Captain America’s political ideas are baloney.
The Avengers broke up because Captain America has the political sophistication of a 13-year-old boy in a Che Guevara t-shirt.
by MATT STOKES | May 4, 2018
If any one thing characterizes the distinction between the feudal societies of the Middle Ages and today’s, it is that the actor with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is the state. If you lived in Western Europe in the 13th century, you had to confront a complicated web of lords, church orders, assorted mobs, and faraway kings if you wanted justice. Who had the right to use force was based mainly on the capability of the actor to assert its rights.
It was a hugely inefficient system for many reasons, but a huge one was economic. It was quite difficult to transact and trade in a world rife with warfare among petty lords and their private armies squabbling over territory. And it’s hard to build a prosperous global economy when the Avengers might accidentally blow up your buildings.
Prior to the events of Avengers: Infinity War, the Avengers team split into factions because of a political disagreement. The argument started in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, when Avenger financier Tony Stark wanted to bring the team under government oversight, but the regulation skeptic Steve Rogers was unwilling to give up the group’s unchecked authority.
In Civil War, 117 countries have signed on to the Sokovia Accords, which ask that the Avengers agree to work within its restrictions and come under the direct supervision of the United Nations. This comes after Captain America and his team have conducted an extra-governmental counterterrorism operation in Lagos, Nigeria, and, by accident, destroyed a building and killed several innocent civilians.
Among the provisions of the Accords is a rule that superheroes cannot act outside of their own country without that country’s permission or UN authorization. This especially troubles Rogers, who says, “If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose. What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go, and they don’t let us?”
What we don’t see from Rogers is an alternative idea. He confusingly seems to endorse isolationism when Stark shows him the pen used by Franklin Roosevelt to sign the Lend-Lease Act and he laments, “Some would say it brought our country closer to war.” This is very odd, as he seems so suspicious of international cooperation that he suggests it might have been better for the US to not fight alongside the Allies during the Second World War. The Allied effort is perhaps the all-time greatest example of morally-just and well-performed international collaboration. Would the world have been better off if the US had not fought Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, or if it had waited longer to get involved?
But Rogers is fundamentally libertarian in his thinking, distrusting state action. He say the United Nations is, “run by people with agendas, and agendas change.” Here he echoes James Madison’s famous “if men were angels” screed in Federalist no. 51:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
One of the premier libertarian thinkers, Robert Nozick, explained that states arise from the natural result of protective associations fighting each other. Militias will, over time, either kill each other off or be defeated by a larger power, and we can think of this power as the state. The Avengers are a protective association, and the existing international system is trying to absorb them. But Rogers wants to keep the Avengers’ autonomy, does not want to be integrated into the existing order.
Indeed, as ambitious protective associations (be they mafia, gangs, or sovereign states) inevitably confront one another, so have challenges to the Avengers’ hegemony arisen. As Vision explains during the Sokovia deliberations:
In the eight years since Mr. Stark announced himself as Iron Man, the number of known enhanced persons has grown exponentially. And, during the same period, the number of potentially world-ending events has risen at a commensurate rate… Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict breeds catastrophe.
This is reminiscent of Jim Gordon’s warning at the end of Batman Begins, “We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar…they buy armor-piercing rounds.” The very presence of an agent causes the escalation of craziness, or an event’s having happened makes it likely that that event will not only be replicated but improved upon—a track runner’s speed, a three-point shooter’s accuracy in basketball, a Batman being met by a Joker. This being the case, wouldn’t we want to have a better process for determining whether and how the Avengers intervene in a matter? Stark says, “There’s no decision making process here,” and it’s true—we haven’t seen in a Marvel movie how the Avengers determine whether and how to take action.
Steve Rogers obviously trusts himself to make the best decisions about how to use his superpowers, which is understandable. But how exactly can other people live in a world with the kind of uncertainty that creates? Nozick wrote of independents, people who didn’t respect the rule of law—chaotic actors aiming to disrupt the system. Revolutionaries, separatists, terrorists, or anybody else who rejects the legitimacy of the state is considered by Nozick an independent. The independents can be fought, but it sometimes makes more sense to compensate them in exchange for going along.
Captain America is an independent who asserts his individual “right to choose” to intervene. But he has taken part in paramilitary operations that had devastating consequences to the world. Scarlett Witch destroying the building in Lagos could quite reasonably be seen in Nigeria as an act of war by the United States—even if the Avengers weren’t literally acting on orders of the US government, the US government doesn’t punish them or turn them over to be prosecuted in Nigeria.
The Accords should compensate Steve for violating his rights to make him as close to whole as possible. By cooperating, he would be allowed to continue Avenging, but without the autonomy he once enjoyed. They do not offer adequate compensation.
But what is his eventual plan? What belief system underpins all of this? The Accords are the people of the world’s way of having a say in how power works, which is another way of describing democracy. To deny the world’s people that opportunity is to deny democracy. It is, as Col. James Rhodes puts it, “dangerously arrogant.”
It’s hard to sympathize with Rogers here. He seems like a teenage anarchist who enjoys the trappings of rebellion without any actual understanding of what it entails. Does he think the world should allow extreme paramilitary units like the Avengers to operate freely? Does he want to upend the international system of nation-states because, like with the Lend-Lease Act, international cooperation can hasten war? Troublingly, he does not address these questions. Nor does he confront the implication of the Avengers continuing as a non-state actor, which is that the Avengers eventually become a state themselves.
Engineered to set up a decade of movies with built-in brand loyalty, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was an enormous hit that left little mark. Is it worth a second look?