Capitalism: Hollywood’s Miscast Villain

In the WSJ online I cover Hollywood and capitalism including Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, The Wire and much else.  Here are two bits:

Although Hollywood does sometimes produce leftist films like "Reds," it has no deep love for socialism…

But Hollywood does share Marx's concept of alienation, the idea that under capitalism workers are separated from the product of their work and made to feel like cogs in a machine rather than independent creators. The lowly screenwriter is a perfect illustration of what Marx had in mind–a screenwriter can pour heart and soul into a screenplay only to see it rewritten, optioned, revised, reworked, rewritten again and hacked, hacked and hacked by a succession of directors, producers and, worst of all, studio executives. A screenwriter can have a nominally successfully career in Hollywood without ever seeing one of his works brought to the screen. Thus, the antipathy of filmmakers to capitalism is less ideological than it is experiential. Screenwriters and directors find themselves in a daily battle between art and commerce, and they come to see their battle against "the suits" as emblematic of a larger war between creative labor and capital.

On The Wire:

…although it uses character, "The Wire" is ultimately about how character is dominated by larger economic forces: drug dealers come and go, but the drug market is forever. "Capitalism is the ultimate god in The Wire. Capitalism is Zeus," says David Simon, the show's creator.

Over its five seasons, "The Wire" shows how money and markets connect and intertwine white and black, rich and poor, criminal and police in a grand web that none of them truly comprehends–a product of human action but not of human design. It's the invisible hand that's calling the shots, as Mr. Simon subtly reminds us in the conclusion to the third season, when Detective McNulty wondrously pulls a book from the shelf of murdered drug dealer Stringer Bell, and the camera focuses in on the title: "The Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith.

Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand, like Mr. Simon's invocation of Zeus, tells us that to understand the world we need to look beyond the actions of individuals to see the larger forces at work. But Zeus is an arbitrary and capricious god whose lightning bolts fall out of the sky without reason or direction. Smith's "invisible hand," however, is that of a kinder god, a god that cares not one whit for individuals but nevertheless guides self-interest toward the social good, progress, and economic growth. So Mr. Simon understands that the Baltimore dockworkers lost their jobs because of the relentless change that capitalism brings and not through any fault of their own. But Adam Smith sees what Mr. Simon does not, namely that it was capitalism that brought the Baltimore stevedores their high wages in the first place and it is the relentless change of capitalism that slowly raises wages throughout the world.

More here.

Comments

Humans are essentially tribal, and in a tribe a man who enriches himself at the cost of others is despised. Heroes are brave souls who defend the tribe, not money-grubbers. The stories we tell are still fundamentally like those told by those bards who celebrated heroes of those tribal times. Thats all there is to it. This business of artists railing against their bosses is fantasy.

That seems like a very Ribstein-ian conclusion to me.

Wow, way to miss the point: The Wire spends five seasons on how the capitalist drug trade does damage all across the city, yet the essayist picks up on that part in season two where some of the dockworkers talk about getting downsized? I've lived in Baltimore the better part of a decade, worked in a Bmore Econ department, met people working day-to-day with heroin and its effects, and have yet to find anybody who thought the drug trade invisibly nudged Baltimore toward the social good. C'mon, Mr Essayist: there's contrarian, and then there's just ignoring reality.

Capitalism doesn't appear as a hero in the movies because its positive qualities are not dramatic -- its negative effects are.

If the movie "Capitalism is Great" is to be seen anywhere, it'll be as a PBS public service announcement.

Uh, the main reason that Hollywood has this skewed view probably has much more to do with story arch. Your average writer in any field is going to trend liberal and educated. But writers in the arts are going to especially trend this way.

The reason that we end up with these skewed "capitalism is bad/ capitalism is god" story lines is that the writers are often liberal, but the capitalist dream is a good story. It's the story of the exceptional. The interesting.

Is it any suprise that real stories about the capitalism most of experience - like "Office Space" - are few and far between? And a socialist movie is the most boring of all. A movie in which all characters start out as office workers, and all the characters end up as office workers with no change in position? It might suit a lot of people in real life, but they probably don't want to read about it.

