Liberals, Class and the Joker Complex

Warning: this article contains spoilers

Many parts of the liberal press don’t much seem to like Joker; not a few of them appear to have made up their mind about the movie before having even seen it. Some surmise that Joker is ‘aligned with so-called “incel” culture (involuntarily celibate men who are angry and misogynistic).’ In a particularly dismissive piece, Jordan Hoffman wonders if Joker offers sympathy for the incel (‘Is this movie really just the biggest-budget Ben Shapiro video? To what extent will misogynistic creeps “feel seen” in this film?).

Context of the entire Batman franchise that the Joker is a villain notwithstanding, mere acknowledgement of the class-based conditions that produce Fleck and form the social roots of his pathological psychology are conflated in these readings to an endorsement of incel culture se. This we might describe as a ‘Joker complex,’ the use of progressive rather than reactionary pretexts to shut down class-based dissent. If you talk about life under capitalism, the incels win.

Class then is the elephant in the room where the reaction to Joker is concerned; as the social roots of Arthur Fleck’s descent into murderousness and madness, social class and its consequences is unmistakable in, amongst other things, his poverty, the medicate-the-alienation-away approach of his psychiatric treatment, the tokenistic social supports (which are defunded thanks to incipient neoliberal austerity halfway through the film anyway), and his mother’s abandonment at the hands of a wealthy ex-lover who knocked her up and ran.

Such is more than enough, as we see from Fleck’s example, to generate the kinds of class-based antagonism, social marginalization, existential alienation, life stresses and mental health problems that all of the above tend to produce for many of us within late capitalism. Fleck’s experiences on these counts clearly constitute triggering fare, however, for the liberal bourgeoisie and their coterie and courtiers who seem not to be able to make a distinction between talking about present conditions and enabling the alt-right.

Fleck, plagued by acute mental health issues resulting (as we learn) from acute childhood trauma, is held as a result of the impoverishing effects of such within the ranks of the lumpenproletariat, and forced to spruik closing-down sales dressed as a clown for a living. Despite his class status and mental health problems, he is also white, a fact that apparently automatically justifies the association of discontent under capitalism with giving comfort to misogynists and creeps.

Similarly, while Fleck’s whiteness offers him all the white skin privileges of any white person on Earth—one of a number of token privileges appealed to by every demagogue and fascist in the name of diving subject classes against ourselves—such would seem to be mitigated somewhat by his class and mental health circumstances. His white skin does not save Fleck from poverty, abandonment by his wealthy father who uses his social connections to have a certificate of adoption forged to cover his tracks, or victimisation by suits on a train. Nevertheless, class-blind liberal identity politics become the basis of claims from at least one reviewer as evidence of the movie’s inherent racism and ahistoricism; Fleck has a fantasy about a healthy romantic relationship with his black neighbor, what a diabolical Schapiro acolyte. He could have practically been at Charlottesville.

The conflation of class antagonism with far-right reactionism—one that effectively invokes a false equivalency between far-left challenges to class and social privilege and far-right defenses of them—in this way begs the question as why anyone on the liberal left remains surprised and bewildered that the alienated and disaffected flock to far-right populists and demagogues. When ‘if you talk about life under capitalism, the incels win’ becomes the way for liberal capitalists to deal with things they don’t like when they find the common ground they share with conservative capitalists challenged from below.

It would appear that class prejudice is also a feature of the reaction to Joker; ‘He leaves you wanting to start him a GoFundMe,’ Time sneers, obvious to the normalization of crowdfunding as a stopgap for the same kind of neoliberal austerity referenced in the film through historical allusions to the fiscal crisis Kim Phillips-Fein discusses in Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. That this passes without comment is extremely telling; why could anyone possibly have any serious issues with the state of present conditions? It’s not like it’s a running theme in the film itself. Maybe instead of a GoFundMe, we could bolster the welfare system, or overthrow class society and establish a system of anarcho-syndicalist industrial cooperatives instead. This might however be too triggering for the courtiers of late capitalism.

