by: Mark Karlin, Truthout – Interview
Wednesday 29 February 2012
Opening in New York City on Saturday March 3 at the Quad City Cinema, “Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?” is a feature documentary about the emergence of plutocratic control of the US government. But the film is not meant to raise the white flag to accumulated wealth. In fact, it concludes that, “There are only two kinds of power in America: organized money and organized people. ” Heist” is directed and produced by Donald Goldmacher and Frances Causey and narrated by Thom Hartmann. It was completed in partnership with Public Interest Pictures, headed by activist and producer Earl Katz.
This is the film’s trailer:
Following is Mark Karlin’s interview with Donald Goldmacher:
Mark Karlin: What role did the book “Global Class War” (2006) play in your formulation of the film?
Donald Goldmacher: Though our initial focus was on undocumented workers, the book gave us a much broader understanding of how big corporations were using low-paid workers, by either outsourcing manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries, or in-sourcing low-paid workers into the United States, to undermine good-paying jobs held by union members. It was also instrumental in helping us to understand that the phenomenon of globalization that began in the 1970s, accelerated during the 1980s by Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, was also unequivocally embraced by Bill Clinton and his economic team, which included Professor Alan Blinder, Robert Rubin of Goldman Sachs and Larry Summers, all of whom believed in free trade and free markets. They revealed their true colors when they pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) agreements, concocted during the Reagan administration, screwing workers in all three countries.
MK: In the age of monarchy, financial assets were accumulated by sovereign monarchs. Now, financial wealth is increasingly concentrated in a few global corporations and individuals. Isn’t this a new form of colonization, but the new subjects are not conquered nations, but working-class people everywhere?
DG: I think that is a fair characterization of what has happened over the last 30 years. Specifically, there has been a dramatic shift in the way the US economy is organized. In the past, Wall Street was at the service of Main Street corporations. We have seen a dramatic reversal of this, with Main Street now serving Wall Street. This is best understood as maximizing shareholder value, whereby corporations must constantly improve their profit margins each quarter or Wall Street will slap them down. In addition, as a result of financial deregulation during the Reagan administration, we saw the emergence of mergers and acquisitions, private equity companies and leveraged buyouts, all of which benefited a handful of senior executives and the top 1 percent. Concurrently, taxes for the top 1 percent were dramatically reduced during the Reagan and George Bush junior administrations, resulting in dramatic income inequality in the United States. With this newfound power, the ultrawealthy became oligarchs within the United States, as well as around the world, where similar dynamics were at work, resulting in a free market for the very, very rich, but a screwed market for everybody else.
MK: Isn’t it ironic that the American Revolution was, in large part, a revolt against the corporate monarchy’s attempts at monopolistic control of trade and unfair taxation of the colonists to enrich the already wealthy royal elite? Now, we are fighting the same battle against the modern monarchists: the global corporations and global elite.
DG: It is indeed ironic, but since we were the first ones to fight against such economic monarchy, we should perhaps go back and learn the lessons of the original American Revolution, and what our founding fathers were able to conceive and implement to overthrow the British Empire. There is no question that both here in the United States and around the world, class warfare is being waged, and, as Warren Buffett famously put it in 2006, his side is winning. However, in the past year, we have seen a global uprising taking place against this global oligarchy. Different strategies are being put into place, as well as different tactics, but the battle lines are clear. Our web site is filled with information about both the film and how individuals and organizations can use “Heist” to inform, educate and inspire, as well as different approaches to change, like moving your money into a credit union.
MK: Explain the importance of the infamous Lewis Powell memo in the development of Wall Street and corporations usurping control over the US government when it comes to a fixed “free market.”
DG: Lewis Powell was a corporate attorney from Virginia who was asked by his friend at the US Chamber of Commerce to write a secret strategy memorandum for the Chamber in 1971. Two months later, Richard Nixon nominated him to the Supreme Court of the United States, where he served a number of years. The memo became a rallying cry among corporate executives for how to reassert corporate dominance over the American economy and its government, which it had lost during the era of the New Deal. The memo openly stated that corporations should punish their political enemies and should seek political power through both the law and politics. It encouraged challenges to what it saw as left-wing activities by people such as Ralph Nader and US academics. By 1978, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable defeated pro-labor law reforms through a filibuster by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, which signaled the demise of organized labor as a significant opponent of organized money.
MK: Leo Gerard, head of United Steelworkers, says in Heist: “Rich persons don’t need government; they take care of themselves.” Yet, American corporations and the wealthy elite in the United States claim to be patriots and to be working on behalf of the American economy. How did they pull off this sleight of hand?
