“For the first time, man’s mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being — the self-made man — the American industrialist.” —Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957
Who remembers Michael Milken or Ivan Boesky? The Enron and Worldcom and Arthur Anderson rapacity and financial conjurations, their bunco confidence games followed by the Ponzi bamboozlement of Bernard Madoff? Who remembers the Wall Street chicanery of Gordon Gekko?
Wait, Gekko is a character in a movie, convincingly played by Michael Douglas, but still he’s fictional. And yet too real. That confounding matter is not my confounding matter here. My confounding matter begins with short-term memory loss and segues into two new movies — Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Social Network — and entangles our presently entangled president, Barack Obama.
The U.S. is split over who’s the better president, Obama or Bush? In 2008, Obama flies into office propelled partially by the appeal of his “let’s leave old school politics behind” posture but mostly by the country’s run from George W. Bush. Now that the 2010 Congressional elections have passed, the country seems to be running from Barack Obama. Bush tax rebates to the wealthy as well as the old supply-side voodoo economics inherited from Reagan seem back in favor. The 2008 Great Recession that one might have thought sealed the deal on exposing the stupidity of the “self-correcting elegance of the market” is now, in the eyes of a Tea Party Brigade ready to take an armed insurrection to the White House, yet another calamity caused by the federal government.
All those dirty-dealing Wall Street miscreants at Lehmann Brothers, Bear Stearns, J. P. Morgan/Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, AIG — the whole array of CEOs that would walk away with millions regardless of whether it’s boom or bust — are not in the rifle sights of the Tea Party, the libertarians, and market conservatives that hold the reins of the Republican Party. These looters are Gordon Gekko’s guys, and some of them, like him, got caught. Getting caught is the only crime here. If you apply your Macchiavelli, like the movie-founder of FaceBook does, and reach your end without getting caught regardless of what means you employ, you are an American success story, proof that the American Dream still lives. Gordon Gekko can return in the film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and he can critique perceptively what caused the Great Recession, but he can also return to his old Wall Street hocus-pocus because the rules of the game have only cosmetically changed. The cell phones are smaller; internet speed is faster. But — the Wild West of an open arena of unregulated competition, guns drawn, winner take all, is alive and well.
Money never sleeps but memory does. And because it does sleep no devastating critique can be launched, and if no devastating critique can be launched, memories sleep.
Our memories are fractured and fractal, multitasking memories bred by digital bytes, by jump cutting, steered by quick clicks of mouse and remote, narrative reduced to Tweets, War and Peace in Wiki, Ayn Rand on YouTube. This case has been made and is being made, and no one is waiting for the verdict. Whatever human memory is to be, whatever history and narrative and argument are to be is already in the works. It is already here and observable in the “rising” “millennial” generation and in the boomers who jump on Facebook and Twitter the way they jump on botox. The boomers are a generation DNA programmed, it seems, to be forever young. They don’t want to be caught with the 1980s version of a “mobile phone,” the big one with the antenna that Gekko is handed as he leaves prison. And yet the boomers and the last of the Great Generation tribe also possess other cultural software, other memes than the Forever Young drive.
While both millennials and the previous generations can note that a sea change has occurred in how we attend to the world and how we recall, the millennials, hyperbolically speaking for sure, dismiss what came before, say, Facebook, as “back in the day,” the death sentence, you might say, to all of history before the Digital Revolution, while the “Oldsters” cannot detach themselves from what has already shaped their awareness, their ways of being in the world.
Barack Obama’s 2009 campaign success owes much to his presence in both worlds; he is, I would conjecture, straddled between the two. Defining and describing what these two worlds are is vastly more significant and sane than basing your politics on Rush Limbaugh’s conviction that Obama’s is secretly Islamic and pursuing an Islamic take-over of the U.S. Obama’s Dreams from My Father is an exploration of “back in the day,” an exploration of cultural roots, of the beginnings of what he was to become. This personal exploration revealing Obama’s need to find his past before going forward is reprinted at the moment Obama gains wide public attention at the 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. The book, then, is for others, for the electorate, for all those who should have a need to know the foundations, affective and intellectual, of their leaders.
Any life fulfills itself in its own narrative telling, achieves its social as well as personal raison d’etre, and cannot be rewritten or overwritten to suit what appears to be an objective, a goal, a mission, an end. Similar to the flow of narrative itself, which is at its best when it detours from the demands of plot, lives play through various emplotments with various hoped-for endings, and fully succeed when no end in sight stands as a barricade to what is not yet seen.
