Posts Tagged ‘Appalachia’

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Dwight Billings—Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, preeminent scholar of Appalachia, and occasional contributor to this blog—just completed a chapter for a collection of critical responses to J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Anthony Harkins, which will be published by West Virginia University Press. He has kindly agreed to allow me to publish extracts from his chapter in this guest post. 

Once upon a time, there was “a strange land and peculiar people.”* It was a mythical place known as “Trumpalachia.” J. D. Vance, author of the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, has been widely acclaimed as its foremost explorer, mapmaker, interpreter, and critic. Countless readers have turned to his book to understand the appeal of Donald Trump to white working-class voters. But Hillbilly Elegy is not a “Trump for Dummies,” nor is it an elegy for Appalachia. It’s an advertisement for capitalist neoliberalism and personal choice.

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Vance’s main argument in Hillbilly Elegy is that Appalachians and their descendants in the Rust-Belt have been “reacting to [economic decline] in the worst possible way.” He notes that “Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites” but more important, he contends, is “what goes on in the lives of real people when the economy goes south.” There is nothing wrong with that question of course, but Vance’s answer points in the wrong direction. In his opinion, the problem boils down simply to the bad personal choices individuals make in the face of economic decline—not to the corporate capitalist economy that creates immense profits by casting off much of its workforce or the failure of governments to respond to this ongoing crisis. The real problem, he says, is “about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

Vance’s bottom line is: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual neoliberal fix, is fix thyself. There is of course nothing new here in Vance’s recycling of worn out culture of poverty theory. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative 1960s Moynihan report on the pathology of the black family in white face and a rehash of Charles Murray’s more recent Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

When the Wall Street Journal endorsed Hillbilly Elegy, it commended the book for its stress on the values of “religion, discipline, and family,” but chiefly lauded that fact that “most of all [Vance] wants people to hold themselves responsible for their own conduct and choices.” The stress on personal choice and accountability is a central theme in the ideology of neoliberalism. Hillbilly Elegy’s alignment with it is surely another reason for the book’s sales success.

Capitalist neoliberalism encompasses a broad range of ideas, practices, and policies. Its diverse economic, political, and cultural projects promote, among other things, deregulation, privatization, the outsourcing of public services, fiscal austerity, global trade liberalization, supply-side monetarism rather than demand-side stimulation, financialization, marketization, anti-unionism, and massive taxes cuts for the superrich and corporations. At the individual level, it stresses personal responsibility for one’s own wellbeing

But wait. Things get a little more complicated. Vance isn’t saying that his hillbillies are perfect neoliberal subjects—just that they should become so. To get ahead, they must fix themselves but what holds them back is a dysfunctional ethno-regional, Scots-Irish culture. Here is where the two tracks of Hillbilly Elegy come together, or perhaps tensely collide, Vance’s personal memoir and his cultural one. One the personal level, Hillbilly Elegy is about the good choices Vance made that he believes allowed him to escape poverty. On the cultural level it is about good choices that “others in [his] neighborhood hadn’t” made because of their ethnic heritage. Never mind that the book’s premise about what Scots-Irish culture in Appalachia or elsewhere is based on stereotypes that have long been refuted, or that its demographic claim that the Scots-Irish ever constituted a majority of the Appalachian population is simply not true. Hillbilly Elegy is at once an advertisement for the neoliberal promised land of zombie-like entrepreneurial souls and an elegy for a dying but not yet dead-enough Scots-Irish regional culture that doesn’t really exist.

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Undoubtedly, efforts to understand voters’ choice for Donald Trump led many readers and much of the mass media to Hillbilly Elegy, probably the single factor that most directly contributed to the book’s phenomenal sales. (The New York Times hailed it as one of the most important books to read for understanding the election.) Despite its ultra conservative slant—Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell recommended it as his favorite book of 2016—many of its readers were political liberals according to an analysis in The Economist based on Amazon book sales. Readers of Hillbilly Elegy were far more likely to buy books like Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land rather than rightwing books such as Ann Coutler’s In Trump We Trust, Eric Bolling’s The Swamp, or Mark Levin’s Rediscovering Americanism. One hundred and fifty years of stereotypes about Appalachia and elitist stereotypes about poor people as “white trash” (shown by Isenberg to date back to the early colonial era) help to explain the why liberal readers might find J. D. Vance to be a plausible guide to the current political scene as well as a analgesic for any qualms over inequality and injustice in the United States.

