NewsLink V9, N3, Spring 2005

Hollywood and the anticapitalist mentality





Nation's Largest Employers


The tragic transformation of Anakin Skywalker into the feared and despised Darth Vader in the latest Star Wars saga, Revenge of the Sith, marks, in only ways creator George Lucas can capture, the return of the super-villain. But as Darth Vader finds his way into the pantheon of evil doers in silver screen history, he might find that he sits low on the pedestal – nudged aside by another dastardly miscreant: the evil corporation.

Long hospitable to the countercultural meme about the evils of capitalism, Hollywood, which ironically is one of the most successful examples of big business in America, has ratcheted up its war against the dreaded profit motive. One of the most famous lines ever uttered in Hollywood was delivered deftly by a straight-faced Michael Douglas to a seminar room full of acolytes in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, “Greed – for lack of a better word – is good,” proclaimed the corporate raider and bad-boy Gordon Gekko.

Hollywood has a long tradition of producing movies that bash the capitalist system and while it has every right to use film as a medium to criticize the excesses of capitalism, is it truth these artists seek to portray? More likely, it is a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the virtues of the free-market.

Hollywood is an insular world. Michael Moore is a patron saint, due in no small part to his hefty attempt to remove George W. Bush from office. It is an environment in which long diatribes against the evils of corporate culture are most welcome. With the Left’s ongoing strategy of pursuing class warfare, large successful corporations have become an easy target. Remember that Michael Moore’s grand debut on American consciousness came with his satiric look at the downsizing of General Motors in Roger and Me.

Despite the failure of communism, the slow pace of economic growth in welfare states and the triumph of the market system across the world, Hollywood collectively takes its cue from academic anti-capitalists such as historian Howard Zinn, linguist Noam Chomsky and radical theorist Ward Churchill. Box office gratification isn’t enough either. Most Hollywood filmmakers enjoy and appeal to a growing appetite for anti-American audiences (particularly during the Cannes Film Festival).

BHI Staff Ranks the Most AntiCapitalist Movies with strangely Capitalistic Results
(BHI Survey)

From Saturday morning cartoons to the blockbusters, studios provide a steady stream of Big Business vilification. Conventional black hat characters (serial killers, sociopaths, flat out psychos) have been forced aside by the evil CEO who predictably undermines workers, pollutes the environment and conspires with the government of the United States to overthrow popularly elected leaders in the Third World.

The most telling film of the anti-capitalist mentality is the highly acclaimed documentary by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, simply titled The Corporation. The idea of a corporation is so intrinsically destructive that Achbar and Abbott compare it to a listless psychopath that meets the definition of a mental illness made by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

How expansive is this assault on corporate culture? By the age of 18, the average TV viewer has seen businessmen and businesswomen attempt more than 10,000 murders and countless lesser offenses ranging from extortion and bribery to kidnapping and dumping of toxic waste, according to a survey by the Media Institute.

For example, the film version of The Fugitive with Harrison Ford involved a plot by an evil drug company profiting from a failed drug. This plot, interestingly, was not in the television series from which the film was originally drawn. The 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate has as its villain a multinational conglomerate whose revenue exceeds the European Union’s and that has designs on controlling the White House, not the original 1962 communist villain.

Recently, economist Donald Boudreaux found himself in the uncomfortable position of censoring what his son should watch. Was it soft pornography or lewd language that alarmed Boudreaux? Neither. What bothered the usually laissez faire parent-economist was a syndicated episode of Captain Planet which featured hellish industrial scenes overwhelming the idyllic life of yesteryear.

“The episode’s opening scenes depict river banks crowded with open pipes dumping sludge into already filthy rivers, skylines full of belching smokestacks, and forests clear cut with only stumps showing above the ground,” recalls Boudreax in his blog, Café Hayek. Naturally, the heroes of Captain Planet inevitably encounter an evil businessman “with a raspy voice, sinister laughs, and motivated by pure evil.” Yes the businessman is a regular call up from central casting.

The animated Robots is another example of anti-capitalist ideology run amuck. Its protagonist Rodney Copperbottom, an affable, boy-wonder inventor, works against a plot by Bigweld Industries to commit what amounts to genocide of older robots. This company was taken over by a MBA-refined and Gekko-inspired corporate tyrant named Ratchet. Becoming aware that an upgrade campaign is a nasty effort to eliminate competition, Rodney stirs up a revolt that prevails in David and Goliath fashion.

Ironically, Robots simply misses the crucial element of the capitalist system - competition. For example, true free markets would allow Rodney to start a spare parts business that would compete with Bigweld Industry’s flashy new upgrades. Both would be able to enter and exit the market to meet the needs of their consumers. But such nuances are certainly to be lost on impressionable children. By the time the movie’s over the intended message is clear: big business is bad.

