Thanatos was the personification of Death in Greek mythology, and is perhaps now better known as the name ascribed to Sigmund Freud’s “death drive”. Freud understood thanatos as a psychological drive that causes human beings to act in self-destructive ways, or to “lead organic life back into the inanimate state”, acting in opposition to the innate force of eros – the “life instinct”.
The essence of this death drive in the world of high-stakes finance was the topic of a previous piece entitled, A Glimpse into The Self-Destructive Psychology of Sharks. After describing how this historically unprecedented and self-destructive drive has become much more damaging to 99% of human society than the financiers themselves, I arrived at the following conclusion:
“The sad fact is that we are all currently a part of their reckless poker game, whether we like it or not. There is only one way around that – the people must force their governments to hold the bankers criminally, civilly and financially liable for their actions and losses.
If that doesn’t happen very soon, through whatever means necessary, then the only other option is to insulate yourself from the fallout through whatever means you are able and willing to undertake. The long journey from the casino back home is well underway, and now we must simply make it to that home, safe and sound.”
And here is where I would like you to meet Thanatos – not the ancient Greek demonic personification of Death or the deep-rooted psychological drive identified by Freud – but an individual human being living in Vancouver who is self-described as a “real life superhero” and a “parody of death”. He doesn’t run or hide from his fears and self-destructive tendencies, but confronts them in a proactive way.
They sometimes refer to him as “The Dark Avenger”. Instead of draining the life force from himself or others, he tries to replenish it. Thanatos is doing whatever he is able and willing to do within his surrounding community to increase the chances that its residents will survive, thrive and feel secure. Unlike the world of superheroes in comic strips and movies, there are no guarantees of success and happy endings in his line of work – only a bit of skill, luck and best intentions.
He was once told by a police officer that “people on the street have nothing to look forward to but death”, which then made him ponder, “maybe death itself should step in”. And, thus, Vancouver’s finest grim reaper Mountie was born. The costume he adorns is not used so much to hide his identity, look interesting or stand out in a crowd – though it’s pretty good at all of those things – but rather to draw attention to his dedicated cause of communal support and security.
Adrian Mack profiles Thanatos in a piece written last year on straight.com, “Vancouver’s Online Source”.
“Thanatos, aka the Dark Avenger, patrols the Downtown Eastside in a Rorschach-like uniform topped off with a creepy green and black skull mask. He hands out water, energy bars, peanut butter, blankets, and other necessities to those in need, and leaves behind a card inscribed with the motto “I do what I can, when I can”¦ He’s a pretty pragmatic real life superhero.
Thanatos is an oddly noble figure, well known to the police and the locals of the DTES. As he tells McNamara in the show, “If hell has a street address, it’d be Main and Hastings”¦ This is the real world.” He finances his superhero work out of his own pocket. “He’s not poor, but he’s certainly by no means upper middle class,” McNamara says. “Like a lot of people involved in these kinds of fandoms, they make a choice about what they’re going to do with their disposable income, and so he actively chooses to augment his persona and come up with the raw materials he needs to help out.”
Thanatos is a real life superhero and there are many others like him who patrol the streets individually or as a part of team in communities throughout North America and Europe (with a few in South America and Africa); a “justice league” of citizens who shed their apathy and expose themselves to ridicule for the benefit of their communities. These superheroes help take down everyone from litterers, vandals, drug peddlers and hit & run drivers to burglars, arsonists and murderers.
They truly want to make a difference in their local communities, and they recognize the shortcomings of federal, state and local governments that are more concerned with the shady [and sometimes criminal] politics of law enforcement than the scourge of crime itself. It helps to understand, though, that many of these street-level criminals, who are only going to increase in number as socioeconomic conditions deteriorate, are typically reacting to the same dysfunctional system that the local police and politicians are [not] reacting to.
They litter because ours is a culture of waste and pollution; they vandalize because private property concentrated among few is a mark of oppression; they sell drugs because they are left without others options for “economic mobility” by the society which constantly chastises them for being poor. I don’t mean to excuse their actions or paint with too broad of a brush, but simply provide their actions with some ever-important context.