Appalachia became what I call “Trumpalachia,” a media-constructed mythological realm, backward and homogenous. Appalachians were still “yesterday’s people” as they were described in the 1960s, but now it seems they had grown bitter, resentful, rightwing, and racist. Its supposed “cultural issues with racism, sexism, and homophobia” took center stage in liberals’ diagnosis of its pathology. “A perfect storm of economics, creeping conservatism and outright racism” was said to have spawned its turn to the right after decades in the Democratic column. Hillbillies were said to be in despair over their “perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.” The Guardian described them as part of “a backlash from white, working-class voters frustrated by their relative decline in status in America—symbolized, in part, of course, by its first black president.” “America is no longer white enough” for these voters wrote a New York Times columnist. “To these people, Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is not the empty rhetoric of a media-savvy con artist from Queens but a last-ditch rallying cry for the soul of a changing land where minorities will be the majority by the middle of the century.” Another stated: “Let’s put this clearly, the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.” Above all, white Appalachia came to be represented as “a tinderbox of resentment that ignited national politics.”

Appalachian voters did of course resoundingly support Donald Trump in 2016, and like non-metropolitan voters elsewhere, for a variety of reasons. For many, Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate remark that she would put “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work” was decisive. But there is more to the story than this. When asked to explain why Trump was so popular in Appalachia, J. D. Vance explained: “The simple answer is that these people—my people—are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.”

But that’s not true. Bernie Sanders did, and he beat Hillary Clinton in every county in West Virginia and almost all the counties in Appalachian Kentucky including all its coal counties in the presidential primaries, yet the national media gave this almost no attention at all. McDowell County, West Virginia probably got more media attention than any other place because while Obama had won a majority of votes there in 2008, Trump won by 74 percent in 2016. Significantly, however, Sanders won twice as many votes as Trump in the primary election there. When he was not on the ballot, however, 73 percent of McDowell’s registered voters simply stayed home and did not vote at all. Sanders strong support suggests to me that a significant number of voters in the coalfields and the wider region were prepared to vote for a more progressive candidate in the general election had one been available, not one indebted to Wall-Street.

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In the meantime, J. D. Vance has gone on to shore up his rightwing credentials. He has been discussed as a candidate for high political office and has established a non-profit organization in Ohio to fight “opiate abuse, save families, and create a pathway to the middle class.” Recently, he wrote the preface to the Heritage Foundation’s “2017 Index of Culture and Opportunity,” a Koch-funded reiteration of the culture of poverty thesis. In line with the Koch brothers who put their vast money behind down-ticket Republican candidates rather than Donald Trump, Vance reports that he loved but was terrified by Trump and voted for a conservative write-in candidate instead. Nevertheless, he was promoted by alt-right extremist Steve Bannon as a candidate for head of the Heritage Foundation. Vance is misguided, but he is no Steve Bannon. Given his depiction of hillbillies as a distinct race of disadvantaged white ethnics, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that Bannon, who called Hillbilly Elegy “a magnificent book,” would try to recruit him as a potential “ally.”

The top echelon of the super rich in America has never been wealthier, while the income of deeply indebted American wage earners has been stagnant for decades. Millions of people in the United States are forced to live in poverty, and millions more suffer from economic insecurity and severe hardship. Now is no time for identity politics and shibboleths about self-sufficiency and personal choice.

In “The Afterlife of a Memoir,” Aminatta Forno advises: “Write a memoir but only if you are sure you want to live with the consequences everyday for the rest of your life.” The great danger and ultimate tragedy of Hillbilly Elegy is not simply that it perpetuates Appalachian stereotypes. It is that it promotes toxic politics that will only further oppress the hillbillies that J. D. Vance professes to love and speak for.

 

*Appalachian readers will be familiar with the phrase “strange land and peculiar people” as an early instance of the “othering” of Appalachia. See Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978).

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When I read about Scott Pruitt’s trip to Hazard, Kentucky to announce the gutting of Barack Obama’s signature policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, I immediately turned to Dwight Billings—a West Virginia native, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, and preeminent scholar of Appalachia—to provide some context. I am pleased to publish this guest post by him. (Interested readers might also want to take a look at Billings’s review of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.)

Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the currently misnamed Environmental Protection Agency, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) traveled to Hazard, Kentucky in the economically depressed coalfields of Appalachia on 10 October to proclaim that the Democrats’ purported “War on Coal” was over—even though it was a war that was barely ever fought.

They came to announce the rollback of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, his administration’s effort to reduce the 2030 CO2 emissions of electricity-generating plants by 32 percent compared to 2005 levels, a key plank in the United States’ agreement to the 2016 Paris Accord on Climate Change that Trump has since revoked. The Clean Power Plan was to be achieved by cutting back on coal burning, substituting natural gas and renewable power sources (wind and solar), and encouraging conservation. But the EPA plan was never implemented. since it continues to be held up for review in the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt—climate change denier, advocate of fossil fuels, and now head of the EPA—led the charge by 27 fossil-fuel producing states to challenge the Obama EPA policy in court.

