The release of the latest Marvel blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War, has coincided with an age of political uncertainty and upheavals, and the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. Released in the current political climate of Trump, Brexit, and nuclear crises, with a resurgence of class struggle, so eloquently described by Marx those many years ago, the world that the Avengers inhabits is refreshingly utopian, for some. Indeed, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is entirely bereft of a significant history of class-struggle, or indeed, class-consciousness. Although the entirety of the (so far released) MCU depicts a period of history stretching from approximately 1943 (‘creation’ of Captain America) to 2018 (events of Avengers: Infinity War), there is little depiction of the working classes or their struggle throughout this entire period. Evidently, the MCU is set in an alternative time-line to the one that we are currently experiencing, and is certainly more engaged in the affairs and reverberations echoing throughout the celestial universe than we (in all apparent reality) are.
With a new reality inhabiting within and throughout the MCU, and in celebration of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, in this post I will review Avengers: Infinity War with a Marxist understanding that has originated in the great writings of Marx, as well as those of Antonio Gramsci (an Italian philosopher who was jailed in Mussolini’s fascist prison), to unveil the intergalactic political economy within this block-buster franchise. Through this discussion, we will further understand the philosophical origins of Thanos’s destructive assault on the Avengers in Infinity War, and indeed, the geopolitical and material relations in the MCU universe. Although, as naysayers may suggest, Gramsci or Marx would have never conceptualised the creation of an intergalactic superhero cinematic universe, nor would they probably have ever been interested in seeing one, I argue that the MCU contains interesting metaphors that illustrate and challenge our own reality, which can be further elucidated by both the Marxist and Gramsci perspectives. Oh, and for what it’s worth: spoiler alert.
Notes on Captain America
Although the focus here is Avengers: Infinity War, a brief historical perspective on the geopolitical nature of the MCU prior to this historical moment is warranted. I suggest here that an initial point of departure between the timelines of the MCU and our own is the advent of Captain America, and his introduction will be the historical starting point of this review. The United States (US) created Captain America from Steve Rogers, as part of a ‘super-soldier’ enhancement program, to contend with the Axis Forces in World War II. The sudden emergence of Captain America in World War II is akin to the hard power (though obviously on a different scale) of the atomic bomb, and Captain America is introduced to the conflict as a different ex machina to nuclear devastation – an alternative Manhattan project; indeed, Captain America continually references his origins as a ‘Manhattan’ boy throughout the MCU. At the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, when Steve Rogers is ‘lost’, we assume that his actions have successfully led to the end of WWII; and we presume that an economic and political consensus is engineered between the nations of the victorious Allies, backed by the military power of the US and its highly powerful Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D) arm, which will immediately mobilise against the Soviet Union. The system of state-based capitalism built on Keynesian principles still comes to pass in this alternative universe, with concerns of international cooperation and political stability firmly in the minds of the Allies and middle-powers everywhere – especially considering the ability of the US and S.H.I.E.L.D to mobilise unthought-of technology – as the Cold War is about to begin.
Observations on Ant-Man and the Cold War
Indeed, we do know that there was a Cold War occurring between the Soviet Union and the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in the MCU, as we’re told in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that the Winter Soldier was sent by HYDRA operatives in the Soviet Union to ‘eliminate threats’; and thus also establishing a moral equivalence between HYDRA, described as an ‘authoritarian terrorist-criminal-paramilitary organisation’, and the Soviet Union – just so there’s no confusion as to whose ideological ‘side’ Captain America and friends are on. The only other mention of the Cold War is found in an Ant-Man flashback, where Dr. Hank Pym and the Wasp intercept and disable a Soviet inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) headed for the US, with the assistance of the Ant-Man suit. In this alternative reality where the Soviets actually launched a (most likely) nuclear capable ICBM at the US, I am going to make two key assumptions that (A) the Cold War wasn’t very cold at all – with the aggressive and powerful forces of S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA being regularly deployed – and (B) that the US would have retaliated to this ICBM immediately with its second strike capability (remembering that the ICBM was only just deactivated by Ant-Man and the Wasp before impact), and that the Cold War would have quickly ended in favour of the US and NATO with the physical destruction of the Soviet Union. There is evidence supporting these assumptions in the Avengers: Age of Ultron, where civilian residents of the fictional eastern European country of Sokovia immediately become aggressive against the deployment of Iron Man in the war-torn and shelled-out streets of Sokovia.
