Culture

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

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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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The ironic end of the air-hoarding Cohagan in Total Recall

The ironic end of the air-hoarding Cohagen in Total Recall.

Generic corporate villains litter our popular culture. Omni Consumer Products birthed RoboCop, only to be revealed as his ultimate nemesis. Weyland-Yutani treated its employees as expendable when their discovery of an Alien offered potential profit as a biological weapon. The interplanetary corporation in the original Total Recall ruthlessly killed anyone threatening its various monopolies, including that on breathable Martian air.  And who can forget James Cameron’s Avatar, where a corporatized human government seeks to strip-mine the living planet Pandora after “killing their mother” Earth.

None of these examples accurately portrays capitalism. While economics can certainly be complex and nuanced, the definition of capitalism is simple. When individuals may freely trade goods and services among themselves, capitalism exists. Such trade does not include force or fraud. Misrepresenting the value of a trade does not qualify as a capitalist transaction. Coercion, extortion, or any application of force has no place within capitalism. The villainy of on-screen “capitalists” actually demonstrates their rejection of capitalism.

The Ferengi conduct themselves as fraudsters and cheats, misrepresenting the value of trades and outright stealing or hijacking goods. So bad is their reputation that they regard the ignorance of new customers as an asset. No true capitalist could or would succeed like this. Reputation is everything in business, and companies go to expensive lengths to control the integrity of their brand. Under capitalism, customers can choose to deal with a business or not, and no one wants to deal with an unscrupulous fraud.

The coercive and harmful actions of Weyland-Yutani or Omni Consumer Products would be rejected as wholly illegitimate under capitalism. Monopolies can only be maintained with force. Only force can present an insurmountable barrier to entry, undermining competition. And force is entirely antithetical to capitalism. Capitalism requires proper government to negate force and vigorously protects individual rights — not necessarily small government, and certainly not anarchy, but robust power set to a limited purpose. Such government would never tolerate extortion, real pollution, or any harm, whether negligent or intentional.

Unique among the specific examples cited above stands Gordon Gekko, whose actions presented as villainous prove largely legitimate. If an investor purchases a business in whole or in part, what moral claim does an employee of that business have over how it is disposed of? If Gordon Gekko determines in his best judgment that liquidating a business will provide a more certain profit than continuing to operate it, what obligation does he have to keep its doors open?

This is the one area where storytellers accurately represent capitalism and attack it for what it is. The idea that an owner or manager might profit from eliminating jobs stands condemned in popular culture. However, the real immorality would be maintaining a job which does not produce a profitable value. Jobs do not exist for their own sake, nor for the exclusive benefit of the employee. A job is an ongoing trade, a consensual and mutually beneficial economic relationship. When the benefit proves no longer mutual, consent is removed, and the relationship ends. Our culture doesn’t seem to object when the employee decides they can get a better deal elsewhere and “lets go” of their employer. So how does it become improper when the employer lets go of the employee?

Hollywood portrayals like Wall Street suggest that businessmen profit most by destroying the lives of others, whether eliminating jobs, poisoning the environment, or stealing from the poor. However, true capitalism requires the production and exchange of value. A real-life Gordon Gekko would never liquidate a profitable company unless he believed the resulting capital could be better deployed elsewhere. Whether such deployment took the form of another investment or personal spending, it would represent real value. Forcing Gekko to maintain a business which was not producing as he desired would prove as immoral as stealing from him.

Another approach to impugning capitalism involves the portrayal of the wealthy hero. Alter egos Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark serve as examples. Wayne, as portrayed in the recent Dark Knight trilogy, projects the image of the vacuous trust-fund baby while secretly deploying his capital to fight crime as Batman. Tony Stark, by contrast, proudly embraces his capitalist identity and channels it into his Iron Man persona. Even so, Stark represents the reformed capitalist who comes to believe after a metamorphic trauma that profit must be tempered with social responsibility.

While both Wayne and Stark, in their recent movie iterations, make an honest living through their capitalist activities, each stands surrounded by villainous peers who fulfill the corporate bad-guy cliché. What distinguishes Wayne and Stark from the unscrupulous rich around them is an adopted propensity toward sacrifice. We approve of Wayne and Stark’s wealth because we approve of how they use it. Meanwhile, we largely ignore how they earn it.

One scene in The Dark Knight Rises stands out for touching upon the third rail of how value is created. Inquiring of his butler Alfred why an orphaned boys’ home no longer receives contributions from his company, Bruce Wayne learns that lost profits have made continued charity impossible. We never get a good feel for precisely what Wayne Enterprises does. However, what Batman does in and out of his cowl requires its profit.

That said, it would be a mistake to assert that profit can only be justified when applied to a charitable purpose. Profit properly obtained through capitalist enterprise should be celebrated without qualification. That is because profit under capitalism can only be obtained by the production of real value. As a general rule, people do not consent to trade which leaves them worse off than they were before. So the only way to earn money in a consensual business is by leaving people better off through trade.

I am better off with my Samsung Galaxy S III and two years of contracted wireless service than I would be with the money I pay Sprint in exchange for it. Otherwise, I would not have agreed to the trade. So it cannot be legitimately argued that Sprint’s profits are exploitative. While I would certainly like to pay less, Sprint does not deprive me of anything to which I am entitled by charging what I agreed to pay.

PJTV’s Bill Whittle gave an outstanding speech on this point referencing Mitt Romney. The amount of value which Romney has created for others far outpaces the amount he has retained for himself in profit. Such is the case with any successful capitalist on any scale, which is one reason they ought to be celebrated as heroes rather than demeaned as villains.

The more fundamental reason to celebrate profit is that it supports life, our standard of value. Ultimately, greed is good! The drive to obtain, to produce, to achieve leads inexorably to a better quality of life. Through capitalism, you and I benefit from the genius of Steve Jobs in a way that would not otherwise be possible. More profoundly, to the extent we suppress the capitalist impulse by restricting the liberty of entrepreneurs and consumers, we deprive ourselves of untold market miracles which we can never fully account for because they have not been allowed to exist.

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Check out the previous installments in Walter Hudson’s ongoing series on Video Games, Villains, and Values:

May 2:

Beating Back the Nazi ‘Sickness’

May 9:

What Zombies Teach Us About Human Nature

May 16:

The Gospel from Planet X: Why Aliens Ignite the Imagination

May 23:

Putting the War into the ‘War on Terror’