To take another even more overt example, Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker, comments:

In the wake of Arthur’s killing spree, a public figure—Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a wealthy banker for whom Penny worked decades earlier, and who, of course, is the father of a boy named Bruce—speaks of killers such as Arthur as “clowns.” This comment gives rise to a sudden mass movement of activists who dress like clowns and target the rich and the powerful. The trope resembles Hillary Clinton’s reference to many of the supporters of Donald Trump as “deplorables,” a term that was adopted by some as a badge of honor—except in “Joker” the epithet applies rather to radicals on the left, who loom as a menace waiting to happen.

The radical left are now the Deplorables as well; the classism and elitism of the liberal reactions to ideological challenges to class in Joker could hardly be clearer; ditto the use of False-Dilemma driven, ‘If you talk about life under capitalism, the incels win’-type logic to shut down class dissent from the liberal left. The tarring of dissent based on the lived experience of daily life under late capitalism on the basis of progressive, anti-misogynist pretexts begs the question also as to the last time any incel had enough politics to denounce the pathological greed and nihilism of elites as Fleck does while appearing on the Murray Franklin Show. If any incel ever displayed anything of such insight, that would at least offer wiggle room to discuss the social function of misogyny. Otherwise, such associations serve as a form of guilt by association; the Moscow Show Trials also used the same process to tar dissenters on progressive (even revolutionary) pretexts, conflating criticism of Stalinist tyranny with attacks on the (dead) revolution.

The deployment of the kind of identity politics behind the ‘If you talk about life under capitalism, the incels win’-logic of the Joker complex functions ultimately then to silence expression of class antagonism. Such logic is also typical the False Dilemma fallacy used in other contexts to associate criticism of US foreign policy for support with terrorism, criticism of policies designed to further entrench privilege and inequality with support for authoritarian tyranny, and criticism of toxic masculinity with support for moral permissiveness, dabbling in witchcraft and Satanism, etc. In the case of Jordan Hoffman, mentioned above, the inconsistency and cognitive dissonance on this count arises where such a vocal opponent of toxic masculinity appears in a Jodorowsky t-shirt, raising issues on similar counts as noted elsewhere. Maybe the difference in this case is that Jodorowsky didn’t spend as much time dwelling on the politics of class.

The mere fact of being invoked using progressive pretexts rather than reactionary ones does not in and of itself change the nature of the logic as such, only serving in actuality to throw a spotlight between authoritarian and libertarian tendencies on the left. While liberals might be less politically reactionary than Tories overall, but they do remain defenders of class privilege and class hierarchy as a matter of principle. When you apply liberal critiques of authoritarianism to the autocratic hierarchies inherent to capitalist social relations of production, you get socialism. When you do it consistently and with consideration for the lessons of history, you get libertarian socialism.

‘You never listen,’ Fleck complains to his token support worker; ‘Look at what you’re doing to us,’ he complaints again later to his father. The association of these criticisms with reactionary agendas only serves ultimately to highlight, paradoxically enough; perhaps a fuller exposition of such criticisms, based on reactions to them, might add that you never listen or see what you’re doing to us, and project your own malfeasance onto your critics to avoid having to reflect on your own part in generating social conflict. If liberals are upset about the possibility of Joker-style demagogues latching onto social discontent, maybe the onus on them to do something about it themselves instead of denouncing those who react badly to very real social problems as Deplorables.

To the extent that this criticism applies, the negative reactions to Joker and the complex it seems to reflect might be considered to themselves embody what they envisage in the film, and claim to oppose, though ultimately only in pretense while they embody them in fact. Perhaps hostile reviewers would have been happier with another Batman movie—a billionaire superhero fighting the effects of the system that allows him to live in the lap of luxury with the latest military tech rather than addressing its root causes, and a conservative militarist’s wet dream. Or maybe corporate media outlets are just happier outrage farming as a way of generating revenue.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).