Taking these assumptions further, in the context of a very cold Cold War, a powerful US with Ant-Man, Stark Industries and S.H.I.E.L.D, would have militarily intimidated European countries into not converting their stocks of US dollars into gold, thus avoiding the end of the gold standard; and logically would have also used their might in suppressing the Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, thus avoiding the oil crises of the 1970s. In this display of unilateral power from the unchallengeable, imperial hegemon of the US/S.H.I.E.L.D, the only force that could have challenged this dominating complex would be a world-wide revolutionary workers movement. In light of a HYDRA-back Soviet Union, we could hypothesise that US/S.H.I.E.L.D would have been even more enthusiastic to keep workers of the world ‘on board’, and may have actively avoided the widespread social discontent of the 70s (avoiding the end of the gold standard and oil crises would have helped). Keynesian states may have thus remained a fixture in the MCU, and the ‘turn’ to a neoliberal world-wide economy may have not come to pass. In this reality, the Keynesian system is firmly hegemonic and embedded behind the direct and coercive power of the US/NATO/S.H.I.E.L.D/Stark complex, mitigating against the very real threat of the Soviet Union. Hegemony prevails through overwhelmingly hard power.
Americanism and Iron Man (and MCU passive revolution)
The next point of historical interest in the MCU cinematic universe is the origin of Iron Man in Iron Man, set in 2008. Iron Man, the epitome of the American military-industrial complex (‘I have successfully privatized world peace’, Stark, Iron Man 2), discovers his ‘power’ (money) on a US-funded corporate expedition to extract profit in Afghanistan. We can hypothesise from the ability of Tony Stark to wantonly detonate weapons of mass destruction in a sovereign nation that 9/11 still occurred, along with the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Further demonstration of Iron Man’s power, upon perfection of this super-weapon, is his ‘moral’ intervention in Afghanistan and purging of a small village of ‘bad guys’. Iron Man quickly becomes formally co-opted by the US/S.H.I.E.L.D in Iron Man 2, and by this point represents the military dominance of US capitalism. Luckily, Captain America resurfaces around this time to provide a representation of the moral, cultural dominance of US capitalism, which, combined with Iron Man, solidifies US hegemony.
This is a particularly interesting and important time in the MCU with regards to shifting geopolitical power. Vision will later remark in Captain America: Civil War that the emergence of Iron Man is a critical moment, since the number of ‘enhanced persons’ and ‘world-ending events’ exponentially increases since Iron Man reveals himself. Indeed, I’ll also denote this moment as the formal ending of any hint of intra-world challenge to US/S.H.I.E.L.D hegemony, the absolute fading of class-consciousness in the MCU, and the start of inter-galactic challenges to the Earth hegemonic order.
This is because we see the emergence of the ‘Avengers’ – the point of passive revolution in the MCU. The superhero team of the Avengers act as Gramsci’s ‘Caesar’ or ‘Napoleon’; the group are a metaphor for a ‘strong man’ that intervenes and resolves the geopolitical stalemate between the Keynesian Earth states, stabilising the existing power of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marx’s analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is also instructive here, where S.H.I.E.L.D are the metaphor for the French bourgeoisie; unable to extend their politico-economic power through the US government, the Avengers are deployed to further develop this power, with their social basis in the unorganised ‘regular people’ that inhabit the MCU’s Earth. The Avengers, the MCU’s Bonaparte, virtually represents the common people through either deploying persuasive metanarratives of ‘regular person to superhero’ (i.e. Spider Man, Iron Man, Captain America, Natasha Romanoff, Hawkeye), and through the co-opting of potential leaders of subaltern social groups such as Scott Lang – former criminal mastermind turned into the new Ant Man (the Avengers’ transformismo).
It is at this point that the Avengers are formally constituted, indirectly governed by a new ‘World Security Council’ that now oversees S.H.I.E.L.D (via the Sokovia Accords), an obvious alternative reality representation of the United Nations Security Council, but with unrestrained military power vis-à-vis S.H.I.E.L.D. The World Security Council constitutes the ‘world government’: with no possibility for non-US state-based power, unilateral military offences, or even sovereignty against/in the face of the indisputable military power of S.H.I.E.L.D (a hint of which is seen as Project Insight in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), a world-wide political consensus between the states of the world, already joined together in a Keynesian system, was inevitable against the new inter-galactic threats introduced in the Avengers (the Chitauri invasion of Earth). Hence the end of [Earth-focused] history, and hence the end of [Earth-based] political struggle.
With the end of the state as an important political conception, and the non-existence of the Gramscian notion of civil society in the MCU, I reconfigure the ‘integral state’ as constituting the World Security Council/S.H.I.E.L.D (the political) and the Avengers (civil society) – the hegemony of the political is protected by an armour of devastating military coercion (the Avengers). The ‘political’ begins to assert its dominance further through tying popular consensus of the (neglected) people with the Avengers, with economic forces encouraging the consumption of Avengers-based merchandise, whether it is found in Ben & Jerry’s ice-creams, t-shirts, TV shows, or magazines – the ideological elements throughout the world are re-articulated to form a collective will with the Avengers, which allows the World Security Council/S.H.I.E.L.D to express the interests of Earth.
