Friday, December 16, 2011

It’s a Wonderful(ly Capitalist) Life(!)

by tryanmax
It’s a Wonderful Life, the quintessential tale of selflessness, gratitude, and the blessings of friends and family—traditional values all—is for many as much a holiday tradition as trimming the tree and baking cookies. So it may seem odd that Frank Capra’s beloved tale should be considered by many to be strongly anti-capitalist. Indeed, back in the HCUA days the FBI fingered the film in a memo entitled “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry.” And just last year, Glenn Beck got into a back and forth with a progressive blogger over the issue.

One could simply brush off the interpretation of these Grinches, these Scrooges, these Mr. Potters, if you will, as “missing the point.” Yet that does little to reduce the embarrassment that a film so adored for epitomizing the best in human nature would cause to conservatism by disparaging the free-market. Gladly, this is not the case.

Quite the contrary, It’s a Wonderful Life praises a far more substantial vision of free-enterprise than its detractors seem to apprehend. Besides that, the film is also a tribute to family, a salute to Americanism, an homage to goodwill, and an ode to traditional values all wrapped up in a beautiful golden-age Hollywood Christmas card.
NOTE: If you haven’t seen It’s a Wonderful Life, what’s the matter with you!? Go out and find a copy and watch it right away! In the meantime, here it is re-enacted by bunnies in 30 seconds: LINK. Of course, there’s much more to the story, but for the sake of brevity (hah!), this article assumes familiarity with the film.
The Director
Before discussing the movie, I’d like to examine Frank Capra’s directorial style. Many of the ideas explored in It’s a Wonderful Life are not unique to that picture. Capra explored similar themes in almost all of his work. He intentionally centered his films around values he acquired growing up in the Italian neighborhoods of early 20th c. L.A.; hard work, self-reliance, and a love of freedom and the American Dream. (The real one, not that chicken-in-every-pot nonsense.)

This decision wasn’t made without controversy. His diatribe against political corruption, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, met with unilateral opposition from the US Senate. Meet John Doe attacked exploitation of the poor by politicians and the media. His last film bearing a strong political message, State of the Union, took on special interests and crooked electioneering with a message that would likely resonate with the Tea Party today. If It’s a Wonderful Life contained an anti-capitalist message, it would be coming from the most unlikely of sources.
A Tale of Two Capitalists
How then can anyone find such a message in the film? I suspect it comes partly from accepting one of liberalism’s favorite bogeymen: the heartless capitalist. The confusion makes some sense because actual specimens do exist. There are unscrupulous men in this world who can justify almost anything that garners profit. (George Soros comes to mind.) The bogeyman is crafted simply by painting all entrepreneurs and businessmen with this broad brush. This is the sort of “capitalist” vilified in the film, and I shudder to think that any “conservative” would defend it.

Henry F. Potter is presented as such a capitalist, a wealthy businessman, banker, and slumlord who looks down on everyone and is frequently credited with “owning the town.” In other words, Potter controls virtually all means of production and exchange in Bedford Falls. He may be the primary purveyor of jobs, but he also has considerable sway over the way the town is run, which he is apparently not shy about exercising. Potter is the picture of a small-town oligarch rather than the enterprising businessman.

Opposite him is George Bailey, the reluctant but principled proprietor of the Bailey Building and Loan. While Potter’s form of capitalism is underhanded, monopolistic, exploitive, Bailey's is straight forward, even-handed, and, most importantly, competitive. The B&L is just about the only venture in Bedford Falls that Potter hasn’t got his fingers in, and he can’t stand it. Throughout the film, Potter attempts every angle to take over the B&L from takeover to buyout to outright theft.

Through all of Potter’s attacks, however, Bailey presses on and invests himself into turning the marginal B&L into a cornerstone of the community. He wards off a run by delivering an econ-lesson in brief, explaining how the patrons' money isn't in the B&L, but in the homes and ventures of all their neighbors. He founds Bailey Park, providing a modest but better alternative to Potter’s slums—and considerable consternation to Potter himself. Bailey doesn’t mean to irk Potter, it’s just a side-effect of his selfless approach.

A Visit to Potterville

To underscore the superiority of George Bailey’s brand of capitalism, Capra gives us, in a flight of fancy, a glimpse of the town as it would be if Potter were left to run roughshod over it. No one can argue that the pursuit of a dollar is still the driving force in town. However, without Bailey to compete with Potter, the emphasis has changed from the honest buck to the easy one.

