by Scott Ferguson
It’s a Wonderful Life has long been a holiday classic. A 1946 Christmas fantasy by director Frank Capra, the film is a sentimental portrait of communal altruism in the face of economic crisis and existential despair. Every Christmas, millions of viewers ritually revisit the movie to reflect upon the season’s spirit of giving.
From the perspective of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), however, the film’s yearly returns seem more like a perennial nightmare. Whereas MMT insists that money is a limitless public instrument and that private sector production depends on centralized governance and fiscal spending, It’s a Wonderful Life imagines that the state has little to do with American money or production and romanticizes the practice of gathering large sums from many small private donations, or in contemporary parlance, “crowdfunding.” The story in It’s a Wonderful Life is set against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in American history, stretching roughly from the end of World War I to just after the Second World War. Instead of thematizing the turbulent politics of provisioning and privation that shape this period, the film treats money as a private and largely alienating relation. It then holds up crowdfunding as a supernatural salve for working people.
In this sense, the film remains surprisingly relevant to present viewers. As thousands turn to crowdfunding platforms to shore up neoliberalism’s structural failures in everything from healthcare to the arts, It’s a Wonderful Life’s improbable fable of community-funded uplift stokes contemporary desires for digitally mediated miracles.
The film’s dismal economics become clearest in the two key miracles that frame its narrative. First, an angel named Clarence is sent from Heaven to save protagonist George Bailey, the now suicidal head of an insolvent Building and Loan Association in Bedford Falls, New York. Clarence convinces George to embrace life by showing him a dystopian version of Bedford Falls in which he never existed. This theological intervention into the secular realm suggests that any mediation or assistance from above is to be strictly personal, moral, and existential. It also falsely implies that collective life is wholly contingent upon the actions of individuals, as in most Hollywood fare.
The film’s second miracle occurs at the story’s conclusion. On Christmas Eve, the townsfolk of Bedford Falls pool together heaps of their own hard-earned dollars, at once redeeming George’s decision to remain alive and rescuing the Building and Loan on which they, too, rely. Indeed, because the Building and Loan provides Bedford’s downtrodden with decent housing, when the community aids George it is also helping itself. In reality, of course, the New Deal and World War II saw the US government spend like never before or since, and midcentury suburbanization was an overt governance project. But It’s a Wonderful Life envisions money as a slippery private substance, which is monopolized by capitalist slumlord Henry F. Potter. It then dramatizes quality social investment and housing as marvels of bottom-up cooperation.
In the end, Clarence’s and the community’s extraordinary actions snowball into one big Christmas miracle. The result glorifies crowdfunding as the only antidote to systemic breakdown and imbues this antidote with a schmaltzy sense of divine justice. In doing so, It’s a Wonderful Life not only misconstrues political economy and makes a mockery of American history. It also naturalizes so-called “secular stagnation” and renders long-lasting transformation unimaginable.
In response, one might wish to organize a mass boycott against It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas season. Yet why forsake the charms of a great Hollywood tearjerker when we can build a political movement that turns our shared pangs into miracles that really deliver the goods?
So, happy viewing, everyone. Only, this year let us look askance at It’s a Wonderful Life’s crowdfunding reveries and fight to realize the money form’s still-untapped public powers.
* Naked Capitalism has published the above essay here.