I went to see a talk by Steven Dietz last year - currently the most produced playwright in America and employed as a college professor - and he describes fictional writing as being essentially about shifts in power. Character A has no power, Character B has power, the story is how A goes from having power and B to having none. That also happens to be the capitalist dream, but not the capitalist system.

Let's not pretend that it's indicative of reality or the practicality of a given system. There are plenty of good stories that end up with millions of people dead and entire cities destroyed, which is something we often enjoy in theory, but would find abhorrent in practice.

Cue Mr. Trailer Voice: "In a world of division of labor, ONE MAN can't even make a pencil."

The "capitalist drug trade"?

I'll have some of what he's smokin'.

I think the biggest triumph of capitalism is that the poorest American is much better off than the royalty of two hundred years ago.

I honestly cherish this blog (newly-found for me) for its insightful quirkiness, serious-minded multivariety, and its sense of joy. And I find the present article to be fair enough in its sketch of Capitalism as Hollywood Villain.

But I think that Tabarrok's observations should perhaps be taken within a larger context of the role of art within a dynamic culture. That there seems to be a dearth of capitalist heroes in Hollywood mainstream movies should not strike us as troubling for the simple reason that capitalism is so very clearly without a rival in this country, and one of the things that capitalism teaches us is that unrivaled/ power leads to abuse.

One of the functions of art is to call into question the legitimacy of the forms and modes of dominant paradigms, and although I find most Hollywood movies almost desperately uninteresting, I would say that by painting capitalists with a critical eye, Hollywood writers/producers/directors are performing a public service.

The fact that pro-capitalist, rags-to-riches movies sound terribly boring is because we have heard these stories again and again and again in many different forms. As a nation, we are more than acquainted with them. We are not as acquainted with the darker underside of capitalism, and that is one of the reasons why shows like the Wire have been so popularly- and critically-acclaimed.

Chris - Just look at North Korea! Humans without a doubt would not stop thinking of better ways to do things BUT do you disagree that capitalism has been (and will be) the best at implementing those changes?

Chris,

"Do you genuinely believe that humans would *stop thinking of better ways to do things*, if not for capitalism?"

Chris, I can guarantee you they wouldn't try nearly as hard. That's not exactly a function of capitalism so much as human nature and the desire to capture as much of the gains of one's work & creativity as possible, of course. But capitalism appears to be better at allowing that sort of incentive to exist, even within complex contexts such as a modern economy.

Dan *, thank you for posting your extensive research on the subject, very enlightening.

It's not just the incentives that are the important part of capitalism - it's also the mechanisms for transmitting information. These are what truly allow for the innovation that improves living standards to occur.

And besides, it's not like capitalism is incompatible with a humane welfare state that helps workers displaced by creative destruction Sweden is a capitalist country, albeit one with a huge welfare state. It is not socialist. Truly socialist nations can't afford good safety nets.

Cliff,

I agree that monetary incentives are necessary for the development of inventions, just as they are necessary for any capitalistic enterprise, but your implicit assumption that patents are necessary for this to happen is false. Patents impede innovation by giving patentees monopolies, enabling them to make monopoly rents, and preventing other innovators from using their own property in ways proscribed by patents. (The polio vaccine was one among many innovations that weren't patented.)
See the book _Against Intellectual Monopoly_ by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine.

Smith's "invisible hand," however, is that of a kinder god, a god that cares not one whit for individuals but nevertheless guides self-interest toward the social good, progress, and economic growth.

So, you see the crime related to the drug trade, the murder, theft, extortion, etc, to be "social good, progress, and economic growth"??

I assume you consider the Opium Wars to be the British Empire furthering the virtues of capitalism over the Chinese leaders who failed to see the great social good in their people being drug addicts.

Hey, the Godfather has to be one of the greatest movies illustrating the best of capitalism. Taking risks in the quest of profits, with the rewards going to the Don who builds the largest business empire and the best management....

