Tag Archives: social class

Inequality For All

It’s easy to see how people who are Leftists might expect Robert Reich to be anti-capitalist, just as easily as Rightwingers would expect the same. As it turns out, Inequality for All shows the economist to be a Keynesian, social welfare liberal who would like to reform the most extreme cruelties of capitalism, but is not interested in fundamentally ending inequality or capitalism, let alone creating a democratic economy. The film reminds me of Al Gore’s award-winning Inconvenient Truth, and not just because both are focused on similar, self-important white men who think they have figured out something that others haven’t, for which they need to spread The Good Word. The style of the two documentaries are equally similar: they feature fancy PowerPoint graphic presentations (that neither likely assembled themselves) and a self-laudatory biopic-style that focuses on the hard questions they have nobly confronted during their lifetimes.

As an individual, Reich is generally likable. He makes lots of self-deprecating “short person” jokes about himself. For those who are familiar with the free-market propertarian Milton Friedman’s height, the contrasts are ironic. He is personable and manages to insert himself into a variety of situations in which he can speak with “average” people, just as often as he speaks to elites. The film shows part of his privileged background, including his own flattering portrayal of his early friendship with a young Bill Clinton—who later taps Reich to be his Secretary of Labor.

The graphics of his presentations—which he gives in front of a standing-room-only auditorium at the University of California at Berkeley for a course about social inequality—are impressive. They show the long-term changes in inequality, worker productivity, union membership, and many other measures of note; all move in the wrong direct for those concerned with justice. The major trends are telling: the heights of inequality occur in the US in 1928 and 2007, right before the stock markets collapsed.

While he speaks of unions and even speaks to a group of workers considering unionization, the film does not explore labor unions in any philosophical depth. Neither the practical economic benefits of union membership are presented nor the traditional syndicalist demand of worker control.

Discerning viewers may notice some gaps in Reich’s logic and concerns. For example, he ignores key factors that enabled the incredible growth or an American middle-class following WW2. He tells others he does not idealize other country’s economies, but rather thinks the US did it right in the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, Reich is thereby overlooking a wide array of unique qualities of that time period that are unlikely to return. Notably, post-war America was unchallenged economically by all of its prior competitors in Europe (and Japan). That economic dominance (which Wallerstein argues found confluence with dominant American political and military power) allowed the US to buy-off a large part of the American working-class and give them a slightly higher standard of living. Of course, the deeper factors that led to American productive potential are also something worthy of discussion—which Reich avoids: stolen Native land, African slave labor, and the exploitation of materials, labor, and markets abroad. In other words, America’s New Deal and Keynesian was based upon American hegemony and violence. (Of course, the same could be said for Europe’s.)

Related to these oversights, there is little intersectional analysis. Race is almost completely absent and the same is generally true for gender (although Reich does talk about the increase in female employment). The most significant consequence to these omissions and other problems is framed early in the film by Reich himself who notes that some inequality will always exist. While he seems honestly interested in reducing inequality—which is good—he also seems a bit too committed to capitalism (even stating very clearly his advocacy of it and his rejection of critical perspectives, including communism).

As with any documentary that focuses on the ideas of a single person, it is difficult to tell (without reading all their work) whether or not the film itself omitted the important details of contention, or if the film makers accurately presented the individual and their flaws. Since the film presents Reich favorably, it also seems to present as him as a messiah of sorts (see yet another similarity with An Inconvenient Truth). One gets the feeling that Reich alone has the answers and that he possesses a missionary zeal to inform others to these problems—in doing so, we have yet another case of an intellectual side-lining countless activists who have fought around the same issues Reich is advocating.

Criticisms aside, Inequality for All does an excellent job with making the case that inequality exists, is bad, and should be reduced. It stops short of a holistic critique of the systems that create that inequality, but it comes part way. For those who want to find better ways to critique American capitalism and its negative impacts, this film provides a decent starting point.

