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.

What can Mad Max: Fury Road teach us about the free market?

Mad Max: Fury Road is fast paced, vibrant and bloody. It is a colourful explosion of carnage and vehicular combat. On first inspection it comes across as a visually stunning but shallow movie of wall to wall action and little character development. However underneath the explosions and car crashes Max Max makes some subtle points about how we see ourselves as individuals.

The Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang said Mad Max is a vision of the neoliberal economist’s perfectly free market. Granted he was referring to the Mel Gibson starring original but it applies equally to the Tom Hardy starring remake.

Neoliberal economics, often referred to as free-market economics, is a school of thought which believes that unregulated markets are preferable to regulated markets. They believe the government should get out of the way of private business to allow private business to create as much wealth and job as possible.

Neoliberalism is based on the liberal (liberal as in Adam Smith not George Clooney) principle of individualism and that society is made of rational individuals making decisions in their own interest. It is best for society when governments do not curtail this individualism, as what is best for society is rational individuals making decisions in their own interest. Individual freedom is at the core of neoliberalism, neoliberals often oppose programs aimed specifically at gender or racial equality claiming that group rights oppressed individual rights.

That is enough theory, we should look at the film. Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a future where society as we know it was destroyed in a nuclear war. Most of the action takes place in a desert where vicious cultists follow bloodthirsty messiahs, who use their military power take what they need and kill anyone who opposes them.

In the world of Mad Max there is no government and no laws. Mad Max has is the neoliberal vision of a perfectly free market, with no state intervention and complete personal freedom. Why then is it so violent and chaotic and not a neoliberal paradise of plenty and economic efficiency?

Certainly environmental factors are at play here. Scarce resources has led to intense completion, which is manifesting itself as violence. Yet there are clearly enough resources to sustain a sizeable population and some individuals are clearly resource rich which indicates that the issue is not the lack of resources but an unequal distribution of resources. In Mad Max monopoly power has risen in an unregulated market, this takes the form of the film's villain, Immortan Joe, who hoards all the water for himself. What this says about the perfect neoliberal world is that rational individuals who possess social status (in this case being the leader of a militarised cult) will horded all the resources and created private monopolies. In the complete free market our intelligence or hard work is not a factor of success, it is the social status of an individual which determines success.

Mad Max is a world with complete individual freedom and no group rights, there are no affirmative action programs or governments holding back individuals. It is also a world entirely based on competition with no welfare, those who cannot compete in this violent desert die. In order to survive in such a world individuals must band together to form mutually supporting collectives. This is what the main characters of Max (Tom Hardy), Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and the wives of Immortan Joe, which Furiosa has liberated from his cult, do. These characters form a mutually supporting collective to protect themselves against individual freedom run amok. The individual freedom takes the form of the lawless bandits roaming the desert and the bloody thirsty war boys which Immortan Joe sends to retrieve his wife.

We see this in real life examples of environmental catastrophes, individual needs are set aside as people work together for the good of everyone affected by the disaster. In Mad Max no individual can stand up to the private monopoly of Immortan Joe backed up by his cultists and military power so it is necessary for individuals to form a collective. These collectives operate along Communist, not neoliberal, lines with equality of resources and mutual aid along the principal of "each unto their need and each unto their ability". (This is good loose definition of Communism laid out by David Graeber in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years.)

The individuals in the collective are less effective when the unspoken rules of the collective are broken, in other words when they do not work along the principal of each according to their needs and abilities. When Max tries to use a sniper rifle to stop a vehicle crewed by Immortan Joe’s followers, Max turns out to be a bad sniper. Mad Max has reverted to neoliberal individual self reliance acting as rational individual who believes he is the best shot. The safety of the collective is threatened as Max cannot shoot the incoming vehicle and has to voluntarily give up his rifle to the shooter of greater ability, Furiosa, who is able to protect the collective. It is telling that Max does not have the rifle taken from him by force, but has to voluntarily admit that his best chance of survival is trusting in someone else and not acting as a rational individual.

The neoliberal world of Mad Max is completely male dominated, with women related to childcare roles. The purpose of Immortan Joe many wives is simply to produce more male offspring to expand his private monopoly, this shows that existing oppressive social structures would get worse in a neoliberal world without state intervention to counter them. The focus on individual rights in reality is rights for the dominant class as an equal society can only be achieved through pursuing the rights of oppressed groups.

By forming a collective against individualism, group rights can be asserted and male dominance challenged. Again this is what happens in the band led by Furiosa and Max. This collective is against the male dominated private monopoly and offers a range of roles for women, not just related to children. The collective is led by a woman, women take part in all roles including fighting and is expressly opposed to the male dominated world of individualism which seeks to oppress them.

The same metaphor about the neoliberal view of individual freedom in a chaotic or post apocalyptic world is explored in other works such as the move and film The Road and and the video game Borderlands. Both emphasise the point that a complete free market and world based entirely on individual freedom without border social structures is violent, chaotic, oppressive and prone to the domination of individuals with social status. Stylistically Mad Max: Fury Road is very much influenced by Borderlands, although the game in turn is clear aesthetically influenced by the earlier Mad Max films.

