I was introduced to the movie Metropolis by a very close friend of mine, and I have to admit the 1927 Fritz Lang classic has become one of my favorite movies of all time.
The script was written by Thea von Barbou, a devout Catholic who wrote of the great mind who built Metropolis — a virtual paradise on earth for the meritocracy who earned its pleasures. Operating this vast city was a deep underground of nameless workers, whose lives are devoted to making the machinery of the Metropolis operate.
Eventually, the workers revolt… and the false prophet who incites them to do so urges them to rush the machines that have enslaved them for so long. This is the clip from the silent movie (with a more modern score). Skip to 4:00 for the meat:
If you really want to watch the full two hour and seventeen minute film… you’re in luck. You can watch it here.
I’m going to ruin this scene for you though — Grot (the worker trying to explain what will happen should the Heart Machine collapse) is overpowered and the workers destroy the machinery that powers the great Metropolis, only to find out in their horror that the same Heart Machine that powered the city was the same that kept the waters from flooding the underground… where their children will surely drown. Are they rescued? Well… you’ll have to watch the movie.
Fast forward to today… to Wisconsin:
Thousands of labor employees — mostly teachers — are protesting spending cut measures in Wisconsin. Everyone knows that the current rate of spending is out of control, and that spending will have to be cut. No one wants to raise taxes — not small businesses, not large businesses, not economists, not government… because they all see the same end. If we raise taxes, we kill the recovery.
Kill the recovery… kill jobs. Kill jobs, and no one will be working to pay for these government salaries. Simple math.
…well, almost simple.
Thus the workers rush the economic machine. Problem is, we’re not talking about the folks busting their butts on minimum wage here. We’re talking about teachers — some of whom make $100K a year or more — not wanting to surrender their “rights” or guarantees fought for under the boom times. In other words, they are perfectly willing to steal from one part of the community to pay for their benefits.
On the other hand, you’ve got a government more than happy to spend on an entitlement system that is clearly unsustainable, where a tiny fraction of that money spent on education nationwide would fix the problem… but drive a Baby Boomer demographic right through the roof. They too are perfectly content to steal from one part of the community to pay for their benefits.
Then you have the big businesses of the world, the ones on corporate tax breaks, who just received billions of dollars in TARP assistance and two shots of qualitative easing, which will produce inflationary pressures that will bear down on those without disposable income — namely working families. But if we tax them, it chokes off the oxygen we need to create more jobs. They too are perfectly content to steal from one part of the community to pay for their benefits.
Where, I wonder, does this leave the “forgotten man” of Amity Shlaes pre-recession book?
Is there a balance to be struck? Frankly, I don’t know. Everyone wants what they have now, no one is willing to give. Worse still, the people we owe for this mess is ourselves as a community. The national debt? Is ours — yours and mine. This $1.4 trillion deficit? We owe to ourselves.
The epilogue to Metropolis is that the mediator between the head (those captains of industry and free enterprise) and the hands (those who do the working, living and dying in America) is the HEART. In Metropolis, this heart turns out to be the church… but for our purposes, there’s a lot of folks that need to realize that the Saul Alinsky approach of pushing until something gives is over.
There is — literally — nothing left to steal.
I’ll admit it, I am a huge fan of the movie The Postman. Not the Italian flick… the Kevin Costner film about a post-apocalyptic America. No no no… I don’t have some sort of dystopian fantasy about the world going to crap rolling in the back of my head… but few people realize that this movie was based on a trilogy of books. The author (whose name escapes me at the moment) wrote them with the idea of some post-nuclear holocaust and hypothesized that America would collapse not because of our resources — those are abundant — but that every time the government tried to alleviate the situation, the survivalists would steal it.
Red Cross, military aid, protection, etc. All of these things dissolved… because the survivalists would steal it from the community. Recovery was impossible… because the survivalists, the “me first-ers” came in and took. The solution? Bust up the survivalists.
The Postman did a terrible job at conveying that message, and probably would have been a far superior movie had it focused on this. The point of the books, though, is that survivalism was the enemy of recovery.
Today we are seeing the first green shoots of that sort of survivalism.
As an Aristotelian, I share a great deal in common with the idea that the best state of mankind — call it utopia if you wish — is based on eudaimonia, a surpeme state happiness that Aristotle believed could only be achieved through a condition he identified as self-sufficiency, or autarkes. God, in the view of Aristotle, was therefore a being in a supreme state of self-sufficiency and self-contemplation, or autarkestatos.
The Romans believed this as well, and sought it not only for themselves, but for their government. Cicero and Seneca earned great reputations and fortunes on this early ethic, and naturally lost their lives despite the great accumulation of power. Autarkes, it would seem, was not the fulfillment of life. It was safe, and much like Metropolis our Roman forebearers turned that little town on the Tiber into a massive city not eclipsed since London and Paris became metropolises themselves in the late 19th century.
What did Rome and Athens lack? They had autarkes, they had a polity, and yes the Western half of the Roman Empire and the pagan, worldly values it championed lasted for a thousands years, cruel as it was.
They lacked community. What they lacked was the logos become flesh. Now if that sounds a bit too Christian-y for you (for my more liberal friends who may have struggled this far in reading this essay) then let it be so. Christianity introduced agapos.
It was no longer enough to love as a beast might (eros), nor was it enough merely to love on a Platonic or intellectual plane (philos) — rather, what was necessary for the city of man to become greater than itself, the City of God, was a devotion beyond self. Community required agapos — a love of the soul willing to sacrifice for fellow human beings.
This was the great difference between pagan Rome and Christian Byzantium. When the Islamic caliphs imposed a tax on Byzantine Christians to see the great holy sites in Jerusalem, it was Byzantium that marshaled an army of 80,000 to march on Jerusalem. The caliphs, bewildered, immediately sued for peace at what — to them — seemed to be a disproportionate response to such a minor sign of submission to the caliphate.
What they did not understand is that, to Byzantium and the early Church, a threat against one member of the Body of Christ was a threat against them all. It was your first glimpse at social justice in action… and it echoes today in many of the -isms that imitate but hardly capture this spirit.
Now if that seems like too religious a viewpoint, then so be it. Our Founding Fathers were all exceptionally religious men, and yet they did not go about legislating a theocracy of any sort. To the contrary, they made sure that their concept of liberty was firmly rooted in the natural rights of all — and that which one could not do for himself, the government facilitates or did on their behalf. This was, naturally, not an invitation to sloth… but it was an invitation to subsidiarity and self-government.
What all sides need to understand in the coming months and years is that, whatever the means we enact to get beyond the fiscal crisis, we all need to be reassured of the ends. Knee-jerk reactions, an instinct towards survivalism, and tearing down what makes us strong are not solutions — they are reactions.
Focusing on self-sufficiency, free enterprise, and community — those are workable ends. Sacrifices will need to be made by all parties… and yes, it will not be comfortable for all parties involved.
The last thing we could do? Is kill the machines that make the engine of our society work. “Death to the machines” isn’t responsible government.