Gone are the quaint storefronts, replaced with seedy bars and dance halls. Not only has the respectable nature of the town vanished, but so has the optimism. The vibrant Bailey Park is replaced by a cemetery (no subtle symbolism there). The human toll is apparent in the creased faces and impatient demeanors. Whereas Bailey’s enterprising ways lifted people up, Potter’s exploitation has brought them down.
What’s Missing
If that isn’t enough to convince you, It’s a Wonderful Life continues to praise the free-market in what it leaves out from the story. For one, not once does anyone insinuate that Potter is a criminal, or that he even ought to be. Until the climactic moment when Potter discovers Uncle Billy’s misplaced deposit, every thing he does is perfectly legal. Furthermore, even his sole act of theft goes undetected that we know.

Also, it is revealed that Bailey’s business acumen is such that he is able to build houses for half the cost of their finished value. With skills like his, Bailey could have easily padded his own salary and hiked his rates. Instead, he continues in his—and his father’s—original mission, to help his clients realize their own American dreams.
Final Thoughts
Like many good stories, It’s a Wonderful Life clues the audience in to what the story is about from the outset. It starts on Christmas Eve. The town of Bedford Falls lies still under falling snow. The only sound to be heard are the rising prayers of the townsfolk, all pleading for the same thing—the well being of George Bailey. Above, the prayers are received and an angel named Clarence is recruited to answer them.

“Is he sick?” Clarence asks of Bailey. “No, worse,” replies another angel, “He’s discouraged.”

Right away this exchange reveals this to be a story about discouragement and its counterpoint, hope. Capra’s message isn’t simply about what is right or wrong, and it certainly isn’t about what is fair. It is about the hope that upholds principles in the face of adversity. Hope isn’t just a bunch of fanciful wishful thinking as some might suppose. It is derived of opportunity and possibility. These things are also the underpinnings of a free society in all respects, be it in the market, speech, worship, or whatever.


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for an interesting article tryanmax, I'll have more comments a little later... work calls. :(

Tennessee Jed said...

a nice review. If anything, It's a Wonderful Life is about ethics and morals rather than about the evils of a particular economic system.

Tennessee Jed said...

tryanmax - another thought about the confusion. Both left and right tend to see the worst features of the other side. Just as leftists see the most unscrupulous capitalists and leap to assume that enlightened self-interest automatically leads to greed, many on the right see any kind of subsidizing of the poor as leading to entrapping them as slaves to statism. I happen to believe that capitalism, with all it's flaws, makes life better for more people in society because it tends to make them more productive.

Anonymous said...

Great article! (I don't have much to add that hasn't been mentioned, re: capitalism.)

I only saw the film for the first time a few years ago and I'd always thought the "What if George Bailey didn't exist?" material constituted most of the film. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was only the last ten minutes.

I remember we had a great epic-length conversation about the film on Nolte's old site which, unfortunately, doesn't exist anymore. I don't recall who won the argument. :-)

A couple other random thoughts...

-Another film that toys with similar material is Back to the Future II in which Marty walks around alternate 1985 and finds out Biff runs the town, which is now a hellhole. Biff had made his money illegally with the sports almanac from the future.

-The great thing about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is that it was hated by both sides: politicians in this country didn't like it because it portrayed them as corrupt... and fascist leaders didn't like it because it proved that our system of government could actually work!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, When did "politicians" and "fascists" become the two sides? ;)

Anonymous said...

I should've said "leaders of fascist countries" instead. :-)

Individualist said...

Hi Tyranmax

Great Article!

For me though the talk of "anti-captialism" itself is misguided. It is like being anti-quantum mechanics or anti-gravity. sure you can decide you don't like it but it will always be there.

I tell people that capitalism is the ism that isn't. I mena that unlike other forms of ism such as communism which is invented in the mind of the ideologue Capitalism is about the natural laws of economics.

Start a communist society under a group of Platonic Enlightened guardians and capitalism is still there. What you have is Monopoly (the government is the sole seller of the means of production or goods) and Monopsony (the government is the sole buyer of the means of production or labour).

Ironically enough the fascist control of Potter in its a Wonderful Life mirrors the kind of control the hard leftist would tell us we shuld all agree to to majke everything fair and then they would enter their limosine and open the champaigne on the way to their yacht for the Holidays.

What Bailey represents is the Free Market, the Rule of Law and Entrepreunuership. All things a leftist despises. So you are spot on in your analysis, as always.

rlaWTX said...