Gordon Gekko returns in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps with a fully loaded sense of recent Wall Street history, and he does what no non-fictional character has been able to do: he applies that historical knowledge to a revelation of what and who has brought on the Great Recession of 2008. He applies a critical reason and fashions an interpretation that leads to an understanding he passes on to his new acolyte. He is, in short, Oliver Stone’s instrument to narrate the past right up until the present moment. His audience suffers from a short-term memory loss that Gekko, in spite of eight years of imprisonment, does not suffer from. Gekko not only is able to develop a narrative grasp of the wreckage of Wall Street but his historical grasp is deep. He continues to embody the free market player because he is expert in his capitalist foundations. This resurrected Gekko knows his own father: the Gekko of the 1987 film, the Gekko of “Greed works.” And because he knows history and his own role in its unfolding narrative, he understands the hows and whys of the Great Recession.
Such is not the case with the fictional Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, as he is revealed in the film The Social Network. He does not embody any acknowledgement of the past whether the fictional Gekko or the too real Bernie Madoff. The narrative of history begins with Zuckerberg himself, and he is not alone in this solipsist conception. “However lacking Mr. Zuckerberg may be in the social graces that drive civil society, he embodies the optimism and creativity of millennials. To many who will see the film, the spectacular ends make the means seem beside the point.” (Carr, New York Times) In a way, optimism is compromised by the narrative of history, which overwhelms the creative impulse whose very optimism rests on a rootless self-generation. There is literally no basis to millennial optimism, especially in the light of the recent exposure of a malignant financial sector in the U.S., which testifies to a congenital flaw in the unbridled capitalism that floats the present American Dream, but its detachment from the narrative of history enables and preserves its existence. And this preservation, not of the past but of a heedless attitude toward the past, places the millennial in the moment and nowhere else. The long stretch of historical narrative, including “the social graces that drive civil society,” is replaced by a narrative of “and now . . . and now . . . and now . . . ,” a continuing detachment from what had occurred before. It is this sort of psychology that explains what has become so obvious to us, just as suddenly we seemed to have become aware of autism.
Short-term memory loss is not rare and irrelevant but rather vernacular in millennial awareness.
In order, then, to see Zuckerberg not as a “rock star who did what he needed to do to protect the thing he had created,” not as the “boy king of America’s new capitalism” but as a Machiavellian manipulator driven to succeed at any cost to anyone, you need to connect the present with the past, you need to possess a long-term memory of a continuous historical narrative out of which our social morals and sense of justice emerge. And much more. It seems, then, necessary to work into one’s life a narrative of what in our world and what in our natures and in our acts is to be valued and thus find a place in our dreams and ideals. And no meanings that are valid and significant can arise if we remain on a level of “what anything means is what it means to me.”
So both Obama and Gekko have an historical awareness. But while Obama acts as if he can bridge historical direction and ahistorical optimism — a death-defying undertaking, politically speaking — Gekko has a focused knowledge of the past: it is to enable him to “play the game” as a winner. History has limited meaning for the market player, for Gekko the former “rock star” of leveraged buyouts, insider trading, and Wall Street legerdemain. The Gekko narrative is a narrow selection, unrepresentative, of what history weighs upon Obama. Obama wants to pack much into an unwieldy portmanteau — greater economic equity, more extensive social justice, greater educational equity, environmental protection and rehabilitation, and so on — while Gekko travels light and speedily — “smart trades.”
This is in a nutshell a reflection of the amorphous, airy aspirations of liberals and the sharply defined goals of conservatives. While the former requires an immersion in the currents of historical narrative and therefore a development of ideas and aspirations beyond self-interest, the latter — the conservative — has a rebellious schoolboy’s disdain of all that and replaces it with a welcome appeal to self-interest. Liberals and the left need long-term memories, that is, awareness of the present honed by an awareness of the past, while conservatives and the right, are not constrained by short-term memory loss but rather can succeed because of it. There is little doubt that if Americans held in mind the continuing narrative of Wall Street depredations and the consequences of such on the majority of Americans — most especially the 2008 Great Recession that finally brought most Americans to their knees — a Tea Party movement that stands behind a governmentally unregulated free market would be a party that never got its tea to boil.
