This week, Joker surpassed the $1 billion mark at the global box office, making it the most commercially successful R-rated movie of all time and one of the most profitable superhero-franchise releases. That says something profound about the shape and spirit of our age. Because Joker is a film about solidarity—or rather, what happens when the ingredient of solidarity is removed from the social stew.
The Joaquin Phoenix vehicle, as most everyone knows, tells how the clownish Batman villain came to his villainy. Set in the rundown, crime-ridden Big Apple of the 1970s—and occupying a surreal cinematic landscape somewhere between Taxi Driver and Italian neorealism and comic-book schlock—the film forcefully addresses our moment.
Like Phoenix contorting his emaciated body and laugh-weeping maniacally, men and women in today’s liberal societies cry out for fellow-feeling—only to be confronted with a system that reduces every relationship to the transactional, promotes alienation and hyper-competitiveness, and cocoons them in virtual worlds offering simulacra of communion. No wonder Joker has achieved near-instant cult status, with its antihero emerging as an avatar for the armies of angry young men online.
Much has been made of the fact that the film’s social critique doesn’t run all that deep: Every social safety net fails the Joker, but if there is one proximate cause of his breakdown, it is losing his therapist to municipal budget cuts. Some critics have held this against Joker. Yet the urban mental-health crisis, in full swing during Joker’s period setting and still raging today, is a perfect synecdoche for our deeper crisis of solidarity.
Beginning in the 1960s, American lawmakers began emptying state facilities that cared for people with severe mental illness and intellectual disabilities. Overblown media horror stories of neglect and brutality at a few institutions supplied the initial impetus, but soon “de-institutionalization” took on a life of its own and became a permanent ideology.
For progressive liberals, de-institutionalization was all about maximizing the autonomy of the mentally ill, even if that meant withholding care from people who couldn’t take care of themselves—and couldn’t see that they needed help. For the liberal right, meanwhile, de-institutionalization meant less public spending on mental health. Left and right liberalism thus worked hand in hand, leaving the most vulnerable to “die with their rights on,” as psychiatrist Darold Treffert predicted in 1973.
In the decades since Treffert’s warning, the nationwide number of 24-hour psychiatric-treatment beds has declined 77 percent. In New York, where Joker is set, the number of state beds has plummeted by 15 percent just over the past four years, and the Cuomo administration wants to shutter yet more institutions. Homeless, mentally ill, and often addicted men and women crowd streets and subway platforms, dying with their rights on.
Until Team Trump took action this year, longstanding federal regulations barred Medicaid from reimbursing long-term inpatient care for the mentally ill. And despite some reforms, parents of children with severe intellectual disabilities are still at their wit’s end trying to secure long-term care over the opposition of liberal disability-rights ideologues in Washington and right-wing budget hawks.
How else to describe this dynamic but as the bipartisan abolition of solidarity? It shows up in numerous other areas of social policy, as well, many of them alluded to in Joker: drug liberalization, divorce liberalization, sexual liberalization, and so on.
Then there is the economic sphere, where American solidarity has almost entirely dried up. As Christopher Caldwell snarked not too long ago, the left-right liberal consensus tells today’s poor and working-class people (in effect): We’ve done nothing for you, we’ve destabilized your livelihoods in every way, but hey, at least your boss is a disabled transgender woman!
That is a recipe for social rage, and Joker captures this nicely. Phoenix’s character inspires an uprising of sorts by fellow incels and angries and lonelies. But it’s not constructive collective action or an assertion of the political primacy of the common good—it’s mayhem and looting and theft and murder. Joker really is a villain, even if we can understand the roots of his villainy.
There is a lesson here for liberal conservatives and libertarians bent on burying the more solidaristic accounts of conservatism that are winning adherents today. Recently, some libertarians have gone so far as to frame Senator Marco Rubio’s proposal for a “common-good capitalism” as a form of “fascism.”
That is a smear as well as a misdiagnosis of the current situation. Because the longing for solidarity can never be permanently repressed. And when healthy, reasonable sources of solidarity and communion are allowed to wither and die, unhealthy, unreasonable versions gather strength. The real choice facing the right today, then, isn’t between Rubio’s Aristotelian and Leonine vision and some Hayekian utopia of perfect individualism. It is between Rubio’s common-good conservatism and the dangerous clowns of the “groyper” alt-right. And that is no laughing matter.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post.