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“Network” 40 Years Later: Capitalism in Retrospect and Prospect and Elite Politics Today

Paddy Chayefsky’s extraordinary movie Network was made 40 years ago in 1976, just as the United States began its long economic descent. It may seem far-fetched to draw inspiration from a movie made about capitalism so long ago and, like any powerful film, some of Chayefsky’s predictions have been realized or even intensified since then, while others have been proven wrong. However, the boldness of the movie is more important than being right in all or even most of its predictions. As one scientist said about Julian Jaynes’ now discredited book, The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, “even if he got everything wrong he stimulated so much discussion that it was worth it.”

Network is a movie about the lengths to which a television network will go to make a profit, even when it undermines its own long-term self-interest. Unlike other movies, which try to “expose” the evils of corporate news, there are no romantic moralisms in this movie, no fall from previous “good times”. There are little (if any) villains or good guy characters. Chayefsky keeps the focus on the systemic dynamics of capitalism, not on the personal qualities of news anchors, entertainment directors or even capitalists themselves. I also think there are political implications for today. What I will suggest, by way of analogy, is that there is a relationship between the economic dynamics between two of the characters in Network and the economic forces represented by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton respectively.

What Network got right

Marx’s famous statement that under capitalism “everything’s for sale” is not only affirmed, but taken even further than Marx. Entertainment Director Diana Christensen wants “angry shows”. Under her direction, communists and terrorists are given their own programs and develop their own television followings. Even rebellion against the system can be bought and sold just like any other commodity. The leaders of both groups are reduced to quibbles over distribution and syndication rights. No individual and no movement can enter the television industry and not become fresh meat for capitalist accumulation.

Marx’s description of the fetishization of communities in the first volume of Capital is demonstrated throughout the film for me, most graphically, when born-again news anchor Howard Beale harangues his audience that “you people are the real thing and we (television) are the illusion.” On the one hand the audience was the real thing when they sent telegrams to the federal government after Howard’s on-air agitation, yet the same audience proceeds to clap as Howard faints on the air as if it were part of the show.

Most importantly for this article, this is a film in which Lenin’s famous quip that “capitalists will sell you the rope to hang them with” comes to life. This is a contradiction between short-term and long-term interests of capitalists, which I will explore in more depth shortly.

My claim

Though the analogy I will make might seem far-fetched to some, there is an interesting similarity in the relationship between Howard Beale, the anchorman of the TV station, UBS, and Donald Trump. So too, there are similarities between the owner of the Western World Funding Corporation, Mr. Jensen and transnational elites, and their next-in-line selection, Hillary Clinton.

Myopic short-term capitalist self-interest

In the movie there are three television networks competing for “market share”. The network UBS has the worst ratings, without a hit series and with some of the worst ratings in television history. The show opens with news anchorman, Howard Beale, being told that he was fired. The next night he goes on the air and instead of announcing in a diplomatic way that he is leaving, declares he is going to kill himself on the air within the next few days. This, of course, creates chaos at the station and Howard is fired. But shortly thereafter, the person in charge of the entertainment division, Diana Christensen, notices that the ratings of UBS have gone up considerably. This is the beginning of a chronic contradiction that UBS finds itself in. What is UBS to do with Howard? If they take him off the air in the name of “television journalistic integrity”, they lose their ratings and sink further into the abyss. If they leave him on air, they violate journalist codes, might be sued and will likely become the laughing stock of the other networks.

Within the UBS station there are three levels of power. At the lowest level there is UBS itself – within it are a president, vice-presidents, news divisions, entertainment divisions and so on. But the Communications Corporation of America also owns the UBS network itself. At the highest level the CCA has a relationship with the Western World Funding Corporation.  

After much struggle between the two lower layers of the power network, Diana Christensen cuts a deal with her boss, Chairman of the Board of the UBS, Frank Hackett, and they decide to leave Howard on the air. What is frightening for the upper echelons of UBS and their corporate sponsors, are the topics Howard addresses while on the air. At first Howard’s ravings are limited to personal complaints about life in America, and what to do about the terrorists and the Russians. But then he begins to discuss the news industry itself and how “they will tell you any shit you want to hear”. The heads of UBS and CCA simply do not know what Howard is going to say next when the camera is rolling, but as long is his ratings are competitive, they leave him on. How far can Howard go? Is there a point at which the content of what is said is so subversive that UBS will refuse the profits Howard makes for them because the cost is too high?