I think that Potter exemplifies this quote: William F. Buckley: “Every ten years I quote the same adage from the late Austrian analyst Willi Schlamm, and I hope that ten years from now someone will remember to quote it in my memory. It goes, ‘The trouble with socialism is socialism. The trouble with capitalism is capitalists.’”

I'll be honest, I don't watch this one every year (like Miracle on 34th Street or Grinch or Charlie Brown) (originals of the 1st 2). But Every couple of years, I make a point to see it again - if only to feel good about people...

lovely commentary, tryanmax!

tryanmax said...

Thanks for the compliments. I can't guarantee to keep up on all the comments as our gracious host, Andrew, always seems to, but I'll try.

tryanmax said...

Jed, absolutely people only see the worst in those the oppose. That's why I think that It's a Wonderful Life has such a great message. It cuts through the false capitalist/socialist dichotomy and actually makes a stronger case for capitalism by contrasting it against its evil twin.

tryanmax said...

Scott, nice parallel to BttF II! I hadn't thought of that, but it seems to be understood that ill-gotten gain only leads to further corruption.

DUQ said...

Interesting article. It's easy to see though why people would think this is anti-capitalism because the kind of capitalism they are advocating is not "maximize profit" capitalism, but is instead "you should forgo profit to help the poor" capitalism.

Unknown said...

tryanmax: Excellent analysis. I've been irritated over the years by the disappearance of at least one or two major biblical films at Christmas that I think I may have unfairly blamed It's a Wonderful Like. The movie seems to have replaced the biblical Christmas stories, and though I saw the message about goodness, fairness and self-sacrifice, I did lean toward thinking that the movie was a bit socialistic. So I haven't watched it in decades. Now I will. Thanks.

tryanmax said...

Indie, spot on. That's part of the reason that I (normally) try to discourage the use of the word "capitalism." (I backed off on this article for reasons that I hope are apparent.)

What capitalists are in favor of is merely operating within the natural laws of commerce. Just as an airplane won't fly if it ignores the laws of aerodynamics, an economy won't fly if it ignores the laws of economics. Socialism and all other alternatives to capitalism are merely economic flugtags.

tryanmax said...

rlaWTX, I love that Buckley quote! Ah, who am I kidding? I love all Buckley quotes.

Ed said...

I love this movie and I've never seen it as anti-capitalist either. I think you really have to read into it to get an anti-capitalism theme, or at least to get a pro-socialism theme. If anything, it's a movie that says "hey you capitalists, always remember your hearts." But I see nothing in here which would say "we need the government to step in".

tryanmax said...

DUQ, I disagree that Capra is promoting "forgo profit" capitalism any more than he is promoting "maximize profit" capitalism. Like most things in life, the workable solution lies somewhere in between. I don't know if there is a name for that sort of capitalism.

But like the old adage goes, in order to help others you must first help yourself. Potter helped himself, but not others, Bailey was able to help others because he helped himself. He could have gone a-travelin' as he wanted, but he would have helped no one that way. And the lesson that Bailey learned is that it is okay to ask for the help of others, something he didn't find out until the end.

tryanmax said...

LawHawk, it's not hard to fall into that socialist trap. Socialists have claimed this film as their own for quite awhile. They are missing the very same point I am trying to point out, but they don't mind missing the point. They see Potter as the villain capitalist and don't give a wit about what Bailey represents.

But is he the downtrodden man? Hardly! And if this film is the anti-capitalist screed they think it is, where does Big Brother step in? He doesn't. It's the friends and family of George Bailey who come to help.

I should think that Buddhists could get on board with this film, though. It has a rather karmic message, don't you think?

tryanmax said...

Ed, that's exactly the thing. If you are looking for a strictly capitalist flick, go watch Atlas Shrugged. This is a conservative movie. It recognizes all virtues, hard work and charity. How those two ever came to be regarded as opposing ideals, I'll never know.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think the problem is the comparison. This isn't just the story of George Bailey who learns that capitalism and charity aren't incompatible. This is the story of the "good capitalist" versus the "bad capitalist." And the good capitalist is being defined as someone who keeps his own profit low to benefit society and who can then in turn call upon society to help him.

I think DUQ is right that it is easy to see this as an anti-capitalist message for that reasons -- because it says there is good and bad capitalism and it defines good capitalism through values that are not technically part of capitalism, but would be part of socialism if it were presented as an economic theory in this film.

AndrewPrice said...

In other words, it's saying "capitalism is good only when it acts according to values of which socialism would approve."

