A Class Act: Explaining Karl Marx with Indiana Jones

A Class Act

Explaining Karl Marx with Indiana Jones

Christopher M. Innes

Identifying Indy’s social class is not why we typically follow his brave pursuits. We watch Indy for his audacious and enterprising exploration of the ancient world and place him in a class of his own, and it’s this uniqueness we’d like to keep. Or at least we see him as this Robin Hood-type character at first glance, in a class of his own. People are reasonable and want to clearly understand where people belong. We place people into social classes to better understand who they are. For this reason, we might have to place Indy in a social class that is not only for him. After all, we need to have someone to compare Indy to, for us to have a better understanding of him.

I am tempted to place him in a class of Feudal chivalrous adventurers who lived before Capitalism and its complexities of modern living. It’s the fact that Indy lives in the modern world where chivalry, courtesy, courage, honor, justice, and helping the weak is replaced by the aspiration to get money that presents us with a problem. There is a paradox. The two worlds of Feudal chivalry and the money-getting world of Capitalism seem to coexist, while such a coexistence is really improbable. Indy lives and works in Capitalism where getting money determines just about every aspect of our modern world and chivalry might be its first casualty. I’m curious to see if Indy is really the class act we imagine him to be, and if this act is not just wishful thinking by the viewer.

Karl Marx to the Rescue

Just think if Indy met the nineteenth century philosopher, Karl Marx. I’m sure George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could stretch their imaginations to create a such a movie. Marx would be the wary wanderer who explains to Indy the power of the economy and how it fashions the character of its players. This is when it will be explained that chivalry is a past ideal. It’s not likely to survive in an age where archaeological artefacts now have a price tag. Artefacts are no longer sought after for the sake of knowledge or wisdom as was the case in Feudal times. Marx would make it clear, in his Socratic tone, that Indy strives to grab artefacts from the clutches of his enemies for the prize of money and that honor and valor are things of the past.

Before Lucas and Spielberg start filming, they first examine Belloq’s character for inspiration. It’s strange that Indy’s arch nemesis, Belloq, as we see in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) lectures Indy on who he is. When it comes to class, Belloq is upper class. He’s an individual who strives in much the same way as Indy to get hold of artifacts, and his motivation for having them comes down to how much money they are worth. He’s driven by a chauffeur in expensive cars, wears nice clothes, and has many servants. He gives the external appearance of a gentleman. His cravings for artifacts to sell to the highest bidder tells us that he is in it for the money, and being a gentleman is a gallant façade we see through very early on.

Indy might not be aware that he, himself, is also in it for the cash prize, but his university and the modern world in which he lives is aware. We certainly hope that his gallant character is not a façade, though we have to accept that Indy’s position in the modern world is driven by money, whether we like it or not. This would place him in a class of entrepreneurs much like Belloq where the classy buzz of nobility soon fades away. Such a character portrayal, one more suited to an accountant, won’t do for an explorer we view as the archetype of chivalry and bravery found more in the Feudal times. To place him in our modern world of entrepreneurs is just too humdrum and tacky. Let’s face it, Belloq’s lecture to Indy not only sheds light on Indy’s place in the world, it also gets him to think about his class.

Belloq: You and I are very much alike. Archaeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the purer faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.

Indy: Now you’re getting nasty.

Belloq: You know it’s true. How nice. Look at this, it’s worthless. (Belloq holds up an inexpensive watch) Ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless, like the Ark. Men will kill for it. Men like you and me.

Belloq’s attempts to make Indy aware of the economic compulsion to acquire the Ark of the Covenant for reasons other than the benefit of humanity upset Indy. It’s rather like being told that he gets as much fulfilment out of chasing artifacts as Belloq, only to attempt redemption by saying he does it for the benefit of humanity. In this situation, Indy is on a mission to prevent the Nazis from getting their hands on the Ark. US Army Intelligence informs him of this impending possible international catastrophe.  Belloq is guiding the Nazis to the Ark. His motivation is to get money, while the Nazis’ is to use the Ark’s power for war purposes. Indy’s defense is just…well…not that convincing after Belloq has revealed a possible true motive.

This economic motive has already been evident in Indiana and the Last Crusade (1989) where Indy steals the Golden Crucifix that belongs to Coronado from a group of grave robbers. In the middle of the skirmishes and excitement, a sheriff intervenes and gives the crucifix back to the grave robbers. We see the robbers giving the artefact to a mysterious man in a Panama hat. This man we presume to be a younger Belloq. Eventually, Indy recovers the cross to donate to the university museum run by Dr. Marcus Brody. Giving the crucifix to his university is part of his job. Along with teaching and publishing great essays, he gets many artifacts for the museum.