The first few suspects in a murder investigation are typically the family members or business associates of the victim. Is it a coincidence that the odds point towards these people in a culture where traditional family values are shunned, families are splintered, people are alienated from their loved ones and markets consistently foster a cutthroat environment of competition, jealousy and embarrassment?
Thanatos may be a psychological drive that is deeply rooted in human biology, but it is also influenced greatly by the socioeconomic and cultural environment in which that biology exists. The good news is that this unrestricted, exploitative market environment will be rapidly relegated to the dustbin of history over the next several decades (but not without much pain and suffering). That’s the good news…
The bad news is that we still don’t have any large-scale system that is even remotely likely to replace it within a reasonable amount of time from collapse. That’s why people like Thanatos will have a crucial role to play in helping to safeguard our increasingly localized futures. They are one very important ingredient in transitioning local communities towards more self-sufficiency and more security in a future characterized by economic contraction, shortages and sociopolitical instability.
It helps that many of them have been doing the superhero gig for years now and have opened up dialogues with the local police, whom they have also gained some respect from. The following video is by far the most boring coverage of an Occupy protest that you will ever see, and that’s thanks in no small part to the efforts of RLSH Captain Black, who took it upon himself to intermediate between two camped protesters and the officers who came there to evict them (Cpt. Black is the big African-American man wearing the orange hooded sweatshirt and carrying a backpack).
The protesters refused to leave the public park in New Orleans until the officers arrested them, and it was at this time that Captain Black, a fellow protester, had a few words with the officers and convinced them to let at least one guy go home with a court summons, rather than hauling him off to a Parish Prison for a few nights. The other protester was not a citizen and did not have any ID, so he was initially sent to jail before being transferred to a hospital for minor pre-existing hand injuries.
No one really “won” or “lost” in this particular episode, despite how we are conditioned to label these outcomes. The protesters occupied the park for some time and made it clear that they would not be leaving of their own volition, and then the cops peacefully made arrests for what they were told were illegal acts of trespass and escorted the protesters out of the park. So nothing much happened, except a few people involved may have gained a better understanding of each others’ positions.
The point here is that these types of potentially incendiary interactions between average citizens and officers of the law will only increase as our economies continue their rapid deterioration, crime rates rise and popular resistance movements grow in influence. People like Captain Black, Thanatos and others who have built a working relationship with local law enforcement, but also heavily sympathize with the disenfranchised masses, will be invaluable in maintaining some degree of constructive dialogue within their restive communities.
Captain Black explains his personal view of the intersections between OWS and RLSH on his blog:
“Real life superhero (RLSH) activists should study the Occupy wall Street movement.
I write this as a member of both dynamic communities. Where RLSH illustrate what individuals can do the re-invigorate civic duty, Occupy Wall Street jumpstarted new life into mass demonstrations.
Occupy Wall Street shows us a model of viral recruitment that has changed current political dialogue about vital social issues.
The RLSH movement is great a producing lone rangers and small groups but I’ve always hoped we could evolve one day into mass production.
A RLSH-version of Occupy Wall Street (minus vigilantism and rioting of course) could do in days what it’s taken years to produce: thousands of superhero-themed activists.
The day we decide to “Occupy Heroism” on Occupy Wall Street’s grand scale is when we can finally impact public policy on vital social issues like crime prevention and homelessness.
Sounds good to me.”
The real life superheroes may still be very idealistic when it comes to what they can accomplish at large scales, but not a whole lot more than OWS protesters. As I wrote in Occupy Movements of Mutual Knowledge, the real value behind these movements is their ability to draw in diverse sets of people and make them all aware of their mutual struggle under a common theme, i.e. promoting justice, equality, transparency and accountability. It is undeniable that there is a certain self-perpetuating momentum behind such a dynamic.
I fully expect to see a tighter connection between overlapping groups such as RLSH and OWS within various communities/cities in the future, and, although they have significant differences, there is a lot of mutual knowledge and advantage they can gain from one another. It is time for us all to become “real life superheroes”, in whichever costume suits us, and learn to parody modern society’s self-destructive drive, as Thanatos did. It is a powerful drive, indeed, but one that cannot unilaterally determine where humanity is headed without our collective ignorance and passive cooperation.