Despite Trump’s promise to Appalachian coal miners that they would be “going back to work” if he were elected, industry analysts suggest that annulling the Clean Coal Plan will actually do little or nothing to increase mining jobs in Central Appalachia, where the rollback was announced and where nearly 12 thousand mining jobs in eastern Kentucky (84 percent) have been lost since 2009. Aging coal-fired generating plants are being shuttered due largely to a combination of market factors—not regulation as Republicans and industry spokespersons claim—including the abundance of cheap natural gas (due to a hydraulic fracturing boom) and the rapidly declining costs of renewables. Domestic and international declines in coal demand since the 2008 depression and the longer-term effects of mechanization and surface mining also account for job loss. Further, as Appalachia’s richest coal seams are mostly depleted, Appalachian coal is becoming harder to recover. Surface mines in Kentucky produce on average only 3 short tons of coal per employee hour compared with the rate of 30 short tons per hour in the vast surface mines of Wyoming, Kentucky’s chief rival, which now account for more than 40 percent of the nation’s coal.

So why would Republicans announce their gutting of the Clean Power Plan in Hazard rather than, for instance, Wright, Wyoming? Several factors are at work.

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Black Thunder mine, in Wright, Wyoming

Trump has often proclaimed that he “loves” coal miners. Kentucky employs more miners than any other state except West Virginia. The iconic image of Appalachia’s hyper-masculine, hardworking, and self-sacrificing miners, ready to go back to work if only given the chance, better supports his administration’s public relations stunt in Hazard than would pictures of the monstrous earth-moving machines that dig massive amounts of coal with few employees in Wyoming or Appalachia. After all, the promise of jobs always trumps the environment, even when there aren’t any.

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Mountaintop removal near Hazard

And then there’s Hazard itself. (The irony of its name has not been lost on environmentalists who point out the hazards in the Trump/Pruitt plans to derail efforts to prevent climate change.) Located In the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian coalfields, Hazard is the county seat of Perry County, eastern Kentucky’s second largest coal producer and once its greatest. Thousands of acres across Perry County have been ravaged by decades of strip mining and mountaintop removal. One fourth of its people live in poverty. Far more of Hazard’s residents are employed in education and healthcare than coal mining, but coal has been the town’s historical lifeline and curse. One of Hazard’s favorite sons is billionaire coal baron Joe Craft, President and CEO of Alliance Resource Partners (ARP), the second largest coal producer in the eastern United States and one of the largest holders of coal reserves in the nation. Craft grew up in Hazard where his father was a coal lawyer and his grandfather, also a coal lawyer, was mayor in the 1920s. Like Pruitt (who also grew up in Kentucky and now lives in Tulsa), Craft is currently a Tulsa, Oklahoma resident (ARP is headquartered there with an office in Kentucky). But he maintains close ties to Hazard and is a major donor to Hazard’s Center of Excellence in Rural Health. Also like Pruitt, Craft is a Republican, a close associate of the Koch brothers, and, through his organizations, a million-dollar contributor to Trump’s presidential campaign. Craft’s hometown may not win any mining jobs from its renewed oath of fealty to King Coal, but its credentials as a foot soldier in Trump’s war on the climate have probably been secured.

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Finally, there is Mitch McConnell. Despite his vast war chest of campaign funds, McConnell is vulnerable. He is on the outs with Trump, and his aura as a Congressional wizard has been tarnished by his failure to bring a legislative end to Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Senators on the Republican right are calling for him to step down from his leadership position in the Senate. And, he is widely despised back home in Kentucky. With an approval rating of only 18 percent there, McConnell is the least popular of any U. S. Senator at home. Currently, only 37 percent of Kentuckians report they would reelect him. Small wonder then that McConnell would jump at the chance to remind Kentucky voters of his role in helping to end the fictive “War on Coal” he had helped to construct.* After all, he did much the same less than three weeks earlier when he toured Kentucky with new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch whose appointment he had helped to engineer—a trip the Associated Press described as a “home turf victory lap for McConnell.”

Victory laps and theatrical displays of symbolic politics, however, will not bring coal mining jobs back to eastern Kentucky, nor help the region move toward an economic future beyond coal. ** As a Lexington Herald-Leader staff writer asked the day after the Hazard ceremony, “How long will Kentuckians continue to be suckers?”***

 

*Earlier this year, McConnell pushed through Congressional repeal of the Obama Administration’s 2016 “Stream Protection Rule,” which had sought to protect water quality near mountaintop removal mine sites and was eight years in the making.