Whether it’s on the big screen or television, businessmen applying Gekko’s vision of the world regularly shoot, slash, bludgeon, poison, blackmail, extort and smear their way to the top. According to a comprehensive survey of some 620 television shows between 1955 and 1986 by the Study of Social & Political Change, businessmen are more than three times as likely to be portrayed as criminals.

No one argues that all businessmen are squeaky-clean or necessarily better than the population as a whole. The recent accounting scandals are example enough of how the profit motive can lead to ethical lapses.

The crimes that businessmen sometimes do commit – embezzlement, income tax evasion, selling faulty goods, hiding bad effects of products, antitrust violations, insider trading – are rarely the ones they are depicted as committing.

Number of persons employed at major media outlets

While the Enron and WorldCom stories of bankruptcy and white collar crimes grabbed headlines, the transgressions committed by these companies account for a minuscule portion of the economy as a whole. Telling the story of how capitalism expands consumer choices at lower costs, and, in turn advances freedom is lost upon Hollywood’s mostly unionized script writers.

Why the stereotypes?

According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, three-fourths of Americans agree that this country’s strength is primarily based on the success of American business, a proportion that has remained unchanged in polls taken over the past 15 years.

Yet public support for regulation has shifted somewhat since the mid-1990s. In 1994, 38 percent saw government regulation of business as a necessity, according to Pew. By 2002, the percentage had risen to half of all Americans.

In 1996, after a wave of corporate layoffs, opinions about Corporate America were somewhat less rosy. In a nationwide poll conducted by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, only 19 percent of Americans rated corporations as excellent (3 percent) or good (16 percent) at “really caring about what’s good for America”; 43 percent said business did a poor job. Around one-fourth said companies were excellent or good at creating new job opportunities. In addition, 3 in 10 rated companies favorably for providing reasonable wages, salaries and benefits. Often less reported is how the gales of creative destruction (i.e. downsizing and restructuring) made way for greater prosperity later in the 1990s.

Opinion of big business seems to rise and fall with the stock market. At the height of the recession of 1992, 73 percent of Americans told an ABC News poll that large corporations had too much power for the good of the country. By 1996, that number had fallen to 71 percent and at the height of the dot-com boom in 2000, only 63 percent of Americans agreed.

It would be hard to argue that Hollywood, with its tremendous influence on the public imagination, doesn’t engender such antipathy toward big business. Who could forget Helen Hunt’s famous applause-drawing four-lettered put-down of health maintenance organizations in the movie As good as it gets? “Those [blankety-blank-blank] HMOs,” Hunt’s character declares, to which the doctor attending to her son responds, “Actually, I think that’s the technical term for them.” That kind of influence can shape the debate and for a time it did.

Wal-Mart prequel: Coming to a theater near you!

More recently the biggest evil-doer is Wal-Mart. But Hollywood's been a bit slow to skewer the big price chopper. Perhaps Hollywood may not want to bite the hand that feeds it. After all, producers have to consider those cheap Spiderman, Toy Story and Star Wars toys and accessories on shelves. (Always low prices! )Thus far, we have been spared a Moore-like documentary on WalMart CEO Lee Scott and a Norma Rae - like pro-union movie on under-paid sales associates. But don’t be surprised. Wal-Mart is a sitting scapegoat for Hollywood. Even though it’s the largest private employer in the United States, with just over 1.3 million U.S. employees, Wal-Mart has been vilified by the Left, particularly organized labor. Despite paying nearly twice the minimum wage for what amounts to unskilled labor, Wal-Mart is often cast as an exploitative robber baron profiting on the backs of its employees. We are typically sold the story of a single mother struggling to support a family of four on a Wal-Mart salary yet many of Wal-Marts employees are teen-agers and young adults – not a family’s primary wage earner. Also, because it depends on massive imports from China, it is conveniently blamed for the shuddering of Main Street businesses from coast to coast as well as disrupting supermarket chains.

Artists, academics and Hollywood producers know little about how prices are coordinated in a market or how entrepreneurs can best exploit limited information to benefit their customers. A businessman or corporation on the other hand must control costs, know the market, hire good people, effectively advertise, anticipate a competitor’s next step, spot the latest trends, and most importantly, remember that the customer is always right. The evolution of an enterprise from local to global, from small to big, is a natural process that satisfies the demands of consumers for goods and services. Bigness, no matter how much it may affront our sensibilities for the small and pastoral or days gone by, is not a bad thing. This is a country where it’s not a crime to aspire to be the next Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Michael Dell, but such biographies don't make it on Hollywood's story boards.

In one of his more famous works, The Anticapitalist Mentality, the noted Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises writes that it is “solely bigness in business which makes it possible to supply the masses with all those products the present-day American common man does not want to do without.” That’s a script for success that Hollywood ought to option.

Christopher J. Boyd is associate editor of NewsLink.


posted on May 27, 2005 4:17 PM