DG: “Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?” explains the role of both the mainstream media and right-wing think tanks in orchestrating the perception of how the American people are experiencing their own lives. This daily bombardment by right-wing media that your problems are caused by you and not by larger forces, famously described as a “blaming-the-victim” strategy, has now become the norm. As the right has famously stated it, you are on your own. Van Jones of Rebuild the Dream poetically describes this phenomenon in “Heist.” As you noted earlier, Ronald Reagan was able to blithely state that government is the problem, when, in fact, it is corporate hegemony that is the real problem in this country and around the world. So, while middle America was being hollowed out and became a “rust belt” in the 1980s and 1990s, the workers who had been union members, were now being pushed to the bottom and had to survive on low-wage jobs and dual-income families. As the role of a federal government of and by the people was being diminished throughout the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, people were feeling increasingly powerless and abandoned by their own government. Though there were important battles that took place during the 1980s as this phenomenon occurred, by the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, there was a general acquiescence taking place among the larger American populace as our country was being transformed from a high-wage manufacturing economy to a lower- wage service economy. This resulted in organized labor losing more and more of its members and becoming weaker and weaker, which meant there was no organized resistance to the increasing corporate dominance of every facet of our lives, including our psyches. However, I think the American people are beginning to wake up and realize that large corporations are not America-friendly, nor are they worker-friendly.
MK: Suppose you own a casino, don’t you get to write the rules? Haven’t we reached a tipping point in concentrated wealth, where those corporations and people with such a gargantuan percentage of money and assets write their own rules, as a result of campaign contributions and lobbyists, in Congress? Isn’t this the very indicator of a democracy having turned into a plutocracy, even if it goes through the motions of being a democracy as far as the economy is concerned?
DG: You will certainly not get an argument from us about where our democracy currently is. Frankly, all levels of government are in the hands of corporations and oligarchs. The massive corruption of Congress began in the late 1970s, in part as a result of the Powell memo, and has continued unabated to the present time. In 1971 there were a total of 175 lobbyists in Washington, DC. By 2008, there were 33,000 lobbyists running around the nation’s capital trying to figure out how to get a better deal for their corporate clients. Frankly, we are in grave danger of losing the very notion of what it means to be living in a democracy, as these corporations gain ever larger control over our economy and our government, at both the federal and state levels.
MK: In “Heist,” you don’t by any means suggest the 99 percent should raise a white flag and surrender. The last part of “Heist” encourages activism. What do you suggest to the cynical, fatalistic 99 percenter on how to reclaim democracy?
DG: There’s no easy answer to your question, but I would say this. First, that cynic needs to see “Heist,” and pay attention to his or her own emotional responses to it. There have always been periods of time in history, not only of this country but of humankind, in which there have been periods of severe oppression and empire, and periods where there have been uprisings, rebellions and always the quest for democracy and a fair shake for every person. Without question we are in one of those periods of resistance and renewal, and thus a hopeful time, as we have seen upsurges of resistance and consciousness around the world, and here, both in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. As we filmed and edited “Heist,” we kept saying to each other that when the American people realize how they have been taken for a ride, they will respond. So we were quite happy to see these two upsurges, that signaled an end to the long hibernation of the American spirit of fair play and equality. “Heist” is crafted to not only expose the crimes, but to give people a very tangible sense of how they too can be part of a vibrant democracy. From worker-owned coops, to locally owned businesses, from nonprofit, member-owned credit unions to challenges to big corporations in their own backyard, “Heist” offers local groups and individuals a telescope into how they can participate in re-imagining the American to serve us all.
MK: What about the white working class and middle class that votes Republican on social, religious and white-identity issues? How do you educate them that they are getting the economic shaft by the people whom they vote into power?
