Okay, this is my last of three posts on what’s likely my favorite Coen Brother’s movie: THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, featuring Tim Robbins, Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Charles Durning. Even though you might feel differently after reading my other posts, I do believe this is a film made in praise of Capitalism. In fact, I also praise Capitalism. Modern Capitalism did so much to take civilization up to another level of progress – not only economic progress but also social progress. What’s most obvious at first glance is the incredible boost in material gains Capitalism brought in the last few centuries. In the last decades alone the PPP (Purchase Power Parity – what you can actually buy with your money) has increased exponentially across the globe (see OECD graph below), with particular emphasis on Asia. The ability of Capitalism to inspire progress around the world has also brought billions out from the jaws of abject poverty since the last century alone. People start believing that if they work hard and cooperate with others they can have a significant impact on the way their lives evolve.
Collaboration, as I have argued already here, is the key to Capitalism: we can see this in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY – as Norville Barnes comes up with the idea of a circle «You know… for kids!», the whole corporation is put into motion and many people come to make this idea into a reality: and thus the amazing ‘Hula Hoops’ is born. This storyline in the movie also shows us how Capitalism inspires innovation and makes people believe in incredible ideas that no-one else will seem to credit, allowing liberty to test them and openness for the market to accept them. With this, Capitalism also promotes the idea of Meritocracy: this thought that if you deserve it, you will succeed – if you have the merit, you have the credit; if you have the credit, you have the reward. This idea, however, seems to be far from the rule of the land. Modern Capitalism and Liberalism seemed to come hand in hand in the last few centuries, but they have been hurt and chastised in one way or the other along the way.
At the inception of Liberalism, one of the great experiments of the time was the French Revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from the chaos and two ideas emerged with him: 1) that Liberalism and Meritocracy could be used to create incredibly effective and sophisticated organizations, such as the million-strong Grande Armée; 2) that Aristocracy and aristocratic thinking were far from over. The armies of Napoleon were plagued, in the end, by the same aristocratic thinking, nepotism, and corruption that they were raised to destroy. And so was the society in general. In today’s world, wealth and power are still the ownership of an elite of public and private figures, in politics and economics, that are protected and supported by the whole system. And that is what makes for the increasing problem of inequality we see throughout the world: a small group of individuals amasses the majority of all the wealth.
And here is, in my view, another of many of Marx’s mistakes. His focus (and shall we say Lenin’s and Mao’s as well) was on who was wielding the power and who possessed the wealth. On the other side of the Pond, the American Experiment, along with the ideas of the likes of Montesquieu, de Tocqueville, Madison and other, focused on the limits to power and on checks and balances, i.e. on freedom. And that seemed a much more effective way to go about it. In THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, Norville Barnes is raised to the top by the corrupt intent of the Board of Directors – he does not seem to merit the position of President of the Hudsucker Industries. Because of this, he came into the attention of the press, represented by Amy Archer (the talented Jennifer Jason Leigh), who aimed to unravel the whole plot. The press, the Free Press, is one of the most effective checks on the abuse of power – as de Tocqueville argued so many years ago.
Truly limiting power is, in my view, a crucial foundation of a Liberal Society and Liberal Capitalism. For the focus should be on Decision Making and not on Power itself. See the example of Brazilian entrepreneur Ricardo Semmler. In trying to create a Democratic Company, where employees recruit their superiors, decide their wages and work hours, create their timetables and rules, he kept the ownership and power of leadership – but he viewed it as a one-shot pistol, for the first time he’d use his veto power he would destroy all the democratic organization he had built, all the good he had worked for. In the end, everyone is better off if the best decisions are made, and the best decision-making process we know to date is the democratic one (we’ll talk about it more some other time).
The Aristocratic Capitalism of today that we know and hate is tainted. It is elitist, unjust, corrupt, focuses on material gains of the few, promotes psychopathic and sociopathic organizations, created a narcissistic epidemic, and a rampant phenomenon of inequality, tending towards monopolistic and oligarchic economies. A true Democratic Capitalism could be more competitive, more productive, more just, more worried with the problems and solutions of the many, would focus on the well being of individuals and organizations as well as communities, would promote empathetic, cooperative and democratic organizations. And I truly believe it is coming… because it is necessary.
One story that Ivanka Trump has told several times is the one where her father pointed towards a homeless vagrant and said to her: «That man is 7 billion richer than I am.» Donald Trump, in fact, went bankrupt several times, living off his father’s amassed wealth, destroying many lives in the process. In his view, he was poorer than a man who had nothing and owed nothing. Still, Trump was riding in limousines and helicopters, dining in the best restaurants and staying at the best hotels all around the world – and was handed one chance after the other until he became the President of the USA. I bet that the man who was richer than him couldn’t do anything of the sort. That is the face of Aristocratic Capitalism.
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY is the story of Norville Barnes. He dared to dream of becoming a great businessman – and he did become the President of a large corporation. He climbed the ladder by the whim of an aristocrat like Sidney Mussberger – not by his own merit. But then he was driven to despair as he tried to own the part and was almost destroyed. The movie seems to speak about the importance of second chances and how we should not sink under our own failures. However, what the story really tells us about is that in a corrupt and nepotistic society, ruled by Aristocratic Capitalists, only miracles can save us in the end. And that is why we need to change it.