What “Hannibal” Can Teach Us about Marx’s Critique of Ideology

By Doctor Comrade

Viewers of NBC’s newly canceled show Hannibal will be familiar with the tactical brilliance of the character Hannibal Lecter. Originally conceived by Thomas Harris in the novel Red Dragon, Hannibal Lecter is an exceptional psychiatrist and masterful serial killer. Played in the films The Silence of the Lambs (1988), Hannibal (2001), and Red Dragon (2002) by Anthony Hopkins, the character of Hannibal Lecter has become a cultural touchstone for psychopathy and sociopathy, but also as a kind of anti-hero who dispenses vengeful and visceral justice. The TV show Hannibal is a kind of quasi-prequel, focusing on the relationship between Lecter and FBI profiler Will Graham (played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy, respectively) before and concurrent with the events of Red Dragon.

I enjoyed the show during its short run and I appreciated the depth of character in both Lecter and Graham. I also realized that Lecter and Hannibal demonstrate some of the basic formulations of Marx and Engels’s critique of ideology.

Dr. Lecter is the perfect encapsulation of bourgeois ethics: purely narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, exploitative, and manipulative, yet the audience desires to be like him (keeping the bloodshed for self-righteous fantasies, of course).

Lecter is a polymath. He is not only a renowned psychiatrist, but he is also shown composing music, drawing portraits, cooking exquisite meals, participating in autopsies, offering surgical advice, and adorning a style characteristic of the extremely wealthy. In essence, he demonstrates aspirational traits for a wide swath of audience members: artist, musician, scientist, chef, intellectual, entrepreneur. He commands respect, and exacts revenge upon those who deny it to him.

Hannibal is also the show’s anti-hero, a dark protagonist who speaks to the darkest desires of many frustrated viewers. Without a doubt, Hannibal is a diabolical narcissist who often kills to distract investigators, toy with Will Graham, or save himself. But he also appeals to our sense of social justice when he murders the most despicable among us. For example, he kills a Baltimore city council member who pushed through a land deal that destroyed the habitats of some rare songbirds. His hideous disfigurement of Mason Verger, a sexual sadist who tortured his own sister, is another example where Lecter plays white knight to the audience’s demands for retribution.

The entire show is steeped in dramatic irony: the audience is aware from the beginning of the show that Hannibal is responsible for the gruesome deaths that form the backbone of the show’s plot, and the audience can be sympathetic to many of those deaths. What makes Hannibal such a convincing anti-hero are the ways he is shrouded in bourgeois ethics, and he becomes a kind of straw man for bourgeois ideology.

In The German Ideology, first written in 1846 and published in 1932, Marx argues that a society’s dominant ideology is constructed by the ruling material class. He contends that

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness… hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of these ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch… so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood)…. [I]ncreasingly abstract ideas hold sway, i.e., ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality. For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones."[1]

Marx argues that the bourgeoisie, or whatever the ruling class may be, disguises its agenda of dominance within an ideology that it claims will benefit all people. And here is the myth of capitalism, the ruling material ideology of our current society: capitalism will benefit all those who participate willingly in the system. Yet we know that capitalism purposefully creates inequalities, and these inequalities are always to the detriment of the vast majority of participants. Moreover, the ideology is so deeply inscribed within society, or we could say it is so nearly universal, that the lower classes have not launched a national rebellion against capitalism.

To illustrate this point, we can turn to Hannibal and the seventh episode of the second season, “Yakimono.” Will Graham, the show’s main character, is able to think like a serial killer, which makes him ideal as a profiler. Trying to get into the mind of the Chesapeake Ripper, a particularly crafty serial killer who had to that point evaded capture, Will decides that whatever evidence the FBI finds that may lead them to the Chesapeake Ripper will actually lead them away from the Chesapeake Ripper. Because the Ripper is so cunning, and seems always to be a step ahead of the FBI, Graham deduces that he would never leave behind evidence unintentionally; rather, the only evidence he would leave behind would be red herrings that would cause the FBI to lose his trail.

The result of Will’s inference makes the FBI discount Lecter’s fingerprints at the latest crime scene. They think that the Ripper may be trying to frame Lecter, and therefore they can safely rule him out as a suspect. The audience is aware, however, that Lecter is probably the Ripper, and he has been feeding the FBI false profiles since he became involved with the investigation.

