It's The Customer, Stupid: A Marx vs. Menger Battle on Netflix
Somehow, an all-star Hollywood cast created The Company Men (2010) and it got past the usual censors. The movie is an effective rebuttal to Arthur Miller's 1949 Death of a Salesman. The recently-laid-off characters spend the movie living their lives after rounds of layoffs. In doing so, they effectively act out a debate between a proponent of communism — Karl Marx, and a proponent of the free market — Carl Menger.
Set during the 2007/2008 financial crisis, The Company Men, now streaming on Netflix, takes a look at how the crisis impacted white collar workers and those around them. Even the sympathetic look at white collar workers was a refreshing take in itself, with white collar workers so commonly having been glommed into the category of "oppressor" in popular culture post 2007/2008.
The Company Men follows the lives of three men who were laid off: a 60-year old junior executive who worked his way up from the factory floor as a welder (Chris Cooper), a 70-year old senior executive who seemed too well-connected to be fired (Tommy Lee Jones), and the best salesman in the company — a 37-year old hotshot with a big team (Ben Affleck).
While not a deep examination, the film offers an insightful survey of pain felt in their lives and the lives of the those around them, as the impact ripples beyond the person fired.
[RELATED: Doug French's 2011 Review of The Company Men]
The movie hinges on the idea that your employer owes you more than a paycheck. The filmmaker plays with that idea, going so far as to present the idea that an employer owes you a lifetime commitment to a job, and at a different extreme, that your employer at least owes you notice when they are going to fire you. The emotion that such limited thinking introduces to the healing process, as can be expected, made the ability of the characters to get beyond the firing more difficult and more painful.
The act of looking into the past and dwelling there, rather than moving on and adjusting to the new reality that they were now without a job, impeded the forward progress of the characters. Also dwelling on the fact that the employer owed them more than a paycheck would have benefited the fired employees to have moved on as quickly as possible.
Arthur Miller Is Still With Us
Arthur Miller's voice can practically be heard in the film's dialogue as the characters talk about the system that they trusted, which used them up and heartlessly spit them out. Miller-like, superficial explanations of how the worker was exploited is present in the film.
The Company Men is no denunciation of capitalism though, as Miller would have it. It's a denunciation of those who would not fend for themselves and who would instead naïvely expect to be swaddled in the loving arms of a gigantic employer forever.
After spending most of the movie revolving around that topic and working through all kinds of jeremiads about what justice is, one of those laid off finds inspiration in underutilized assets. The recently-fired executive purchases an underutilized shipyard — the firing company's original shipyard — and begins a company of his own by buying that shipyard and stating his intent to some of his former employees to nurse that original shipyard back to prosperity. They happily join his team at a reduced salary, eager to help him make his business plan into a reality. In his entrepreneurship, the tension of the movie finds resolution.
Victory is had by the end of the movie. It was a victory over an inner self — a self that tried to blame the employer for the firing rather than to accept as quickly as possible that an employer that fires you is an employer that you no longer bring benefit to. There is no clearer way that an employer can express that you are not worth the cost of employing you.
The white collar workers in the movie stopped providing value for their employers and whined about it in various ways. There was no run-of-the-mill social justice-y poetic justice for those who led the mass firing, for they fittingly got rich by movie's end, commanding the company's resources expertly as they made the company lean.
There was however, poetic justice for those who thought clearly as well as for those who failed to think clearly — the quicker a character came to recognize that he had stopped providing value to the employer and concluded who he could provide value for, the better off the character was. To take it even further, the character who was least able to adjust and to move on ended up dead at his own hand.
From the movie a handful of additional lessons could be taken away. Living beyond your means is certain to cause an unpleasant belt tightening at some point. Not preparing for the future will almost certainly cause you to one day regret that decision to not prepare. The more in touch you are with the reality that no one owes you anything — not your former employer, not your business contacts, not your former employer's competitors — the better off you will be at fending for yourself and your family in difficult moments.
It's the Customer, Stupid
The Company Men subtly raises the question "Who is the customer for your work?" If you are an employee, then the employer is the customer for your work. If you are a manufacturer who creates products for retailers then the retailer is the customer of your work. If you are an entrepreneur in the retail space then the end consumer is the customer for your work. The customer is who you need to seek to provide value for. The longer into The Company Men that it took someone to answer this question of who the customer is, the longer it took them to recover from the firing.
Related to the concept of who the customer is, is the question "Who is the audience?" This is a question that must constantly be asked. To put this question into longer form, "Who am I speaking to right now and how do I speak to them so that this is the best way of communicating this message for them at this moment?"
Just as the customer is the person you are in an economic exchange with, the audience is the person that you are in an intellectual exchange with. Adjusting to that mindset of being attentive to the audience and the customer was a key focus of the movie as it showed the folly of not doing exactly that.
Again, the Labor Theory of Value
Fascinatingly, the movie boiled down to a Marxist v. Free-Market debate, and fell on the side of the free markets. This was a detail that the star-studded Hollywood cast likely neglected to recognize (starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, Chris Cooper, Craig T. Nelson, and being a Weinstein Production). It would take someone versed in the labor theory of value and subjective value theory to recognize the praise for the marketplace and the individual that are implicit in the film's plot.
To the usual Hollywood censors, the movie would appear like nothing more than how callous corporate downsizing damages lives and how hard it is to rebuild.
Marx would likely say about value, in relation to this movie, and how it is derived by the worker, as he did In his speech "Value, Price, and Profit" to the First International Working Men's Association in June 1865: "The value of a commodity is determined by the total quantity of labor contained in it." In the same speech, Marx goes on to distinguish between "paid labor" and "unpaid labor," laying some of the intellectual groundwork for why profit is "exploitation of labor," as he argues in this speech, and which, after a century and a half, pouty Marxists continue to argue.
In 1867 in Das Kapital, Marx gives some minimal distinction that value isn't purely about the labor that goes into it when he hits on the concept of work being "socially useful."
That would be a common Marxist view about the relationship between employer and employee. And this movie spends a great deal of time sliding into that tendency, debating from the perspective of the labor theory of value, espoused by Marx and many others before him.
Carl Menger, founder of the free-market Austrian school of economics, as he did in his seminal book Principles of Economics (1871) would say in contrast:
The measure of value is entirely subjective in nature, and for this reason a good can have great value to one economizing individual, little value to another, and no value at all to a third, depending upon the differences in their requirements and available amounts. What one person disdains or values lightly is appreciated by another, and what one person abandons is often picked up by another.
Menger, in line with this movie, might soberly advise that if your employer (the consumer of your labor) no longer wants you, that is a sign that you have ceased to bring value and had best move on and find some other consumer for your work who is more likely to find you valuable.
Finally, a Hollywood Victory for Menger
A Marxist v. Free-Market debate is had through the course of this movie, with the free-market Austrians prevailing, and the most angry Marxist in the film driving himself to an early death. That the angriest Marxist sports a McCain bumper sticker and certainly sees himself as a Republican makes his self-destruction at the hands of his firmly held belief in the Marxist labor theory of value all the more interesting to watch, though it is not clear what the filmmaker is intending by the subtle placement of the bumper sticker.
The film The Company Men, as a response to the 1940's anti-capitalism of Death of a Salesman, and as a response to popular out of touch jeremiads of our age, is excellent. As a survey of these false ideas, it is a film that can easily encourage ancillary discussions to follow from its watching, making it an accessible, easy to watch foundation for classroom discussion, or family and friend discussion on Menger, Marx, and the free market.