Five Anti-Capitalist Movies That Backfired
The life of commerce is far more dramatic, engaging, and even thrilling than its reputation suggests. There are clear signals to follow (prices and profitability), which make it easy to determine success. There is energy and the action of competition. There is a reward for intelligence and foresightedness. And there is plenty of risk.
Rather than turning viewers into raving socialists, the opposite happens: the romance of capitalism becomes the lasting impression.Under the right conditions, enterprise can be an extreme sport. It’s not just personally rewarding. As the theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment were first to suggest, it also benefits the whole of society. The winner gets the gold, but so does everyone else.
It’s not easy to make a movie that demonizes all of this, not if it is realistic. The very act of presenting the drama of enterprise – complete with huge rewards – can inadvertently serve as a recruitment tool into the world of commerce. One of the reasons is that so few movies treat business life at all. They are so rare that just to get a peek into this world is thrilling by itself, even if the intention is to cast aspersions.
I can think of at least five movies that have done exactly that. Rather than turning viewers into raving socialists, the opposite happens: the romance of capitalism becomes the lasting impression.
Anti-Capitalist Movies Wall Street (1987)
Oliver Stone made this wonderful movie to deal the final blow to the “decade of greed” and the criminality it unleashed. But there was a real problem. All the characters seemed rather awesome to the viewer: great lives, epic jobs, smart dealings, high taste in all things, and so on. To go along with Stone’s intended narrative, you had to sympathize with regulators hounding smart stock traders for their noncompliance with arcane regulations.
The issue was “insider trading,” but it turns out to be difficult to show people what precisely is wrong with having more knowledge about something than your competitors. It was so difficult to do so that Stone had to arrange for the aspirational trader Bud Fox to break into an office and illegally copy files – which is, of course, a crime, regardless of insider trading rules.
The movie also failed to generate anti-capitalist hysteria because Gordon Gekko was so awesome (perfectly rendered by Michael Douglas). He was driven, sporty, sexy, and wore the greatest men’s fashions ever seen on the big screen. Then there was his famous speech, the one that supposedly incriminated him but strangely hits upon a truth everyone knows:
Now, in the days of the free market, when our country was a top industrial power, there was accountability to the stockholder. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake. Today, management has no stake in the company!
All together, these men sitting up here own less than 3 percent of the company. And where does Mr. Cromwell put his million-dollar salary? Not in Teldar stock; he owns less than 1 percent. You own the company. That’s right — you, the stockholder. And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their steak lunches, their hunting and fishing trips, their corporate jets and golden parachutes.
Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents.
The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you.
I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
Anti-Capitalist Movies – Other People’s Money (1991)
Somehow I missed this when it first came out, but I watched it recently. I’m almost certain that it was designed to illustrate the dangers of rapaciously capitalistic takeover artists. The technology in the film is a kick because this was before the web – traders use terminals on their desks and by their beds to stream stock prices by satellite.
The main character is Lawrence Garfield, a corporate raider magnificently played by Danny DeVito. He seizes on an undervalued but overcapitalized mom-and-pop (literally) company and targets it for a takeover. He is voracious and measures his self worth according to his balance sheet. Even his love interest in the film is inspired by her willingness to play the takeover game with as much passion as his own.
He is loathsome, right? Not so much. He is smart, far-seeing, fearsome, and all-around kind of awesome. In his speech to the stockholders, he follows up an impassioned plea by the company’s founder to not throw away history and tradition, much less disregard worker rights. Given time, the company will come back in a big way. Garfield responds in a wonderful speech to the actual owners of the company:
Amen. And amen. And amen. You have to forgive me. I’m not familiar with the local custom. Where I come from, you always say “Amen” after you hear a prayer. Because that’s what you just heard – a prayer. Where I come from, that particular prayer is called “The Prayer for the Dead.” You just heard The Prayer for the Dead, my fellow stockholders, and you didn’t say, “Amen.”
This company is dead. I didn’t kill it. Don’t blame me. It was dead when I got here. It’s too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this, and the dollar did that, and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead. You know why? Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence. We’re dead alright. We’re just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.
You know, at one time there must’ve been dozens of companies makin’ buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have