Stealing the American Dream
Rule by Sociopaths
by MORRIS BERMAN
At the outset let me say that reviewing the film Heist: Who Stole the American Dream was, for me, a bit of an odd assignment. I love this film. I think it’s punchy and provocative, and that it speaks with an authentic voice. I think it’s important to get it into every multiplex in the land because the issues it raises are basic, controversial, and need to get discussed in every home, luncheonette, drug store, firehouse, and community college in the nation. A fundamental examination of the nature of our economy and its consequences is long overdue, and widespread distribution of Heist could go a long way toward making this happen. The odd part of it, for me, was (since I’m not really a “progressive” or a socialist) that I found myself in serious disagreement with much of it. But the power of the film is its enormous potential to generate substantive dialogue, and this is the real source of my admiration of it.
Let me start with the good stuff, as it were. Beyond generating dialogue, Heist provides an alternative narrative to what’s been going on in this country since 1981. “Reaganomics,” or what we now call “neoliberalism,” is the philosophy that economic growth is the answer to all our problems, because as the rich make more money, some of that will supposedly “trickle down” to the rest of us. This has been the dominant narrative in this country for the last thirty years, and what Heist clearly demonstrates is that it’s nothing more than pure kaka. What actually happened under this narrative was that wealth got transferred upward; that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer; that virtually nothing “trickled down”; that unions were busted, public services gutted, American manufacturing crippled, the media collapsed into six major corporations and turned into corporate propaganda mouthpieces, and so on. In other words, Reagonomics gave us the America we have today, in which 1 out of every 5 of us is without work and without prospect of same for at least a decade, and in which 2 out of every 3 of us lives from paycheck to paycheck, hoping that some major accident won’t occur in our lives and put us underwater for good.
Heist is thus an exercise in counter-brainwashing: Reagan and his ilk, the Powell Memorandum and the so-called think tanks (read: propaganda machines) of the political Right (American Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, etc.) all sold us a bill of goods, stole the American Dream out from under us, and we need to recognize that we’ve been economically and intellectually fleeced. Unless we can debunk the dominant narrative, and realize what really went down since 1981, we will not be able to take back the American Dream—which Causey and Goldmacher define as everyone getting a fair share of the economic pie.
The film also demonstrates that there really isn’t much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans on this score; all appearances to the contrary, Wall Street really is the government, and both parties understand this. Thus Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers worked in the Clinton administration; Clinton destroyed the welfare system; the gap between rich and poor widened during his presidency; and legislation making possible the whole system of collateralized debt obligations, credit-default swaps and the like—the further deregulation of the banking industry—occurred on his watch as well. As Gore Vidal wryly put it, the American political system consists of one political party with two right wings.
Finally, without being explicit, the film does suggest that there is something mentally unbalanced, if not downright sociopathic, about the American ruling class. The impression we get from this documentary is that the top 1 percent could care less about society at large; the only thing on their minds is profit. Recent years have seen the publication of a fair number of articles claiming that psychological studies of such people show that they have very little capacity for empathy, along with very high dopamine levels in the brain, which also depresses empathy and keeps them hyped up,
always “on the go.” These people cannot grasp, as former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall says at one point in the movie, that taxes are the price of civilization, that every society must have civil institutions, and that the ideology of every man for himself is the antithesis of civilization—the ideology of lunatics, if I may embellish on his remarks.
So why am I having problems with this? It all seems reasonable enough, especially if you believe that if we don’t undertake a serious redistribution of wealth, we are finished as a society. Let me say a few words about Heist, then, by way of critique.
1. Greed and the free-market ideology were hardly born in 1981. In this sense, the film lacks a genuine (which is to say, long-range) historical perspective. Greed showed up on the American continent in the late sixteenth century, when what would later become the United States started to be colonized by a particularly aggressive and entrepreneurial segment of the English middle class. Louis Hartz makes this point in his classic work, The American Liberal Tradition (1955), when he says that America is a “fragment society,” i.e., one that took a particular strand from the mother country—in this case the mentality of hustling, of go-getting, of unlimited economic expansion—and made it into the whole of the new country. One might argue that Reagan represented a “quantum leap” in this ideology, but he hardly invented it; from Day One, it is what America has been about. Credit-default swaps are merely the inevitable culmination of a process that has been going on for more than four hundred years.
