The British historian E. J. Hobsbawm developed the idea of the “social bandit,” the peasant youth who becomes an outlaw after his honorable resistance to some outrage by the landlord ends with a landlord henchman dead. He calls to others who share his anger at injustice to follow him to the hills where they will lead the outlaw life, stealing only from those whose wealth comes from oppressing the poor, respecting the peasants and righting wrongs on their behalf, and seeking to restore a former condition when the great and powerful behaved decently and treated the poor equitably. (This equitable treatment is also close to what E.P. Thompson called “the moral economy of the poor:” the Honest Loaf, the Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work—a slogan of early labor unions—etc.)The social bandit *isn’t* a revolutionary—he has no vision of a transformed society, because his horizons are too narrow. He wants the Good Old Days back. He doesn’t have a social or political theory; he wants simple decency and justice. He isn’t Joan of Arc, fighting to restore a legitimate King, he’s much closer to Robin Hood, resisting the oppression of a King who’s forfeited the loyalty of the people by not acting as a good King should.Billie Jean is a social bandit. The events that launch her “career,” the actions she performs, and above all her simple watchword “Fair is Fair” clearly put her in the category that includes the Brazilian Lampiao, the Sicilian Salvatore Giuliano, and others. Hardly surprising, since this teenage cult script was written by a formerly blacklisted old Lefty in his seventies, Walter Bernstein, who surely had read Hobsbawm and Thompson and found, I think, a very ingenious way to illustrate their ideas in a 1980’s US setting.

The British historian E. J. Hobsbawm developed the idea of the “social bandit,” the peasant youth who becomes an outlaw after his honorable resistance to some outrage by the landlord ends with a landlord henchman dead. He calls to others who share his anger at injustice to follow him to the hills where they will lead the outlaw life, stealing only from those whose wealth comes from oppressing the poor, respecting the peasants and righting wrongs on their behalf, and seeking to restore a former condition when the great and powerful behaved decently and treated the poor equitably. (This equitable treatment is also close to what E.P. Thompson called “the moral economy of the poor:” the Honest Loaf, the Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work—a slogan of early labor unions—etc.)

The social bandit *isn’t* a revolutionary—he has no vision of a transformed society, because his horizons are too narrow. He wants the Good Old Days back. He doesn’t have a social or political theory; he wants simple decency and justice. He isn’t Joan of Arc, fighting to restore a legitimate King, he’s much closer to Robin Hood, resisting the oppression of a King who’s forfeited the loyalty of the people by not acting as a good King should.

Billie Jean is a social bandit. The events that launch her “career,” the actions she performs, and above all her simple watchword “Fair is Fair” clearly put her in the category that includes the Brazilian Lampiao, the Sicilian Salvatore Giuliano, and others. Hardly surprising, since this teenage cult script was written by a formerly blacklisted old Lefty in his seventies, Walter Bernstein, who surely had read Hobsbawm and Thompson and found, I think, a very ingenious way to illustrate their ideas in a 1980’s US setting.

Notes

  1. urban--japonisme posted this