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Peggy Carter shows that you don't need superpowers to be a marvel

Agent Carter uses its heroine's invisibility in her own time to great success.

The first time we get a proper look at the star of Agent Carter, she is pushing her way down a New York street through a sea of grey-suited men walking in the opposite direction. Her red hat and lipstick contrast with the masculine blankness all around. It is 1946: much as Peggy Carter might stand out to the viewer, in her own time – full of returning GIs and reasserted patriarchal structures – she is invisible.

Throughout the first series of Agent Carter (Sundays, 9pm), the first and so far only solo female-led property in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), this disjunction in perspective is exploited to great success. Despite her extraordinary service record in intelligence during the Second World War (seen in the first Captain America film, The First Avenger), in peacetime Peggy has been relegated to the role of secretary at her agency, fetching sandwiches and filing for her male colleagues. The investigating, baddie-slaying and world-saving that she does in her spare time is, by and large, for viewers’ eyes only.

Although completely integrated into the MCU, the judicious use of flashbacks and light-touch exposition make it entirely possible to come to Agent Carter with only the vaguest idea of the backstory and yet still revel in its witty script and wry depictions of 1940s workplace sexism. At only eight episodes, the show feels tightly plotted.

Hayley Atwell has already played Peggy in a handful of Marvel films, and it was undoubtedly her presence and gravitas on the big screen that finally convinced executives that a non-superhero female character could star in their own story. In Agent Carter, she is remarkably contained, her anger at the injustice of her situation and grief about what has happened during the war surfacing only as grim determination. She suits the period setting very well, prompting comparisons from some critics with Lauren Bacall. There is certainly something of “the look” about her – that sultry expression synonymous with film noir and female dissatisfaction.

Perhaps surprisingly for a show as all-American as this, Atwell spearheads a trio of British lead actors. A superbly moustachioed Dominic Cooper joins her as the inventor Howard Stark (father of Tony, aka Iron Man) and James D’Arcy is Stark’s butler, Jarvis. These two are crucial to the plot arc: Stark appeals to Peggy for aid after he is accused of treason when some of his military tech gets stolen. Under the noses of her colleagues, too busy making sexist remarks about her “women’s troubles” to notice, Peggy gets on the trail of a shadowy organisation called Leviathan and uncovers a Russian plot to destroy New York.

D’Arcy’s Jarvis provides welcome comic relief from Peggy’s single-minded pursuit of the bad guys – his tightly wound English butler is hardly an ideal spy’s sidekick. At one point he tells Peggy to call on him any time she needs assistance, except later than nine at night. When she raises an eyebrow, he explains that he and his wife follow a strict evening timetable of “seven o’clock sherry, eight o’clock Benny Goodman, nine o’clock bed”.

Of course, Agent Carter has its camp, comic-book elements. How could it not? The Russian villain with the power to hypnotise strong men to do his bidding, the icily beautiful sleeper agent turned assassin and the henchman without a larynx who communicates only through a ghostly self-typing typewriter all provide the perfect foils to Carter’s derring-do. The clever use of a Captain America radio-show-within-the-show helps the viewer distinguish between the real peril Peggy is facing and the patriotic propaganda put about, at least to start with, by her colleagues. Sadly, the latter remain somewhat underdeveloped. You feel as if Carter, and Atwell, could have stood up to a more nuanced ensemble.

Above all, though, Peggy Carter is a woman you want on your side. When her roommate chastises her early on for her workaholic habits, saying, “There’s a difference between being an independent woman and a spinster,” we all wish we had Peggy’s confidence in replying, “Is it the shoes?” while slipping a pistol into her handbag. You don’t need super powers to come out on top. 

Now listen to Caroline discussing Agent Carter on SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist