vulgar capitalism

When I was a kid (and a default left-winger, like most of my friends), I remember seeing the movie Annie, Hollywood’s version of the Broadway musical. There’s a scene in the movie where a bomb-carrying Bolshevik (looking more like the cartoon stereotype of an anarchist than a commie, if I recall correctly) tries to blow up Daddy Warbucks.

Annie: Who would want to kill Mr. Warbucks?

Warbucks’s assistant: The Bolsheviks, dear. He’s living proof that the American system really works and the Bolsheviks don’t want anyone to know about that.

Annie: The Bolsheviks? Leapin’ lizards!

My opinion of this scene at the time is well summarized by blogger Martin Willet in his post “Why Bolsheviks Don’t Blow Up Billionaires”:

In the musical Annie evil Bolsheviks are seen trying to kill billionaire Oliver Warbucks, apparently out of jealousy and fear that he is an object lesson that capitalism works, but then the Bolshevik is not given any lines. How absurd, as if the existence of a billionaire proved capitalism was either healthy or fair. The name Warbucks probably reveals a political consciousness that has subsequently been strangled in America. The resentment of capitalists profiting (more accurately profiteering, that is making a profit the person doing the labeling doesn’t morally approve of) from war (the First World War in particular) has been a major cause of the growth of socialist and communist parties right the way across the world in the first half of the twentieth century.

But the logic of socialism, so clear to Mr. Willet and to my young self, is not necessarily as clear to actual working people — or to the subjects of a socialist dictator. The good folks at Reason.com (h/t @jeffreyatucker) tell a very different story in “How Larry Hagman Saved Romania from Communism” about the impact of Dallas‘s J.R. Ewing on the victims of Romanian communism:

Dallas was the last Western show allowed during the nightmarish 1980s because President Nicolae Ceausescu thought it showcased all that was wrong with capitalism. In fact, the show provided a luxuriant alternative to a communism that was forcing people to wait more than a decade to buy the most rattletrap communist-produced cars.

It’s somewhat painful to me to reflect on the idea that Ceausescu and I might have seen things the same way.

This for me is the critical line from Reason:

The impact of Dallas on global worldviews reminds us that “vulgar” popular culture is every bit as important as chin-stroking political discourse in fomenting real social change.

Throwaway cultural products influence far-flung societies in ways that are impossible for anyone, even dictators, to predict or control.

There’s an ongoing debate among libertarians about the importance of popular culture to the outreach efforts of the freedom philosophy. One important thing to remember is that the message sent is not always the same as the message received, especially across cultural boundaries. I look forward to hearing what my favorite anthropologist might have to say on this subject.

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2 Responses to vulgar capitalism

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    “The impact of Dallas on global worldviews reminds us that ‘vulgar’ popular culture is every bit as important as chin-stroking political discourse in fomenting real social change.”

    Cf. the review by Louis Menand in The New Yorker for November 12, 2012 of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum:

    “In one area, repressive policies met their match: popular entertainment. Before the war, Hungary had the third-largest film industry in Europe. Following the rise of Hitler, many of its directors and cinematographers emigrated to Hollywood (where they helped to create American film noir). After 1945, under Communist rule, Eastern European filmmakers were obliged to produce works of socialist realism, anthems to the workers’ state. But the system of close political monitoring was relatively ineffective, and did not last. It’s easy enough to censor dialogue in a script, much harder to censor images, or metaphorical expressions. Against significant odds, there was an Eastern European cinema of some distinction during the Cold War.

    “The Party also struggled with the effects of popular music. Kids in Poland and East Germany proved to be little different from kids in San Francisco or Liverpool. The more the Party cracked down on jazz and rock and roll, the more giddily defiant the music’s youthful consumers became. As in the West, adult disapproval grounded the otherwise free-floating notion that there is something rebellious and world-changing about the rock-and-roll beat. If people were trying to silence it, it must be threatening to someone.

    “‘The Wild One,’ ‘Blackboard Jungle,’ and ‘Rock Around the Clock’ caused youth riots in both East and West Germany in 1955 and 1956. In the notorious ‘cultural Cold War,’ during which the C.I.A. covertly supported—and the State Department and American museums and foundations overtly funded—the dissemination of American art, books, literary and intellectual journalism, dance, theatre, and music, the one product that can plausibly be argued to have made a difference in the eventual overthrow of Communism was rock and roll. Bill Haley and Frank Zappa likely did more to inspire the dissidents in Eastern Europe than Jackson Pollock or the writers at Partisan Review.”

    Re Romania, two things:

    1. Radio 3 Net from Romania has thousands of play-on-demand classic-to-indie rock albums.

    2. This bubblegum-unworthy three-panel:

    Mortem [image]: Hey Joe, why did you break up with that hot woman from Bucharest? She seemed perfect.

    Drakoola Joe: Well, since she’s Romanian and all, I just figured there had to be something -escu about her …

    Mortem falls backward into his coffin with motion lines to be added by the artist.

  2. Pingback: The Waters of March | Invisible Order

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