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Moon Knight Shows that Work Sucks
Whether you work for a god or a boss, labor is exploitation.
In the final episode of Moon Knight, Layla (May Calamawy) refuses to become Khonshu’s avatar, because, she says, she does not want to be “enslaved.” This isn’t the first time that service to Khonshu is compared to slavery. Throughout the series, Moon Knight (Oscar Isaac) treats his relationship with Khonshu as one of enforced bondage; he’s a tragic warrior, who must fight whether he wills or no.
If Layla can choose not to enslave herself, though, is it actually slavery? We generally think of coercion as the essence of slavery. People who are enslaved, by definition, can not choose.
Disproportions of Power Render Contracts Meaningless
Khonshu’s avatars, in contrast, enter into contracts. Moon Knight/Marc Spector agrees to work for Khonshu because Khonshu saves his life. Later he renegotiates terms; in the finale, he fights one last battle in return for his freedom. When you can change the terms of your employment, you’re not a slave. You’re an employee.
Employees are supposed to be categorically distinct from slaves. A worker freely trades goods or services for pay. An enslaved person can do nothing freely, because they are bound and coerced.
Moon Knight, though, isn’t sure there’s a clear distinction. Khonshu offers Marc a choice but especially by the conclusion, that choice feels illusory. Can you really enter into an equal bargain with a God—or, for that matter, with an employer? Or do vast disproportions of power make consent irrelevant?
Philosophers of labor and freedom have long struggled with these questions. John Stuart Mill in his classic 1859 work On Liberty, argued that you cannot freely abrogate your freedom, or sell yourself into slavery. “It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate [one’s] freedom,” Mill says. Contemporary philosopher Mike Konczal extends the logic further, insisting that “freedom requires being free from arbitrary power and domination by the will of others.”
Marc agrees to work for Khonshu forever in return for his life. This has the form of a contract freely entered; Marc consents to it. But for Mill and even more for Konczal, the freedom here is illusory. Marc gives up all of his freedom forever under duress. That is not freedom from arbitrary power.
Khonshu has much more power over Marc than most employers have over their workers—in theory. But Moon Knight suggests parallels. Marc’s other personality, Steven Knight, works in a museum gift shop. That’s a less onerous profession than avatar of a god of vengeance And yet Steven’s boss constantly bullies and harasses him much as Khonshu does. Though, to be fair, Khonshu is more appreciative of Marc.
Marc/Steven’s multiple personality disorder makes their supposedly free choices look even less free. Marc agrees to work for Khonshu, but Steven doesn’t even appear to know about that decision. Without Steven’s consent or even knowledge, his body is hijacked to engage in life-threatening conflicts halfway around the world.
Steven’s plight is similar to that of the workers in the series Severance. The characters in that show undergo a process whereby the memories of their work selves and home selves are split in two. The person who agrees to work is not the person who works. In fact, the act of becoming a worker requires one to alienate oneself from oneself, making the free choice to become unfree. How can the free person who enters into the contract make decisions for the person contracted, who is, by definition, bound?
The extent of Marc/Steven’s disempowerment is underlined in the obligatory final post-credits twist. Khonshu has agreed to let Marc and Steven go; he releases them from their obligations and contract, and they return to being free actors. But Marc has yet another personality, Jake Lockley, and this personality, unknown to the others, still chooses to remain in Khonshu’s service.
Khonshu, as a God and as a boss, knows Marc and all of Marc’s desires and contractual obligations better than Marc does. In that context, “freedom” is meaningless. Marc thinks he can choose how to live and whether to kill. But in fact, Khonshu makes all of his choice for him. You can argue about whether that qualifies as slavery, but it’s certainly not freedom.
A Bad Show Is a Good Metaphor for a Bad Job
Severance is obviously and consciously about the plight of workers and alienated labor. Moon Knight is a much less ideologically coherent and self-aware show. Khonshu, whatever his faults, saves the world; Jacob, to the extent we know anything about him, appears to enjoy being Khonshu’s avatar, and to relish the work of violence—he’s self-actualized, even if his other personalities aren’t. And in general, “superhero” is not a great metaphor for “employee.” There are few jobs that meaningfully can compare to fighting martial arts battles against eldritch crocodiles.
But Moon Knight’s very confusion and incoherence parallels the plight of workers, and the way that employees end up wandering through a maze of unfreedom. Marc and Steven and Jacob barely know who they are or what they’re doing, not least because Moon Knight’s plot only sporadically makes sense. They battle on various planes of existence for stakes that are obscure, all so that Khonshu can show up in a limo at the end and talk tough. Moon Knight isn’t a satisfying or well-thought through show. But work is rarely satisfying or well-thought through either. You slog through it because you don’t have much choice.
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