Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 24, 2010

Inside Job

Filed under: Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

I had few expectations from Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”, a documentary opening on October 8th, since it appeared to adhere to the same formula as his debut film “No End in Sight”. That movie, which won an Academy Award nomination, relied heavily on experts who portrayed the war in Iraq as some kind of tragic blunder rather than a product of long-standing American imperialist policies in the Middle East. “Inside Job” is to the financial crisis as “No End in Sight” is to the war in Iraq. You won’t find Doug Henwood, Michael Perelman, David Harvey or Leo Panitch being interviewed. Indeed, the question of capitalism as a system is never raised just as imperialism is not in “No End in Sight”.

All that being said, “Inside Job” is a brilliant dissection of the financial industry and the political system that it shares a bed with. Ferguson might rely solely on industry experts and regulators but to what astonishing results. This tautly organized film gathers momentum from the very first minutes and builds up a head of steam like a locomotive engine. Despite avoiding the question of how the economic system is organized, it is a dagger aimed at its heart no matter the intention of Charles Ferguson. All in all, it reminds me of these words in the Communist Manifesto:

Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.

While we are obviously not in a period when the class struggle is nearing “the decisive hour”, Charles Ferguson—like Chris Hedges—has obviously washed his hands of the most powerful sector of the bourgeoisie, the Goldman-Sachs’s of the world that are portrayed as master thieves. Indeed, the title of the movie refers to crimes taking place inside a company by people who are supposed to be trusted with its well-being. In the case of Goldman-Sachs, we are not dealing with an inside job within the firm but within American society as a whole. Using their insider connections in Washington, people like Lloyd Blankfein, Robert Rubin, Henry Paulsen and a host of others have cracked open the safe and run off with taxpayer dollars that they spend on 25,000 square feet mansions in the Hamptons, 20 million dollar yachts, private planes, cocaine and prostitutes.

One of the interviewees in the film is Kristin Davis, the madam of a high-priced call girl service that catered to Wall Street investment banks, including Goldman-Sachs employees. She states that the cops were not interested in following up on her clients. On the other hand, Elliot Spitzer, who is one of the chief “prosecution” interviewees in the film, did have his career destroyed for his personal vices. The movie makes the point that this was directly related to his crusade against Wall Street criminal activity as NY State Attorney General.

The movie is about as good an introduction to the financialization of the American economy, the growing risk-taking associated with that, the housing bubble, and all the other topics that have been the subject of a spate of books over the past few years. Ferguson’s movie covers some of the same ground as Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story” and Leslie Cockburn’s “American Casino”  but with a lot more power and authority. Despite its necessary deep burrowing into how CDO’s and CDS’s functioned, the movie is fast-paced—even breathtakingly so.

The research at times is staggering. Ferguson, who earned a PhD in Political Science from MIT in 1989, dramatizes the financial takeover of the American economy by taking a look at the J.P. Morgan investment bank. In the 1950s it had just over 100 employees, all of who worked in about half the floor of a downtown office building, with assets of a few million dollars. It was a partnership with capital that came out of the partner’s pockets; naturally they were very conservative about how it was spent. The investment banks were handmaidens to major industrial corporations. All that began to change with Reagan’s election and only deepened under Republican and Democrat alike. New Deal regulations had to be flushed down the toilet for the financial industry to reach its ambitious goals. Unlike Michael Moore, Ferguson lacerates Barack Obama as a president who is simply continuing this trend.

While the movie is excellent throughout, there is one part that I derived exquisite pleasure from. As has been noted in leftwing blogs and magazines, the business schools and economics departments of America’s most prestigious universities have been regarded as complicit in the financial collapse through their neoclassical embrace of deregulation, market efficiency and other fictions.

Using his impressive academic qualifications and his reputation as a relatively mainstream documentarian, Charles Ferguson lined up interviews with a number of high-profile economics professors at Harvard and Columbia like Martin Feldstein and Glenn Hubbard who had major roles in ruining the American economy and in one case that of Iceland. It would be hard to imagine characters in a fictional film like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” being more repulsive than these economics professors. Feldstein in particular has a smirk on his face throughout the interview that is positively Mephistophelian. In a course I am taking on documentary film at Columbia this semester, the instructor said that in documentaries the subjects often turn themselves into characters following some irresistible impulse that ensues when you are on camera. In the case of these economists, you can almost charge them with overacting through their coldly alienating affect.

