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 [1]. 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 [2], the Indy films at least draw a line in the sand for an individual to overcome systemic limitations.

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 into.

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 film.

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 [3].

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 value destruction.

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 British.
3. In that respect, the villains of the new Indy movie appear eerily similar to the military despots ruling Myanmar.