The State Never Sleeps

Hollywood films are, for good reason, not often associated with a penetrative grasp on social theory, so when Oliver Stone — whose fatuous politics feature prominently in his films — confronts the financial disaster it is advisable to approach with caution. After all, expecting a man who keeps company with Hugo Chavez to offer an instructive look at such a convoluted course of events is to expect entirely too much, to prime yourself to be misled. Notwithstanding that disclaimer, or the more general one against trying to cull profound messages from any movie, the Wall Street sequel surprisingly gets the message right.

Even with all of Stone’s mistaken assumptions about the nature of power and of the state, his new film moors to a libertarian conclusion that “moral hazard,” the rampant unaccountability that comes with gambling other people’s money, is the culprit beneath the financial sector’s implosion. Hollywood’s long-established convention, refreshingly avoided here, has been to cast the state as the champion of the downtrodden and underprivileged, corporations, in contrast, scheming to profit from others’ misery and to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

Untangling these confused premises and resolving their patent contradictions uncovers kernels of truth in the accepted narrative, affording useful insights into the most common myths. Though the traditional account is at least partly accurate, drawing attention to Corporate America’s regular misdeeds, it is largely and regrettably blind to the cozy affiliation between the regulators and the regulated. Hollywood parables that deal with vile corporate abuses are serviceable to libertarian anarchists, but only insofar as they probe the collusive origin of those abuses.

As Washington Examiner columnist Timothy P. Carney observes in his book, The Big Ripoff, “The truth … is that big business lobbies for and profits from big government policies that ripoff consumers, taxpayers, and entrepreneurs. Moreover, government is happy to comply. The myth is widespread and deeply rooted that big business and big government are rivals … ” The strength of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, looking at all power — both corporate and government — with a jaundiced eye, is its dismissal of the standard “state-as-protector” nonsense.

In the dim hues of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the film goes behind the scenes to put forward its best guess at how the machinations of the plutocracy might have looked from the inside of the halls of power. The billionaire company heads depicted in Wall Street, rather than eschewing involvement with government in some crusade for laissez faire, welcome the opportunity to reach into the state’s coffers. Echoing actual events, the movie’s glib bank CEOs earnestly petition the state to dispatch their competitors, their aims far from the unchecked competition of free markets.

Without reservation, Stone uses his morality tale to tie the bailout, shown as the seedy and surreptitious deal that it was, to “socialism.” Bearing in mind his political proclivities, it is probably safe to assume that the director is both a critic of the bailout and an apostle of state socialism, so the coherence of the film’s message of distrust toward the state is something of a curiosity. The film is, among other things, an on-the-mark commentary on the state’s role as preserver of corporate privilege, and on the revolving door between the two. In a telling conversation between the protagonist and the chief villain, the latter remarks that his mentor in business now occupies a high post in the Department of the Treasury, hinting that the line dividing big business from big government is more porous than we think (or perhaps that a line, as such, does not exist).

The modern incarnation of banking, a spoils system apportioning favors to complicit courtiers, is a wily concoction of statism tailored for the use of the nobility. As a transformed Gordon Gekko avers in a speech in the film, the purported “value” in today’s financial services is a sham; like the monopoly money the state pours into its fraudulent system to ransack productive society, the tortuous banking structure claims to create something from nothing.

In an 1819 letter to his ideological foe, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The banks … have the regulation of the safety-valves of our fortunes, and … condense and explode them at their will.” Jefferson understood then what remains true today, that bankers and money-managers harbor an almost uniform antagonism to the choice- and consent-based arrangements of the free market. Where the state consolidates power, the market dissipates it and divides it among separate individuals. Though he’s unlikely to be mistaken for a libertarian anarchist, Oliver Stone has crafted a story that recognizes the bloodsucking economic system for what it is.

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