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I see what you and DUQ are saying. I think more of the problem comes of trying to decide whether this film is pro- or anti-capitalist without taking the other themes of the film into consideration. But there is more to George Bailey that business. (Another contrast to Potter.)

Another problem arises because socialism has been successfully equated with populism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Socialism always leans utilitarian, which is incompatible with populism. What many self-described populists fail to realize, and have since the progressive era, is that capitalism IS populist.

A similar problem can be seen in regards to individualism vs. collectivism. Only the former is compatible with populism, but the latter takes credit for being so when it is not.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I hate to say it, but the more I think about this film, the more I'm coming down on the side that sees this as an anti-capitalist message.

The problem is the comparison. If Bailey had just learned to be charitable, then I would say it really has no message about economic systems. But that's not the case. Instead, it sets up the comparison of "good" v. "bad" capitalists.

And look at how it defines those two.

First, you have Bailey, who is seen as good because he uses pooled money (like a quasi co-op) to achieve a social goal, i.e. the maintenance of society, and he disdains personal profit to ensure that the poor have homes and food.

Secondly, you have Potter. Potter uses "bad profits" because he gets it from catering to "the wrong" things and he use it for personal gratification.

So the take away message here is that capitalism is only good when the capitalist doesn't seek profit, caters only to people's needs and not their wants, works for society, and works with the approval/permission of society.

That's a pretty strong redefinition of "good capitalism" as socialism.

I think what blinded me originally was that the government is nowhere to be seen. But when I think about it, collectivism is there -- in his "pro-capitalist" speech, where he points out that his S&L is a quasi-public enterprise.

I'm finding this somewhat disturbing.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, the problem with the case you make is that it has the same flaw as the socialists who try to make it. too. You have to redefine socialism as quasi-capitalist in order to make it work. But you can't make a pro- and anti-capitalist statement at the same time.

Furthermore, it remains myopic to say that Bailey is the hero just because of his brand of capitalism. For one, the film is clear about the fact that Bailey isn't "poor" because he wants to be. For heaven's sake, he isn't even poor. Did you see the ghetto roll he had together for his honeymoon? Can you imagine what it cost to repair that broken down house? Bailey actually does quite well, but like most people, he would like to do better. But, unlike Potter, there are lines he won't cross to get there.

I think the risk that is run by saying that George Bailey is an anti-capitalist is that you put profit and charity at odds with one another. But charity cannot exist without profit. And if it weren't for the fact that Bailey had done so much to increase the fortunes of others, there would have been no charity for him in the end.

tryanmax said...

Also, don't confuse the achievement of a social good with "socialism." That is the confusion the socialist cultivates in order to make his case that social good comes no other way. But the reality is that no good comes from socialism.

tryanmax said...

Gotta go pick up the kiddos and feed them. I probably won't be back online until after "bedtime."

tryanmax said...

One more thought before I go. Charity isn't even the right word. Bailey never once engages in any charity throughout the film. Every time he gives a person money, he pointed tells them, "This is a loan." One time he even elaborates, "That's my business, making loans."

Potter scoffs that the Bailey's business practices amount to charity, but really they are not. Charity is selfless giving away. Bailey gives nothing away. He is, however, lenient with his debtors and generous with the service he provides.

No, one has to do an awful lot of rewriting to Capra's script to make a socialist case.

Now off I go.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, First, there is definitely a "third way" -- European soft socialism or even what the Democrats advocate. The world is not broken into pure capitalism and pure socialism. It exists all along a spectrum.

And if I said to you, "I believe in a system where business men are allowed to ply their trade, but I only approve of the ones who only make things society needs rather than catering to people's wants, and who don't make 'excessive' profit because they keep their prices down to help the poor. And I believe the way projects should be financed should be through community banks." What would you call that? That's the modern Democratic/progressive view of "acceptable capitalism."

Secondly, it's not at all myopic to see it this way, nor do you need to read anything in to see it that way. A comparison is presented. We are told one is good, one is evil. The evil is clearly a representation of "capitalists." The good is a man who has rejected the capitalist's ways. And the reasons we recognize him as good, i.e. the things which separate him from the capitalist, are that he's got traits socialists would like, as mentioned at the beginning of this comment.

The reading into this comes from saying "but he's still a businessman, so it's pro-capitalism." Bailey represents capitalism in the same way a washed-out state approved version of religion would represent Christianity, in name and procedures only, but without the substance.

On the idea of these being "loans," they are only loans in the sense that the church hands out money to people with the demand "pay us back when you can." That's not a loan in any economic sense, it's charity.

