They are rich. They are powerful. And they are Ivy-League educated.
They lead our country in everything from politics to banking to Wall Street and even academia. They include senators, corporate executives, federal government bureaucrats, finance moguls, and even a handful of Harvard professors and past presidents. Their lives are well connected, full of bonuses, and far-removed from most everyone else’s. As the top 1% of society, they amass more wealth than the bottom 90% of Americans combined.
They are, according to Lewis Lapham, the longtime editor of Harper’s Magazine and renowned author and essayist, members of the American ruling class.
In 2005, Lapham’s own “dramatic documentary musical,” The American Ruling Class, aired at the TriBeCa Film Festival that April. It set out to explore the question, “Is there an American ruling class?” and if so, “What does its existence foretell about the state of a society increasingly burdened by man-made catastrophes?”
In this “dark meditation on the emptiness and servility of everyday life” that addresses tough questions involving taboo subjects such as class, privilege, and disparity, Lapham’s fictional story of two recent Yale graduates (played by two Harvard students), newly venturing into the workforce, provides the platform on which to view the very highest strata of American society.
Ushering these young men, “one rich,” the other “not so rich” through the halls of power and prestige—the World Economic Forum, philanthropic foundations, law firms, Pentagon briefings, corporate banks, and New York society dinners, among others—Lapham forces the two characters to make a tough decision about their lives: work to rule America, or help to save it?
As the wealthy young man, Jack chooses to take a job offer at Goldman Sachs while the other, Mike, chooses a year of writing and waiting tables to support his fledgling career. We encounter the whole all-star list cast that includes Larry Summers, Joseph Nye, James Baker III, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., Kurt Vonnegut, Pete Seeger, William Howard Taft IV, and several prominent individuals in American philanthropy, each pitching his thoughts regarding classism and the character of the American future.
Ultimately the two young men cross paths and must decide, is it better to work for change from inside the system or from outside of it?
The most critical encounter for either of the two young men occurs with Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist and author of Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001). In a moving dialogue between Jack and Ehrenreich, waitressing at a diner as part of her fulltime research documenting the life of low-wage workers, heated issues of public service and doing well in the world resound loudly, particularly when Ehrenreich explains that people like Jack don’t see the problems of inequality in society because they don’t want to.
When Jack countered with statements about the role of large philanthropic donations by billionaire tycoons on society, Ehrenreich replied simply: “The real philanthropists in our society are the people who work for less than they can actually live on. Because they are giving their time and their energy and their talents, all the time, so that people like you can be dressed well and fed cheaply and so on. They are giving to you.”
In fact, the starkest takeaway from this documentary is, most certainly, its uncomfortable warning to America’s youth: don’t ever believe that by doing well in society, you are necessarily doing good.
As a high school student about to matriculate into America’s preeminent university, this film deeply resounded with me when I first watched it two and a half years ago. And yet, several years later, its questions are only the more appropriate (and difficult) for any student with aspirations to make it big, or to make a difference in the world, to contemplate: Follow your interests, or put some money in the bank? Or maybe put some money in the bank, and then try to save the world?
Despite its oddities, and at times poor staging, this film—described best by a friend from home as simply “trippy”—did, I will admit, inspire me to work low-wage jobs picking strawberries and waitressing after high school to better understand the plight of the working poor. Watching it reinvigorated my appreciation for hard, ankle-swelling work, no matter how low its wages may be or how “unskilled” others may consider it.
For that reason, I recommend watching The American Ruling Class (although, maybe with a moderate amount of alcohol within close reach). To those of you who entirely disagree with the movie’s design, quirks, or logic (as many of my friends have), I commiserate with you and ponder these points myself. When the large breaks for song and dance interrupt the screenplay, just scratch your head and try to refrain from fast forwarding. In the end, though, this movie’s questions, and their relevance to Harvard students, simply can’t be ignored.
Leaving off where this movie begins, the Medici family slogan puts it best:
“Money to get power. Power to protect money.”