2. How deliberate is the so-called conspiracy against the poor and the middle class on the part of the rich and big business? Two points here:
a) These folks really do believe what they are saying. I’m absolutely convinced of that. In other words, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, they were and are convinced (conveniently for them, of course) that if they could become rich with no holds barred, everyone would be better off. This is not just a pose; they really did, and do, believe this. The goal was not to screw the working class, in other words; it was to create a template for even greater levels of business profit and expansion. “What’s good for General Motors is good for the USA” rings true for them; they probably sew it on their pillows as a motto. Like the Tea Party, the rich believe that it is truly evil to limit the amount of wealth any one individual can accumulate, and that the government must not be allowed to get in the way of that. “It’s what made America great, etc.” This may not make the final result of what they are doing any different than if there were a genuine conspiracy afoot, but I do think we need to realize that these convictions are held as deeply by this class as are the semi-socialist convictions of the political left.
b) Ironically enough, the “oppressed” 99 percent that the Occupy Wall Street movement claimed to represent may not be that far from the ideology of the upper 1 percent. There has been much discussion, on the part of sociologists, as to why socialism never managed to take root in the United States, and the general consensus boils down to a remark once made by John Steinbeck: “In the U.S., the poor regard themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In ideological terms, the only difference between rich and poor in this country is that the latter don’t have any money. The interest of the poor or the middle class has not been to have the sort of civilization discussed by Robert Crandall or by Bernie Sanders (who is also interviewed in the movie)—a civilization that would include concern for the environment, the welfare of society, the fairness of our institutions, and so on. Rather, the goal of the poor and middle class has been, since the late sixteenth century, to get into that upper 1 percent. When Sinclair Lewis published Babbitt in 1922, a biting satire of the hustling way of life, the reaction to the book on the part of Americans was not to smirk at George Babbitt, but to speculate on how they might become George Babbitt. There really are limits to the argument that a small cabal of the wealthy and powerful “did this” to us—the rape theory of American history, one might call it. It’s more likely that the process was consensual. It is hardly an accident that Mr. Reagan won the election in 1980 by one of the biggest landslides in American history, or that every year, when polls are taken of the “who’s-your-favorite-president” variety, Mr. Reagan comes out on top or close to it. Consider also the unrelenting popularity—for decades now—of a book such as Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. If Alan Greenspan was her protégé, so are we all; we all swim in the stagnant pool of her ideological pathology.
3. Like Occupy Wall Street, the film insists that we must “take back” the American Dream. Like the Occupy movement, it never seems to grasp the fact that rather than recovering or restoring the American Dream, we need to abolish it. The American Dream is part of frontier mentality, coupled with the mythology of extreme individualism, and is in fact based on the idea of infinity: there can and should be no end to economic and technological expansion. Unfortunately for that hopelessly neurotic vision, we are fast running out of resources; the planet cannot support the dream extended to every American, let alone every person on the planet. In fact, it was once calculated that for everyone on the planet to have a “modest” middle-class American life, we would need the resources of six Earths. This is why socialism, or spreading the dream around more fairly, is not an adequate response to capitalism, because it too is based on the notions of “growth” and “progress,” and those notions are fast becoming obsolete. The real shift required is not to (let’s say) a Scandanavian-style economy, but to a steady-state one: no growth, and not profit-oriented. And if the left hates this, as I’m sure they do: well hard cheese, folks, because in thirty to forty years we are going to be forced into this, when petroleum runs out and the dream of unlimited energy turns into the nightmare of scarcity. To socialists and capitalists alike, to Paul Krugman and Robert Reich and every other so-called liberal, I can only say this: permanent growth means permanent crisis. It’s time to start equating this type of growth with cancer.