Long-term capitalist self-interest 

However, for the highest echelons in the Western World Funding Corporation it doesn’t matter how much Howard Beale rants about life in America. Yet in the world of international capitalist dynamics, it’s a different story. Most threatening for those in the upper echelons is that Howard Beale is very patriotic. On one particular show he revealed that the Communications Corporation of America will be selling itself to the Western World Funding Corporation and Arabs own the Western World Funding Corporation. Howard pleads with his audience to “stop the CCA deal” because if the Western World Corporation controls UBS the country will be sold to the Arabs. Howard’s loyal legions respond to Howard’s appeal with thousands of postcards to the federal government to “stop the CCA deal”.

Howard Beale is then told that the head of WWFC, a “Mr. Jensen” wishes to see Howard in his office in New York. Howard flies to the east coast from Los Angeles to meet Mr. Jensen. Mr. Jensen invites Howard into a large, lushly decorated conference room, dims the lights and draws the curtains. Howard Beale sits at one end of a long, oval shaped table while Mr. Jensen stands at the other end. He launches into a saber-rattling speech that is worth quoting in full:

Jensen: You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it!! Is that clear? You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance!

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no west. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.

It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU WILL ATONE!

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state – Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality – one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.

Beale: But why me?

Jensen: Because you’re on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.

Beale: I have seen the face of God.

Jensen: You just might be right, Mr. Beale

Howard dutifully carries out Mr. Jensen’s wishes, but the ratings of UBS begin to plummet.

The Conflict between short-term and long-term capitalist interest    

There now develops a conflict between the wishes of Mr. Jensen, who represents the interest of the long-term capitalists, and the interests of the myopic short-term capitalists of UBS, over what Howard should be saying on the air.

Mr. Jensen, as a transnational capitalist, has his WWFC resources in many industries. He can afford for some industries to lose money if they serve other purposes. As paraphrased by Frank Hackett in the movie, Mr. Jensen doesn’t care about whether the Howard Beale show loses money. He wants the message delivered to the American public. Mr. Jensen expects Howard to tell his fans that democracy doesn’t exist, there is no America and the lives of individuals have no meaning. People don’t want to hear this and Howard’s ratings start to drop. When told of the impact of Howard’s message on the ratings, Jensen says that he does not like volatile industries and that volatile industries are a sign of bad management. But for relatively small potatoes like Diana Christensen and all the department heads at the network, a lowering of the ratings means the network goes under and they lose their jobs. From their point of view Howard has to go.

Frank Hackett, Chairman of the Board of UBS, is caught between Mr. Jensen of the Western World Funding Corporation and the network Entertainment Division head, Diana Christensen. Frank ultimately casts his fate with Diana and UBS, and together they get Howard off the air by having him assassinated on the air. Right to the end, Frank and Diana continue to blur the line between reality and television. In reality they get a real force (Howard) who is now opposed to their self-interests off the air, but they also kill him on the air because Howard’s assassination is likely to bring high ratings.

What Network (in the form of Mr. Jenson’s Speech) got wrong           

Before drawing my analogy between the contradictions of short-term and long-term capitalists in Network and elite politics in the United States, let me briefly pick out four areas where Mr. Jensen got capitalism wrong. First and most importantly, capitalism has proven to be anything but a smooth, linear, ever-expanding system with no instabilities. Chayefsky, like most leftists in the sixties and seventies, imagined that capitalism could go on forever. Secondly, while corporations may be the real “nation-states” of today, capitalists must use loyalty to countries (nationalism) to mobile their domestic workers to fight turf wars over natural resources for competing capitalists. Thirdly, capitalist crises have hardly anesthetized workers so “all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused”. Workers are hardly sinking into a contented stupor. The drugs Americans are using are in the service of holding themselves in one piece. Lastly, while Mr. Jensen is right that there is no democracy in the sense of an electoral democracy, it is hardly the case that there are no democratic impulses outside electoral politics. In addition to the Occupy Movement of four plus years ago, the very rebellion against electoral politics we are witnessing now both on the right with the Trumpsters and on the left with the Sandernistas, people rebelling against elite candidates, is a sign people are not going as quietly as Mr. Jensen expected.

