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The state in neoliberalism and superhero movies is almost entirely devoted to oppression and surveillance.

If the state overreaches, heroes must fix its excesses; if it fails to protect its citizenry, heroes must make up for its shortcomings. In either case, its social welfare function is invisible: because people are innately good or evil, there are no social workers or teachers or other welfare-state employees whose duties might prevent villainy or supervillainy through social work.

Superheroes are, by definition, more powerful and more important than the state. Evidently we never tire of these movies, even as they trot out the same old tired tropes about human nature, criminality, justice and the relationship of the elites to the rest of us. Mid-movie, they will come close to defeating the villain and fail. The look of the villain may change slightly in the process, perhaps move to an ancillary character, or the villain will be humanized in a novel way.

It must be this way. We have to do things alone, just as we are the superheroes of our own imagined story arcs. The United States government will sometimes have internally complicated politics within the movie, but is always ultimately a force for good. The moral of the superhero story always fits into a weak, inherently problematic liberalism: People are capable of living together in harmony — strong and weak, rich and poor, super- and non-supermen — though the innate antagonisms between the aforementioned classes are ignored.

The democratic whims of the populace are ancillary at best; the big political and social decisions in the superhero narrative are made by elites — politicians or superheroes themselves or the royalist societies from which they spring. Those kinds of societies favor collectivism over individualism — and collectivism is anathema to the superhero genre, aside from the teams they form. Darkest of all, superhero movies posit that humans need authority figures — that we cannot survive without policing.

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It is a troubling moral in an era in which a militarized police force routinely carries out sprees of racist violence on people of color. Finally and most importantly, the heroes always labor to make their gear and technology themselves, or with minimal help; a normalized trope of the superhero film is that the labor force is invisible. There is an exception to the rule of labor being invisible, and that is when the villain needs labor to produce something.

Not so for the heroes; they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, design things themselves, or with the help of assistants who are well-treated or are themselves computers e. I would argue this is by design: The fact that heroes must work alone while villains use coerced labor is a dodge that intentionally misrepresents the nature of capitalist civilization at large, which is that there are always those who toil for the rich and those who profit from their labor.

Superhero movies are obscurantist: in presenting the myth of the self-made super man, they conceal the hard economic facts of the labor that, in reality, such supermen would require. Some readers may object to my painting of superhero films as universally embodying conservative ideals.

The socioeconomic moral and the cultural politics of superhero films are like Superman and Iron Man: they exist in separate universes. Superhero movies may be great on identity politics — reflecting the larger culture-war arena where the progressive left continues to win — but terrible on larger political ideas.

The relationship between superheroism and Silicon Valley is more apt than you might think. Mark Zuckerberg designed a digital personal assistant to resemble the A. These men imagine themselves in the mold of superheroes, and society at large imagines them just the same — the screenwriters insert their tropes into their films. Likewise, just as tech critics suffer scorn for being luddites, neoliberalism has its own immune-system response against those foreign bodies who buck the precepts of superhero politics.

Last year I wrote a short take arguing that superhero films are bad for democracy that was met with more vitriol than anything I had ever published; I had naively believed that the idea that cultural products have symbols and politics of their own that rub off on us was relatively uncontroversial. And whatever they may claim to believe, conservatives clearly feel the same way, and value seeing conservative tropes about patriotism, militarism and so forth in movies or on TV.

This is agreed upon on both sides, and it is also the fundament of much of the humanities — the idea that politics and culture are intertwined, inseparable. Saying this out loud, though, rankled the internet. The conservative vitriol was understandable, as the inconsistent philosophies of the right are not generally rooted in rhetorical logic; but many self-respecting liberals joined in to hate on a pretty self-evident hot take that an undergraduate English major could have written.

I see the same gut reaction whenever anyone online dares to criticize our modern superheroes, the tech elite.

Divided States of America

The trolls are as much neoliberal subjects as anyone, and they hold no fault for being raised in a society that teaches them that there is no alternative to paraphrase Thatcher to a sort of privatized, inherently unequal liberal faux-democracy. You have to look far outside the margins to see any alternative. Superhero movies are like a fount, springing forth from a dying economic model ever-faster as it nears an inevitable collapse. Neoliberalism spits out superhero movies because they epitomize the only means by which neoliberalism posits that society will progress: The good-natured elite rise up and conquer an ethereal, politically confusing evil — but on a private basis, without interference from the people.

Likewise — and perhaps in an admission to those who understand that such a dictatorial utopia is a fairytale — neoliberalism simultaneously generates dystopian movies and literature, as the only other future its subjects can realistically envision. By providing these two poles and these two poles only, neoliberalism traps its subjects by repeating the myth that the future will consist of either A more neoliberalism, managed by figurative supermen, or B the apocalypse.

Just as a child who has not tasted chocolate does not crave it, these poles limit our imagination and stifle us, preventing dissent or even a means of imagining an alternative. Stock up on kryptonite. Kill the supermen. Keith A. Spencer is the cover editor for Salon, and manages Salon's science, tech and health coverage. Buy Now, Pay Later. Already a Subscriber? Last year, the Pew Research Center asked people in thirty-seven countries which leader would do the right thing when it came to world affairs. They chose Xi Jinping over Donald Trump, twenty-eight per cent to twenty-two per cent.

