locke’s civil society, under the auspices of liberal governance, is insufficient. In the seven years between Harvey Dent’s death and Bane’s return, Gotham establishes a “liberal peace,” largely as a result of the civil-liberties-infringing Dent Act. It’s easy enough for the Gotham government to mete out justice, to restrict crime, and to ensure collective security, but Gotham’s security institutions, legislative reforms, and political leadership aren’t what restore Gotham’s sanity amidst widespread social fear. Batman defeats the villains, but the public trust he inspires–and the social cohesion of Gotham’s run-of-the-mill civil society–sustains Gotham while the city’s police clear the rubble. This, I suspect, is what Tocqueville means when he refers to the United States’ civic associations as an engine of democratic prosperity: Batman perceives Gotham as “worth saving” because, as the Dark Knight says to a beleaguered Joker, “it’s full of people ready to believe in good.” In a society where the government–and Batman, for that matter–is perfectly content to extend its authority, to infringe on the very natural rights that Locke prioritizes, Gotham’s social institutions, and not just its civil society, matter most.


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