Up in the Air

I saw “Up in the Air” last night. While it’s a well-done movie, albeit entirely predictable, the world it portrays is a lot more disturbing than it seems at first. To explain, I recommend John Holbo’s close reading of David Frum’s Dead Right. Here’s the most relevant part:

[Frum writes] “The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do now.”

[Now Holbo] The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will – a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundation is hereby laid for a desirable social order.

*Some Spoilers*

“Up in the Air” is almost unrelentingly conservative in that it simply assumes that the world of work today is the one Frum [seems to] desire. In the movie, Fate–impersonal forces of industry that are faceless until they hire George Clooney–strikes people unexpectedly, and the only solace or support they can have is their family. They get no help from the Agile Alliance, ACM, IEEE, craftsman guilds, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, their community, or the keen-eyed watchdogs of the press whipping up public opinion. There’s some help from the company–of what quality we don’t know–and the government offers only unemployment benefits that are explicitly called out as derisory. There’s some talk of protecting the firing process from lawsuits [government intervention in the process], but in the one case where a lawsuit is credibly threatened, a simple lie by Clooney makes it go away.

In the movie, the people below the airplanes have no option but a socially desirable [to some] defensive crouch. To the extent that movies capture the zeitgeist, that’s pretty disturbing. The movie comes out against atomization–being alone is Clooney’s unhappy fate–but the atoms can’t form molecules bigger than a family. There are no other bonds. OK: there’s Clooney’s last, human gesture to Natalie, but that’s something delivered in extremis, not a way of life. The character of Alex is more representative of the movie’s view of the world: outside the family, there are no norms and no obligations.

The movie shows a world in which Phil Gramm, one of the architects of our current troubles, is on point when he talked about the US as “a nation of whiners“. One strong element of conservatism is the preservation of hierarchy. To Gramm–who need never fear unemployment–I suspect that we-the-people are not particularly relevant. How annoying it must be when we complain! We should shut up, take our lumps, scrape through, and–as in the movie’s closing narrative–watch the planes containing our fate fly far overhead.

One Response to “Up in the Air”

  1. sconover Says:

    “the only solace or support they can have is their family. They get no help from the Agile Alliance, ACM, IEEE, craftsman guilds, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, their community, or the keen-eyed watchdogs of the press whipping up public opinion.”

    My sense, here in 2010 America, is that this is what the right and center have chosen to accept and in some cases celebrate: this is part of Americanness.

    And those who want connectedness, who are inclined toward community or government safety nets are instinctively in favor a more European social bargain, egalitarian social engineering.

    Matt Steinglass put this well, here (which I think is somewhere in the ballpark of your post):


    “Taxes on the politically powerful wealthy will not be raised sufficiently to meet the government’s debt needs. Rather, taxes will be raised on, and services will be cut for, the politically powerless. That means the poor. The poor will pay higher taxes and receive less medical care and worse education. The government will eliminate infrastructure investment. That’s how America works. It’s a two-class society, where class divides are reinforced and exacerbated by the control of the wealthy over the political system.

    I’m married to a Dutch woman, so I have the option of moving to the Netherlands, a far more egalitarian society with a government that, up to this point at least, has largely proven itself up to the task of facing the country’s major social and political problems. (We’ll see what happens if Geert Wilders wins the next elections.) In some ways, I would prefer to live in America. And I could in fact prosper in America: I’m a skilled professional from the upper sector of America’s class distribution, so I could take advantage of my background to make a lot more money than I could in the Netherlands, and not have to kick much back in taxes to provide a social infrastructure or educational opportunity for the poor. America’s political system would allow me, as a member of the elite, to siphon off more of the country’s wealth. I’m pretty sure I could live well in America. But that’s because of the extent to which American society has become corrupt and exploitative, and joining up with a project like that is in many ways pretty unattractive.”

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