The system is rigged. It should be no surprise that the capitalist society under which America currently exists is not working, and with America’s widening disparity in wealth and income, it needs to find a solution.
“Saving Capitalism,” a Netflix documentary based off Robert Reich’s 2015 book of the same name, is Reich’s attempt at giving the American people the solutions to capitalism it so desperately seeks. For the sake of the people, if only it did. Drawn out over one hour and 13 minutes, viewers are introduced to the life and struggles of one of Berkeley’s most beloved professors and the former secretary of labor, Robert Reich — or as he jokingly introduces himself, “Your Excellency.” At best, this documentary comes across as an hourlong lecture on the tumultuous history of the American economy. At worst, it’s Reich’s visual book tour for “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few.”
It isn’t until the documentary’s final minutes, after more than an hour has passed, that it offers any solution as to how America can “save capitalism.” To do so, Americans must come together and create a new form of checks and balances to hold the United States’ systems accountable, finally preventing Big Money from entering politics. But if the entire purpose of government is already to act as a system that keeps markets in check, then Reich’s argument fails to address the bleeding, infected wound from which it attempts to save the United States. Instead of changing the wound’s gauze dressing, Reich argues America should simply put on a new Band-Aid, hoping the festering wound won’t scar.
Even more distressing is that Reich waits until the actual credits of the documentary to give the audience any form of actionable advice. After the pomp and production of the previous hour — interspersed by happy and carefree dancing — Reich finally gives sound, if tired, advice to organizers about how to be patient with movements of social change, encouraging them not to lose hope. As Reich’s background is in public policy, it would have been refreshing to see more concrete and tangible policy-based solutions as to how America could redeem itself from capitalism’s deeply flawed and easily manipulated system.
Reich emphasizes ad nauseam the importance of listening to those with different viewpoints. He speaks with entrepreneurs, attorneys and corporate figures in an attempt to humanize them. Yet there’s no examination of the shortcomings of the capitalist system at large, no nuance given through critical analysis on issues of privilege or generational poverty. The topic is briefly discussed through personal anecdotal interviews but never unpacked.
All the more, Reich fails to show how this humanizing discourse pushes any solution for the broken capitalist system forward. In talking to contentious people just for the sake of the matter, all that arises is a ratification of the toxic beliefs that constitute capitalism. Reich never shows the point in humanizing capitalism when all the system does is fail to support the wants of the individual, its cornerstone belief. Instead, as Reich even emphasizes, capitalism solely prioritizes the needs of corporations, which in turn only feed back into the chokehold of capitalism’s power over the supposedly free market.
However, the documentary does successfully convey that U.S. citizens may claim they want a government-free market, an ideal entrenched deep into the American psyche, but this isn’t the goal of those in power on Capitol Hill, though they may use the same rhetoric. Powerful people don’t want the government out of the market; they want the government to stop interfering when they use and abuse governmental sway upon markets in their favor.
Yet the film begs the question: If capitalism has continuously failed to provide equal opportunities for success, then why keep trying to fix it? The film never answers why Reich bothers harkening to “change the rules” when the game itself has proven to be so cruel. Despite what Reich claims, maybe capitalism cannot be saved. If the system is rigged, then maybe it’s time to try a different system.