DG: Your question addresses one of the central reasons we made “Heist” and the style in which we made it. The right-wing think tanks, funded by major corporations and ultrawealthy individuals, have, for decades, been brilliant in using social/cultural issues to push emotional buttons in both working-class and middle-class people, resulting in them voting against their own economic interests. As our film points out, the right has spent decades and billions of dollars in finding the right language and messages to use to manipulate the emotions of individuals vulnerable to such messages. We believe that many white working-class and middle-class people have been sold a bill of goods by right-wing media, as a result of their increasing economic insecurity, and the failure of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton governments to assist them as they were losing their good-paying jobs. That fear came to fruition in 2008 as a result of 30 years of free-market fundamentalism, which corresponds very well to the upsurge of religious fundamentalism in the United States. I truly believe that when people have lost their bearings as a result of losing their identity through job loss, and the government fails to step in as it did during the New Deal, ordinary people have no where to turn but to religious organizations and other social-service organizations, especially when there is no organized left-wing alternative. So, from our standpoint, these dynamics are not accidental. They interact very nicely with one another to create right-wing consciousness through not only economic fear, but also fear of the other. Fear of the other, is not a new phenomenon in the United States. The racism that was strongly cultivated in the South has not been eradicated in our country, despite the election of an African-American president. You can see it being used by Republican candidates running for President, as a good deal of their base is in the South, where racism is still alive and kicking. That will likely be the subject of a new film.
MK: On a hopeful note, not only did “Heist” finish filming as the Occupy movement emerged, but now marks the first anniversary of the enormous and amazing uprising in Wisconsin against the anti-union agenda of Gov. Scott Walker. Unions, progressives, college students and even some farmers joined together in protests that reached over a 100,000 people in Madison, a small city in a state with a relatively small population. How do we build on that sort of successful coalition?
DG: The coalition you are referring to has been a long time in the making, and was repeated during the Occupy Wall Street encampments throughout the United States. Those of us who see the need to transform both our politics and economics in this country into a system that works for the 99 percent must actually take the time to hammer out a near-, mid- and long-term set of strategies that will successfully challenge the current oligarchy under which we are living. And we should not kid ourselves it will be easy, because the 1 percent is not going to simply hand over their enormous riches and power to the 99 percent. They do have the power of the military state behind them, and I have little doubt that they will use that power at some point down the road. They have already dismantled the Occupy encampments throughout much of the United States, but yet, in the near future, there will be nationwide demonstrations calling for restoring the right to an affordable education.’The next set of demonstrations will need to demand an end to the outsourcing of good-paying jobs to low-wage countries, a practice that Apple and the rest of Silicon Valley has been engaged in for some years. The next time we think about buying an Apple product, we should ask ourselves who benefits from the purchase of this iPhone, iPad, or computer? So, it is not only a matter of challenging the banks that are too big to fail; we must also recognize that there are multinational corporations who may be bringing us charming products or low-cost items, but who are not working in the best interest of the United States and the American people. “Heist” suggests that there is a necessity to build new forms of sustainable economics at the bottom, while challenging the status quo at the top. I believe that we are beginning to see such thinking taking place, and look forward to more manifestations of building a people-centered economics and politics. This is a moment when various single-interest progressive groups, nonprofits and political organizations must really come together and re-imagine an America where everybody has a decent lifestyle and a living wage, and is living in a sustainable green economy and environment.
MK: Ronald Reagan, “Heist” records, infamously said that, “government is not the solution to the problem; it is the problem.” The film “Wall Street” came out during the Reagan administration. It included the Gordon Gekko line that “Greed … is good.” How come the Milton Friedman advocates believe that the free market is infallible, and that greed is the ultimate economic engine?
DG: It is really important for Americans to understand that attacking the very idea of government being there for the working-class family was a critical first step in undermining what many people felt was the American dream. This opened the door to advocates for free-market fundamentalism, with Alan Greenspan (who was himself a devotee of Ayn Rand) as their high priest, who are no different than any other religious zealots. They argue for less regulation, less government and allowing people to achieve financial success on their own. We illustrate very clearly in “Heist” how millions of people’s retirement monies were transformed from a defined-benefit pension plan paid for by their employers to a 401(k) plan that has resulted in individuals having to become their own financial planners, and consequently losing money during the dot-com bubble burst and the 2008 financial crash. Despite all the contrary evidence of the last 30 years, free-market fundamentalists continue to believe that what is necessary is for even further deregulation to take place in order to free up market forces that will then trickle down to everybody. In psychological terms, they are engaging in massive denial, or are just plain lying to themselves, as well as to the rest of us. When people reach that stage, it is very difficult to alter their thinking. So, progressives in this country need to understand that there is a certain percentage of the American populace who are hardwired to accept such notions that fly in the face of logic and evidence; witness the climate-change deniers. Ultimately, their ideology is all about helping the rich get richer, and leaving the rest of us drowning in the haze of libertarian marijuana. Well, we have now seen what trickle-down economics is really about. It is about saving the rich by instituting class warfare on a global scale, and bailing out those who keep screwing us.