No Man’s Land: Social Order in Gotham City

The fourth essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “No Man’s Land: Social Order in Gotham City” by Brett Chandler Patterson. In this essay, he traces the “No Man’s Land” story arc — where Gotham is abandoned by the U.S. government after a disaster causes a breakdown of the city — and compares it to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The interesting thing about it, to me, is the comparison to Hobbes and to Hobbes’s idea of the State of Nature. Essentially, the idea is that in the State of Nature, without any social controls or without any overarching authority, what we have are a bunch of individuals all trying to survive in the world. Our own survival is our paramount interest, and so we find ourselves willing to do anything in order to do so. And just as we think that way, so does everyone else. There is no person who is so strong that they can feel totally confident in being able to secure their own survival just by their own abilities. The strong person can overwhelm others physically, but can be overwhelmed if enough band together to overrun them, or can be tricked out of their spoils. The group can be tricked by someone smart enough to deceive them. The smart person can be overwhelmed physically. Given all of this, we end up with life in the State of Nature being brutish and short … and, let me add, paranoid. So, Hobbes suggests, in order to get around this we form a Social Contract, where we band together to make rules that allow us to protect our own survival and ensure that we do, and give power to some overarching authority — unlike Hobbes, to me it seems that this authority doesn’t have to be any kind of specific sovereign, as long as it has the power to enforce all of the rules — to enforce those rules and ensure that everyone plays fair. When that’s done, our lives are no longer brutish, short, and paranoid, but instead are much better, and we all live a lot longer and a lot better than we would in the State of Nature.

The issue raised by this essay is: what happens when that authority is removed? Patterson points out that Hobbes thought that this happened in cases of, say, civil war, and so we can see that that sort of situation happened, at least in part, in New Orleans and in Gotham. Order broke down, and the people splintered. Without an overarching authority to enforce the rules, those who thought themselves strong felt free to break them. People who were only interested in surviving had to either break the rules themselves or at least defend themselves from them. Life there, if even for a short time, was again paranoid.

But what we see in both cases is that with thinking, rational beings, a full-on State of Nature is unstable. Those who are weaker will automatically try to align themselves with someone stronger, if only for protection. Thus, you immediately get groups forming, like you saw in “No Man’s Land” … forming around a source of power or authority, be it villains like the Joker, the Penguin or Two-Face, or around the remnants of societal authority like the Gotham PD, or even around the image and protection of Batman himself. And while the authorities may not be benign and there may be disagreements over how to proceed, even the sane tyrants realize that they have to ensure that they have enough power on their side to remain in power. If enough of the people get fed up and rally against them, they will lose. So even the Joker has to keep enough of his henchmen happy so that they don’t, at a minimum, walk out and find a saner employer, or worse yet try to kill him and take over. This proto-Social Contract is enforced at the primitive level: the authority has the power to protect the people and make everyone’s lives better, and has the power to deal with any person or small group that tries to challenge them, but has to play at least somewhat fair with a powerful enough group because if they don’t, there’s enough power in the people to overthrow the authority, often resulting in the death of the sovereign.

If we look at societies today, the authority is generally given to an abstract “government”, not to one person. But in democracies, note that we give the people the power to kick out the sovereign at regular intervals, just by voting them out. Thus, if the sovereign wants to keep power, they have to make the people happy, which carries on to the politicians and the political parties they represent as a whole. We don’t kill the sovereign or even the political parties when we depose them — usually — but we do make their continued power and existence dependent on making sure they keep enough of the people happy to maintain their positions. It is clear, then, that a democracy is just one step up from the primitive social contract that we see in “No Man’s Land” Gotham: groups organized around specific ideas and principles battling it out against each other to win the most influence and so to become the overall sovereign of the land.

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