What if Spider-Man was a neo-liberal?

"With great power comes great responsibility." That is the takeaway lesson from Spider-Man. That and the fact that New York is a great place to live if you have an easy way of avoiding the traffic.

The lesson is completely true, Spider-Man has huge abilities beyond that of most people and he could easily use these powers to enrich himself at the expense of others. So what is stopping him? It is that sense of social responsibility (impressed on him by his uncle) and his own internal moral compass, shaped by experiences such as seeing close friends and colleagues corrupted by power (Harry Osborn, Dr Octavius, etc).

However, if Spider-Man was to meet a neo-liberal economist, the economist would argue against Uncle Ben's advice and claim that Spider-Man does not have any responsibility to anyone other than himself. The neo-liberal would argue that Spider-Man is a rational individual and he should act in his own rational self-interest. This is the central belief of neo-liberal economics: if everyone acted this way then we would all be more prosperous.

The only flaw in this argument is that a world with someone as powerful as Spider-Man in it, who acted only in their own self-interest, would be a terrifying place for everyone who was not Spider-Man.

If we extend his logic to all superheroes then the world gets even darker. Should the Avengers act in their own rational self-interest and ignore all their social obligations? Neo-liberal economists would argue that they should, however if they did then there would be no power on earth that could stop them. The Avengers could hurt many people in the process of enriching themselves and it would be perfectly rational to do so.

There is no wider social organisation made up of the people they would exploit that could hold the Avengers to account for their actions, that is how great their collective power is. We have seen Thor, Hulk Iron Man, et al face down entire armies. If the Avengers acted only out of rational self-interest then world would clearly be much worse off, not better off as the neo-liberal economists argue.

This is because of the asymmetric power relationships in the world of the Avengers. The Avengers are more powerful than everyone else in the world combined, which removes any element of accountability for their actions. We are dependent on the Avengers choosing to honour social obligations, but neo-liberals argue that they should act with rational self-interest and enrich themselves. No global system with asymmetric power relationship whose gulfs of power are as large as the difference between Thor and a baseline human could work based around complete individual freedom because the Avengers would exploit us all.

Superheroes work as a metaphor for the neo-liberal view of the individual. In their world, it is wrong to constrain the individualism of heroes. Their accomplishments are entirely individual and not the product of wider social factors. They stand apart from the society that created them and are not beholden to it. Thor has little regard for the rules of his own society, as he seeks personal glory from attacking the Frost Giants, and the Hulk’s destruction of vital infrastructure shows no regard for the wider needs of the people dependent on such infrastructure. This view of the individual is based on a reading of history where only individuals achieve anything and on the idea that we need to put our trust in great individuals and not institutions.

If you think about it, a world with superheroes in it has the sameproblems as a world with neo-liberal economics in it. Superheroes show the dominance of the free neo-liberal individual. Only rational individuals can wield the power necessary to save the world and collective action is, at best, ineffective and, at worst, directly opposed to individual freedom. The army is constantly trying to constrain the individual freedom of the Hulk. In V for Vendetta we see how only an individual with complete freedom can stop a society which oppresses individual freedom.

The problem with complete individual freedom is that there is nothing to stop people hurting each other, either deliberately or out of selfishness. Again the Hulk is a great example of this, it is accepted that there must be some limits on personal freedom where an individual can do as much damage as the Hulk can, given complete freedom to act in any way they feel.

Superheroes are a lot like big companies and the ultra rich of our world. They act in their own rational self-interest and there is no power left on Earth which can hold them to account for their actions. Like with Spider-Man, we are dependent on them choosing to follow their social obligations, but they are constantly being told by neo-liberal economists that we would all be better off if they ignore their social obligations and behave with rational self-interest.

It is true that with great power comes great responsibility. Like superheroes, large companies and the ultra-rich have a great responsibility. We need a system made up of the people they oppress to make sure they do not oppress us, a system with the power to hold them to account. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we can trust superheroes’ internal moral compass to honour their social obligations, but in our world we cannot rely on good intentions to prevail. There has to be a mechanism to protect the less powerful from asymmetrical power relationships.

Any system that constrains the absolute freedom of the individual sounds oppressive, but superheroes show how dangerous complete individual freedom is in a world of rational individuals acting in their own self-interest who cannot be held back from exploiting others to enrich themselves.

It is interesting that Captain America is the Marvel hero who has the strongest internal moral compass and is the most willing to act against rational self-interest by risking himself to help the less powerful. This this because he comes from a time before the advent of neo-liberalism. Contrast his behaviour to Iron Man who refuses to acknowledge the authority of his own government and believes he is beholden to no one other than himself.

Great responsibility does come hand in hand with great power. Superheroes show the best and worst the human race is capable of. The huge power that superheroes have means that we cannot rely on them choosing to be good. Rational individuals acting in their own self-interest can only work when there is equal power between parties and not the asymmetric power relationships between superheroes and regular people. This lesson applies equally to the powerful in our world as it does to the powerful in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

If Spiderman was too meet a neo-liberal economist, I hope that he would remember Uncle Ben’s advice about our social obligations and not act in his own rational self-interest.