Professor Giorgos Kallis is an environmental scientist working on ecological economics and political ecology at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies. The analysis below includes some spoilers for the film ‘Wolf of Wall Street’.
The Wolf of Wall Street may well be the first film to really capture the spirit of late capitalism. “The enigma of capital” as David Harvey called it, has eluded generations of intellectuals. With its relentlessly frenetic tempo, the movie reveals the brutal essence of capital: money in search for more money, faster and faster. Nothing more and nothing less.
Capitalism, argue Robert and Edward Skidelsky in “How much is enough?”, is “sense-less”. Jordan Belfort, the Wolf, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is literally senseless, constantly high on drugs. Belfort embodies capital. Money circulates constantly through his hands. He sells, invests, makes profits, buys cars, helicopters and yachts, he crashes and sinks them, buys new ones, sniffs coke, pays prostitutes, invests again, makes more money, smuggles it out, throws it in the air. And on he goes. There is no sense in all of this, because circulating money is the sense. When the Wolf explains to his loony pack that everyone wants to get rich, one of them recalls an Amish who “just wanted to make furniture”. The Wolf pauses, only for a moment. “What the heck… you don´t want to make money? Who doesn´t want to make money?” he yells to the rest. “You bet we want to make money,” the loonies shout back. And that´s the spirit of capitalism: make money, never stop to ask why. Life is better with money, than without, right? A pagan tribe, Belfort’s possessed partners beat their chests to the rhythm of money on the trading-floor in one memorable scene of the movie.
Early in the story an experienced Wall Street trader played by Matthew McCounaghey, teaches young Belfort the tricks of the trade. The point is not to invest in something useful, he tells him. It’s not even to make profits for clients. The point is to keep the client investing. Let them think they gain, but never let them cash out. Because then the whole things becomes real and we are in trouble, he warns him. Isn’t this unreal circulation what capitalist economies have come to be about? An endless collection of bubbles whose only purpose is the circulation of money, bubbles defended by those addicted to their commissions.
I am not thinking only of Wall Street here, or real estate. Vast, ever higher amounts of money circulate around spectacles, like professionalized sports, or the commercialized arts. But is a painting better or a football game more fun than 50 years ago? Or think of the endless resources devoted to the pursuit of the newest car, or the latest fad. Everyone might have a Ferrari one day, but then it will be the Fiat of its generation. Money keeps moving, senselessly. It has to move, economists tell us, so that the economy does not collapse.
The drug-fuelled Wolf also moves fervently; if he stops, even for a single moment, he will collapse. Workers, academics, immigrants and millionaires, we are all constantly moving, changing place, house or job, faster and faster, not to fall, dancing at the pace of the inaudible drumbeat of capital. Capitalism is not the well-intended plan that friends and foes see. The more frightening reality is that capitalism is a mad joke pedlled by money-addicts with no clue of why they are doing what they are doing, other than that they are doing it and that they have to keep doing it. Unlike the movie, there is no pilot in the cockpit of the crashing helicopter. It is Belfort driving.
The movie has no moral centre, some critics charge; it glorifies greed. Writing for “The Jacobin”, Eileen Jones expresses her disgust for Scorsese’s “gleeful celebration of rich assholes”. Well, whether you see a celebration or an exposition depends on your perspective. Clever Scorsese is cashing out well on this ambiguity. In my view, however, it is not Scorsese’s own politics that matter. It is his indispensable attention to anthropological detail and his commitment to tell the story from the gaze of its heroes that allows the sharpest depiction of the grotesqueness of capitalism that cinema has ever seen. Scorsese’s choice not to moralize is apt, because the problem of our society is not greed, it is capital and capital is what it is.
Capital knows no moral limits. When Belfort’s wife questions his profiting from poor people, he dumps her. When an FBI agent visits him, he tries to bribe him. Yet the paradox of the movie is that Belfort doe not come out a “bad” guy. He is a likeable sociopath. And this is correct, because he is a sociopath, not because of an intrinsic psychological fault, but because he brings to a logical extreme what the system asks us all to do: endlessly pursue wealth.
The movie has no moral closure because capitalism is a drama that hasn't closed. Like Belfort himself, capitalism bubbles and crashes, but it comes out clean when the dust settles, preaching shamelessly what went wrong and how to fix it. The inconclusive smirk of the FBI agent who rides the shabby subway back home after indicting Belfort is in the face of all of us as we sit in our dilapidated public infrastructures contemplating the crisis. Happy that the monster stumbled; discontent that it didn’t fall for good; and still possessed by its flashy magic.