Mulp, yeah it was so much better when the social democrat Nazis were doing the killing, lets move to that system instead of making the sensible and easy move of legalizing drugs, which would completely solve the problem.

It is really interesting how much of our entertainment - a hugely influential driver of ideas - is produced by a single culturally isolated tribe. The prejudices, neuroses, and pecadillos of this tribe are being constantly broadcasted to anyone not living in a cave, and besides worries about media bias, I am astonished that people are not more concerned about the undue influence of that single unrepresentative cultural group.

I think it can be much simpler than this, as corporations are simply entities that it is not unreasonable to believe would have the kind of power and reach to make good villains while not incurring the kind of public wrath if such villains were specific governments. There's really only a few choices of believable villains that could attack Cameron's giant smurfs.

Wasn't Stringer Bell doing an economics class?

Apologies, but even tardiness takes time . . .
Alex's citation here of Smith's invisible hand finally leads me to ask: is Smith known to've been at all familiar with G. B. Vico's New Science? It reminded me yet again of sections 132 and 1108 (Bergin/Fisch trans.) where Vico argued that the vices of ferocity, avarice, and ambition resulted historically (and however perversely or providentially) in development of the military, merchant, and governing classes, with the consequent strength, riches, and wisdom yielding the rudiments of a civil commonwealth. Was this a trope running through the 18th century? Have YOU read Vico, Alex?

BTW I think that a subject worth of study would be:

"How nepotism prolonged existence of Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe by mitigating some of the worst effects of planned economy."

From my experience with Americans, they mostly do not understand how important this phenomenon is in half of the world, and how readily it steps into foreground once the normal market mechanisms are disabled.

"But why doesn't Iron Man count?"

I was wondering that myself.

jeez, what a weird article from a neo-classical economist who does not even consider what the money-paying public wants from its movies. He explains the bias as the resentment of artists. But Cameron has figured it out: the mass public as opposed to wealthy benefactors don't share the self delusions of entrepreneurs about their vital contribution to the economy, and the money-paying public wants some recognition of the reality that they are not allowed to recognize in their work lives--their safety is sacrificed at the altar of profit, whole peoples have been sacrificed for the sake of the profitable extraction of raw materials, and those who run the companies are indeed deluded about what their actual role is.
The point is that because capitalists control Hollywood and the government turned to anti-Communist purge, Hollywood is not nearly as anti-capitalist as the supposedly sovereign consumers would want.

I see that most people responding to my earlier comment defined "capitalism" as "anything other than totalitarian dictatorships". I agree that totalitarian dictatorships are bad, but that seems like kind of an empty point. "Laissez-faire or totalitarian dictatorship" is a false dichotomy; many nations have neither.

But if you define "capitalism" narrowly enough to *contrast* it with a kind of mixed-economy regulated welfare state like, say, Sweden, then you have to grapple with the complete non-death of innovation in Sweden. The amount of economic incentives and/or freedom necessary for innovation to flourish is provably far, far less than laissez-faire and so the invisible hand need not be relied on when it has a track record of screwups.

P.S. I find it amusing that Cliff mocks Dan for his lack of research when Dan was responding to someone whose entire research apparently consisted of reading _Atlas Shrugged_ and mistaking it for something plausible. The least you could do is put up some hard evidence yourself, Cliff, rather than waving vaguely in the direction of some anecdata.

Minor nitpick about The Wire section: although the enterpreneurs were murderers and drug dealers, the police clearly admired their ingenuity and adaptability. Watch Season 1 and 3 and look at some of the scenes where McNulty is talking about Stringer Bell. Although he doesn't admire the drug dealing and murdering, he clearly respects the genius of his foe. To me, it wasn't a clear cut indictment of capitialism, because it clearly showed the drug dealer's system as being more efficient.

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We have become a 'nanny' society of necessity. None of us remain able to fend for ourselves. We are enitrely dependent upon the giver of productivity. The engine of efficiency. WHew.

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