Maybe he is just like Belloq and on closer examination we might have to accept that he couldn’t be anything else. He supplies Dr. Brody with many artifacts which impresses the university museum’s benefactors and justifies Indy’s tenured job as a professor. We all have to justify our keep, don’t we?

Indy’s Economically Determined Class

Lucas and Spielberg, with script in hand, zoom the camera back to Marx. He needs to explain how the economy works to determine in what social class Indy belongs. Lucas and Spielberg need go over the script with Marx for him to explain how these artifacts are viewed as valuable. This relationship to the artifact will determine Indy’s class. This is what Marx called “economic determinism.” Marx explains from his armchair, smoking a Havana cigar, squinting as he takes a puff, that we all need objects and services to be produced for us to live. Even Marx’s favorite Cuban cigars need to be made. It’s this economic production that we call the “means of production,” often known as the “Forces of Production.” These are the tools, machinery, places of production, and the work force that produce something from raw materials into something that people need. The workforce is complex and its labor is fully utilized by modern work processes as part of the capitalistic means of production.

Capitalism’s economic predecessor, the Feudalistic system of production had a guild where the worker would make an object with the help of an apprentice. Marx wrote in Capital (1867) about factory workers making a pin that was once made solely by the Guildsman and his apprentice who got satisfaction from doing the whole job from start to finish. Under Capitalism the “Division of Labor” splits the forty tasks to make a pin between forty different workers. The workers are now alienated because they no longer have the satisfaction, but the commercial benefit is that the creation of “use value” of the objects from the raw material is turned into something people can use. That places the object, now known as a “commodity,” on the market for people to buy at a competitive price. It is now a valuable commodity because it now has what Marx calls “exchange value,” which is the price of a commodity to be sold. The object has turned from an “object” to a “commodity.”

This economic production leads to the creation of social classes. There is the working class of people (the Proletariat) who are alienated and exploited in their investment of labor in the creation of commodities for the capitalistic ruling class (the Bourgeoisie) who take the commodity as their own to sell on the open market. From the extra money gained by selling the commodity, the Bourgeoisie create “capital,” often referred to as profit. This interaction is known as the “relations of production.”

In between these two classes is the middle class (the Petty Bourgeoisie). These are the shop keepers, managers, and you guessed it, university professors. (No, professors are not members of the ruling class even though some of them think they are.) The Petty Bourgeoisie are not directly exploited by the Bourgeoisie, and they are dependent on the production of goods and services to maintain their class position.  It’s at this point that Marx needs to tell Indy he is in the Petty Bourgeoisie class.

 The best way for Marx to explain that Indy is Petty Bourgeois is by going over his book Capital, (1867), which tells about how objects turn into a “commodity.” The object turns into a commodity because of the way people view it. Indy chases the artifact that, as Belloq convincingly states, will change in value and be worth more money over time. This is the artifact turning into a commodity. Indy and Belloq go about their daily business dealings assuming that a commodity has “exchange value,” which is why they chase the artifacts. This commodity has monetary value which, in the transaction, turns into “capital.” We have said that this analysis goes along with Belloq’s and Indy’s relationship to the commodity. It was Belloq who, like Marx, understood that people have flexible relationships with a commodity, which may lead to the value drastically fluctuating. This fluctuation in value happens when someone wants an artifact more than someone else does. Both want the artefact which increases its value. It’s this relationship that accounts for Indy’s being a member of the Petty Bourgeoisie class. Belloq got it right!

Indy’s middle class––Petty Bourgeoisie––status is further explained by the fact that he does the hunting for others. Belloq is a member of the upper class­­––Bourgeoisie––who does the hunting for himself to gain capital––profit––by selling the artifact as a commodity. This profit is for himself. He is a member of the Bourgeoisie. He employs people to work for him and exploits them to create “capital.” Indy does the hunting to get artifacts that turn into commodities to gain profit by way of status and standing with other universities for the benefactors of the university.

Economic Religious Crusade of the Commodity Grabbers

For both Indy and Belloq, hunting for these artifacts is like being on a religious quest. Normally, people want to own an object because it fulfills a need, but Capitalism brings with it an almost transcendent quest to obtain valuable commodities.

Marx viewed objects as valuable when they are useful. This is like a car or house. A simple object like a Belloq’s car gets you to work and a house gives you shelter. The headpiece to the Staff of Ra (Raiders of the Lost Ark) is a commodity. This is a medallion that will help locate the Ark. The Nazis want the Ark to help them win the Second World War. This is a valuable object that in itself will satisfy a need. Dr. Brody’s interest is purely financial in getting the Ark into his museum or getting a huge payment from the US government in compensation for not having the Ark in his museum. His interest is in the Ark as commodity. The relationship between the person and the object is pretty easy to understand. That’s because a need is satisfied or something is being put to use.

