Saturday, February 28, 2009

The American Ruling Class (Independent, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was The American Ruling Class, an engaging 2005 pseudo-documentary written by then-Harper’s editor Lewis H. Lapham — a sort of apostate from the American ruling class since he has the right background, gets invited to all the right parties (including the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland — the primo get-together of the world’s ruling classes — which he’s written scathingly about in his magazine) but trashes them every chance he gets. Directed by John Kirby from Lapham’s script, The American Ruling Class presents its documentary material in the context of a fictional framing story in which two recent Yale graduates are contrasted: Jack Bellamy (Caton Burwell) knows perfectly well that he wants a stint in the American ruling class, and he has managed to land a job as a beginning broker at Goldman Sachs (the investment bank that’s primus inter pares among America’s investment bank and has been the recent go-to place for both Republican and Democratic presidents for secretaries of the treasury); and Mike Vanzetti (Paul Cantagallo), who’s debating whether he wants to go after a similar job or take a year off to write a novel and support himself by being a waiter. (The symbolism that Jack has an Anglo last name and Mike has a white-ethnic one is unstressed but definitely there.)

Along the way Jack and (especially) Mike meet up with a lot of real people playing either themselves or thinly veiled versions of themselves — Barbara Ehrenreich turns up as a waitress with the name tag “Barb” (her best-selling book Nickel and Dimed, in which she lived underground for several months as a member of the modern proletariat, tried to make ends meet on what these jobs were paying her and found she couldn’t, began as an article assignment for Harper’s) and Howard Zinn as a tour guide through the “people’s history” of the U.S., while such heavyweights of the American ruling class as former secretary of state James Baker, former secretary of defense Harold Brown, former State Department spokesperson Hodding Carter III, former commerce secretary William Coleman (one of the first African-Americans to integrate the American ruling class), Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian, New York Times chair Arthur Sulzberger, and former Harvard University president and World Bank economist Lawrence Summers (whose appointment by President Barack Obama as his economic czar was the biggest signal that “change you can believe in” was going to mean “change the ruling class doesn’t have to worry about” — this despicable, evil man, who was already on record as saying that Africa wasn’t carrying its fair share of the world’s pollution and that women weren’t intellectually qualified to be scientists, is shown in the film as saying that American poverty isn’t so bad because even “poor” people are fat and have TV sets: the sort of slimeball comment one would expect to hear from Rush Limbaugh rather than the principal economic advisor to a Democratic President!) — and it’s pretty obvious that the only way they ended up in this movie was because Lapham is still enough of a good friend of theirs he could talk them into it, mostly as interviewees being asked by Cantagallo in his Mike Vanzetti character, “What is the American ruling class, and how do I get into it?”

It’s basically a bunch of old white Anglo-Saxon men in suits — though increasingly the doors have been opened to women and people of color (and one audience member at the Activist San Diego screening made the observation that as America expands its corporate interests worldwide there’s a reason why the members of the ruling class want to let a greater diversity of races and ethnicities into their club: they want ruling-class members who can be accepted around the world as “looking like us” and being able to interact with members of other countries’ ruling classes) — and their unifying principle, as the film explains, is the idea that they are simply a better order of humanity than the rest of us and therefore they’re entitled not only to a greater share of life’s material goodies but also all the political power they need to keep that share. This is actually how ruling classes have behaved throughout human history, ever since so-called “civilization” was instituted and we came out of our relatively communal hunter-gatherer societies — though the only real historical insight into the persistence of ruling-class/working-class arrangements comes from a quote as an epigram at the movie’s beginning of the motto of the Medici family: “Money into power, power to win money.” (I’m quoting from memory but that’s the gist of it.)

The American Ruling Class is an interesting attempt to break through the American public’s unwillingness to think of themselves as members of economic classes or their society in class terms by creating a film that will not only be informative but also entertaining. The filmmakers’ strategy to do that is quite obviously influenced by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht — to set the more audacious aspects of their social critique to music (the theme song of the film, “The Wurlitzer Plays On,” even sounds like a tune Weill could have written for one of Brecht’s texts!) and enact it with characters who aren’t important in and of themselves but for what they represent in terms of class conflicts. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how effective a film like this would be in reaching beyond its natural audience on the Left — people who are already convinced there is an American ruling class and pretty much agree on who is in it and what they want — to possible audiences outside the clique of initiates. For one thing, this film is particularly weak on just how the ruling class rules — the intricate web of associations both before (in the elite schools which members of the ruling class have attended and the social contacts they have made even before they reach adult age) and during (in the extent to which public institutions, think tanks and corporate boards and executive corps interlock) their ruling-class membership, detailed so well half a century ago by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite (a book Cantagallo is briefly shown reading in the film) is pretty much assumed instead of documented.

It’s a clever film but it won’t reach a fraction of the audience that really needs to see it — especially now that the Obama administration’s appointments and the limited “changes” of its economic proposals (especially its heartfelt declarations that they will never, no way, no how even consider nationalizing any major banks and thereby wiping out shareholder equity) in the face of America’s greatest economic crisis since 1929 are a first-rate demonstration of how enduring the power of the American ruling class is and how immune it is to serious challenge. (At least one commentator on this film noted that it leaves a feeling of despair, even though the ending — with Pete Seeger, playing himself, assuming the role of anti-capitalist guru and offering parables about the eventual efficacy of persistent resistance — is clearly meant to instill hope.)