Topics: social class, inequality, unions, economic sociology

Born Rich

Born Rich is one of those rare films that the average sociologist could never make. It is usually incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to study the super-rich, as there are so many physical and social barriers between an inquirer and the wealthy. Thus, insiders are the best people to describe their own social worlds; Born Rich is such an attempt, by Jamie Johnson who is an heir to the Johnson & Johnson, Co. fortune. He turns his video camera on his friends and family (in particular, his dad). He finds his subjects highly reluctant to discuss their lives, and especially their wealth, on camera. For the wealthy, discussion of one’s inheritance seems to border upon the taboo—perhaps for humility or self-defense, or our of embarrassment or guilt.

His peers include heirs to a wide-variety of modern capitalist dynasties (with at least two examples of very “old money” thrown in, too), including major supermarket, gambling, real estate, and mass media interests. One interviewee rattles-off a long list of all the magazines—heavy on fashion and lifestyle—owned by his family’s company. Then, one “old money” friend who is a Vanderbilt-Whitney family heir describes being taken to New York City’s Grand Central Station and being told, melodramatically, that “this is yours”. This same person makes casual conversation with Johnson, talking about how his own family were “crooks” who swindled the city and then jokes that Johnson’s family also likely has ghosts in its closet, too. Johnson’s dad, who was prohibited by his own family from working for Johnson & Johnson as a youth, does not work (for money), but spends most of his time painting. He’s an incredibly awkward man who repeatedly expresses his anxiety over his son’s interest in his own wealth—and particularly his son’s interest in documenting his wealth on camera. He seems utterly unable to deal with the nature of his own inheritance or family legacy. (Incidentally, Johnson’s second film, The One Percent, explores his dad’s reticence more and generates some interesting answers to questions about this that he raises in Born Rich). An interviewee—who is a European baron—offers a very frank and honest reflection where he describes where his family’s wealth and title came from: hundreds of years ago someone probably knocked someone else over the head and was made king. It was that simple.

What stands out in the film is the truly surprising distance from reality and “common people” that most interviewees possess. Many project a mixture of indifference, vanity, or self-congratulatory bemusement with their privilege, especially in relation to those who lack some privilege. In fact, many express concerns about the problems with possessing wealth—in many occasions, these seem like deliberate attempts to garner sympathy—although it always seems a bit absurd. For example, Ivanka Trump—daughter of NYC real estate mogul and megalomaniac Donald Trump—tells a story of her father pointing to a homeless guy on the street and bemoaning having millions of dollars less than him, since Trump was in debt at the time. Ivanka’s idolizing of her father’s “bravery” in this admission is incredible, given that Donald had no problem making his millions back again due to his social networks and cultural capital—something that the homeless man could have never hoped to possess. Yet, she passes his successful return to glory as simply to product of his hard work, not the multitudes of privilege, assets, and connections he continued to possess (in fact, inherited himself from his own real estate investor family).

Others say things that display their contempt for “lesser people”, particularly Cody Franchetti, Luke Weil, and Carlo von Zeitschel. Incidentally, these men also appear to be misogynists, as they say incredibly insulting things about women, especially around the topic of prenuptial agreements when they marry. (I have shown the film twice in classes, and the moment that gets the strongest reaction from students is when Weil references a hypothetical future fiancée who might only want him for his money, describing them as a “bitch” and “gold-digger”.) A female interviewee describes the scandal that would ensue by bringing a Black person (especially Black man) to a country club… she then points out a Black man playing tennis and insists he must be a tennis pro, teaching a club member.

Some express fears of losing their wealth—either getting “cut-off” or left out of their inheritances, due to some kind of minor fax-paus. Consequently, they try to “walk the line” and avoid ostracization, at least to those who control the purse strings. So strong is this desire to control one’s appearance and not risk public humiliation and possible divestment, that Weil actually sues Johnson to exclude his interviews from the film. This seems to be a perfectly sensible action on Weil’s part, considering all the unflattering comments he has already made to Johnson in interviews.

Two male interviewees (who are, generally, the least masculine of the bunch) seem reflexive about their wealth and talk about the emotional problems it has caused. One relates being beaten-up when younger for being rich. Consequently, they see their wealth as alienating them from others in the society, keeping them from having wider set of relationships and friendships. One of these two took time off from university studies due to depression and worked in a working-class job for awhile (his poor co-workers were amused by his high-brow knowledge).

