David Mamet and Capitalism
I’m teaching Glengarry Glen Ross this week, which I’ve revisited after more than a decade. This exquisite and terrifying tale of real estate brokers on the brink has achieved greater relevance in the twenty-first century than its author could possibly have predicted back in the 1980s.
Statistics alone will only go so far as to explain the great crash of 2007-2009. Beyond the dismal science of figures on paper lies the need for an emotional analysis – more precisely – a dramaturgical analysis. Here, helpfully, is The Scotsman reporting on the Royal Bank of Scotland…
Without understanding not only how people think, but how people think when they are bouncing off one another while playing games of dominance, any economic analysis is incomplete. We have descriptions of what life was like at the RBS in the months leading up to the great crash, and I’m sure these descriptions can be validated by other comparable institutions. People spoke of “morning beatings” at the RBS where high octane tirades propelled the energy level of the day’s selling beyond anything compatible with reflection or caution. Indeed, sanity would have been a sackable offence at such banks, and anybody advocating a deceleration in lending would have found themselves sitting on the curb with their belongings in a cardboard box before such demotivational sentiment was ever allowed to seep in.
I’m sure that Fred Goodwin was (or is) foul mouthed enough to be in a Mamet play, but I feel equally certain that he didn’t (or doesn’t) cadence his speeches is the precision and artistry demanded of a Mamet character.
Each of Mamet’s percussive “fucks” is as exquisitely placed as a drumbeat in an orchestral score (albeit an orchestral work that’s somewhat heavy on percussion).
Glengarry Glen Ross is and is not a realistic play. The atmosphere is real, and the emotions are truthful. The ways in which words and phrases are juxtaposed in order to choreograph arcs of dominance and surrender are, however, pure poetry. Mamet’s language is language made strange – language defamiliarised – and the language is all the stranger because it’s made out of language that is very familiar.
Mamet’s ever more conservative political outlook is well document. It is more precisely documented by this statement issued by Mamet in 2008, provocatively entitled “Why I am no longer a brain-dead liberal”. He justifies his political realignment by quoting (oddly enough for someone who praises Milton Friedman in the same short statement) John Maynard Keynes who frankly and famously acknowledged that he would always change his views if fresh evidence demands it.
Regarding John Maynard Keynes…. it’s both true and admirable that people change their political views in response to new evidence. The remarkable thing about David Mamet is that he announced his change of political outlook at precisely the moment when new evidence confirmed the truth of his original political outlook. Mamet seems to have waited until the full horrors of unregulated capitalism were fully proved before rejecting his earlier prophecy. It is as though Cassandra were to declare that she was giving up on prognostication just as the Greeks were running amok through the streets of Troy.
Back in the 1980s, when reckless greed was enjoying some very good press and doing very well for itself, Mamet produced a masterpiece about the desperate state of acquisitive terror that deprives buying and selling of any kind of reason or reflection. And then in 2008, at the eye of the storm of financial collapse (provoked by an overheated property market), Mamet announced that unregulated capitalism is just peachy.
Mamet, like many conservatives, is inconsistent in terms of his view of government. Government (says 2008 Mamet) is heroic and trustworthy in its military incarnation but deplorable in any economic managerial incarnation. The state should be trusted to invade other countries, but should not be trusted to legislate financial regulations.
If there’s one thing that David Mamet (as a dramatist) illustrates and RBS demonstrates, it’s that capitalists do not “self regulate”. Bankers in particular are a lot like chickens. If you don’t pull them away from the trough, they will feed until they explode. They’ve exploded before and they’ll explode again.
In 2008 therefore, Mamet was not adjusting his political outlook in order to fit the burden of evidence but rather adjusting his political outlook in order to defy the burden of evidence – which I don’t think was exactly what Keynes had in mind. It is possible that this kind of cussed perversity is integral to his dramaturgical genius and that his embrace of unfettered capitalism represents a kind of structural commitment to discord, an aversion to political consensus of any political stripe.
This link below makes for an intriguing to read, though. It’s a spirited upper case memo sent by Mamet to all the writers working on the (now cancelled) TV show The Unit. Try reading this without thinking of Alec Baldwin’s “coffee is for closers” speech (I know that’s the movie – not the play, but it’s still Mamet….)