The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV


The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV


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Popular culture often champions freedom as the fundamentally American way of life and celebrates the virtues of independence and self-reliance. But film and television have also explored the tension between freedom and other core values, such as order and political stability. What looks like healthy, productive, and creative freedom from one point of view may look like chaos, anarchy, and a source of destructive conflict from another. Film and television continually pose the question: Can Americans deal with their problems on their own, or must they rely on political elites to manage their lives? This book explores the ways television shows such as Star Trek, The X-Files, South Park, and Deadwood and films such as The Searchers, Mars Attacks!, and The Aviator have portrayed both top-down and bottom-up models of order. Drawing on John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, and other proponents of freedom, the book contrasts the classical liberal vision of America—particularly its emphasis on the virtues of spontaneous order--with the Marxist understanding of the “culture industry” and the Hobbesian model of absolute state control. The book concludes with a discussion of the impact of 9/11 on film and television, and the new anxieties emerging in contemporary alien invasion narratives: the fear of a global technocracy that seeks to destroy the nuclear family, religious faith, local government, and other traditional bulwarks against the absolute state.

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY




978-0-8131-4084-1 (pdf version)


978-0-8131-4083-4 (epub version)



Popular culture, Freedom, Film, Television, Political elites, Classical liberal vision, Spontaneous order, 9/11, Alien invasion narratives


Film and Media Studies | Mass Communication | Sociology of Culture