4. Which means to me that significant historical change will come to America as “capitalism hits the fan,” to quote Richard Wolff, and it will obviously involve more than just the United States. Heist puts a lot of stock in Occupy Wall Street and grassroots organizing, which gives it (in my view) a rather dated flavor. Occupy was a colossal flop; it didn’t amount to much of anything, when the dust settled; it just came and went, like yet one more American fad, and the question we have to ask is why? Again, I refer you to the comment of John Steinbeck, and the discussion in 2(b), above; but beyond that, let me make two crucial points here:
First, when Robert Crandall argues that the ideology of every man for himself is the antithesis of civilization, we need to recognize—again—that extreme individualism is literally the core of American civilization, and thus that we never really constituted much of a civilization. We do not operate out of a moral center, in the United States; “more” is hardly a reasonable philosophy of life, and that is pretty much what we’ve been about. Don’t kid yourself: Miles Davis and Melville and J.D. Salinger and Thomas Cole arose in spite of the American way of life, not because of it, and Georges Clemenceau was on the mark when he commented that America was “the only nation that went from barbarism to decadence without the intervening phase of civilization.” I mean, let’s call a spade a spade here: Heist’s idea of change, as with Occupy’s idea, is purely economic in nature; it’s not really about a truly different kind of culture. Nor can we expect such a shift, after four hundred years of doing just one thing. Over and over again, I heard Occupy tell us that we needed to cut the pie up in a fairer way. Not once did I hear them say that the problem was the pie itself; that it was, in the final analysis, rotten.
Second, the movie tells us that Americans have the drive and initiative to change things, to “take back” our country (whatever that means), and to challenge the power elite. I’m not sure Frances and Don are living on the same planet I am, if I can level with you here. Even a casual observation of Americans, and of American behavior, will tell you that we have no such drive and initiative—we seem exhausted, spiritually spent—and truth be told, we are not very bright, as a people. I remember marching against the invasion of Iraq in D.C. in 2003, and noticing how many of the signs were misspelled. Friends tell me of conversations they had with the Occupy folks, and how out of it these people were—with beliefs such as “all we need to do is switch to solar energy, and our problems will be solved” (one example among many). A good friend of mine, a prominent journalist, gave a talk at Occupy D.C. on U.S. foreign policy last October, and all of fifty people showed up (only two of whom were under sixty, by the way); the majority weren’t interested and had no time for serious intellectual analysis. The number of books that have appeared over the past decade, providing massive statistical evidence of the sheer ignorance and stupidity of the American public, has been quite impressive (Just How Stupid Are We?, Idiot America, etc.); and if you look around at young people today—our supposed future—they can’t read. Their lives are comprised of cell phones and Twitter and Facebook. I am frequently in Mexico City, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve had conversations with taxi drivers about history, literature, and philosophy—all initiated by them. Try having similar discussions with a taxi driver in New York, see how far you get. Or just go out into the street of any American city, and ask the first person you run into how many justices there are on the Supreme Court, or what nation we seceded from in 1776, or where Europe is, or if they can define “retrograde” or “trachea.” If that doesn’t wake you up, my friends, nothing will. Bottom line: we are a collection of dummies, and dummies cannot “take back the country” any more than they can discuss the implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If Americans don’t actually have a purée of steamed vegetables inside their heads, they are doing an excellent job of imitating people who do; and with that level of cranial impairment, there will be no reversal of the disastrous downhill slide in which we are now engaged.
So let me conclude with my original point. As the above discussion would indicate, Heist is a film that gets you going. It contains much to admire, and (in my opinion) much to criticize; but that’s a good thing, as I’m sure Frances and Don would agree. Somehow, the movie needs to get wider exposure than a six-day run in some dilapidated repertory cinema in Berkeley, California. Frances and Don are courageous folks, and they have done this culture a great service. Whether the culture can appreciate that remains to be seen.
(Heist will open in New York and Los Angeles on August 17 for one week. For a screening near you, go to heist-themovie.com.)
Morris Berman’s latest book is Why America Failed. Morris Berman blogs at Dark Ages America.
This review was originally published by Tikkun.