Economics in Popular Film
Fall Semester 2000
Non-Capitalist Economic Systems
Today in America the predominant economic system is capitalism. Some Americans are almost blind to the fact that there are, indeed, are other non-capitalistic systems in the world, and our own country past and present. Two of these other economic systems, which exist, are slavery and feudalism. The movies "A Respectable Trade", and "Men with Guns" illustrate these two systems beautifully.
The main characteristic in slavery, which differentiates it from any other system, is the chattel relationship that exists. In other words the fact that labor is owned rather than employed. In this relationship humans are considered simply another element of productive resources. This fact is demonstrated many times in "A Respectable Trade". When Frances, the new wife of a slave trader, begins teaching the slaves she gives them all new biblical names and they are given metal neck braces similar to a dog collar. These actions were completely legal if not fully accepted. Later in the movie when Matthew, one of the slaves, runs away Frances, who seems to be morally against slavery, gets very upset. She tells one of the other slaves that it was wrong of Matthew to run away because he is their property.
The organization of production in slavery is that of hierarchical management. This is one of the reasons why slavery works better with racism; it is easier to identify someone who is lower in "command" if his or her skin is of a different color. This is clearly demonstrated in the movie when they are searching for Matthew, his skin color being different from the majority of the population makes him much easier to identify as a slave. In the hierarchical management Frances seems to be the manager, she is paid, her pay is docked when a slave runs away, she manages the slaves, and she makes decisions and she is listened to. Another characteristic of slavery is that the slaves must have a resource attached to them. In "A Respectable Trade" the resource was a little ambiguous, but there was one. Frances' job was to "teach" the slaves their resource, which was food preparation, other domestic services, and entertainment. As with most economic systems there must be an approbation and distribution of the slave produced surplus to those who keep the business running. In the movie Josiah, the slave trader, is unable to do this. His ship, The Rose, sinks and all his "cargo" is lost. When it comes time to pay everyone off, he has no profits with which to do so. Consequently the people he has barrowed money from and the merchant venturers take everything he owns and he loses his mind. Although slavery in America and England were very different these qualities are characteristics found in every slavery system in the world, past and present.
Feudalism is another non-capitalist economic system that still exists all over the world. The main characteristic that separates feudalism from other economic systems is the monopoly control over resources by the feudal lord. That is, the feudal lord has control over resourced needed to produce in a certain economic space, these resources are gained by political means. In the movie "Men with Guns" the indigenous people are forced to harvest their crops, be it coffee, salt, bananas, etc., for very pitiful wages. The feudal lords, who are never shown, we assume they are simply the "white" upper class landowners. Pretty much own the army, and set the unbearably low prices, which the army then imposes on the indigenous peoples. The little boy Dr. Fuentes meets tells him that all the indigenous coffee peoples are "fucked" because the price for the coffee is so low that they cannot afford food. In feudalism the workers have no other viable choices for work, they must enter a bondage contract with the feudal lord in order to live. This fact holds true in the movie. The corn people are one of the few groups that could be self-sufficient and survive on what they produced with little to no need for actual payment. This is a potential threat to the feudal system. In order to solve this problem the army continuously attacked them unless they remained in the bondage contract with the feudal lord. These attacks also make it so that there is no viable alternative to being in the bondage contract. Another highly individual characteristic of feudalism is the manner in which production is organized. Unlike most other economic systems there really isn't much emphasis placed on this aspect. The feudal lord lets the workers organize themselves. This works because the Feudal Lord makes the quota so high that the workers have to work very hard to have any surplus for them. This is true for all of the indigenous communities in the movie. The managers in Feudalism are the knights who keep the workers in line through fear; their job has nothing to do with getting the workers to do their work properly. In the movie the knights were the soldiers, who happened to be other indigenous people raised to white stature through a uniform. These "men with guns" as they called them would periodically come around and kill the indigenous people to keep them in line, and halt any possibility they may have had of becoming self sufficient. The last two elements of feudalism are that the final product and services belong to the feudal lord and there is a feudal appropriation and distribution of gross product (surplus). These two aspects are never seen in the film because the actual feudal lords are never seen; they are simply nameless faceless people reaping all the benefits of the struggle of these poor indigenous peoples.
It is important that we as American's have a good understanding of economic systems other than capitalism. There is too much blind faith put in capitalism as the best system the "right" system. One hardly ever stops to wonder why it is the best system, it is simply an understood fact driven into Americans beginning in early childhood. One cannot truly understand, much less appreciate, the value of a capitalist system without some awareness of other economic systems. It would be foolhardy to attempt to improve upon the capitalist economic system without a significant knowledge of the pitfalls and benefits of the other systems we have in the world today.
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