A peculiar turn of events happens when the quasi-religious quest comes into play and, as from an act of God, the object turns into a “commodity.” The demand for the object passes the supply. Its value explodes and people then become entrenched in what Marx calls “commodity fetishism.”  This is when the commodity takes on an almost spiritual value. It goes through what Marx wrote in Capital as “various changes in form that we have specified as the metamorphosis of the commodity.” Belloq got it right again by arguing that a $10 watch would balloon in value once it got old and there were not many left. Marx makes this clear by understanding that people, mainly the Bourgeoisie, buy objects known as commodities for reasons other than that they are useful.

It’s clear that the Bourgeoisie want the artifacts, but why does Indy want them? He has to give them up, doesn’t he? The reason might simply to keep his tenure at the university and get promoted like any member of the Petty-Bourgeoisie who seeks promotion and prosperity.

Indy’s Historical Determinism Experienced in Changing Times

Marx, letting out the smoke from his last puff of his Havana cigar, stubs it out on a heraldic emblazoned golden ashtray placed on a mahogany side table.  In a more deliberate tone, as the cigar smoke wafts in the air, he proceeds to tell Indy that his social class is not only clearly understood in relation to the economy, but that history also defines him as Petty Bourgeois (middle class). History largely determines the character of a social class. This is known as “Historical Materialism.” This makes it improbable that Indy can be a chivalrous knightly character in a place where money is the main motivation for getting artifacts. When Lucas was formulating Indy’s character, he wanted Indy to set a good example of an honest, true and trustworthy hero. There was a suggestion that he should be a gambler and a playboy, but such a character would be one that few movie-goers could relate to. It would fit nicely into the moneyed, hedonistic world of Capitalism, but would not be ideal.  Lucas wanted someone who could be idealized. This is why we have this chivalrous character, even though unfitting for the world of Capitalism.

Marx, knowing of Lucas’s idealized view of Indy, proceeds to make a reference to The Communist Manifesto which he and Fredrich Engels published in 1848, that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,” and it’s through the process of time that the oppressed class fights against the ruling class by becoming conscious of their downtrodden situation. Marx stresses to Indy that “Workers of the world, unite” is a call for physical action and not idealized theorizing. As Marx explains in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, this this is a part of the materialist adaptation of Hegel’s idealism that rejects the idealism that was fashionable in the mid-nineteenth century and is also evident in Lucas’s idealized formulation of Indy’s character. What Marx is saying is that people belong to social classes that are material. Hegel and Lucas have a more glamorized and glorified view of Indy that doesn’t match what we see in modern day social class status. As Marx wrote to his friend Arnold Ruge, the Young-Hegelians should “show less vague reasoning, fine phrases, conceited self-admiration, and more precision. More detail on concrete circumstances, and more knowledge of the subject.”

We might presume that Marx would like to do a follow up with a new book called A Critique of Lucas’s Philosophy of Indy. Just as Marx critiqued Hegel for having an ideal of social class where people are seen as having qualities that are more aspirational than actual, Lucas’s understanding of why Indy might be understood as chivalrous rather than self-seeking can also be criticized.

Is Indy at Least a Bit Feudal?

As the cigar smoke dissipates, we get a better view of Marx as he tells Indy that his chivalry is more improbable in an economy that is determined by historical forces. This might suggest that Indy has some residual chivalry and that his entrepreneurialism is his main determiner of his social class.

Indy’s role in the capitalistic economy is going to be more business-like than the chivalrous “noblesse oblige” of Feudalism. The economic determinants of Feudalism only stretched to buying objects for immediate use. Money was almost static and did not generate more money. Under Capitalism, objects are bought to be sold or kept as commodities. These commodities raise in value due to demand, and money is created. The Sankara Stones might have been returned to the villagers, but only because Indy suppressed his own selfish desire for them to be taken and given to Dr. Marcus Brody. His underlying motive is economic, though suppressed, which is driven by the capitalist modern world of production in which he lives and breathes.

Marx would explain to Indy how, through the process of time, Feudalism led to Capitalism and how this will further explain that Indy is in a class of the Petty Bourgeoisie working indirectly for the Bourgeoisie. The previous world of Feudalism has been replaced by Capitalism. The class system in Feudalism had kings and clergy as the ruling class; nobles, lords and knights as the middle class; and peasants and serfs as the working class The knights had a code of chivalry that consisted of courtesy, courage, honor, justice, and helping the poor. This is in contrast with Capitalism which breeds unadulterated selfish accumulation of wealth as its code of conduct.  Indy can’t ignore that he is employed by a university that is an institution vested in Capitalism. The university under Feudalism bred the values of chivalry and honor in academic work, but the modern university espouses the values of Capitalism.