**Gone now, too, is the Obama Power Plus Plan that would have invested a billion dollars from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund in post-coal redevelopment. Trump has also proposed eliminating funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission which channels federal dollars toward economic diversification and job training in the region.

***Kentucky voters may have been suckered by Trump in the general election, but eastern Kentucky voters in the coal field counties and all West Virginia counties supported Sanders in the presidential primary election, an expression of frustration with politicians’ neglect of rural areas and an indicator of a desire for change.

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Last week, I promised a review of J. D. Vance’s new book‚ because I knew I could count on Dwight Billings—a West Virginia native, University of Kentucky sociologist, and preeminent scholar of Appalachia. I am pleased to publish this guest post by him.

J. D. Vance is a thirty-one year old graduate of Yale Law School and a principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm. He is also a political conservative and a self-described “hillbilly.” Vance was haphazardly raised by an unstable and abusive, drug and alcohol-addicted single-mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town “hemorrhaging jobs and hope.” His childhood was full of emotional trauma and economic insecurity. Vance says he wrote Hillbilly Elegy to explain how he overcame the obstacles of his childhood and the surrounding despair of his community. He attributes his success to his severe but loving hillbilly grandparents who preached the value of hard work and the American Dream of upward mobility as well as to an empowering stint in the Marine Corps. His other purpose for writing in these troubled economic times is to deliver a jeremiad to the white working- class, especially those of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia. Here he speaks like the stern but loving father-figure he never had. It is one thing to write a personal memoir but quite something else—something exceedingly audacious—to presume to write the “memoir” of a culture.

Vance notes that “Noble-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites” but more important, he contends, is “what goes on in the lives of real people when the economy goes south.” There is nothing wrong with that question, of course, but his answer points in the wrong direction. The real problem, he says, is about people “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

It’s often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But in this case you can. All you really need to know about Hillbilly Elegy can be learned from those who endorsed it on the back cover: Reihan Salam, Peter Thiel, and Amy Chua. Salam is the rightwing editor of the National Review. Thiel is the libertarian venture capitalist, hedge fund manager, and co-founder of PayPal who recently endorsed Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. Amy Chua, Vance’s mentor in law school, is the author of a controversial, best-selling book advocating harsh childrearing practices, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With her husband Jeb Rubenfeld, Chua also wrote The Triple Package, which purports to explain why some ethnic/cultural groups are more successful than others because of a sense of superiority, impulse control, and motivating levels of insecurity. Having backers like these—and conservative columnist David Brooks, who recently proclaimed in the New York Times that Hillbilly Elegy “is essential reading for this moment in history”—helps to explain the extraordinary but undeserved attention Vance’s book is getting.* Since Vance’s hillbilly losers are portrayed as the opposite of Chua and Rubenfeld’s winners, his endorsements also help to explain Vance’s bottom line: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . .These problems [drug addiction, teen pregnancy and illegitimacy, the lack of a work ethic, the inability to face the truth about one’s self, etc.] were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual neoliberal fix, is fix thyself.

There is, of course, nothing new here. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative Moynihan report on the black family in white face. But its compelling and at times heart-rending memoiristic style, appearing when there is considerable interest in the anger and alienation of the white working-class and its presumed support for Donald Trump, is likely fueling much of the book’s popular success.**

A nostalgic image of an Appalachian barn on the side of a dirt road is on the book’s front cover. But Vance knows little about contemporary Appalachia—certainly not the region’s vibrant grassroots struggles to build a post-coal economy. He has only visited family members in eastern Kentucky or attended funerals there. His inventory of pathological Appalachian traits—violence, fatalism, learned helplessness, poverty as a “family tradition”—reads like a catalog of stereotypes Appalachian scholars have worked so long to dispel. (See works by Henry Shapiro and Anthony Harkins for the origins of these persistent stereotypes and how they have been deployed for more than a century.) Vance’s Appalachia is refracted thru the distorted lens of his own dysfunctional family experience.

It makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from Tony Soprano.