The strength of this hegemony, however, is tested through a power struggle for dominance within the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War, between Captain America and Iron Man. The metaphors reflected in the real-life US is palpable (though the conflict itself is absent) – here we have the nationalist, fundamentalist deontologist of Captain America (the Christian evangelical right) confront the external-looking, authoritarian technological-militarism of Iron Man (the US military); a confrontation of non-negotiable moral values and essentialist identities causing a fracture in the civil society protecting the political society. At the end of this movie, with the significant weakening of the Avengers, we are left in a situation where, as Gramsci would remark, the old political and theoretical scheme was in a state of decay (Avengers/S.H.I.E.L.D integral state), and a new one was not yet born.
The Politics of Thanos
Enter Thanos. Thanos, appearing to be an inter-galactic war monger and genocidal maniac is actually the MCU’s euphemism for neoliberalism; a neoliberalism on a universal scale. The hegemonic structure of the Avenger/S.H.I.E.L.D integral state is still together (though, more weakly) after the internal discordance seen in Captain America: Civil War, and there continues a complete mitigation of alternative economic, political or social arrangements within Earth. This changes at an inter-galactic level, however, through the uncovering of massively valuable resources on the Earth itself – the Infinity Stones. The Mind Stone and the Time Stone are located on Earth at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, which are conceptualised here as unexploited resources (‘Earth’s capital’) that are secured by the protective, integral state.
Thanos emerges as a violent war of movement to viciously gain these resources from the hegemonic class, being the Avengers/S.H.I.E.L.D state. The resilience of civil society at the start of Infinity War (i.e. the Avengers) is broken and demoralised, following the internal split of Captain America: Civil War. Although its significant militarisation is able to suppress Earth’s population, it is weak to strong inter-galactic challenges, and thus Thanos’s war of movement against the Avengers’ protected hegemony will ultimately succeed – but not just because of his destructive strength, but due to his movement’s ideological basis. As ultimately, Thanos brings with him a political project to establish the conditions for his own capital accumulation (the acquisition of the Infinity Stones), and to impose his power as an inter-galactic elite. An ideological basis of this political project is crucial, in order to mobilise some form of inter-galactic popular support that assists in the war of movement (as we see in the thousands that Thanos can mobilise into battle).
The ideology that is at the heart of Thanos is one familiar to us in this current material reality on Earth, which is militarisation as an antidote to chaos, and a moral position resting on concerns of over-population. Thanos calls for militarisation and genocide as the ‘solution’ to the ‘existential threat’ of over-population, he recognises that he must build legitimacy for his power and social control through (violent, if needed) consent to his moral values. Indeed, Thanos repeatedly appeals to the moral sensibilities of the Avengers throughout Infinity War, best emphasised by this quote in discussion with Gamora:
You were going to bed hungry, scrounging for scraps. Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I’m the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise… Little one, it’s a simple calculus. This universe is finite, its resources, finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.
The concern with population control is a moral quandary that has been with Western practitioners of neoliberalism since their emergence; whether through the Gates Foundation, the UK government’s funding of forced sterilisation in India, or Israel’s enforced contraception of Ethiopian women, the racialised poor of the ‘developing world’ were portrayed as perpetually threatening the upper classes. Thanos continues this tradition, and demands that a part of the ‘surplus’ population be sacrificed in a theatrical spectacle, ostensibly to further utilitarian goals of universal happiness, but in reality to keep the rest of the universe under (his) control.
Thanos’s political and economic practice, violent militarisation and liberation of capital, respectively, proposes that galactic well-being will be advanced by the liberation of capital unto him (as the elite), and through controlling population growth. And thus, if we must search for labels to describe his philosophy, Thanos is both neoliberal and neoconservative. Thanos is a vastly intelligent life form that recognises the importance of moral and political ideologies to ultimately enforce an economic goal. Indeed, through his ideological and military war on the integral state, Thanos is mobilising support in ‘solving’ one of classic economic theory’s most difficult problems, that there are scarce means that need to be allocated between competing ends – Thanos seeks to enrich himself on the back of a ‘rational’ moral program that will bring with it a utopian age.
Whether or not Thanos would earn himself a chair at the Mont Pelerin Society, alongside Hayek and colleagues, is currently open to speculation, but I hope that I have convinced the reader that the Avengers Infinity War world, and wider MCU, does provide an interesting ‘alternative reality’ that is amicable to some form of (very abstract) class- and power-based analyses. Although the comical nature of this discussion need not be highlighted, the social consequences of neoliberalisation – whether in the MCU or our own reality – is extreme. The international regime that posits a mantra of accumulation by dispossession strives for endless capital accumulation, which necessitates violent and imperialist practices, and will lead to ecological destruction, irreparable inequality, and wanton misery. Though this evolution of capitalism we are currently observing won’t bring about a new world order with a snap of its’ fingers, the example of Avengers: Infinity War demonstrates that we must be alive to the destruction brought about by the reckless accumulation of power, capital, and profit. And we must not abide by the mantra of Thanos in responding to this threat, which is:
I did not ask for your trust. I demand only your obedience.