Indy’s character can be somewhat influenced by Feudal codes of honor, but only as a lingering effect, and may explain why he gave back the Sankara Stones. Marx referred to this process as the “Historical Dialectic.” This happened when the capitalistic class came into conflict with the feudalistic class. To have two ruling classes is a contradiction, and one had to go. Progress was on the side of the capitalistic class, leading to their having more political power than the aristocracy. Feudalism’s days were numbered, but this does not mean that all of it will be vanquished at one fell swoop. There will be residual elements that are seen by the Capitalists as useful. The aristocratic titles and graces served the new capitalistic class well in legitimizing their wealth. And so, the aristocratic code of honor remained as a partial influence.

Indy’s Robin Hood of the Feudal World Outlook?

As Marx pulls out another Cuban, he contemplates Indy’s comment that he at least on the one hand he makes a dashing Robin Hood-type character who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Indy belongs in the modern capitalistic system, where he gets artifacts for Dr. Brody. On the other hand, he returns the skull, and he finds the Holy Grail but does not bring it back to give to the museum. Robin Hood was a heroic character of possible noble birth who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Is Indy a complex Robin Hood-type character with one foot in Feudalism and one in Capitalism? Is it possible that Indy, while being a product of the economy, has at least some chivalrous character traits that belong more in the Feudal past?

Marx would add that people have free will allowing them to be somewhat free of the force of the economic system. This would allow Indy to make choices that are not totally determined by capitalism. Marx goes further and reminds Indy what he wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) that crude economic determinism is not helpful in explaining the nuanced conflict between the competing groups in the ruling class. Marx’s case study was on the political conflict and intrigue leading to Napoleon Bonaparte’s self-proclamation as dictator of France in 1852. Conflicting groups in the ruling class used old ideas and conjured up images of past political heroes that had little relevance the political problems of their day and had more to do with a theatre performance. The images were effective in encouraging others to side with their views. This absurd conduct showed that people’s thoughts and action is not always a product of the economy.

And so it is with Indy: he is a member of the petty-bourgeoisie, employed by the ruling class beneficiaries to get them artifacts for their museum, but he does not always follow the script. The villagers beg Indy to get back the Sacred Stone stolen from their shrine. Not only does he get back the Stone and give it to the village, he helps the return of the missing children. Indy’s action does nothing to benefit the museum. They have an empty cabinet and a sullen Dr. Brody. In fact, we might argue that Lucas has conjured up ghosts of the chivalric past to help him fulfil his Robin Hood role in the modern world of Capitalism. It does not fit in with the economic determinism of Capitalism, and it’s a reflection on possible knightly virtues of helping others.

With Indy having free will, we can see him freely choosing to stand by one of Marx’s famous sayings: “each according to his needs and each according to his abilities.” This was written in Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), where Marx attempts to formulate an application of a distribution of resources in Communism. This is much like Indy as a Robin Hood-type character giving to the needy what the rich do not need. Sometimes, at least. The villagers need their Stone and the museum doesn’t. Indy has this awareness that won’t be enough evidence to state that he’d make a good Communist revolutionary, but he knows who is in need, which is an essential part of the Feudal code of honor and will be needed in Communism as well.

Marx would still have to put his foot down and place Indy in the grips of Capitalism. Marx lists a category of rival political approaches to that of Communism in The Communist Manifesto. Marx does not take the rival outlooks seriously. Their role in the liberation of the proletarian seems to vary by degrees to advocate reform. There are the “reactionary socialists” who want to keep capitalism more or less as it is by promoting tradition and outmoded ways of running the institutions; the “critical utopian socialists” who largely fail to comprehend the need for a more scientific approach to political change; and the “communists” who Marx saw as the true leaders of the revolution. Finally, the Bourgeois Socialists where Indy’s occasional acts of giving to the needy fits because there is really only a liberal reform platform advocating the social and political world to stay more or less as it is. Marx might well emphasise that Indy’s “Noblesse Oblige” also fits him with the “reactionary socialists.”

Indy isn’t in a Class of His Own, But He’s Got Class!

Indy is prevented by history to be the Feudal swashbuckling hero we’d like him to be, but he expresses many of the characteristics of the Feudal hero. If we take Marx at his word, Indy might be seen as a bit of a reactionary. This makes him unfamiliar to our modern world of Capitalist exploitation. Maybe Lucas was successful after all. We have the idealization of a hero that we can look to for moral guidance. We are also in a world of Capitalism and need to prosper, which the idealized version of Indy might not assist us in our entrepreneurial pursuits. It will at least make us feel chivalrous even though we are more interested in getting money.

Dr. Christopher M. Innes is an adjunct professor at Boise State University, where he teaches philosophy to undergraduates. His research interests are in social and political philosophy. In his spare time, he enjoys skiing, traveling, walking, and collecting 7 inch vinyl records.


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