I’ve been trying to pin down what it is that bugs me about The Social Network, Wall Street, and other movies about the flaring egos and larger-than-life ambitions of our world-shaper class. David Fincher, Oliver Stone, and other directors attracted to stories about power suggest the forms, at least, of moral critique—Fincher’s Mark Zuckerberg or Stone’s Gordon Gekko are callous, calculating, and hungry, not loveable. But these movies are in love with the very power they critique. They instruct us that the powerful are art’s only worthwhile subjects. In them, little people are just that. (Bothering to include and humanize the little people—the objects of these giants’ will—is part of the reason I loved Boiler Room much better than these much more celebrated films.)
Sometimes I wonder why history—across cultures, across power systems—seems to be dominated by similar sorts of winners: arrogant, nimble, forceful, manipulative, whether in the emperor’s court or in the halls of Harvard. Activists, journalists, or dissident artists—those who spend their time and define themselves in opposition to this type of elites—can make the mistake of totalizing these folks’ power into wisdom, of imagining them as all-seeing and brilliant adversaries. But the winner class isn’t actually all that wise, or at least not necessarily. The “best and brightest” in this country gave us Vietnam, the echoing economic catastrophes of 2007, the Iraq War and its fantasies of a swift and seamless transition of Iraq to a neoliberal vassal state.
This class does, at one level, dominate history. Perhaps the fact that they haven’t annihilated the whole human race yet attest to the fact that “common” people, as a collective or as ingenious, restless, impatient, creative individuals, have agency too—a sort of counterforce—maybe not equal or opposite but wise (or capable of wisdom) in a way the class of winners can never be.