On his recent visit to Washington, Prime Minister Lee, of Singapore, said that the rest of the world can no longer pretend to ignore the contrasts between American and Chinese leadership. Do you want to be engaged? Xi Jinping has the kind of Presidency that Donald Trump might prefer. Last fall, he started his second term with more unobstructed power than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, who died in When I arrived in Beijing a few weeks later, the pipe organ of Chinese propaganda was at full force. Xi has inscribed on his country a rigid vision of modernity. The Party is reaching deeper into private institutions.

Foreign universities with programs in China, such as Duke, have been advised that they must elevate a Communist Party secretary to a decision-making role on their local boards of trustees. Until recently, Chinese nationalists were crowded out by a widespread desire to be embraced by the outside world. They reject political correctness in issues of race and worry about Islamic extremism. She was forced to clarify that she was not calling for China to accept refugees.


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Back in , I met a jittery young conservative named Rao Jin, a contrarian on the fringes of Chinese politics. Over lunch in Beijing recently, he exuded calm vindication. At sixty-five, Yan is bouncy and trim, with short silver hair and a roaring laugh.

When I arrived at his office one evening, he donned a black wool cap and coat, and we set off into the cold. In , when Bush, Sr. This time, if Trump launched a war against anyone, I doubt he would get support from even five countries. Even the U. Congress is trying to block his ability to start a nuclear war against North Korea.

The leadership in Beijing did not always have this view of Trump. In the years leading up to the election, it had adopted a confrontational posture toward the United States. Beijing worked with Washington on climate change and on the Iran nuclear deal, but tensions were building: China was hacking U. During the campaign, China specialists in both parties called on the next President to strengthen alliances across Asia and to step up pressure on Beijing.

Most of all, they studied Trump. An entire battery of think tanks was set to work, to analyze how this had occurred and how Trump had negotiated his way through to prevail. Before he entered the White House, China started assembling a playbook for dealing with him. He would trade Taiwan for jobs. Inside the new White House, there were two competing strategies on China.

One, promoted by Stephen Bannon, then the chief strategist, wanted the President to take a hard line, even at the risk of a trade war. Kushner argued for a close, collegial bond between Xi and Trump, and he prevailed. During the transition, Kushner dined with Chinese business executives while the Kushner Companies was seeking their investment in a Manhattan property. After that was revealed in news reports, the firm ended the talks. The Kushner Companies apologized. Russel spoke to Chinese officials after the Mar-a-Lago visit. After Mar-a-Lago, Trump heaped praise on Xi. Meanwhile, Chinese analysts were struggling to keep up with the news about the rise and fall of White House advisers.

Peak superhero? Not even close: How one movie genre became the guiding myth of neoliberalism

By early November, Trump was preparing for his first trip to Beijing. Some China specialists in the U. Among other things, the U. They believe he is uniquely susceptible to that. The strategy had worked before. In the mid-nineteen-eighties, the C. Trump arrived in more modest standing. His approval rating was thirty-seven per cent, the lowest of any President at that point in his tenure since Gallup started measuring it. Three former aides had been charged with felonies in the investigation into Russian interference in the election.

It was the first summit since in which the American President had less leverage and political security than his Chinese counterpart. Xi deftly flattered his guest. They drank tea, watched an opera performance at the Pavilion of Pleasant Sounds, and admired an antique gold urn. Trump and Xi met for several hours and then appeared before the press.

Xi and Trump took no questions from the press. According to two U. In concrete terms, why does it matter if America retreats and China advances? One realm in which the effects are visible is technology, where Chinese and American companies are competing not simply for profits but also to shape the rules concerning privacy, fairness, and censorship.

In Beijing, I hailed a cab and headed to the northwest corner of the city, where a Chinese company called SenseTime is working on facial recognition, a field at the intersection of science and individual rights. But there is more parity now. Nobody wears an identification badge, because cameras recognize employees, causing doors to open.

I was met there by June Jin, the chief marketing officer, who earned an M. Jin walked me over to a display of lighthearted commercial uses of facial-recognition technology. I stepped before a machine, which resembled a slender A. When I stepped in front of it again, it revised its calculation to forty-one years old, and played me an ad for liquor.

I was, at the time, forty. The machines are used in restaurants to entertain waiting guests. But they contain a hidden element of artificial intelligence as well: images are collected and compared with a facial database of V. Next, Jin showed me how the technology is used by police. If the similarity level is over a certain threshold, then they can make an arrest on the spot.

Guangdong Province is always very open-minded and embracing technology, so, last year alone, we helped the Guangdong police bureau solve many crimes. In the U. Under what conditions can biometric data be used to find suspects of a crime, or be sold to advertisers?

Obama and the Destruction of America's Economy

In the city of Shenzhen, the local government uses facial recognition to deter jaywalkers. At busy intersections, it posts their names and I. In Beijing, the government uses facial-recognition machines in public rest rooms to stop people from stealing toilet paper; it limits users to sixty centimetres within a nine-minute period. Before Trump took office, the Chinese government was far outspending the U. The Chinese government, in its current five-year plan, has committed a hundred and fifty billion dollars to A.

By , they will be better than us. By , they will dominate the industries of A. Schmidt, who chairs the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, added that the ban on visitors from Iran was an obstacle to technology development. I want them here.

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I want them working for Alphabet and Google. Cambridge abandoned the move. Foreign governments and human-rights groups have expressed alarm that Beijing is pursuing critics beyond its borders and bringing them to mainland China for detention.