Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Diary: Too big to fail

HBO will keep promoting itself ceaselessly as a home for the modestly scaled movies studios cannot afford to make. "Too Big to Fail" [from the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin] certainly fits the bill. Aside from some telling exteriors in Manhattan's financial district, and a couple of pick-up shots around the US Capitol, this is a movie filled with faces and interiors. It is the kind of ensemble issue movie Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer and Alan J. Pakula made: relevant, but fundamentally dishonest about class relations. Of course dismissing as dishonest in a Marxist sense any of their films does a disservice to Marxism and the often fine movies themselves. Curtis Hanson, the director of "Too Big to Fail", continues the logic and clarity of his predecessors, and unlike Oliver Stone keeps his foot off the [dramaturgical] accelerator.

"Too Big to Fail" takes place over a few weeks in the late summer and early autumn of 2008. It concerns the period after the Bear-Stearns bailout, extending through the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and ending with the decision to save AIG, initiate TARP, and pray that the mightiest of bankers who lend our own money to us to restart the economy. It follows the actions of Bush's Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt) and his coterie as they spar with bankers, financiers, traders, and sundry plutocrats, as well as elected grandees like Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank. [In one scene Pelosi and her coterie are depicted in a large capitol chamber in a way usually reserved for history paintings of the Duke of Wellington and the leaders of his coalition at the ball preceding the battle of Waterloo].
The scale of TARP and the crisis it sought to avert is explained, as well as the roots of the real estate bubble. But there the political economy ends and the pragmatic bourgeois heroism begins: will the handsome actors save the economy in time, or will they be thwarted by the very people they must save, in order to save our way of life? The outsourcing and globalization of labor which laid the foundations for a crisis of capitalist overproduction are not explained, but how could they be? This would be like faulting "Gone with the Wind" for neglecting exposition of primitive accumulation. Instead, we are given a portrait of wealthy people who, when push comes to shove, know the government is their safety net, even though they have spent 30 years eradicating our safety nets.
The fact that there is no broader political context for the events depicted makes the scenes in "Too Big to Fail" even more horrifying than they are. As outraged and militant as Marxist and others in the labor movement might feel about the government bailing out the banks and not the people, Marxists at least have the advantage of understanding the past, present, and future of said crises, and have a strategy to change the system for the better. Curtis Hanson and his writers and actors, on the other hand, present us with a depiction of crisis where problems and solutions are equally arbitrary and out of control. In one scene, Lehman Brothers is about to be purchased by a Barclays, a UK bank. The crisis seems to recede until Paulson suddenly realizes they never sought or received approval from bank regulators in London. Billions more in value is wiped-out, and [though we are hardly told about it] tens of thousands of workers will lose their homes.

Bad and greedy loan practices are laid at the feet of the banks and their insurers, and at the feet of Republican and Democrat administrations over the last 30 years who by stages deregulated banking and insurance to allow a new period of non-productive accumulation, hoping this would reverse a decades-long decline in the average rate of profit for the U.S. ruling rich. Today we live in the ruins of these schemes, which went by the name neoliberalism, but are in fact nothing more than the natural way of life of capitalism itself.
By coincidence, HBO's production and release of the movie of the book Too Big to Fail occurred the same weekend I was finishing David Harvey's 2004 A brief history of neoliberalism. [We are studying it this month in our Cleveland Marxism Reading Group.] Harvey spends a lot of the book on a geographical tour of the world, and how different countries implemented, whether wholeheartedly or only half-heartedly, neoliberal reforms in the last 30 years. The chapters we finished and discussed last night contained his summing-up of the whole period. In essence, Harvey concludes that all the deregulation, government austerity, union-busting, destruction of the commons, and driving rural populations into the cities of the world in order to further drive down labor's value, has been a complete failure in delivering much-promised growth and rising living standards. What it has succeeded at is transferring increasingly large amounts of value from the many to the few, who already had the lion's share to begin with. In imperialist countries like the United States, part of this wealth transfer were the mechanisms and financial instruments that crashed in 2008, and which "Too Big to Fail" depicts in a compelling if ultimately politically dishonest way.