Indiana Jones and the last capitalist By Chan Akya
One of the most successful film franchises in recent history returns to cinemas
around the world this weekend as Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of
the Crystal Skull)makes his latest foray amid darkening economic
clouds, despondent investors and a threatening political environment. At the
risk of spoiling the surprise for viewers, I can reveal here that the film's
creative geniuses did not try to get Indy to solve the subprime crisis or
unravel a collateralized debt obligation in his quests, despite the obvious
temptation to pander to economic populism.
In ancient times, Roman gladiatorial contests pointed to the
depraved soul of the then imperial power, as Caesars of old bid their slaves
from foreign conquests to do battle for the entertainment of the masses (at
least its males). It is tempting to view American movies in the same light,
though that might be a tad unfair as Hollywood today makes films for global
screening, with often simultaneous release around the world, as is the case for
the latest Indiana Jones (Indy for short) film.
Thus any critical examination of such films can often suggest undercurrents of
popular thought, if not stated preferences, on a global rather than strictly
American basis. What then do the Indy films tell us about the state of global
capitalism as represented by its main protagonists, the multinational
corporations, or MNCs?
Looking at the origins and makeup of the various Indy films, it is clear that
the producer-director combination of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg sought
to create a James Bond-like character . Even so, there are major differences
between Indy and James Bond, starting with the fact that the latter is employed
by a government agency with a "license to kill" across national borders. In
effect, Bond was the archetypal imperialist figure for whom national boundaries
meant nothing as he carried out his government's orders with scant disregard
for life and even less for clothing his women. All in all, Bond represented the
archetypal European imperial socialist who partook of the fringe benefits of
his job with gusto even while eschewing material rewards.
Indy, on the other hand, is a buccaneering American historian whose passion for
revealing archaeological truths is only matched by his capitalist zeal in
securing associated treasures. The contrast with Bond is further sharpened in
Indy's first outing, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where his adversaries are
a duplicitous Frenchman (presumably a socialist) and of course marauding Nazis,
thereby paving the way for the emergence of an essentially anti-European hero
figure. Unlike Bond, Indy is shown with a collection of priceless antiques that
are presumably material rewards for his exploits.
That last point is what marks Indy out as a capitalist in the best traditions
of the American Wild West and all other explorer stories imaginable.
Individualism as the enemy
The next set of differences comes in the choice of cinematic villains. James
Bond almost always square off against a megalomaniacal individual while
battling his army of paid goons. Again, this perhaps highlights the
anti-individualist stance of modern Europe that tends to frown on the wealth
that is self-made rather than either state-sanctioned or better still,
inherited. The common European skepticism towards such capitalists manifests
often enough in society as everyone examines the sinister origins of wealth; as
a case of art imitating life it was but natural that Bond would represent such
social mores fighting against powerful individuals to reiterate the power of
the Orwellian imperial state.
In contrast to such Bond films, Indy is shown as the key individual battling
totalitarian regimes, further accentuating his claims as a capitalist figure.
Whether it is Nazis or dangerous religious cults, adversaries are inevitably
part of a large organization based on fear, superstition and violence. While
often overdoing the historical comparisons or messing them up completely ,
the Indy films at least draw a line in the sand for an individual to overcome
Individualism is what leads Indy to embark on his adventures and, whenever in a
tight spot, it is the same individualism that provides enough innovation to
escape. Herein lies the next part of the differentiation to Bond, where the
protagonist comes equipped with government-issued equipment such as
laser-emitting watches that again represent state dominance over technology and
means of production - a definition of European societies at large. Indy, armed
with nothing more than a fedora and a whip, uses good old American grit and
innovation to escape from tight spots that his totalitarian tormentors put him
In his latest caper, Indy goes up against communists. As an aside, I was quite
relieved that it wasn't the all-too-familiar Middle Eastern warriors who are
his adversaries, but rather good old-fashioned Russian communists in search of
the means to further domination using religious icons. I found it quite
interesting in itself that ungodly communists would resort to the occult to
spread their dominance, but then again the intrinsically hypocritical nature of
communism is such as to allow a suspension of disbelief for the duration of the
As I wrote in my last article (India's
real terrorists Asia Times Online, May 17, 2008), communism is a more
dangerous force in today's world than it is widely assumed to be. In the name
of egalitarian principles, communists merely tack one misery after another on
the common man through the media of over-regulation, higher taxation,
consumption quotas and the like. Naturally their efforts fail to provide
sufficient success, thereby forcing those in power to resort to extreme and
even exotic steps to remain in power .
Now for the criticism
At the beginning of the article, I referred to the connection between Indy and
the modern MNC. Based on the above counter-perspective with Bond, it appears
logical to think of today's MNCs as growing through the individualism of their
employees. This indeed used to be true, whether we look at the financial
behemoths of Wall Street or the large oil companies. However, over the past 10
years or so, individualism has given way to corporate cultures and herein lies
the problem with the modern MNC.
By stifling the very forces of innovation and profit seeking that allowed the
MNCs to become dominant globally, these companies are losing their edge. Many
an example presents itself in this regard, from today's global banks that have
been felled by the paralysis in decision-making processes to the large oil
companies that have fallen significantly behind the state-owned monstrosities
in the sector.
Thus, while it would have taken an Indy to open up a lost city of treasure,
that city itself is now run by a committee sitting remotely that controls the
city's sewers and provides its electricity. The jump from small innovative
companies to the monsters of the stock market today has come with tremendous
Going back to the model of smaller capitalist units is probably a pretty good
thing for the world economy today. This is why small firms in Silicon valley
lead in technology as compared with the behemoths of software; why small
biotechnology firms seem to come with the blockbusters rather than today's
large pharmaceutical majors; and why small hedge funds have beaten the giant
investment banks at their own game.
There is a final point about demographics, though, that is simply too difficult
to miss in the latest Indy film. The main character is too old for his
adventure, and his projected successor is only just learning the tricks of the
trade. As a parable of modern America, the demographic divide could not be more
accurate, albeit with a minor detail changed.
That detail would be the nationality of any potential Indy successor. With
layers on layers of government regulations and stifling new laws, America is no
longer the best place to start new businesses, however small they may be. The
successors of the American capitalist system would therefore necessarily be
outside the country today, ready to innovate their way to success as more
socialism becomes a demographic demand of the American system. Could that
person possibly be in Asia now?
1. The director Steven Spielberg accepts that the main inspiration for the Indy
movies came from the James Bond films of the 1970s and 1980. It followed that
casting the erstwhile James Bond actor Sean Connery as Indiana Jones' father in
the third instalment was an "inside joke".
2. India banned the second instalment of the Indy movies because of
disrespectful portrayal of Hindus in the film. This was the film with the least
historical accuracy even by Hollywood standards, set as it was around 100 years
after the religious cult portrayed in the film had been wiped out by the
3. In that respect, the villains of the new Indy movie appear eerily similar to
the military despots ruling Myanmar.