A few weeks ago when Paul and I were in NYC for the baptism of the child of some friends (by Reverend Billy), we ran into some acquaintances. The acquaintances are men in their late twenties. We ran into them around NYU. I made strained small-talk with one while Paul chatted with the other.
The guy I was talking to is a hedge fund manager.
I didn't push it. Really. After covering sports, the weather, the few people we know in common, he asks about my kids. I reply that my son is going to McGill. He's impressed and adds, "a lot of guys in my firm went to McGill." I smile sweetly, "The one thing I hope my son will never, ever, become is a hedge fund manager."
The guy laughs uneasily, "Well, he should be able to make his own choices."
"But not that."
"What's so wrong with being a hedge fund manager?"
I look at him like he must either have severe brain damage or be from another planet (both, I think, are true, the effects of capitalist excess). "Umm, the role of the finance sector in the intensification of economic inequality in the US and the larger global economic crisis?"
He says, "Well, that's your opinion."
"No. It's a fact."
"Well, some would disagree."
"Then they are wrong."
He stares at me. I offer, "My most recent book is The Communist Horizon." He grabs the other guy and insists that they have to go. Now.
The next evening while a blizzard engulfed the city I sat in a bar with a socialist friend a few years younger than the other guys. After I recounted the conversation from the night before, he tells me a similar story. A few weeks earlier, he was chatting with a woman at a party. He said something critical of Wall Street and she became uneasy, volunteering that she worked in finance, that people who go into debt have no one but themselves to blame, that anyone who works hard can easily save enough money to have a good life, etc. He described some of the challenges faced by his working class parents, tying them to the structural role of debt and unemployment for capitalism. She became increasingly uncomfortable, defensive, and angry, ultimately storming off.
The bright side of these stories of twenty-something shame: the fact that they feel it. They aren't bragging and gloating. This isn't Jamie Dimon and his gloating Christmas card. Rather, these twenty-somethings quickly cave under the realization of the wrong of inequality. They might try, initially, to parrot the capitalist ideological clap-trap that protects them, but they feel its holes. They don't believe it anymore, even if they want to. Jamie Dimon and his ilk do their best to patch up the the image of extreme wealth, "look how fun it is!," but their deafness to the tone of the times betrays their underlying desperation. Misfires are symptoms of their crumbling position. They won't be able to hold it much longer.
I lived in NYC in the mid-eighties. I worked for a year in a low-paid publishing job and then went to graduate school. A few friends and a lot of acquaintances had gone to work on Wall Street (Karen's Ho's Liquidated is a great ethnography on this pipeline). They were investment bankers and traders. Some dealt in junk bonds. From the outside, it looked like a wild scene, not as extreme as "The Wolf of Wall Street" but not so far off, either.
The difference is that in the mid-eighties, these guys were shameless, masters of the universe, Tom Wolfe would call them in Bonfire of the Vanities. The Gordon Gekko line, "greed is good," wasn't a critique, it was a flag, a banner.
This flag is now in tatters. The banner has fallen.
Now even those who want to be Wall Street's gekkos and wolves can't. They don't believe anymore that the rest of us believe that they are winners, that they are the smartest guys in the room, that they somehow deserve or have earned their immensely unequal share of the common surplus. They know that the rest of us think that are thieves, extortionists, criminals. A little shame has crept in. That's why the twenty-somethings got angry.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" lays bear the injunction to enjoy underlying the last thirty years of financialization. The ambiguity of the movie comes from our relation to this enjoyment. Does it incite our desire, does it arouse us, making us against our better selves in fact want to be like them, want to have what they have? Does it disgust us, arousing our indignation? Does it blend the two together so that we find ourselves with no place to stand (sex and drugs are fun! I'm no conservative, moralistic, prude!)? And, if it does any of these does the movie end up coming too much to the assistance of Jamie Dimon and his ilk? Maybe the audience for the film is those twenty-something finance types who want to rid themselves of the shame that shadows their work in the sector that is killing the world.
Criticisms of the movie for its sexism miss the mark. The movie enacts obscenity. It enjoins excess and this injunction always is at a cost to someone. Someone is exploited (or excluded--it's a white movie--or beaten up--lots of homophobia). The excess has to be understood as inseparable from Wall Street. Nothing to be proud of here. They should all be ashamed.