Posts Tagged ‘Wall Street’

I previously touched on some points about collectivism: how it has been criticized and praised at the same time, but more importantly how it relates to individualism as a paradigm. I’d like to shift the discussion to individualism for a change, since arguably it is the dominant philosophy being pushed in capitalist societies, but I’ll take a more fun approach and use Hollywood as mine for ideas. The film clips will vary in scope and ideas, but there’s a little nugget in each clip about the self in society that will be useful to examine.

Part 1: Individualism As Virtue

Ayn Rand’s thoughts on selfishness are some of the most potent expressions of Individualism I’ve read:

The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life.

The last phrase “motive power of his life” is the key phrase–because it implies drive and movement. One of the closest expressions of this movement is the already classic speech about greed of Michael Douglas playing corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street:

The key insight that resonates with Rand’s quote is one of Gekko’s last lines:

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the esssence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms: greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind;

If Gekko’s speech is the expression of a virtue, let’s see this virtue being preached this time in the movie: Ben Younger’s Boiler Room. Ben Afleck plays Jim Young: a recruiter for a fledgling stock brokerage where Seth Davis, played by Giovanni Ribisi is a new recruit:

The clip highlights materialism (e.g. Ferrari, ridiculous house) as an element of selfishness, but these lines from Afleck I think represent the popular reduction of selfishness to a simple statement of morality: one’s individual happiness. Compare the tone of Afleck’s statements with the objective quality of selfishness mentioned by Rand above:

We want winners here, not pikers. A piker walks at the bell. A piker asks how much vacation time you get on the first year. Vacation time? People come and work at this firm for one reason only, to become filthy rich, that’s it. We’re not here to make friends.

In David Mamet’s Glengary, Glenross, Alec Baldwin gives a “motivational talk” to a real-estate sales agency run by Kevin Spacey to spur the sales performance of his sales agents played by Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, and Alan Arkin. While the speeches of Douglas and Afleck above highlight the moral ideal, this scene shows how oppressive that ideal can be, especially to individuals who have trouble living up to it:

Baldwin’s lines reprove the lack of self-motivation amongst the agents, and again highlight the reduction of selfishness to a simple ideal:

You know what it takes to sell real-estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate. Go and do likewise gents, the money’s out there, you pick it up, it’s yours; you don’t–I got no sympathy for you. You wanna go out in those sits tonight and close. Close, it’s yours, not–you’re gonna be shining my shoes.

From these clips it is starting to be evident how an objective, antiseptic statement of virtue can turn on itself in practice, like any moral ideal people aspire to but don’t achieve.

More clips to follow in my next post.

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