The real focus of Hillbilly Elegy, however, is not Appalachia but the experience of Appalachian out-migrants. This topic has been expertly documented by serious scholars such as Chad Berry, Phillip Obermiller, and Harry Schwarzweller, James Brown, and Garth Mangalam, among others, but their research does not inform Hillbilly Elegy. Vance claims his authority to speak to and about this regional group on the basis of being a Scots-Irish descendant of Appalachia whose maternal grandparents migrated from the Kentucky Mountains to the Midwest for industrial work. They were rough, foul-mouthed, and violent. Vance describes his beloved grandmother—his “Mamaw”—as a “pistol-packing lunatic” who “came from a family that would shoot at your rather than argue with you” (p. 25). He claims that one of his Vance ancestors set off the Hatfield and McCoy feud and he seems to relish telling how his Mamaw once tried to kill his grandfather by setting him on fire with gasoline after he had passed out drunk. Nonetheless, his grandfather made a good living as a steelworker and he and his wife provided the “love and stability” Vance’s mother could never offer. Vance believes that their demands for hard work, discipline, and a love of America as the greatest country on earth enabled him to become, in my words, a little engine that could.

I tell my students in Appalachian studies courses to beware of two intellectual tendencies in writings about any group—essentialism (“this is the essence of what they are like”) and universalism (“everyone in the group is like this”). Vance heaps on both. I also warn them not to ontologize their neuroses. I picked up this advice from Arthur Mizman’s psychoanalytical study of Max Weber, which contended that Weber was guilty of trying to reconcile his childhood angst about the irreconcilable conflict between his pietistic mother and businessman father by writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Not to ontologize one’s personal and family neuroses by projecting them onto a culture or a regional group is good advice unless one is as brilliant a cultural analyst as Max Weber.

J. D. Vance is no Max Weber.

 

*Hillbilly Elegy premiered at number nine on the New York Times list of hardcover, nonfiction best-selling books. It is currently ranked number 5 in the Amazon list of best-selling books and number 1 in various specific categories (Sociology of Class, Poverty, and Ethnic Demographic Studies).

** For why Vance says he both loves and is terrified by Donald Trump, see the interview with him by Rod Dreher, “Trump: Tribune of Poor White People.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I take seriously the idea that representations of the economy are regularly produced and disseminated in many different forms and social sites. They are generated, of course, within the discipline of economics as well as by official (degreed) economists in think tanks, financial institutions, the media, and elsewhere. But, I argue, economic representations are also created and circulate outside economics—in a kind of Bakhtinian carnival—in academic departments other than economics (from anthropology to cultural studies) and outside the academy itself (in painting, film, graffiti, music, cartoons, and so on).

Some of these alternative economic representations I’m aware of. But there are many others I’m not. One of them showed up in a recent piece on “Feeling Let Down and Left Behind, With Little Hope for Better,” on the role of an e-cigarette shop in Wilkes County, North Carolina.

Lonnie Ramsay, 45, walked in looking for help. He described a nasty falling-out with his girlfriend and said he just wanted to get home to a nearby city. But he only had $25 to his name. He said he had been making $10 an hour at a factory.

One Friday afternoon someone brought a pair of virtual reality goggles hooked up to a laptop to the shop. Mr. Foster exhaled a cloud that smelled like a Popsicle. He said he had been reading up on the idea, explored in the “Zeitgeist” movie, of a “resource-based economy” — a system in which, he said, “There’s no money and everything is controlled by computers and resources are equally distributed and there’s no ownership or anything like that.”

“The system we have now is going to collapse,” he said. “And technology, the automation process, is going to keep taking over and over.”

That, he said, would free up people to do what they wanted.

Chris Lentz, 36, a worker for a utility company in a pair of mud-caked boots, frowned and asked, “If people were just given everything they ever needed, then what’s the point of going to work?”

And so it went: the thick, sweet haze; the frustrations, diversions and digital toys; and the sense, in this jagged, hyperconnected moment, that everything is possible, or nothing is.

The essay itself is a representation of the economy—of an America riddled with economic anxieties, based on the “Fear that an honest, 40-hour working-class job can no longer pay the bills.”

And then, in the midst of that representation, there’s another: a reference to the Zeitgeist film series, especially (I am guessing by the quotations) the second film, Zeitgeist: Addendum from 2008. It was produced and directed by Peter Joseph, as a sequel to the 2007 film, Zeitgeist: The Movie. (There’s a third installment, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, which premiered in 2011.)

What I find interesting about the film is less the conspiracy-driven analysis of the monetary system and the Federal Reserve (although there’s a certain validity to the idea that people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work in order to pay off their debt) than the argument that capitalism perpetuates the conditions it claims to address and that it’s possible to imagine a different economy, one that puts environmental friendliness, sustainability, and abundance as fundamental economic and social goals. Zeitgeist offers a particular representation of the economy as it is and how it can be made better, in a manner that runs directly counter to the representations offered by most official economists in the United States.

That and the fact that the film has been viewed on Youtube over half a million times.