Robert Reich's "Saving Capitalism" is conservative, but conservatives will never admit it

Robert Reich has made a documentary that is ultimately modest in its proposed social reforms

Published November 18, 2017 11:00AM (EST)

Robert Reich in “Saving Capitalism” (Netflix)
Robert Reich in “Saving Capitalism” (Netflix)

"Saving Capitalism" is a movie that I must recommend, although not entirely for the reasons former Labor Secretary Robert Reich would want. He no doubt intended to make a provocative film that would inspire its viewers to become activists for socioeconomic justice.

Instead, this is a movie that conservatives should embrace as a huge favor to their cause.

There are three moments that best illustrate this point.

Near the beginning of the movie, Reich is talking to ordinary citizens when one of them characterizes capitalism as immoral to its core and asks Reich how he can defend it. Reich responds that economic systems are neither moral nor immoral but succeed or fail based on how they're organized. This theme is repeated throughout the documentary — namely, that crony capitalism is the source of Americans' economic woes, not capitalism itself.

Later in the film, Reich converses with a different group of citizens — this time at a posh dinner setting rather than in a modest town hall-esque forum — and we see him comfort the bruised egos of whining lobbyists. One is defensive about how people judge him for spending his career as a "doctor who specializes in the diseases of the very rich," another complains that his billionaire clients feel vilified when they're simply living the American dream, and so on. Reich ultimately insists that there shouldn't be any scapegoats and no one is evil, but that all need to agree that there is a serious problem.

Then there is the scene in which Reich interviews Rep. David Brat, R-Va., and allows the far right-winger to depict himself as being as much of an advocate of economic fairness as his progressive counterparts. This could be viewed as merely baffling, but considering that Reich also juxtaposes the Tea Party with Occupy Wall Street and Donald Trump supporters with Bernie Sanders supporters, it is clearly part of his hopeful goal (I dare not say "naive," do I?) to unify as many ostensibly "anti-establishment" sides as possible behind a set of core issues.

And what are those core issues? Reducing the power of the wealthy and large corporations by curtailing lobbyists, implementing campaign finance reform and imposing modest regulations on banks and other large corporations. While Reich's book "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few" goes into a little more detail than the movie when it comes to recommending ameliorative policies, it ultimately isn't much different from the film — which should be judged on its own merits, regardless.

Besides, the problem here isn't with Reich's diagnosis of what ails America economically. He is correct that our capitalist system has been hijacked by the super-wealthy, who push for policies that will further enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. He is likewise correct that, if we passed sweeping campaign finance and lobbying reforms, our system would be much fairer.

But he never challenges capitalism as a system in and of itself, instead taking for granted that it would benefit everyone if only the government offered some benevolent oversight. Given that capitalism run amok under conservative presidents was what caused crony capitalism to reach its current hellish state in the first place, this shortcoming becomes impossible to overlook. Hence the title "Saving Capitalism," and hence the movie's most glaring logical hole: It offers a scathing indictment but refuses to name the most obvious culprit.

Nothing that Reich calls for in "Saving Capitalism" would alter the class structures that inevitably arise under capitalist systems, or even challenge the fundamental righteousness of class differences on a conceptual level. While Reich is clearly upset over growing income inequality and labor disempowerment, the steps he proposes wouldn't even guarantee that those matters would be effectively addressed. After all, voters are plenty capable of being stupid enough to oppose their self-interests on their own. They don't always need the sinister machinations of corporate lobbyists and massive campaign donations to game the system against them.

Reich is, like Bernie Sanders in last year's election, a New Deal liberal reincarnated in the early 21st century. It shows how far the bar has been lowered in progressive political discourse that men who merely argue that the system should be slightly less rigged and that it should provide a reasonable safety net for its least fortunate citizens, are depicted as menacing to the status quo rather than reassuringly conservative.

And yes, I say "conservative" here, albeit in the literal sense rather than the one associated with right-wing politics. All that Reich and Sanders and other progressives want to do is conserve the American capitalism system by making it a little less harsh on those who are born on the wrong side of the socioeconomic equation — the vast majority of whom, no matter how hard they try, will never be able to improve their socioeconomic circumstances (as Reich demonstrates) — and a little more fair in general. They are direct ideological descendants of the early 20th century progressives whom Reich touts as icons at the film's conclusion (for a better look at how these historical figures were also fundamentally conservative, check out Shelton Stromquist's brilliant "Reinventing 'The People"). Their goal is to strengthen democracy by removing the "conflict" part from "class conflict," while leaving the first half of that term intact. As a result, they are by default not only pro-capitalist, but the best friends that capitalists could ever want.

Of course, because cupidity is the order of the day in our era, they are rarely recognized as such. The super-rich who call the shots in Washington have such insatiable avarice that they oppose policies which, though perhaps raising their taxes and imposing inconveniences to their businesses, would secure their class status and the capitalist system that enables it by making poverty just tolerable enough for the poor. Perhaps they're complacent that a radical revolution will never happen or are convinced that if it does, the super-rich would ultimately prevail.

Either way, I suspect capitalism has a much better chance of long-term survival if America implements the policies of Robert Reich or Bernie Sanders (whom Reich supported in last year's primaries). Certainly it isn't being done any favors by the blundering of Donald Trump or the oligarchical philosophy implemented by Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes — and, to a lesser but no less significant extent, by the Democratic presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Yet the people who need to receive that message aren't going to check out "Saving Capitalism," even though its title is meant to reassure them. Even worse, the people whom Reich hopes to help ultimately need a much more potent medicine than he is prescribing. That leaves "Saving Capitalism" as a sort of half-argument, a series of compelling opening paragraphs in an essay that remains frustratingly incomplete.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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