“I’ll protect you,” he says.
“Just give me half of everything you make.”
His armour gleams as he says this. Behind him his men stand about with the relaxed confidence of the strong, their weapons casually visible. The look on his face resembles an image of paternal kindliness. He has practiced this look.
You wonder: protect me from whom?
Like a lot of boys I fantasized about being a hero. All those stories: Star Wars and The A-Team and Daredevil and the Karate Kid and Doctor Who. When we got a VCR my brother and I watched Uncommon Valor, like, a dozen times. What happens to those boyish desires when we become adults?
In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins fights giant spiders in a dark forest and sneaks into a dragon’s den. These acts transform him from unwanted burden on those around him to a leader who takes care of himself and others. From childhood to adulthood. Courtesy of a magic ring and a magic sword and acute zero-sum-game confrontations with uncomplicated evil.
A hero defends us by destroying our common enemy. That’s the ideal, anyway.
The roots of our current civilization, says Norbert Elias, stretch back a thousand years to the fields and forests of Western Europe. There, after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, kings ceased for a time to have any effective authority over the day-to-day doings of local knights. Each knight was his own master and made law as he would on his little territory.
Then, gradually, some knights acquired power over others, becoming big lords to whom the many little lords paid tribute, until the time came when a man whom others called “king” was more than just the head man in time of war, but once again could impose law. And these kings deprived the knights, bit by bit, of their right to feud with each other, their right to maintain their own men-at-arms, even their right to be leaders in war, until these lords with their ancient titles were nothing more than courtiers with large estates. Eventually, sovereigns themselves ceased to be individuals, and slowly became institutions, bureaucracies, with even a few democratic trappings. And so the modern state was born.
But what were the knights, before they were reduced to being glorified landlords? The image of the heroic knight treads through our dreams, from King Arthur and Prince Charming to Aragorn and The Dark Knight and The Avengers. Tony Soprano, in his own way. Boys learn to dream to be heroes and girls, if Bonnie Tyler is to be believed, learn to yearn for them. We talk about ordinary people as heroes, of course, the heroism of a woman who pulls a stranger out of a burning car or a man who stands up to corporate corruption. But our dominant image of the hero is that of the knight: a man of action, armed and armoured, ready for quick and violent deeds.
The knights were men of violence. They were men with weapons and the skill to use them, who could hire other violent men to be their soldiers. To pay for all this they taxed the peasantry on their land. That is, within a given territory they could say to the farmers in their cots and the tradesmen in their villages, pay me or else. Pay me and I’ll protect you: from bandits, from other knights, but most of all, from myself.
In other words, they were extortionists. Mobsters. And their kings were mob bosses.
Charles Tilly makes this point in an essay titled “State Making As Organized Crime”. The modern state has its roots in a protection racket. The crucial difference, of course, was that these mobsters also got to make the laws.
But there is more to it than Tilly describes. For, standing at the pinnacle of social hierarchy, the knights and their kings got to define the ideal mode of being human. What is the essential, abstract human subject according to modern philosophy? An isolated being, separate from the rest of the universe, self-sufficient and self-determining, and surrounded by an uncertain environment full of enemies or potential enemies. The sovereign individual subject — modeled on actual sovereigns, or an idealized image of them that makes invisible all the subjugated labour (of servants, of women, etc.) on which they actually depend for their existence.
Only the sovereign gets to be fully human, according to the scheme by which we recognize humanity. No wonder we are so fascinated by the doings of princes, and by the celebrities who have taken over the symbolic functions of the sovereign (to the extent that actual royalty are mere celebrities among others). We want to be them.
And, likewise, we want them to be us. If those who dominate me are, essentially, just like myself, then I am not really dominated. If the President thinks and acts as I would do, then it is as if I am President.
Of course we want to believe that when the hero fights, he fights for us.
When the historical knights went to battle, they did so for all sorts of reasons: to expand their territory by encroaching on that of another, to defend their territory from encroachment by other knights, to subdue bandits or rebels who would challenge their rights within their domain. In the process, they inevitably defended whatever relationship they had formed with their subjects, and hence whatever sense of law and justice and fairness had accumulated in that relationship. And perhaps at times they even imagined that these ideals were what they really fought for. But as a class, they defended their people in the same way that a homeowner might defend her house or a farmer his fields: as a possession and a resource.
The same pattern holds today when states go to war to protect ‘our’ way of life, our justice, our democracy. Sovereigns fight to defend and expand their own sovereignty. In the process, sometimes they defend the bargains that we, their subjects, have struck with them, the bargains that we call “rights”, “democracy”, and so on, the demands that we have made in exchange for our subservience. But while for us these things are ends in themselves, for the sovereign they are never more than means to an end, the end of sovereignty itself, which is domination by force.
In a capitalist economy, working people sell their labour-power to obtain wealth, self-realization, inclusion in society, but in doing so we enrich the social forces that threaten to impoverish and dehumanize and isolate us. This is the contradiction of capitalism. Sovereignty has a similar contradiction. As subjects, we subordinate ourselves to a sovereign (by obeying the law, paying taxes, etc.) in the hope of obtaining safety, security, and freedom, but by doing so we feed the forces of that threaten and terrorize and dominate us. The relationship of sovereignty itself divides humans into sovereigns and subjects, and this relation pits us against each other in a ceaseless struggle.
That contradiction does not only pertain to external relationships between classes of people. It operates within us, in the relationships we enact with ourselves. Part of the self identifies with the sovereign. But in our waking lives we are not sovereigns, we are subjects. So we can never truly be ourselves. To live out the fantasy of being a sovereign, we must dominate others. Maybe in innocuous ways: by being the smartest, the best-looking, the most popular, the most successful in business, of all our significant others.Or, maybe, simply by tyrannizing over those who are vulnerable to us: our employees, our families.
At the end of the day, if nobody else is available, we can dominate ourselves. We can tell ourselves that we are worthless, inadequate because we are not sovereign enough. In this private way we hang on to the impossible dream of being the hero.
When we dream of becoming heroes, we dream an idealized image of our own oppression. Perhaps the time has come for us to awaken from that dream.