What can we learn from the contradictions in Network about the American political scene for capitalists today?

Is Donald Trump Howard Beale?

Does Howard encouraging his audiences to scream out the window “I’m “mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” have anything to do with Donald Trump? For purposes of this analogy I am going to accept as given that Donald Trump really does want to build walls around the United States, hates Mexicans and Muslims and wants to bring jobs back to the United States. Given this assumption, he is certainly very different from Howard Beale. Beale is closer to a New Deal Liberal who wants to bring back that old-time journalism as he harangues his audiences to stop watching television and read books.

However, Howard has three important commonalities with Trump. One is that Howard presents himself as very patriotic. Like Trump, he wants capitalism to stop at the borders. Secondly, like Trump’s tirades against Mexicans and Muslims, Howard has his scapegoats: the Arabs. Lastly, both he and Trump have demagogic appeal. Each knows how to rouse at least part of the American public. Howard has gotten people to scream out of their windows “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore”. He has also gotten the public to deluge the federal government with letters to stop the CCA deal. In the case of Trump, he has mobilized large public rallies and these rallies have outdrawn any Republican opposition.

Does Mr. Jensen embody the ideals of the transnational capitalist class?

From my readings of William Domhoff, political sociologist who defines and names elites and their power bases, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable are two of the most powerful capitalist associations in the United States. But above them stands The Council of Foreign Relations that seems to have the bigger say over who is selected to run for president and who is coronated. Whether it is the CFR in conjunction with the World Economic Forum, the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderberg Group, their position is very close to that of Mr. Jensen. Like Mr. Jensen, these less-than-one-percenters have a long-term global policy for capitalism. Selecting and choosing candidates to represent their interests as heads-of-state are serious matters. Hillary Clinton has been chosen to best carry out the transnational class’ agenda in the United States. It’s Hillary’s turn. She’s waited eight years and fair is fair.

In short, Hillary represents the long-term interests of capitalism embodied in Mr. Jensen and Donald Trump represents short-term interests of the manic depressive capitalism of the UBS station of Howard Beale, Diana Christensen and the head of CCA, Frank Hackett.

Will The Council of Foreign Relations have a little talk with Donald Trump?

Given Bernie Sanders’ surprising numbers, this year’s elite political coronation has already been a rough ride for Hillary. If Donald Trump continues to make a lot of noise, most importantly if he continues to arouse the Trumpsters, the Council of Foreign Relations will have a little talk with Donald Trump (if they haven’t already) similar to the talk Mr. Jensen had with Howard Beale. Mr. Trump will be told he needs to change his message. Just as Mr. Jensen told Howard that there are no Arabs, no Third World, so Mr. Trump will be told there are no Mexicans, Muslin terrorists or even Americans. There are only corporations. Trump will no longer be allowed to rabble rouse, just as Howard Beale stopped rabble rousing.

Will Donald Trump be made an offer he can’t refuse?

The American deep state – the NSA, the CIA and the FBI – may not always be on the same page about everything, but around heads of state they broadly support the wishes of the Council of Foreign Relations. At their worst, these forces manipulate media, make voting difficult and conduct assassinations – among many other “tricks”. We don’t have to imagine the most extreme cases of what might happen to Trump should he persist in rousing the Trumpsters. All we have to do is remember what happened to communists and socialists and their sympathizers in the early fifties. They were blacklisted. They couldn’t find work. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that Trump’s present and future business connections could be jeopardized. He will need to be quiet, conduct his campaign civilly and bow out of it in November. Trump does not have to meet the same fate as Howard Beale to be controlled. After all, as the saying goes, “politics is war by other means”.

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Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read more of his articles and get involved at Planning Beyond Capitalism He can be reached at mailto:goethe48@pacbell.net

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