I'm generally a year or two behind where movies are concerned, and I finally got around to watching this one. It's interesting how different elements of a film jump out at you based on what's been going on in the world, and watching The Social Network in the context of Occupy Wall Street got me thinking about what the movie tells us about the motivations of the plutocrats. I did a long writeup on my own site, but thought that a dramatically condensed (but still pretty long) version might be of interest to some folks over here as well. (Let the squiggly separator here also serve as spoiler space.)
For a few weeks now the political blogs have been abuzz about Occupy Wall Street, which has been surprisingly successful at finally turning the national conversation to the fact that the past thirty years have seen a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the already rich. Money that in the mid-20th century might have gone to provide some dignity to the lives of people who contribute to society — a starter home for a teacher, a reliable car for a secretary, braces and checkups for the kids of a factory worker, piano lessons for the kids of a nurse — is instead being turned over to gamblers who are not only unproductive, but have taken active steps to destroy the economy in pursuit of quick profits. Which raises the question: Why? What do they want the money for?
It may seem like the answer is self-evident. I once had a girlfriend who watched a lot of anime, and I remember a character on one of the shows she watched explaining why she wanted to make a lot of money: "I want it for the comforts I can acquire!" This is the materialistic explanation, and until recently I'd pretty much taken it as a given: tens of millions of people had been forced onto food stamps so that the directors of Goldman Sachs could buy multiple yachts. A visitor to an economics blog, whose comment was picked up and reprinted in full by Paul Krugman, added an interesting wrinkle: Wall Street isn't made up of financial masterminds, he said, but of recent college grads whose investment strategy is based on using barely-understood formulas in the manner of script kiddies to generate immediate cash so that they can pay for cocaine and prostitutes.
But materialism isn't the only answer. Another take was offered by a diarist right here on Daily Kos. He agreed that it was useful to keep in mind that the typical trader is, as Matt Yglesias put it, a "young smart arrogant dude with limited practical experience and a burning desire to get ahead" — but for non-material reasons. He offered his own account of his days as an aspiring investment banker:
I had always thought I was smarter than everyone else, and it was a chip
on my shoulder. I needed to prove it, somehow. And what better way than by making a boatload of money? And to make money by manipulating arcane mathematical formulas and computer models, even better. [...] It wasn't even about the money — it was all about ego, and pride. Making money was just a means of keeping score.
Here we have someone who was motivated not by the comforts he could acquire but by status, which Max Weber considered the primary human drive. Not that Weber would have denied that people want material wealth, any more than a materialist like Karl Marx would have denied that people want to climb the social hierarchy. But they would have disagreed over which was the means and which the end. Do you work for that promotion so you can get a fancy car, or do you get a fancy car to show off that you got that promotion?
We see this same debate at work in the The Social Network, which asks what motivated Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook. The reflexive, materialistic answer is to say, duh — the point was to make $17.5 billion and counting. Yet Zuckerberg is portrayed as being quite honest when he says that "money isn't a big part of my life." We learn that one of his earlier projects attracted an offer from Microsoft, which he turned down in order to upload the program for free. His indifference to money becomes all the more apparent once Napster co-founder Sean Parker enters the picture to serve as a foil. Parker wears expensive suits; Zuckerberg wears a hoodie and cheap flip-flops everywhere, even after he strikes it rich. Parker ends up getting caught with a handful of coke obtained from the midriff of a shirtless sorority girl, while Zuckerberg sits back at the office programming late into the night. Zuckerberg isn't an ascetic. He's not averse to beer and blowjobs. But the pursuit of the comforts he can acquire is not what drives him.
Is it status, then? As his rivals note, despite his claim that he can throw together a "classier" social networking site than Harvard can, Zuckerberg gauchely splashes "A Mark Zuckerberg Production" on every page of Facebook. Clearly he wants to be some kind of big man on campus. What would that do for him, if it's not a route to living the high life? Just as materialism is based on the pleasure of the senses, status (at least according to Weber) is based pleasure of esteem: knowing that people respect you is intrinsically pleasurable. The problem here is that Zuckerberg doesn't seem to be after esteem, per se. Yes, status is important to him — when it looks like Facebook's original CFO Eduardo Saverin may have endangered the company's growth, Zuckerberg freaks out and, his voice shaking, demands, "Did you like being nobody?!" But consider the Facemash story arc. One of the first things Zuckerberg does in the movie is create a site that allows users to weigh in on the relative attractiveness of their female classmates. This move makes him persona non grata both among the women of Harvard and its administration. Part of the pitch the Winklevoss twins make to him is that implementing their idea for a social networking site will "rehabilitate his image." But Zuckerberg takes this as a deep insult. As Saverin testifies, "Mark resented that they thought he needed to rehabilitate his image after Facemash. Mark didn't want to rehabilitate anything. [...] He'd gotten a lot of notoriety. Facemash did exactly what he wanted it to do." The Weberians thus seem to have correctly pegged that status would be important to Zuckerberg, but not why — it's not that he wants to be well thought of. But then what is it?
Possibly the best clue to what motivated Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook is this: when do we see him happy? Okay, yes, he's pretty blissed out at the end of the "we have groupies" scene. But the main time we see him with stars in his eyes is in virtually any scene with Sean Parker. In the frame story an attorney asks Eduardo Saverin whether Zuckerberg had been excited to meet Parker. "Yes," Saverin replies. "Very." And the moment Parker shows up — before he shows up, really — Zuckerberg is in his thrall.
