It’s A Wonderful Life: why the social contract matters

pottersvilleI, as I am sure many others did between the turkey, the presents and the alcohol, tuned in this Christmas to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. It is one of the greatest Christmas films ever made: George Bailey played by James Stewart is visited on Christmas Eve by his guardian angel Clarence to help him through a difficult time. It is a film about how everyone matters and how one’s influence on others really is significant.

But there is, of course, another message. The films primary antagonist is the old, miserable, greedy businessman Henry F. Potter, who George Bailey is constantly thwarting, to help the people of his home town – Bedford Falls – from falling into his pocket.

Now, perhaps at this point we can make a distinction – George Bailey, very much a driven and intelligent individual, runs a private company (the Building and Loan) as a service to the public. Of course, he makes money, but he sees the importance of working people owning their own homes as necessary to building a strong community. Henry F. Potter, however, is quite different, in that he is all about profit. In the film, he sees the idea of lending working people money to buy their own homes as absurd, especially if they get turned down by the bank. He would rather they had to live in one of his slum homes and pay extortionate rent for a low quality product.

I suppose now we can say that George Bailey is a responsible capitalist, whereas Henry F. Potter is a predatory one. This film brilliantly predicts what happens when the social contract between those with money and those without breaks down. The most surprising thing is that it has already happened – the selfish, ruthless Bedford Falls that George Bailey experiences on Christmas Eve has become a shocking premonition for the western world.

As we now live in society in which neoliberal ideology unquestionably underpins the economic policy of all main political parties, the idea of a social contract has disappeared. We now expect selfish individualism paired with free market ideology to create a prosperous society in which everyone who works hard can, and will, succeed. This goal, however, has been proved to fail. We do not live in a society where those who try can succeed; increasingly we live in a society where people like Potter prey on the weak and the vulnerable because there is no social contract or regulation to prevent this from happening.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a brilliant fable to show us what happens when we remove morality from economics – when we let greed and selfishness dominate our society and do not accept that our individual choices can and will affect others. I believe we need now to move away from neoliberalism. It has not worked, and has merely empowered the elite and alienated the poor. However, this does not mean that we have to live in a completely equal society – nor does it mean we have to find a serious alternative to capitalism. We just need to remember that those at the top have an obligation to those at the bottom, and, if they forget this obligation, that it has greater implications to the wider society.

The decline in unions and the lack of MPs from working class backgrounds has really hit working people hard – there are fewer people like George Bailey willing to stand up for their interests. We must remember that if the people at the bottom do not have any money to spend, then how can the economic keep going? If those at the bottom cannot spend then spend then consumer capitalism will grind to a holt – the social contract was there to prevent this – now it is very likely to happen.

When we live in a country where food banks are booming, energy companies relentlessly increase prices, and there appear to be record profits for the banks that put us in the current mess we are in, it does not take long for one to wonder: maybe we have made a mistake. Perhaps Thatcherism is not a good way to run a society. Perhaps it is time for a rethink.

Let’s forget about neoliberalism, as it is a selfish and greedy doctrine that has led to a more unequal, less responsible and more dishonest society. George Bailey’s vision of the future has come true. Let’s just hope there is still time to find an alternative.

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