Just three months before the banks of Iceland collapsed, Columbia University’s Frederic Mishkin wrote a report that described the banks as models of stability and good governance. (The film begins with a close look at the impact of the meltdown on the people of Iceland.) Ferguson asks Mishkin how much he earned for writing such a report. He grins sheepishly and replies that the amount can be found in the public record. It turns out to be $124,000. You can see an excerpt from this portion of the movie here. Unlike his namesake Prince Mishkin in Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”, this Mishkin seems incapable of telling the truth or acting ethically.

One could not fault Ferguson for omitting a Marxist or radical perspective in this documentary because it is likely that he would not know where to begin. He simply does not come across as someone who makes MRZine, ZNet or Counterpunch part of his daily reading. Judging from his interviewees, the main fare would be the Financial Times, the NY Times and financial books and newsletters. What struck me about this lack was the failure of our movement broadly speaking to rise to the occasion.

When it is left up to the likes of Michael Moore, you are left with a populist paean to Barack Obama at the conclusion of his film on the financial crisis. We need documentary film makers who can relate the current crisis to the deeper structural problems of capitalism that go back to the early 70s at least. Unlike Charles Ferguson, who saw the war in Iraq as a tragic blunder and the current crisis as the outcome of greed on Wall Street, we would see it as the normal and expected outcome of a system in terminal decay. One can get the sense that based on what you see on the screen as this powerful and intelligent documentary unfolds that he indeed has the nagging sense that we might be right.


  1. Great review Lou. Makes me eargerly await seeing this one. There’s nothing like a powerful documentary to move you. Documentaries now consist of 80% of my film diet as I can hardly stomach the others.

    The line “this Mishkin seems incapable of telling the truth or acting ethically” reminds me of when I was a kid at some bar with my dad and he was talking politics with some patron he’d just met and the guy, apparently a professor, said he taught a course at Loyola University called “Business Ethics” and my dad, himself a high school biology teacher, said: “It must be difficult teaching an oxymoron.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 24, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

  2. Where will it be playing ? Which theaters in NYC ?

    Comment by Carol — September 25, 2010 @ 12:49 am

  3. As soon as I get screening info, I will pass that along. I imagine that it will open with a fair amount of hoopla, though.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 25, 2010 @ 1:15 am

  4. […] “Inside Job” is to the financial crisis as “No End in Sight” is to the war in Iraq. https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/inside-job/ `A force which is truly for good’ — John Coltrane and the jazz revolution […]

    Pingback by #349: Thurs: Cuban ambassador, Jane Kelsey & Keith Locke speak on “Cuban 5″ « GPJA's Blog — September 27, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

  5. Chris Hedges has not “washed his hands” of the powerful. He is a religious devotee, a serial lecturer to others on the faulty morality of the lower classes he did not have to encounter at Harvard and the Harvard Divinity school, and a fully-paid up admirer of himself, Parson Christopher Hedges, conservative scourge of the lower orders. He may abjure a President or two, but his piety is strictly that of the backwards-looking Naderite variety, professor and penitential martyr wrapped in one.
    “No End in Sight” was tedious and bad, as you state. If there is hope for Ferguson here, I’m giving it one eye when it descends onto Netflix.

    Comment by Martin — September 30, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

  6. Martin, you sound like Chris Hedges may have pissed on your shoes at some time in the past. That is really too bad.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 30, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

  7. Hey, Louis, that was a devastating riposte, one that must have worked so well for you back in the sandbox days. You are so correct – we must never let our antagonisms show in public, lest we face the commanding ridicule of our superiors.
    However, you are not factually accurate – Chris Hedges does not urinate in public. After all, what would his fans like you think?

    Comment by Martin — October 1, 2010 @ 10:02 am

  8. L P wrote:
    The investment banks were handmaidens to major industrial corporations. All that began to change with Reagan’s election nd only deepened under Republican and Democrat alike. New Deal regulations had to be flushed down the toilet for the financial industry to reach its ambitious goals.

    The greedy have ever been with us. It is a start to note the events that unleashed the greedy to pillage with tools of financial manipulation. That is a story. The next step is to go from story to history: what pressures built up where, what economic grounds emerged for a turn to financialization.

    Comment by Charles Andrews — May 30, 2011 @ 3:37 am

  9. It is not death, it is dying that alarms me….

    We call that against nature which cometh against custom. But there is nothing, whatsoever it be, that is not According to nature….

    Trackback by http://www.zeldaelements.net/member/284878 — June 6, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

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