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Greed Is Good: The Villainy of the On-Screen Capitalist

Oh, businessman! How we deplore you. Let us count the ways.

Walter Hudson


May 30, 2013 - 7:00 am
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Star Trek’s “capitalist” Ferengi, how Hollywood views business.

Having written for some weeks now on the villainous archetypes found in our entertainment culture and how they both express and influence our philosophy, I now come to a personal favorite: the cliché of the corporate villain. The greedy, unscrupulous capitalist stands so well established that the introduction of a successful businessperson in our stories elicits animus just short of audible hissing. As with the black-hatted, silent film villain twirling his mustache, or the masked burglar wearing white and black stripes while holding a bag bearing a dollar sign, we know immediately upon beholding a well-dressed corporate executive that he is not to be trusted.

Much as The Princess Bride’s Vizzini abused the word “inconceivable,” far too many of our storytellers wield “capitalism” haphazardly. It does not mean what they think it means.

To explore this point further, let us first consider a few of the myriad examples of how capitalists in general and corporations in particular are portrayed on screen. No such listing would be complete or even adequate without mention of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, orator of the infamous “greed is good” speech. Gekko flaunted his villainy as a badge of honor. His sole and unapologetic purpose was to make money, with the secondary but no less coveted objective of making more than anyone else. He didn’t care how he did it either. If blowing out a company and laying off hundreds or thousands of workers would turn a more certain profit than keeping its doors open, he pulled the trigger without a second thought.

Lex Luthor, arch-nemesis of Superman, evolved into a corporate villain over the franchise’s many years and several iterations. Luthor began life in fiction as a mad scientist, an embodiment of fears surrounding the nuclear age and discovery run rampant. In Richard Donner’s 1978 film, Gene Hackman portrayed Luthor as a scientific genius who proudly applied his talent to crime. The decade of Ronald Reagan saw Luthor reimagined as the chief executive officer of LexCorp. He was provided with more realistic motivations, coveting the Man of Steel’s power while fostering a xenophobic fervor to protect humanity from an alien. Luthor was even elected to become president of the United States in the comics, expanding his villainy to include the corporatism later reviled by both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

Then came Star Trek’s Ferengi, a troll-like species of “Yankee traders” introduced in The Next Generation and more fully explored in Deep Space Nine. There may be no more egregious example of a “capitalist” strawman in all of entertainment history. The Ferengi were obnoxiously unreputable, cheating in their dealings with such regularity that their political leader saw the discovery of a wormhole leading to the another part of the galaxy as an incomparable opportunity to get one over on new life and new civilizations. Quark, a Ferengi bartender and regular on Deep Space Nine, proselytized exploitation and demeaned those around him who fairly traded value for value – or worse, expressed generosity.

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All Comments   (9)
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One of the best film speeches on capitalism is delivered by Danny Devito (as Larry the Liquidater). I think it gets at the themes discussed here pretty well.
36 weeks ago
36 weeks ago Link To Comment
I for one am glad that Hollywood shows their contempt for capitalism and capitalists. I fully expect that the next time James Cameron wants to make a film, perhaps he will raise the $250 million needed through bake sales, car washes or through voluntary donations. Then, instead of a salary or a cut of the profits, he can be content with a few dozen eggs or some fresh produce.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Capitalism is horrible, until it's needed to destroy despots and save continents...
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
None of this is new.

The entrenched elite of every age has derided, cursed and scorned the new men.
In England, if you were a merchant who amassed wealth from your business profits, and began to buy the markers of success in English society, you would be dismissed by the nobility as a "tradesman".

If these people owe you money, which they generally will because they don't actually do anything that creates wealth, they will vilify you and bring the power of the state to harass and break you in order to escape their obligation to you.

The elite of any age are, thankfully, an ephemeral group who will quickly fade into what is termed genteel poverty and then into obscurity when the money finally runs out. It always runs out.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
You are, of course, talking about Hollywood, the most venal, corrupt, and cowardly industry on the planet. It is an industry made up of people who consider themselves to be artists and geniuses; but who lack education, are easily sucked into the most cliched patterns of thought, and generally function in a moral sewer. They will never stand up for a principal, nor will they ever invoke the kind of courage that they portray in their heroes. There is just too much money at stake, you see. So they take the easy way out and crank out incoherent garbage, glossed over with special effects, and endless remakes of proven franchises such as Superman, Star Trek, and the like. Don't expect art from this crowd. And don't expect ethics either.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
"When individuals may freely trade goods and services among themselves, capitalism exists."

Indeed, there is nothing in capitalism or any other economic system that says anything profit. If I buy a Xbox system from Microsoft we both gain: I get to play games on a great system, Microsoft gets money to invest in new products and services.

This is lost on so many people. Gains are present for both parties. The only time only one party benefits is when property is forcefully taken by one party from another. It is not surprising that everything the government gets it is almost via this arrangement, but no one complains about that (well, few of us do).
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Irony is Hollywood entertainment types sitting in judgement over Gordon Gekko. Or that Ferengi bartender for that matter.

45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"A job is an ongoing trade, a consensual and mutually beneficial economic relationship."

That's the way I've always regarded my jobs. I have skills, I sell them to companies who need them. If a company no longer needs my skills - so what? I find another company that does. Sometimes it's not easy, but that's not the fault of "Big Business." It's the economy, stupid.

There are no guarantees. You have to work and you have to work to keep working. We're fortunate compared to our laborite forebears who wrested the five day week and decent working conditions from some *real* greedy capitalists. I consider myself lucky to be employed in this era by a large, successful company. Lucky, not exploited.

Oh, and your list should probably include Jean Baptiste Emmanuell Zorg from "The Fifth Element." The first time we see him in the movie, he's off-handedly instructing one of his minions to fire five million employees because the economy is "heating up." The minion had first suggested a lower number, only to be overridden by his cruel, heartless, capitalist master. Zorg also has a theory that death and destruction are good because they provide non-dead and non-destroyed things with purpose - i.e., that they create jobs.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
Zorg is clearly identified as a Keynesian, which is to my mind a bit subversive of the usual evil-businessman meme.

The real mess of contradictions is the Ferengi of Star Trek. For starters, they are the COMPLETE anti-Semitic Jewish caricature, including the identifying big ears (rather than noses), their brutal domination of women (the intellectual-academic anti-Semitic fantasy includes labeling Jewish culture as the first and worst patriarchy), and their reverence for their "Rules of Acquisition," which an assembly of elders maintain and interpret, and which is a religion with no spiritual content. And of course, they're incapable of innovation, only appropriation (tell me, what commercial culture in human history is guilty of that?). Their role in the stories was to alternate between figures of fun, and the lowest, most contemptible kind of enemy. Meanwhile, the 3 NextGen Star Trek shows were filled with respect for the militaristic Romulans and the honor-obsessed Klingons as worthy opponents. Interesting that Star Trek, so characteristic of American culture, reflects a rejection of its own source (a commercial culture) and a little bit of admiration for precisely the sort of state-centered warrior cultures America rejected.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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