What this actually demonstrates is the depths to which Lecter had manipulated the FBI investigators: Lecter convinced Jack Crawford, Graham’s boss, that any shred of evidence as to his guilt is actually counter-evidence of someone else’s crimes. This is precisely the kind of illusion that ideology creates around all members of society. Lecter, the intellectual and material superior to the FBI, fabricates delusions that directly benefit him at the expense of the FBI, yet he leads the FBI to believe that he is actually helping them. This universal delusion was purposefully crafted by the stand-in for the ruling class. Lecter, by pretending to help the FBI, actually helps himself.

Marx calls this ideological relationship the “ideal expression of the dominant material relationships,” wherein ideology justifies the hierarchical relationship between classes. Lecter’s expression of this ideal relationship is what makes him not only compelling but also a protagonist: the audience is often cheering for Lecter to succeed, either through escaping the FBI or killing the unworthy. Therefore, the audience, primarily comprised of non-elites, sides with the bourgeois villain. Everything about his manner, from his clothing to his abilities to his tastes, becomes what makes him worthy of our admiration because of how those manners manifest in his relations with other characters. We like Lecter because he is bourgeois.

Crawford doubts Lecter’s innocence starting in the middle of the second season. For instance, he attends Lecter’s dinner party and takes food from the party to the FBI lab so it can be tested for human remains. Both Graham and Crawford become increasingly suspicious of Lecter: Crawford fights Lecter in a flash-forward at the beginning of the season, and Graham became convinced of Lecter’s malevolence at the end of the first season. But at the second season’s midpoint, Crawford is still in the dark. He resembles the working classes in this instance because he has yet to become conscious of his position and the ruling class’ deception.

It’s important to note also that Marx goes to great lengths to argue that ideology is a direct product of material processes. For instance, Marx contends that

“We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence…. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life."[2]

This means that ideology is historically contingent on the material reality experienced by those who are subjects of ideology. It would seem that Crawford, in his position as an FBI agent, has been historically conditioned to trust the expertise of Dr. Lecter, and to doubt the veracity of claims that Lecter is a serial killer. Lecter has none of the overt characteristics of the usual suspects Crawford hunts. What hinders Crawford’s consciousness is the delusion that Lecter is altruistic. On the other hand, the audience appreciates Lecter because he exemplifies an aspirational consciousness. Lecter is everything we are not: creator of beautiful works, brilliant intellectual, and most of all, an exacter of justice.

Lecter defies laws but not social norms. He transgresses rules against murder, but only in such a way as he embodies notions of retributive justice. He kills and mutilates sinister characters, those who the audience believes deserve to be hurt. The grotesque scene with Mason Verger in episode 12 (“Tome-wan”) is the quintessential instance of the audience’s desire for revenge. Graham has a sexual relationship with Verger’s sister, Margot, and both Lecter and Graham become aware of the forced hysterectomy and hideous scar inflicted upon her by Mason. Though fabulously wealthy, Verger is nothing more than a glorified pig farmer when compared to Lecter: he inherited his money and has done nothing to earn his status, he is crude and cruel, and he is boastful about his foul treatment of “underprivileged children.” Lecter dispenses justice by giving Verger a drug cocktail and convincing him to cut off his own face, and then Lecter renders him paralyzed and under the permanent care of Margot. Verger goes on to be the principal antagonist in the book and film adaptation Hannibal, and he receives his just desserts in those media as well.

Lecter also attacks people who violate bourgeois norms concerning manners. In that way, he is the instrument of bourgeois enforcement. When people are rude, Lecter eats them. Even Lecter’s cannibalism elucidates bourgeois social relations: it is a perfect metaphor for exploitation, wherein the physical body of the Other is consumed (exploited, expropriated) for the pleasure and sustenance of the ruling class. Lecter polices the boundaries of acceptable social discourse, and he relishes the opportunity to murder those who transgress the rules he has deemed valuable to society.

To the audience, Lecter is a bourgeois superhero. He has been given superpowers and endowed by an adoring audience with the permission to carry out bourgeois vengeance against anti-bourgeois villains. Ultimately, he is the protector of bourgeois ideological values: manners, taste, intellectual superiority. He is also an unabashed narcissist who exploits every available opportunity for self-fulfillment, always at the expense of a character the audience is made to hate. Not only is Lecter steeped in dramatic irony, but also ideological chicanery.

More importantly, Lecter embodies the fantasy of unfettered control held by an audience that suffers from alienation. The audience gets to experience the feeling of justice carried out against evil characters, which is impossible in “real life” where laws prevent such actions. Bourgeois politics have prevented the lower classes from destroying the tyranny that hides in quotidian social interaction, and bourgeois culture has formed an ideology where the audience can enjoy the policing and enforcement of bourgeois ethics.


[1] Karl Marx, “The German Ideology: Part I,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 172–174.

[2] Marx, 154-155.