by Sanjay Perera
We welcome illusions because they spare us emotional distress, and enable us instead to indulge in gratification. We must not then complain if now and again they come into conflict with some portion of reality, and are shattered against it. — “Thoughts for the times on war and death,” Freud
The status of the financial and economic world is one of struggling to maintain the current failing paradigm of keeping the 1 per cent afloat upon the lives and bodies of everyone else. However, it is still difficult for many of us who are grappling to sustain our families and maintain functional bank accounts to see that we are being bamboozled by the nanosecond: for there is yet the consensus that you are meant to suffer and punish yourself and others to earn a living — without being aware that the entire system is rigged against any sense of decency, humanity or ethics.
Surprising as it seems, there is no end to those who believe that you can get rich quick through a book, a degree-diploma, a seminar or listening to those who have made it ‘Big’ — this despite having to sacrifice any remaining sense of morality we may have left, not to mention devaluing the well-being of ourselves and the planet. It is, of course, understandable that people may want to build savings to plan ahead for retirement and contingencies. It is, however, another thing altogether when the 1 per cent and their wannabe lower echelons pursue wealth beyond greed to fulfill desires in flexing power and superiority over others.
Which is why Scorsese’s hyper-kinetic trip of a film, The Wolf of Wall Street, has relevant lessons for us. Incidentally, it is also a masterfully directed film. Based on the notorious exploits of Jordan Belfort the film in its own subtle way (not meant to be ironic) shows how someone who seemed to have certain ideals about making money for himself and his clients becomes enamoured with chrematistics, and ends up literally throwing money around. Money is an object of desire, fantasy, consumption and its expenditure: a form of sexual discharge.
In an early scene, Belfort is given advice by his mentor on what Wall Street is all about, that is, taking his clients’ money and putting it in his own pocket (and then taking it home as ‘hard cash’). This entire process of siphoning away funds for the brokers’ own expenditure is the pay-off for supporting a system where money is meant to be kept floating in the digital/virtual world of investment and high finance as an ever-expanding-never-ending bubble.
The imaginary-fictional money of Wall Street is not meant to be withdrawn from the system as it is foisted perpetually through the sale of stocks and one reinvestment after the other. Money in this completely unreal world of virtual credit (thanks to fiat currency) is accurately called a fugazi in the film. This is, in fact, Marx’s notion of fictitious capital come alive in a dangerous and soul-whittling way. It also helps create economic crises.
The purpose of this accumulation of money that Belfort becomes obsessed with is to expend and waste it as a surplus; it is blown away on drugs and women: it is concomitantly an expression of abuse, violence and exercise of power over others. Anything that is sacred is sacrificed on the altar of mindless hedonism. After all, what else is capitalism and the ‘free market’ for? Henry A. Giroux correctly points out that this is libidinal energy misspent and he is spot-on about the mis-channeling of energy into bizarre indulgence (away from what it could be used for as in serving the community and those in need). Sheer selfishness and mind numbing amorality-immorality is the order of the day. This also results in limb/reflex numbing effects as a consequence of narcotics taken by the characters in the film: that moral torpor is a defining characteristic of all this is an understatement.
The idea of the wolf (Belfort is called ‘wolfie’ by his compadres) is interesting as it not only underscores the basic instincts of animality (with apologies to the animal species which shows greater dignity than some people) and ‘law of the jungle’ approach to life: it revives reference to Freud’s iconic case of the ‘Wolf Man.’ The film showcases the link between infantilism and sexuality in the way some adults lead their lives: a particularly weird scene being Belfort and his trophy wife calling each other ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ in their child’s nursery — while their security officers are viewing what is happening from a camera embedded in the eye of the child’s teddy bear. Seriously.
The film barely escaped an NC-17 rating (in the US) and as it stands holds no punches in terms of drug use, sexual escapades and infantile and brutal practices (like eating a live gold fish, boxing one’s spouse, snorting cocaine from the mounds of ‘Venice’ coupled with masochism). It is also a masterclass in psychoanalysis: and given the outrageous humour in the film it was even nominated under the ‘comedy’ category for some awards.
But whatever critics may say, it is still a painful film to watch because of the trauma that people go through and cause others to endure, particularly so-called loved ones. Self-destruction and doing violence to a person’s sense of morality is a mode of life.
As if that is not enough, there is a fascinating relationship between Belfort and his father; one telling instance being a discussion on certain aspects of the female anatomy. Just as much of the sexuality of the film is overtly linked to money, you are forced to witness libidinal expenditure in every sense of the word.
We further see Belfort and gang asserting their masculinity (though he has ardent women supporters in his staff) through actual chest-thumping to accentuate that the entire process of money accumulation is really Capital as power. It is a fight not so much for survival anymore, but of domination and a zero-sum situation where you can only win at the expense of others. And, of course, you must win: every single time.
But the film being complex explores the notion that Belfort is driven by something else – his personal mantra seems to be that “there is no dignity in poverty.” That he does not want those he cares for to be poor when they can hog the good life. And when he is finally busted by the FBI (hints are given that big players on Wall Street want him taken down) there is some awareness perhaps in the audience that the finger points to the bigger and shadier firms like Lehman Bros. and Goldman Sachs as members of the moneyed tribe who genuinely play a role in the financial chicanery plaguing the world. This we now know is the truth.
While the apparent lone ‘wolf’ financier is caged at the end, the rest of the poor and downtrodden in society carry on as they are. The big players are left alone to carry on creating the havoc that we are now paying for in so many unpleasant ways. The film ends with Belfort being a motivational speaker where his audience of everyman and woman looks starry-eyed at him: we have the impression that like countless others, they too would like to tap into a talent for boundless money-making, hopefully without the corruption that follows it.
Unfortunately, that attitude is still prevalent today. Because we do need the moolah to carry on, the entire world system of Capital as an expression of power is upheld by governments, the state apparatus (and the courts). This enshrines not only the tenets of capitalism, but corporatism. The entire system we are caught in cannot change for the better without a re-writing of laws pertaining to corporate and banking charters, creating the strictest of financial regulation, bringing an end to Capital-fugazi and fiat currency, removal of tax loopholes for large firms, and court sentences for corporate malpractitioners and their acolytes that exceed the current state of punishment meted out to juvenile and other offenders (in America, for instance). Justice should indeed be served.
But as long as the great majority of people remain silent and believe themselves disempowered, and as long as they allow politicos, bureaucrats and officialdom in general to be in cahoots with the Capital-fugazi mongers, this system will continue to weigh and bring us down. It is in truth a no-win situation for all. The danger is that as austerity is advocated by more governments, there will not only be the potential for more pockets of popular uprisings but, also of great concern, underground militias with violent agendas.
Unfortunately, the chest-thumping of the remaining ‘lords of the jungle’ in the corporate-banking world may be transformed into the type of libidinal energies which could be transposed into acts of fighting back by organized/armed groups against the system that can result in even further injury to humanity. Some people are becoming truly angry. More may be sharing this emotion soon. This energy building-up has to be expended somehow.
When people have nowhere to turn, when the powers-that-be are laggardly in standing-up to the controllers of this world (the 1 per cent) and their wielding of Capital as an instrument of power, sabotage, and punishment, the common man may also fall into the lower depths filled with baser vibrations by taking justice into his own hands. There is indeed no dignity in poverty; nor in greed, a service-to-self ideology or a power-over-others mentality, nor for that matter — violence in any form.
This is when we need those who can steady the situation and help channel the boiling social energy into a constructive way of protest. There needs to be calm from the people before genuine representatives of their interests can take over the system when that time finally arrives.
The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change.
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