One possible positive outcome of this fiasco would be public realization of just how easy it’s become to make money with money these days. The fat cats are back.
In the progressive era, they were rotund men in formal wear, usually with cane, top-hat and cigar, as pictured here. Accumulated wealth was figured as an excess of appetites, accumulated in flesh and elite commodities; the gentleman’s club was the scene. They were corpulent because labor was doing the work. The same cultural scene frequently depicted the laboring class as, in Carl Sandburg’s phrase, “bo-hunks”: muscled titans, in lumberjack shirts and overalls. Here’s one on the cover of an Anarchist pamphlet by Mary E. Marcy, printed by Charles H. Kerr Press, which employed Sandburg until it was raided by authorities during World War I, it’s presses smashed and editors arrested.
Since about the 1980s, U.S. tastemakers and social critics have preferred to imagine capitalists as trim, but over-indulgent go-getters. These new “titans of finance” are sleeker, hipper cats. They prowl through enviable offices and hotel rooms, sinuous and grossly obsessed or distracted.
In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas sets the mold. He reprises it in the more interesting, The Game (1997). In The Aviator (2004) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Martin Scorsese casts Leonardo DiCaprio in this role. The runaway capitalist is still well-dressed and likes his cigars (or coke, whatever), but he’s the product of accumulated productivity, not wealth. He works hard, plus he’s brilliant. He’s on the phone with banks of computers to look at and rows of buttons to press. His appetites are voracious, but they provide a continual athleticism. This virtuous, heroic figure has been prowling the American imagination throughout the Trump years (1980s-present); our President is the latest ghastly embodiment of this figure.
Steve Jobs plays the role with a little bit of Hamlet thrown in.
Current ideology would have it that these guys deserve big bucks because they’re smart and work hard. On the terrain of images, capital has stolen the previous era’s signifier of labor. They achieved this in the 1980s, when working out became a form of work. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an insane experimenter in this genre of capitalist machismo. (Mel Gibson a close second.)
He will terminate you!
Now that we’ve got a Wall Street Wolf in the White House, a bona-fide billionaire (so he says), we might begin to realize that these guys are totally clueless. They’ve worked out but never worked hard. They’re idea of making decisions is to select their favorites among absurdly simplified options. The curtains and portraits and tile. The terrorists and migrants and Patriots.
They “run things,” but moving millions around is about a million times easier than the work the 99% do every day. Such as finding a daycare center that opens at five and is on the way to Au Bon Pain, and still greeting customers with a smile. Such as whacking the hell out of a frozen lump of steel for three hours with the wind from the north and no global warming in sight. Such as negotiating the intricacies of medical and auto insurance while negotiating the intricacies of maintaining a visa while teaching 18th C. British literature to students who have never thought of the 18th C., never mind Britain. Such as convincing rushed shoppers to purchase a newspaper because you have to pay for shelter in Chicago, in the winter, at night, no matter how minimal.
Nope. These guys don’t know work. They think a phone call takes an afternoon, and they never sit on hold. They don’t know “push back”; they don’t know tantrums and bureaucracy and getting onto the bus again today. They are creatures of appetite because the road to their desires is so easy. The imagination grows in the body; the fatcats don’t have it. They’ve been living in / submitting to celebrity realities. The spectacle is a vampire; it gives you life everlasting in exchange for corporeal reality.
Mainstream criticism of Trump falls into two camps: observations of his boorishness and observations of his incompetence. These are two sides of the same billion coins. But assessments of Trump’s temperament risk attempting to reform him, as though he could somehow get it right (because he’s a brilliant / hardworking businessman after all). Far better to discuss his incompetence, I think. He’s never worked a day in his life. He doesn’t know what it takes because he only taken. Even bankruptcy is a win-win for the idle rich. Time to observe what it takes to make it in corporate U.S.A.