I have no idea what Capra intended except may to make a very Christian film, but the more I think about it, the harder it becomes for me to see this as anything more than the leftist/liberal view of economics.

T-Rav said...

I just got back and scanned the article. Great work, tryanmax! I think this is a good explanation of the film's message. I'll have more to say in a bit.

AndrewPrice said...

The more I think about it, I suspect the economic messages in this film are unintentional.

I suspect Capra was actually trying to make a religious story of redemption and all the economics is just filler -- stock character for Potter and redemption story centered around the only thing he had to work with in Bailey... his business life. And because he didn't really think about it, the economic message is incoherent or contradictory.

Thus, while both sides can clearly see their own preferred message, I suspect Capra probably never meant either. I suspect he meant only "live a moral life."

tryanmax said...

Okay, I'm back. My captcha says "apenders" which seems highly appropriate.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I remain unpersuaded.

I agree that a continuum does exist, but I would suggest that you are the one splitting everything into two groups of pure capitalism and everything else. You say you were blinded to the message by the absence of government, but isn’t that absence rather the point? Capra does make the case for the model of capitalism he approves of. But he does not make the case that such a model should be enforced by law.

I will cede that in its broadest sense, yes, there is a socialist/populist thread in It’s a Wonderful Life. But that sense must remain broad because that is the sense which encompasses corporatism, cooperatism, partnership, and the like. (As I asserted before, capitalism IS populism.) Certainly capitalism can exist where only individuals interact with other individuals, but the maintenance of that model—or any model in exclusivity—would just as likely require government involvement as a state ownership society.

Furthermore, to maintain that Bailey’s exemplification of the good capitalist is only receivable from an anti-capitalist vantage, in whole or in part, is to cede the notion that capitalism is inherently evil. Potter is clearly the evil capitalist, but it is not his retention of profit or even his self gratification that makes him so. Rather, it is his ready willingness to exploit and his monopolistic ambitions, not to mention his nasty disposition. If these traits were reversed, it would seem very unlikely for him not to exhibit some degree of generosity besides.

As to the loans, I’m afraid that we must both make assumptions in order to make our respective cases. The evidence is lacking to make a definitive case either way, since we do not ever know of the terms of repayment.

tryanmax said...

I certainly agree that Capra intended primarily a morality tale. But it is that which makes the question of pro- vs. anti-capitalist so very prescient. The economic themes are too prominent to be ignored, so it begs to be sorted out whether capitalism fits within the picture of morality or not.

As Indie said, capitalism is the –ism that isn’t, it’s merely a fact of life. An evolved morality would have no choice but to recognize that. I think it says a lot about Capra’s attitude toward capitalism that he was willing to show its pros as well as its cons. A lesser message would have probably been clearer because it would have omitted one or the other. Whether the economic message was intentional or not, it reveals a very well-considered worldview which accepts capitalism’s inevitable place in it.

AndrewPrice said...

The problem with that is that even ardent socialists (everyone but pure communists) recognizes merits within capitalism, it's just a question of degree. And the position you're taking is that anything short of advocating nationalization is an ode to capitalism, but that's just not true.

Also, in terms of proof, the fact that large numbers of socialists see this movie as supporting them is all the proof it really takes to say that this film can be seen as sending out a pro-socialist message. And they aren't trying to divine meaning, the things they hang their interpretation on are right out in the open.

You may disagree with their interpretation, but they are interpreting it that way and that is very strong evidence that this can be seen as a supporting socialism.

Also, the idea that capitalism is populism is faulty. You are equating individualism with populism, but they aren't the same. Populism's roots are in the progressive movement. It is a form of class warfare where people are told that the reason their lives seem inequitable is that the establishment is stacked against them and their goal is to destroy the current order and bring about some vague form of utopia. That's not capitalism, it's just another form of reactionary thought.

Finally, on the loans, these are obviously not genuines loans because he never mentions an interest rate nor does he ask whether they can be paid back, he just gives the money and say "hey, pay me back when you can." That's charity.

I'm not saying Bailey isn't a nice guy or a moral guy, but he does not represent capitalism. He represent a moral lesson, not an economic one.

T-Rav said...

I would have to go back and watch the movie again to have many coherent thoughts on what it says about capitalism. I don't think it's anti-capitalist, though; I think it's saying there are other goals in life besides pecuniary gain. What it's upholding is the social cohesion and sense of community that was pre-1960s small town life. That may not be a deliberate defense of capitalism, but it is quite as conservative, in its way, as anything Hayek and others came up with on the economic end.

