Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Company Men - The Visible Injuries of Class

Company Men follows the adult lives of three upper-middle class men who lose their high flying corporate jobs amidst the wreckage of our recent economic meltdown. These guys are way upper-middle class. They drive Porsches, belong to country clubs, sequester private jets for spousal shopping trips and send their kids on senior class trips to Italy. How big of an understatement is it to observe that their dilemmas are not ones that most Americans can "relate" to?

The protagonists - played by Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck and Chris Cooper - have all the signifiers of success. I remember numerous conversations from college - and later as well - about how the things we own can begin to possess us, how the quest for money, power and prestige often become a futile attempt to make ourselves materially and psychologically invulnerable. These were of course, what we might call "youthful" conversations. But they were discussions derived from serious reading about, and observing how the consumer society we were inheriting shaped how we might be forced to live, how the appetite for things might spoil other appetites.

There is a version of this accumulation story that even regards the obsession with money as a kind of perversion, a desire that destroys or undermines other more refined or exalted desires. In psychoanalyst Adam Phillip's understanding, our primary desire as Westerners is to escape the death of desire. We strive to avoid the fear of there being nothing or no-one that we want. It is one of the virtues of Company Men that it at least recognizes our ambivalence about money and ambition. As a culture we seem to admire people who acknowledge their own ambition and are successful at accumulating wealth, while remaining suspicious of the ways in which those same ambitions can get individually and socially out of control.

While watching Company Men I thought of one of my favorite books from college - The Hidden Injuries of Class by sociologists Richard Sennet and Jonathan Cobb. In the introduction of the book they recount the story of a number of successful mid-level managers who had worked their way out of their working-class family backgrounds (away from people who "worked with their hands," as one remarked) into white collar positions. One man, Frank Rissarro, talks with barely concealed anguish about the psychological wounds that accompanied his own upward movement. "These jobs aren't real work," Rissarro tells Sennet and Cobb, "It's just pushing papers."

Sennet and Cobb question what the drive for upward mobility means in a country where class is structured as a system for limiting freedom and for defining success. For many of the people they interviewed, moving into an "educated position" was a weapon of self used to capture respect from a society that places a psychic premium on the assumed "freedom," "creativity" and "independence" of the educated and technically advanced strata.

The accumulation of cultural assets - advanced education, higher economic status - Sennet and Cobb suggest, can cover up a good deal of anxiety and shame that many working-class people associate with being brought up in "arbitrary" and "chaotic" surroundings. To be "educated," according to many of the people they interviewed, is tantamount to being in control of your passions and can help remove you from the humiliation of daily domination. But guilt is the price they pay for "leaving their class behind." Risarro, by his own admission, speaks of gaining respect from the community while at the same time losing respect for himself. He feels his white collar work as a loan officer in a bank is not as "real" as the work his father did. Despite his relentless struggle to obtain the "badges of ability" and legitimacy, Risarro still feels lost.

This kind of nostalgia and guilt are at the emotional center of Company Men. When Ben Affleck's character Bobby loses his job and has to "lower" himself by working as a carpenter, he gets a lesson in blue-collar manliness - or at least a Hollywood version of it. Construction workers throw footballs during their leisure time rather than hitting balls at a golf driving range. They drink beer not scotch. They protect you even when you don't deserve it as opposed to stabbing you in the back. And they construct homes rather than manage the In and Out box at the office.

Towards the end of the movie Tommy Lee Jones (Gene in the movie) looks back on his own upward movement through the shipbuilding company, which has evolved from Gloucester Shipping to the diversified and multi-national GTX. Sounding like Frank Risarro, he laments the passing of the good old days when he could weld a beautiful seam along the inside of a ship's hull at a time when America "used to build things and people knew who they were." It's a common, popular and non-partisan sentiment.

To restore their souls, Gene and Bobby go back to their entrepreneurial roots, setting up a new company in the abandoned shipyards of Boston. Tossed out as used up garbage by the corporate beast, they intend to remake themselves by re-discovering their roots - in a way by re-enacting their childhoods when pleasure was taken in the mere sensual thrill of building. In their new entrepreneurial utopia start-up capital is readily available and the other cast-offs from GTX are ready to do battle with the Chinese and South Koreans, the countries where shipbuilding migrated decades ago. Bobby intends to "talk to the unions" about getting a deal on shipbuilding labor.

Company Men captures the ethos of corporate liberalism quite well - good intentions sidetracked by the crushing demands of the now global "market." Bobby's wife even uses One Earth re-usable grocery bags (you have to look closely) to lower the family's formidable carbon footprint.

During the week I saw the movie the Labor Department sent out their yearly statistics on union membership. In the private sector, union membership is now below seven percent. All those unionized Boston shipbuilders went to work for Wal-Mart or were otherwise "re-trained" for lower paying jobs a long time ago.

We need utopias, even entrepreneurial ones. The lure of imagined futures have always been with us. Perhaps the enviable life has replaced any clear idea of the good life or the good society. Have the futures we now imagine been shrunken into insignificance by our lowered expectations? Is the question whether Obama can win again in 2012 the most important political question we can ask? Company Men's heart is in the right place and there is an explicit critique of corporate logic in the story line. What it lacks is a deeper impulse to transcend the society that exists and to show us, as literary critic Georg Lukacs argues, "human conflicts in all their complexity and completeness."

I wonder what the language and imagery of a good society would be if it was free of the obsession with our rather narrow definitions of success? If we didn't love money and the things that money can buy, what other objects and goals would we pursue that might offer a satisfying substitute? Is there a filmmaker out there who is able to give us a glimpse?

Further Readings:

The Hidden Injuries of Class - Richard Sennett & Jonathan Cobb

Going Sane, Maps of Happiness - Adam Phillips

Studies in European Realism - Georg Lukacs

1 comment:

  1. I came to the same conclusion that they had the best of intentions. However, the narrative seemed to be that a lower standard of life is just part of life now. I liked the movie but that assumption bothered me.