Oliver Stone has brought Gordon Gekko to the screen once again for the purpose of delivering a message to President Obama: you need to make a Gekko-like hard and severe and deft critique of a capitalist system that is far from self-correcting, that has served the interests of only a minuscule portion of the American population, and that is vulnerable to computer and mathematical manipulation that regulation may or may not be able to contain. Obama needed to follow the thread of historical narrative from Reagan’s shifting wealth and justice from the middle to the top right up to George W. Bush’s continuation of a voodoo economics that asserts a “trickle down” that has never happened and will never happen, a voodoo economics that maintains the view that proven winners—the wealthiest in the population — are the engine that drives the whole economy while history reveals that chance, privilege, and power are more relevant here than any natural superiority. We all know this. We all know that the wealthiest one percent of the population do not also represent the brightest and the most creative. We celebrate celebrities not because of admired gifts but because they are celebrated celebrities. We all know this because we all see this every day. The special gift of those “who drive the engine of the economy” is to remain in the driver’s seat.
I don’t know what Obama gleaned from our historical narrative that endorses his faith in a rational and pragmatic approach that could bring “the Gekko game” on his side. What trade is Obama offering the Prime Directive of “maximization of profit”? Which of these the axioms of competitive capitalism — a striving for monopoly; a reduction in the regulatory, entitlement-establishing, taxing size of the federal government; a cheap and malleable labor supply; an ever-increasing return on investment; an opening of new markets without any interference; and a review of all value claims in terms of the “bottom line” — are we transcending and how? What trade would Gekko be willing to take from Obama? Is it enough for one side to want to leave partisanship behind? To want to accept what seems to be the most pragmatic solution to a problem? To want to play not the Game that Gekko speaks of but a game in which a bipartisan reasoning is trump?
After two years in office it seems clear that President Obama did not know what game he was in. Whether he is as quick a learner as reported to be remains to be played out.
This takes us back to Zuckerberg, whose American Dream, like that of his fellow millennials, is not encumbered by the historical narrative. The entrepreneur can do what the liberal politician cannot: be totally oblivious to the deep legacy of the past and get away with it. Zuckerberg gets away with billions, in fact. Technological innovation has no narrative obligations. Or conscience. Millennials didn’t choose to be this way, although they hold personal choice sacred, but rather have inherited capitalism’s transformation of all historical narrative into a search for “spectacular ends” that are highly lucrative. History doesn’t offer any alternatives to this American Dream because history no longer exists in our new hyper/modern awareness.
So Zuckerberg and his millennial tribe are bred and nurtured in this fashion. Obama adopts the idealistic view that present politics can proceed as if it was not preceded by the long narrative of all prior politics, all prior culture wars and religious wars and ethnic and racial wars, and somehow shape a new beginning, a new morning in America. The legacy of Reagan’s “New Morning in America” and its eventual undermining of a middle-class solidarity that had always buffered the class warfare the Marxists had predicted should have tempered Obama’s belief that any such new beginning was possible. But the success of his 2008 campaign resulted from a meshing of his message of change and the natural disposition of the millennials as well as independents, whose independence fits the 21st-century love of “personal choice.” Change here meant not simply a change in political ideology — the rise of the Tea Party supports this — but a complete break, a revolutionary break with whatever politics and politicians were. Whatever ideology was, it was now to be transformed into the new “ideology of personal ideology,” of personal politics. When Obama as president failed to leave politics behind — which was an impossibility from the start — his campaign supporters reconfigured him as yet another “politician.” They returned to their own ideology of personal politics, a state of affairs that promises to be very damaging to any future Obama election, not to mention the future course of politics in the U.S.
President Obama in fact seems now more of a politician wrapped in Big Government intrusions on “personal liberty” than George W. Bush; thus the split decision that the polls reveal. George W. Bush’s smirking mocking of the press, of the Congress, of all politicians who weren’t Texans, and his casual dismissal of even his own office has more appeal now than Obama’s earnest struggles to find political solutions to a growing number of problems, problems arising mostly from his own failure to invoke history and launch a critique of jejune and absurd notions such as “the ideology of personal ideology.” In an effort to rise above politics and the historical narrative that has brought us to what many perceive as decline, Obama has sealed his own fate. He has declined Gekko’s historical critique, presumed he could sweep all the pieces off the political chessboard and start a new game. Thus far, technology alone has succeeded in this, as Zuckerberg demonstrates, but that’s not the game the president of the United States is in.