Saving Capitalism is a new documentary on Netflix, discussing the book Saving Capitalism (see about the book here) written by Robert Reich. The author of the book also features in the documentary, which is made as a tour with him on his trip around the US to present the book and discuss economic issues with Americans of all generations.
Reich’s main argument is that nobody should work full-time and not be able to meet ends meet. This is obviously a reasonable argument because it does sound appalling that someone works all month and at the end has no money to buy food. A lady featuring in the film explained this very vividly. As a cashier in McDonalds she earns 1200 dollars, of which 900 go to the rent. This is an enormous amount and it does sound believable that she struggles to survive and that she frequently needs payday loans to buy food. She also becomes one of the activists in California who ultimately managed to influence policy change so that that the minimum wage in California now has to be 15 dollars per hour.
This leads to another important discussion in the film, and that is power. As Reich argues, corporate America has lots of power to change laws or stop laws from being enacted while average Americans have little power to do so despite their numbers. When I first heard this, it immediately reminded me of Wilson Smith in Orwell’s 1984 (Orwell, 2000 (1949)) who kept telling himself that the hope to change the regime lies in the proles. Just like Orwell’s proles were kept entertained with alcohol, lottery, cheap magazines and pornography today’s working class and shrinking middle class are being kept entertained by reality shows and other competitions. However, as Reich correctly recognised long before he published this book, if people are continually unhappy and unable to make ends meet despite their hard work, they will have to start protesting eventually. Nevertheless, he correctly predicted that ambition will be replaced with envy and tolerance with scapegoating. However, unlikely Orwell’s proles and working class in the rest of America, in California the people managed to organise and change the wage cap. This is also one of the messages Reich sends, i.e. the power is also in numbers and people should use this power but for a good cause.
This argument leads to criticism of Reich’s approach though. In Reich’s approach it seems as everything is about paying people what they are worth. Of course, this has an impact on dissatisfaction and naturally this is a valid argument. However, what is missing here is the problem of those whose skills are no longer necessary and who are most dissatisfied because they can’t find any work anymore. Castells has described this well in his analysis of the network society. In his words, those who are no longer needed and who do not have skills necessary for working in the network society, such as for example industrial workers, are those who suffer the most. Thus, they feel alienated from the rest of the society and cast protest votes in hopes of change. This then leads to what Reich correctly recognised as envy and scapegoating instead of ambition and tolerance.
Thus, the solution to the economic problem is not only in increasing wages but also in offering training to people who need it. It should be possible to attend training and change profession, so that everyone can secure decent living. Most of all, this should be possible at any time like it used to be in the US, which is why an American dream was appealing to so many around the world. However, the world has changed and what also needs addressing is an age discrimination. Some employers seem to think that only millennials can work with social media roles, and everything that encompasses PR and relationship building seems to be obsessively centred on millennials. This could not be more incorrect.
True, millennials were born in the digital age but managing social media and building relations with people is something that one can learn at any time. It is not something one is born with. Just because millennials know how to communicate with their peers via social media does not mean they know how to communicate with everyone nor does it mean they can more effectively target all generations. Older generations, even though not brought up with the digital, still learnt how to use it and thus do have a potential to take up roles involving digital skills. Nevertheless, they understand people of their own age and specific issues these people are facing more than any millennial. However, digital roles seem to be self-understood as roles for millennials only (see here). This obsessive focus on millennials and their needs, not just in employment but also in advertising and any other business where so many professions are obsessed with millennials even though they still do not have a strong purchase power (see some interesting articles here and also here). As a result, increased digitalisation and networking, which fits what millennials are used to caused alientation among other generations and thus the world is where it is. Millennials are not happy because they think they deserve more (she this article for example) and older generations are not happy because they think they have been abandoned.
However, what I liked about this film is that it does try to give voice to both sides. Therefore, we see Reich travelling to meet people who agree with his views but he also visits those who disagree and who feel like he is attacking their hard work and everything they achieved. For example, one lady says she has done well because she had four different businesses before she made it work and she is proud of her achievements. Saying that she does not deserve to have that much is in her opinion wrong and she felt personally targeted by Reich’s work. This is a fair point because there is nothing wrong in working hard and earning lots of money. Nobody indeed should be allowed to be envious and to instigate political action against the people who made it. But, as Reich correctly argues that does not mean that those who work for those who made it should live in poverty and often be unable to pay for health insurance.
An interesting film worth watching. An interesting approach to documentary film making.
Thank you for reading.
Orwell, G. (2000 (1949)). Nineteen Eighty Four. London/N.Y. Penguin.