As for the "capitalists vs. capitalism" thing: I think it's worth pointing out that Adam Smith was no fan of the former. He repeatedly condemned the industrialists and merchants of his day as soulless vultures he would never want to associate with. He saw, however, that their vices were seated within the lust for power and wealth common to all men; it was therefore better to let the capitalists have their head, and through their profits create wealth for the rest of society as well. In short, he proposed capitalism as a means of taking a necessary evil and making it into a virtue. That does not mean he would have seen Mr. Potter as a great guy.

tryanmax said...

I will admit to taking the stance that anything not advocating nationalism is accepting capitalism because that is how I see it. I would stop short of calling it an ode, however, because I don't necessarily think capitalism is ode-worthy.

Certainly the burden of proof required to say "this is our movie" or "this is their movie" is proximately nil. However, I have at the very least forced myself into taking the position that the quality of the case lies in the depth of its reasoning rather than the consensus it achieves. Moreover, I believe that.

If the assertion that capitalism is populism is faulty, it is only because populism is a faulty proposition in itself. Like all class-based philosophies, it cannot function in a classless environment. A free market renders such a movement's grievances nonsensical. Thus the perpetual need to deny the free market's essential nature by maligning it as merely the tool of evil ambitions.

A pro-capitalist message need not regard capitalism as benevolent, merely as benign because that is the actual nature of the system. An overly praising characterization would be just as dishonest as an overly critical one rendering it equally anti-capitalist.

tryanmax said...

T-Rav, Smith should have probably come up much sooner. It is Smithian economics that I have had in mind through all of this.

AndrewPrice said...

How can you trust Smith... the man saw invisible hands!


AndrewPrice said...

Unfortunately, populism is faulty because it's based on anger and irrationality and it saddens me that the current "populism" (i.e. opposition to crony capitalism/socialism) is being linked with old-school "populism" and its insane history.

I would actually argue that modern "populism" is basically conservatism in its most pure form. And the reason it's being called populism is an attempt to discredit it.

As I see it, the modern "populism" is about ending the use of the government as a weapon by the establishment, returning our government to its constitutional constraints and bringing genuine capitalism back to the markets.

Unfortunately, this is being linked in with crappola like the Gold Standard flat-earth brigade, bizarro isolationism, and a fetish for grandiose but useless ideas like constitutional conventions to end the federal government. These same clowns are not conservatives, they are paranoid fringe and they just shift back and forth left to right with whatever group is currently on the rise.

tryanmax said...

I probably was taken in by all his nuance.

AndrewPrice said...

Also, I agree that a pro-capitalist movement need not declare capitalism blameless as it is not. It has many flaws and it doesn't pretend it doesn't (unlike socialism, which claims to be perfect). But it is the best system at letting consumers and producers come together.

And I do agree with you that a pro-capitalist message can be seen in Life. I just also think the opposite can be seen too. And I suspect that ultimately means Capra didn't think through the economic questions because it wasn't his intent to talk about that.

tryanmax said...

Yeah, come to think of it, I probably should have veered clear of the term since it has no solid meaning any more.

I link it to capitalism in the sense of putting power in the hands of the people. You know, like they talk about in the Preamble to the Constitution.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Nothing wrong with nuance as long as you know how to wield it! :)

AndrewPrice said...

I think the word for that -- individual freedom, rule of law, constitutional government of the people -- is classical liberalism, i.e. conservatism. :)

tryanmax said...

Well, that would have been a very dry film.

Part of the reason I touch on Capra's other projects is to allude to the fact that I've checked some conclusions about Life against his larger body of work. That might not make it the most casual assessment, but I rarely approach things casually.

tryanmax said...

If I had the article to do over, I'd probably focus on the broader concepts of classical liberalism/conservatism rather than winnow it down to the economics.

There is still a case to be made since liberals like to claim a broad leftist message in it, as well. But that interpretation can be more decisively knocked down.

tryanmax said...

It's like you said about populism today being very different than populism of the late 1800s. And, of course, I have a very Nebraskan take on that term, what with William Jennings Bryan and all.

As I've understood it, populism has always has conservative underpinnings but with a dire tendency to get hijacked by leftist influences. They're not quite the useful idiots, but they are the easily deceived. I tend to consider populists the reason why progressive elites think all conservatives are stupid.

AndrewPrice said...

Sadly, the modern purveryors of populism on the conservative side feed that with anti-education talk. They have wrongly used education as a substitute for liberal elitism. I think that's a huge mistake.

Yeah, you Nebraskans have quite the interesting history with populism, don't you?!