Most, however are unable to relate to “common people” and do not even appear interested in doing so. They talk about horses, impulsively spending hundreds of dollars on hand-bags, where they “vacation”, how easy it is for them to get jobs, buying the most expensive bottles of wine to drink, and how they like to spend hours “busting [the] balls” of working-class people in their employ. Some pursue art-making exclusively for years and most never mention working-class people. In fact, the only working-class people to appear in the film are shown at the very beginning—wait-staff at Johnson’s twenty-first birthday party are being directed to be extra polite to all his guests.

Most likely Born Rich made Johnson a pariah amongst his ultra-wealth peers. If so, the need to adapt to those conditions and the storm of attention on the question of the super-rich seemed to make him even more critical in his follow-up film, The One Percent, which is more well-done, polished, and critical in certain respects. But, Born Rich has this startling, “behind-the-curtain” quality that is rarely captured. Johnson’s own reflexivity and curiosity about his (and others’) wealth makes for an interesting narrative. The film shows an important component to the story of social class in America, which is the flip-side of the coin usually discussed by sociologists (i.e., poverty). The opulence and decadence of people like those interviewed here is what creates the poverty of others. Not to be missed.

Topics: social class, social mobility, culture, cultural capital, wealth

American Autumn: An OccuDoc

This may the best documentary to date on the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for one that explores the fundamental concerns of the movement. Some documentaries have focused more on questions of tactics or process—which are of key importance, but may be of greater interest to those who are already activists. Instead, American Autumn focuses on a variety of issues that cropped-up repeatedly throughout Occupy’s short history, including police brutality, housing inequality, unemployment, environmental devastation and hydraulic fracking of the Canadian Tar Sands, and the corporate influence upon elections (represented best by the Citizens United legal decision). For outsiders looking to understand Occupy, this is likely the most accessible documentary.

The graphical style and design is compelling, including words printed on the screen as the narrator gives polemical speeches. The best example is a critique of the usually unperceived irony of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street movie, in which the stock broker criminal Gordon Gecko gives his infamous “green is good speech”—the film responds forcefully saying: “Fuck you, Gordon Gecko!”. There is a pleasant selection of music to accompany these sequences and the rest of the film. And, of course, this reviewer was pleased and excited to hear (count ’em) two Fugazi songs. While interviewees talk, there is ample footage of protesters—either bearing signs or grappling with police lines in riot porn-esque fashion. Some of these interviewees are immediately recognizable, such as Michael Moore and probably Cornel West. To the more activist-oriented audience member, they may notice Medea Benjamin or Carl Dix. Few, except his kindred professionals, may identify Todd Gitlin (who appears with discomforting, swaggering bravado) as a sociologist.

Problematically, however, there are far too many male voices throughout. Many minutes-worth of interviewees proceed by before the first woman appears. For those with any experience with Occupy, this will seem odd, since there was often evenly-balanced gender participation, even over female-representation amongst organizers. Apparently (and unsurprising) progressive men (and male documentary directors) still like to hear themselves talk at greater rates than their women comrades. It was also strange to see so many sectarian socialists appear (especially the entry-ist Revolutionary Communist Party); this is equally odd given how small their role was in Occupy. The sizable anarchist contribution seems completely (but predictably) absent.

In terms of activist strategy, American Autumn focuses heavily (maybe even obsessing over) those who disrupt official government meetings and get arrested. There is no discussion of general assemblies or consensus decision making, or the use of cascading protest tactics to swarm and swamp city streets and law enforcement. Unfortunately, some footage in the film will be unintelligible to those who are unfamiliar with Occupy (or who possess poor long-term memory), such as the police violence against veteran Scott Olson in Oakland or the then-infamous pepper-spraying of women who were corralled in New York City. To many, these scenes would make more sense if they were explained as some of the key moments that helped to turn public opinion toward Occupy, that also radicalized the movement itself.

But, for a documentary that explores the topical issues that Occupy tended to concern itself with, this film gives a fair, albeit often progressive more than radical, representation of the movement. While there are some curious editing choices and a Michael Moore-ish director who has integrated himself (and his two arrests) into the story of Occupy, it does help to correct key myths about the movement and present it in an attractive light, while spending ample time discussing inequality and injustice in America.

Topics: social movements, social class, social change, inequality