Defending Iron Man: Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Civil War’

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Image courtesy Marvel

“The only way to erect such a common power … is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

At the heart of Captain America: Civil War lies a fundamental divergent belief in mankind. For me, the hardest part of Civil War being a Captain America movie is that it gives a sense that being #TeamIronMan puts you as the adversary of good. Ultimately, reading Civil War through the Hobbesian lens clearly explains my #TeamIronMan stance.

Now, first, let me admit: I have yet to see the movie (obviously). I cannot vouch for the differences in reasoning or plot between the original Civil War event and the movie. However, by all preview accounts the same registration/government/liberty themes all seem to apply. So, I’m going to ground my arguments here in the comics.

As a generally untrusting person, Hobbes speaks to me when he writes,

“For as amongst masterless men, there is perpetual war of every man against his neighbour; no inheritance to transmit to the son, nor to expect from the father; no propriety of goods or lands; no security; but a full and absolute liberty in every particular man … they live in the condition of a perpetual war, and upon the confines of battle, with their frontiers armed, and cannons planted against their neighbours round about.” (189)

The basic idea here is that without laws, men would constantly be in a state of war, battling one another at every turn. Liberty, says Hobbes, ends up with man living in a constant battle with his neighbor when left to rely solely on his own human nature. In the context of Civil War, Tony’s fundamental premise is that people cannot be trusted with unchecked superpowers because they will not be responsible with them. Much like Hobbes, Tony has come to believe that man’s innate, natural base senses will overtake their common sense. The greater good must be regulated.

Image courtesy Marvel
Image courtesy Marvel

For those not in the know, the Civil War event relies on the premise that a few irresponsible supers blow up most of Stamford, CT. Casualties include kids. Everyone is angry. Iron Man feels responsible and supports registration of all supers. Cap feels that registration would be Hitler-esque. Thus begins a war between superheroes that pretty much destroys a whole bunch of stuff.

“Because Marvel,” many people automatically argue the X-Men registration racism road. The problem with that is the supers in Civil War aren’t all genetic. They weren’t all born that way. Some made a choice to gain super powers. Some, like the Iron Man/Iron Patriot/Falcon, are superheroes because they have super suits. Arguing that the registration act in Civil War is the same as in X-men books misses the nuance that the registration is for all who are supers, whether by choice or not, whether good or not.

In this case, my very Hobbesian sense of self does not trust people. I always look askance at anyone who trusts a bunch of renegades with destructive power akin to an atomic weapon. If we have learned nothing from The Avengers movies (or the Superman movie), it is that supers don’t always think about civil liabilities and insurance in their efforts to save humanity. Yet, people trust them. Or, trust some of them.

Looking at our current social narrative, the regulation of potentially destructive objects in Civil War parallels social discussions regarding gun control. On one side of the argument, you have individuals who trust people with weapons that can cause death in under a minute and argue curbing that right limits their freedom. On the other side of the discussion, you have people who feel that tracking weapons helps rein in the power that comes with them and forces responsibility. As with the superhero registration law, you also have the argument that those acting with ill intent will refuse to register. Captain America: Civil War, at its most fundamental level, touches upon the tension between trusting individuals in the aggregate and distrusting human nature such that regulation is the only answer.

The question then becomes, in a society, how do we define these groups that fall outside of the regulatory confines? Hobbes would argue:

“Irregular systems, in their nature but leagues, or sometimes mere concourse of people without union to any particular design, not by obligation of one to another, but proceeding only from a similitude of wills and inclinations, become lawful, or unlawful, according to the lawfulness, or unlawfulness, of every particular man’s design therein: and his design is to be understood by the occasion. The leagues of subjects, because leagues are commonly made for mutual defence, are in a Commonwealth … for the most part unnecessary, and savour of unlawful design; and are for that cause unlawful, and go commonly by the name of factions, or conspiracies. For a league being a connexion of men by covenants, if there be no power given to any one man or assembly (as in the condition of mere nature) to compel them to performance, is so long only valid as there ariseth no just cause of distrust.” (208-209)

What does this mean to superheroes? It means that as unregulated entities, they are based on the social contract within the group. Big deal, we all say. All these dudes are good guys. But, really, are they? I wrote recently about how we are all one bad day away from being Punisher. Each group of supers is only as “good” as the individuals within. Most people are morally ambiguous (yes, yes, except for Cap… he’s a paragon of moral perfection, yes, I know). This moral ambiguity means that the trustworthiness necessary for a league to be lawful becomes tenuous. If we look at the supers who, ultimately, rail against the registration act, they are, as Cap says:

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Image courtesy Marvel

Closest to the ground. Daredevil. Luke Cage. Probably Jessica Jones in her current Netflix iteration. Add to that mix any of our more morally complex characters. You know the ones. These are the supers we wait, holding our breath, to cross that moral line just once. Because they are so close to doing it. As Hobbes notes, leagues are often unlawful when there is no power to compel men through fear of reprisal or consequence.

Much of Civil War surrounds the unfettered power arising out of leagues such as The Avengers. Hobbes, in referring to groups, notes:

“And of private systems, some are lawful; some unlawful: lawful are those which are allowed by the Commonwealth; all other are unlawful. Irregular systems are those which, having no representative, consist only in concourse of people; which if not forbidden by the Commonwealth, nor made on evil design … are lawful. But when the intention is evil, or (if the number be considerable) unknown, they are unlawful.” (198)

Private systems have no rules. Their legitimacy, like the stock market, relies on the way people perceive them. Thus, superheroes are only safe and trustworthy because the people feel they are. When the populace begins to fear them, they no longer, in Hobbes’ words, consist in the concourse of people. They become outlaws.

I like to think of this in the historical sense. As a history geek (along with all my other geekdoms), I’ve been fascinated by Tammany Hall since my late teens. What always fascinated me was the way in which the corruption of the political machine was not only tolerated but embraced. The illegality of many of the actions was ignored primarily due to the protection that the machine provided. Similarly, in many ways, the American Italian Mafia provided the sense of both fear and security. (Trust me: you wanted to live in a mafia neighborhood in New York in the 1980s because they kept their own areas neat and clean. Even my mafia-disapproving Italian-American grandfather admitted that.)

Thus, these leagues, be they political machines or criminal organizations or charity groups, are legitimized by the people who surround them. Much the same way, supers are heroes or vigilantes or villains based on the way in which the public approaches their existence. In that way, these leagues of superheroes can transform from protectors of public safety to gangs of ultraviolence in a moment. The perception of their actions is what gives them legitimacy. When that perception, as discussed by the mother of a child lost to the Stamford destruction, is shattered, the heroes are no longer heroes.

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Image courtesy Marvel

Unless people are required to act correctly by laws, there is a likelihood that their free will, or their innate baser nature, would have them acting in ways that are detrimental to the greater good. As Hobbes argues, “But when the words free and liberty are applied to anything but bodies, they are abused” (185). Here is where Cap’s belief in liberty fails. Humans need to be constrained by a sense of responsibility or consequence. As humans often revert to their baser natures, they cannot be trusted to form lawful amorphous leagues. When society fails to accept those leagues, lawful legitimacy must arise out of control by a larger, formalized body. Often, this body is The Commonwealth, the Leviathan, the Government.

And thus, I will proudly wear my Team Iron Man paraphernalia to Captain America: Civil War. My cynical, Hobbesian self aligns with Tony Stark. Humans cannot be trusted. Only through the lawful consensus of the society through a series of formalized consequences can we grant moral authority to those who have the capability to wipe out the entire society which they, allegedly, swear to protect.