Colorado has a fascinating history that travels through everything from socialism right up through libertarianism. We're currently trending toward elitist liberalism... blech.

I think it made sense to discuss Life in a capitalism v. non-capitalism manner because that's how the issue came up. But you're right that it might be more meaningful to speak in terms of classical liberalism/conservatism v. modern liberalism/progressivism. In that regard, I think hands down, this is not a progressive film.

Koshcat said...

Thank you, Tyranmax. Now I can continue to enjoy this movie in peace.

This movie to me certainly is black and white. Potter is not a capatilist. He is a tyrant. He is the perfect example of most liberals and their view of government. Only he decides who gets the money and who doesn't. Only he decides the rules. And only he benefits. Bailey on the other hand is the perfect example of how most conservatives think. Give everyone an equal chance i.e. equality of opportunity not outcome. With the invisible hand most will be successful. Not always wealthy but successful as businessman as well as humanity.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, We're glad Commentarama can bring you comfort! :)

tryanmax said...

Koshcat, glad to be of help. Your comment puts me in mind of a point I wanted to make but couldn't quite fit in, which is that while we get a chance to see Potterville, we can only imagine what Bedford Falls might be like without Potter.

If I had to guess, on one hand there might not even be a Bedford Falls. But on the other hand, if Potter weren't so domineering, Bailey would not have had so much of a struggle. Verily, every major obstacle put into Bailey's path had Potter behind it. Which only serves to underscore that Potter's status as villain has little to do with his merely being a businessman and everything to do with his being just a plain nasty character.

Outlaw13 said...

As I've said before about this film elsewhere, if you spen all your time looking for something to be pissed about you will probably find a reason, justified or not. Some of these people need to get a grip and quit over thinking things.

Matt Helm said...

I think what most people forget when looking at this film and trying to figure out its politics, is the years in which the movie depicts. It covers the years that FDR was in office and monopolized big and small business through his National Recover Act (NRA). For those who think that Potter represents capitalism, think again. Potter is FDR and his controling and buying up Bedford Falls depicts FDR's NRA. The fight for the B&L itself is symbolic because of the strict laws placed on B&Ls during the depression and how their competition with banks was limited. So Potter represents socialism, not capitalism. He's trying to take over and regulate all businesses like the NRA did. George Bailey represents compassionate capitalism. He fought to keep people out of Potter's ghettos by giving them affordable, quality homes. Like he told Potter, "Doesn't that make them better customers?" and then told him that to him, people were just cattle. I think a reading of "The Forgotten Man," would put this movie into proper perspective to people who are confused about its politics.

tryanmax said...

Matt, thank you for that insight. It is often easy to think of literature of all sorts in the present context rather than the context it was created in. I was unaware of the specific limitations placed on Building and Loans. (Though I might have guessed, since such things don't hardly exist anymore.)

In my analysis, I was mainly relying on my general familiarity with Capra and my gut instincts. It seems they serve me better than I knew.

AndrewPrice said...

Matt, Thanks for the interesting perspective. I hadn't thought about seeing Potter as FDR.

Kit said...

"As I've said before about this film elsewhere, if you spen all your time looking for something to be pissed about you will probably find a reason, justified or not. Some of these people need to get a grip and quit over thinking things."

Okay, this is getting creepy.

Outlaw, are you in anyway related to my mother? Because what you just said is something I can easily imagine her saying.

Kit said...

Also, I think there is another way to look at the movie: As a tribute to the people who built the Post-War Boom as well as the virtues of Small Town America.

The boom came from the 20+ years of hard work by men like George Bailey who lived to make the lives of those around them better.

Who when, to borrow from Professor Albus Dumbledore* whenever given the "choice between doing what is right and what is easy" they chose to do what is right.
He always choose what was right, and he paid for it. He didn't get to live the life he wanted as a kid, he didn't get to go to college, but his sacrifices built a vibrant and successful community that never forgot his sacrifices.

You see their gratitude as early as the honeymoon. They know George Bailey is a good man, saying he "never thinks of himself". But he does, often. He is often thinking of making the selfish choice but he never does, he always makes the right one.

Except Mr. Potter, who, where it not for the sacrifices of George Bailey, would have everyone, even the soldiers who fought the tyrannies of Nazidom and Japanese Imperialism, would return home to Pottersville.

And eventually, on Christmas in 1947 (I'm guessing the year, could be 1946). All that pressure building up on him collapses. Thus the movie.

Kit said...

Just finished watching it.