Obviously, Mad Max: Fury Road can be read differently if you have different political views. It can be interpreted the other way around with Max and Furiosa representing individuals fighting back against Immortan Joe, who in this reading represents an oppressive government determined to stamp out their individual freedom. This is possible but that would make Immortan Joe some form of Communist dictator and there is clearly no sharing of resources in his society.

There is also nothing to stop the cultists leaving his army. If Immortan Joe represents the government then why are there no laws or civic institutions, something even primitive societies have? Immortan Joe’s followers are all rational individuals with their own freedom who choose to remain part of his monopoly because they dependant on it to survive due of the lack of social safety network. The reading of Immortan Joe as the government leaves more questions unanswered than the reading of him as rational individual using his social status to amass a private monopoly of society's scarce resources which he can because nothing can stop him in a perfectly free market.

Mad Max can be viewed as a simply a piece of entertainment, a silence of visual spectacle, but what entertains us makes subtly points about our hops, aspirations and fears. Mad Max speaks volumes about our fear of complete individualism, where nothing can hold back greed or violence. It speaks about our needs to band together against individuals who will do us harm. If the future is the neoliberal view of complete individual freedom then the future really does belong to the mad.

The Hunger Games and Game Theory

I do not usually write posts about popular culture topics, so this blog will open with a first which is a SPOILERS WARNING. This article may ruin the ending of The Hunger Games if you have not seen the film or read the book yet.

With that out of the way, I can move onto the main area of discussion. One might think that The Hunger Games, which opened at cinemas nationwide on the 23rd of March, might not have much to teach the viewer about economics, but that would be a mistake. The film has some important insights into the nature of competition and game theory.

The film follows the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who volunteers to combat 23 other juveniles in a battle to the death in order to avoid the same fate befalling her sister. She strikes up a friendship come romance come rivalry with one of her opponents who hails from the same district of the film's dystopian future as she does. Katniss has to rely on her own survival skills to make it back to her family but is also faced with difficult decisions along the way in regard to who she can trust. There can be only one winner of The Hunger Games and only one can return to their home, co-operation in this environment can only go so far.

This is very similar to game theory and I am sure that had John Forbes Nash been alive today he would have found the questions raised by this literary sensation fascinating. Nash's game theory is a study in human selfishness which attempts to find mathematical and logical optimal solutions to real world problems. His results are bleak and frequently point to the power of human greed as a means to achieve the optimal result from any situation. Nash won the Nobel Prize for economics for his efforts and his theories underpin a lot of the prevailing market ideology and government policy. I have blogged on Nash and his theories before.

In a typical game theory situation there is a trade off between cooperating with the other player(s) and behaving selfishly for personal gain. Frequently you do not know what the other player's moves are or how they affect yours until after you have made a key decision. Nash found that there is always an incentive to betray trust for personal gain as in any one moment the other player(s) is likely to be betray you if they are behaving logically according to game theory.

In The Hunger Games itself there is an incentive to cooperate with one or more opponents against further opponents. Katniss teams up with Rue during the game to great effect whereas Peeta Mellark (her rival/love interest) allies himself with the stronger and better trained players. However there is an incentive to betray trust at any point as there can only be one winner. During the course of the game Peeta switches sides to help Katniss defeat his former allies. Signs of personal weakness are rewarded with timely betrayal and several characters come to an abrupt end at the hands of their recent allies. At any moment there is an incentive to betray trust just as whoever you are allied with is likely to also be planning the moment they turn on you.

This all sounds very bleak and has led many to doubt the human virtues of cooperation and altruism but there is a positive side to game theory. More recent experiments have been based upon the idea of iterated game theory where games are not played in isolation but repeated over and over with the long term outcomes monitored. These studies have shown that there is a mathematical advantage to altruism in iterated game theory. If you cooperate in the long term, through repeated games then all parties can each gain greater results than they could have achieved through seeking personal glory.

The Hunger Games also has an argument for cooperation and altruism if you view not as a single game but a series of games Katniss repeatedly plays against a changing series of opponents. There is a clear incentive for her to cooperating with weaker plays against the players with advantages. Ultimately Katniss's victory in The Hunger Games is achieved because she works together with others and uses their competitive advantage against her opponents. She also exploits the selfish players willingness to turn on each other to thin the field. At the end of the film Katniss is able to save herself and Peeta not because of their ability to work together to achieve a common goal but because they are able to trust each other.

The Hunger Games shows that there is not only an incentive for cooperation but also for trusting others even in an single victor environment. It is a strong argument against Nash's dark view of human nature as motivated by selfishness and personal gain. In our personal lives as well in society as a whole we need to learn from Katniss example of helping the weak, harnessing the power of cooperation over selfishness and above all that we need to trust each other.