[7 February 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We are clearly a nation of classes. We hear about it everyday: the haves and the have-nots; upper, middle, lower, impoverished, disenfranchised, and all the pecuniary parameters in between; the name families and the citizenry within the so-called welfare state; those with power and those struggling to make ends meet. To ignore the financial delineation between people is foolhardy. To make too much out of it is equally pointless. There will always be rich folk and it seems we are destined to live in a social structure which fails to fully reward those who are the hardest working among us. But according to Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine and economic intellectual, there’s another class to be concerned about - one we Americans thought we would never see.
Indeed, in a democracy, there should never be a hierarchy of power, or a true ruling class. Money can indeed buy you influence, but the ability of the populace to control its abuse is the premise upon which our nation is founded. And yet, in his inspired documentary dissertation on the subject The American Ruling Class (new to DVD from Alive Mind), Lapham argues that the US is gripped by a collection of familiar names, faces, and corporate facades that manipulate and micromanage ever other facet of our supposed Constitutional community. Inexplicably tied to capitalism, the desire for material gain, and the implied notion of happiness linked to both, we discover that those who want to make a difference are rare indeed. Everyone else just wants to make a dollar.
Lapham presents his thesis in a powerful, provocative manner. He takes two “actors”, turns them into stereotypical Ivy League grads (Yale), and then sets them on different paths. ‘Jack Bellami’ comes from privilege, and has a standing offer at Goldman Sachs come graduation. He sees himself as part of the overall banking/financial set-up of America. ‘Mark Vanzetti’ has more noble aspirations. While he too could instantly earn a job on Wall Street, he really wants to be a writer. He takes a year off, gets a self-described “bohemian” apartment, and waits tables during the day as he searches for his muse. Lapham acts as a guide for both progressing pilgrims, showing each the possibilities, and pitfalls, of their individual pursuits. Part of this process includes talking with and interviewing individuals - artists, politicians, businessmen, CEOs - who hope to clarify (and sometimes complicate) the multifaceted pros and cons.
During its opening moments, The American Ruling Class appears obvious. Lapham may look like a member of the Warren Buffet Appreciation Society, but he seems more ideological in his search. He constantly warns his charges that there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of riches. Instead, he counters that one should “do no harm” during said quest. Thanks to insights from Walter Cronkite, Kurt Vonnegut, and Lapham himself, Jack feels authorized to begin his rise to prominence. After all, it’s just the way things are. But for Mark, our instructor forges a much more intricate path. We see a reporter playing waitress so she can chronicle the life of the minimum wage earner (the prognosis: not very good at all). There are conversations with Hollywood heavyweights Mike Medavoy and the late filmmaker Robert Altman. Mark even gets a last minute bit of advice from folk troubadour Pete Seeger.
Yet it’s the sit down with members of an elite think tank whose main purpose seems to be setting the policy for everyone on the planet that offers the most insight. It’s Mark who gets to match wits with such powerhouse individuals as Bill Bradley, Vartan Gregorian, Harold Brown, and William T. Coleman, among others. Most seem content to be part of the upper echelon, frequently speaking in terms that some might misinterpret as derogatory - or at the very least, unsympathetic. Perhaps the worst offender is former White House Chief of Staff/Secretary of State James A. Baker. Beginning from a position that believes there is nothing wrong with using wealth as a means of obtaining and maintaining power, and then extrapolating said position out onto the rest of the world, he remains a focused figure of Reagan/Bush neo-conservatism. Even his attempts at apologies seem arrogant.
It’s this sequence that turns The American Ruling Class from a dissenter to a dinner companion. It seems as if Lapham is backhandedly trying to support the notion of giving up activism for a life in service of the all mighty greenback. There’s never a time when child of means Jack reconsiders his career arc. He has doubts at first, but the film’s narrative seems to cement his resolve. Mark, ion the other hand, gets batted around like a dead mouse in a barn cat’s paw. He’s against the kind of corporate zombie stance. He bristles at the notion of “selling out”. He argues with wealthy friends who have the trust fund to let them work for pro bono agencies like Legal Aid. But in the end, he takes Jack’s offers to join Goldman Sachs, and even with the perturbed look on his face, he appears ready to start his own potential ascension into importance.
The mixed message really hurts The American Ruling Class, much more than the nonsensical novelty numbers strewn throughout the movie (yes, this is a musical…of sorts) or Lapham’s cryptic narration, filled with fancy, flowery prose. Documentaries are notorious for their ability to act as eye-openers, shedding light on ideas and individuals that the mainstream media seems to ignore. This film I a lot like Mark’s trip to The New York Times. On the one hand, the paper must serve the wishes of pure journalism. It must offer reportage without the benefit of bias or political position. And then there is the demand for cash flow. Sometimes, the content must meet the requirements of the commercial sector as well. The American Ruling Class apparently wants to argue both sides of the situation. But as anyone familiar with the art of debate can tell you, sitting on the fence is ultimately non-persuasive.