I wasn't crying a whole lot (though I was a tad misty-eyed).

Instead, I was cheering!

More on it later.

Kit said...

So, in attempt to codify my earlier remarks.

The movie is about a man named George Bailey who, as a boy always wanted to see the world, to be an adventurer and "shake the dust of this crummy town off my boots and see the world!"

But each time he is given the oppurtunity to carry out those dreams something happens. His father has a stroke, his brother gets a good job offer, and he, despite being tempted, chooses to do what is right.

As head of the Building and Loan he continually makes sacrifices to ensure his customers get a fair shake. And the people of the town both understand and respect his sacrifices and throughout the movie we see this respect.
-The Honeymoon where Bert and Ernie serenade them.
-The bar, where Martini (who George helped buy a house) assures George that the man who punched him will not be allowed back in.
-And the many scenes where they interact with him.

They know the impact he has had on the town, even if he doesn't quite understand it. He always helps and never asks for help.
And when he does need he help He goes to Mr. Potter for help, not to his clients, who, as we later see, would jump in a heartbeat to help him.
But when the people of Bedford Falls find out he is in trouble they Jump at the chance to help him. Giving us the most cheer-worthy scene in motion picture history.

Also, notice what changes him. I don't think its the noirish nightmare Clarence shows him that makes him see how important he is.
It's the desire to be around the people he loves and love him.
By removing George Bailey from Bedford Falls he also took Bedford Falls from George Bailey.
He loses everything and realizes how much everything meant to him. Everything from the simple kindness shown to him by people such as Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver. Even his own wife doesn't recognize him (one of the most harrowing scenes of the movie, when it reaches the pit of despair).
When he wanted to kill himself he thought he had lost everything and failed everyone he loved, now he just wants it back.
And when he gets it all back, it is no surprise he runs through town yelling "MERRY CHRISTMAS!"

I think what makes him realize how important he is is a bit of Clarence's vision but what truly makes him realize his importance is everyone in the town coming in and helping him out of his troubles.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Interesting idea. Basically, you are saying that the story is about a man who does the right thing his whole life but then loses his faith in doing the right thing because he can't see how his doing the right thing has helped anyone. So he gets shown how his actions have made the world a better place.

That makes a lot of sense. And it's an interesting extension of the usual morality tale where we are told simply that doing the right thing is its own reward. Here we're also shown that it's also good for the outside world and the outside world does appreciate it.

Joel Bocko said...

A good presentation of your views - with which I disagree. ;) I'm with Andrew on this, and think that the film is nominally liberal in terms of its values (though it doesn't have much to say at all about government's role in the economy). The important point is that Bailey is forced to sacrifice success for the "right thing". In this sense, he's a good capitalist only in the sense that he happens to be a capitalist (i.e. he operates a business) and he's also, quite apart from that, good. But he's a very poor businessman as he himself realizes, and as his father was before him. I've only been able to skim the comments so far but I think the general outline of Andrew's comments is correct - within the framework the film sets up, the message coincides far more with liberal and/or socialist ethos (not policy) than with conservatism. I think the best right-wing case for the film would be to fight to a draw: that the film is agnostic on questions of social policy. But even that might be a stretch.

On another note, you're quite right that Capra was no leftist. However, many of the writers he worked with were. In fact, I believe Dalton Trumbo contributed to this screenplay (uncredited). This film really melds well with others like Force of Evil, which was written and directed by an American Communist - in my perspective anyway.

tryanmax said...

Joel, I've come to realize since penning this article that both interpretations do require a fair bit of massaging in order to be made definitively. That said, I think one must approach the film with a generous amount of naïveity and/or cynicism to land on the socialist side. Naïveity because it demands material gain bestowed upon Bailey before it will recognize a capitalist theme. (And also because the simplest interpretations invariably come to that conclusion.) Cynicism because one must regard every form of cooperation or contract as a form of socialism, which it technically is, but the capitalist is threatened only when such behavior is coerced.

I made no error in subtitling one segment "A Tale of Two Capitalists." Capitalism is itself benign, and perhaps that is why it is simplest to declare the film agnostic. It is the men practicing capitalism that determine the good or the bad of it. The film therefore illustrates that the problem with capitalism is capitalists. I assume you know the rest of that saying, but it is no matter because IaWL doesn't really even deal with socialism in a policy sense.

Now, perhaps merely showing the bad side of capitalism would make the film anti-capitalist in it's day. Of that I cannot be sure. But in a present context, the mere admission of a good side makes it intensely pro-capitalist.

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