Why is meeting up with, hanging out with, and eventually even living with Parker so important to Zuckerberg? Here we turn not to Marx or Weber, but to Friedrich Nietzsche, who held that people are motivated not by wealth or status but by power. And unlike Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche didn't think that was a bad thing; on the contrary, it was only through the strong amassing and directing power that humanity could achieve great things. You don't get the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal without pharaohs and emperors to order them built. Yet it was crucial to Nietzsche that "the strong" be plural. Nietzsche hated singular dictators almost as much as he despised democracy. His ideal was a brotherhood of the strong, reveling together in their shared contempt of the weak. Now, I don't really know whether what follows applies to the actual Mark Zuckerberg. But here we have the answer to the question of what the cinematic Zuckerberg gets out of having created Facebook. Parker's interest in Facebook means that Zuckerberg has made it into the brotherhood of world-changers. Every shuttered brick-and-mortar store full of empty CD racks has Sean Parker's fingerprints all over it. He is a historical figure. And now he's inviting Zuckerberg to share with him the power to express the contempt that fuels them both.
It's very telling that Parker is 25 minutes late for his first meeting with the Facebook crew, and that Zuckerberg is impressed by this: "He founded Napster when he was 19, he can be late." I.e., he's in the club of dotcom world-changers and can therefore flaunt his disregard for others — exactly what Zuckerberg wants. And thanks to Facebook, he can. He can go to meetings with ad executives and make stupid noises. He can tell high-powered lawyers that they have "the minimum amount" of his attention because they aren't "intellectually or creatively capable" of the feats he has pulled off. He can wear a bathrobe to a meeting with a venture capitalist, tell him "fuck you," and return to Parker's SUV so the two of them can giggle about it. This may make him look bad, so bad that he has no chance with a jury and has to pay a $65 million settlement, but thanks to Facebook, $65 million is nothing to him. It's a small price to pay for the thing that does give him pleasure: making people angry, making people feel bad about themselves, making people suffer because they are beneath him and suffering is what they deserve.
Zuckerberg isn't the only one who acts like this. There's Parker, of course. But someone else makes a big impression in the film with what the B.U. girl in the movie aptly terms "snide bullshit": Larry Summers. Again, I don't really know whether what follows applies to the actual Larry Summers. But the cinematic Summers is basically just an older version of Zuckerberg. Every word out of Summers's mouth drips with contempt. Which would be obnoxious coming from anyone. Coming from a guy who was a driving force behind the repeal of a host of financial regulations in the late '90s, and who was therefore largely responsible for the resulting economic collapse, it's infuriating. And it's people like this who run the world.
At the beginning of this article I talked about the motivations of the top 1% who have gobbled up virtually the entirety of the past thirty years' worth of economic growth. If you take the Benthamite view that money should be distributed where it can do the most good, this represents a colossal misallocation. So why do the one-percenters insist on funneling the nation's wealth where it does so little good? Until recently, I would have said that the answer was self-centeredness. That John Thain thinks the fun of using a $1405 wastebasket is more important than whatever value others could have derived from that money, because it's his fun. And the thing is, that's understandable. We're all guilty of that to varying degrees. I spent more than $1405 on plane fare and hotels taking my girlfriend on a road trip through the Rockies this summer. In a purely Benthamite system there would be better uses to which that money would be put than to show us some mountains and feed us some sopaipillas. Everyone draws a line between what's inexcusable extravangance and what's just a decent standard of living. I still find a $1405 wastebasket outrageous, but it's an outrageousness I can relate to. Give me the $83.7 million that Thain got, and sure, that could be me.
But look at what's been going on lately and it becomes clear that a lot of the top 1% have different and more sinister motivations. Look at the ceaseless drumbeat among the elites for austerity, austerity, austerity. We've got debts to pay! We racked up a tab of trillions of dollars dropping bombs on wedding parties and torturing cab drivers to death! Then trillions more on Wall Street's gambling debts! With debts like those, we can't afford to pay for things like retirement plans, or medical care, or schools! Of course, we actually can pay for them, pretty easily. It's not that we don't have the money. It's that the money has been siphoned away to a tiny class of plutocrats, and they're sitting on it. And they're not doing so in order to buy cocaine and prostitutes and $1405 wastebaskets. It's so that we can't have it. It's so that we lose our retirement plans and our medical care and our schools. Because we are beneath them, and watching us suffer provides them with satisfaction.
We see it indirectly when austerity sends the economies of the world into freefall — "manufacturing had one of its sharpest declines ever" ... "12.1 percent plunge in demand" ... "industry contracted for a third month" — and the response is that we need more austerity. And we see it directly when pundits on Fox News deliver foam-flecked diatribes about how much they despise teachers and how poor people shouldn't be allowed to have refrigerators. They, and their would-be brethren who hang out on the bottom half of the Internet calling the poor "animals" and "savages," are fueled by the same thing as Mark Zuckerberg: contempt. So when their economic proposals call for more "belt-tightening," deeper cuts, further suffering, it's not because these things are necessary to fix the economy — inflicting pain isn't the price of these policies, it's the point of these policies. Those who propose them don't want to fix the economy. The economy is doing exactly what they want it to do: hurting people. What The Social Network points to is that the plutocrats aren't selfish. They're sadistic.
[Longer version here.]