The American Ruling Class (2007)

Director John Kirby

“All ruling classes are based on merit”

The American Ruling Class is a film that describes itself as a “dramatic-documentary-musical.” It mixes a fictional narrative form with a traditional documentary: with two amateur actors playing the lead roles interviewing (or rather interacting with) various important figures in American society while being guided by Lewis Lapham throughout the film.

"Old Money"

The project of the film is rather straightforward, it asks a series of questions:  Is there an American ruling class?  If so, who is it comprised of?  and How does one join it?

It goes through these answers by having the two fiction characters, both recent graduates form Yale (one an aspiring business man who wants to work on Wall St. and the other an aspiring writer), meet various real life American figures.

The film oscillates from meetings with the business elite, to Democratic Socialist figures like Barbra Ehrenreich and “Reds” like Peter Seeger.  The characters are taken through various segments of American society, for example the sequence with Ehrenreich demonstrates how the working class is much more philanthropic than any wealthy businessman by what they provide to the ruling class and the amount they receive for their services (hint: not much).

My main problem with the film is that it takes the ruling class as more of a cultural phenomenon than an economic one to some extent.  The film constantly revisits the theme of “money rules everything” but doesn’t really do it from a very economic standpoint.  It’s all cultural to the writer of the film to some extent.  And while figures like Howard Zinn and Ehrenreich are featured in the film, they too (And perhaps as a result of the direction that the film wanted to go) focus on the “power of the elite via their desire to control” but not so much how the elite exist as a ruling class, and what that means.

The film also ends with a vague optimism about changing the world without prescribing any sort of way to do it.  While it does seem to be critical of the “change the system within” and the ending song even speaks of the “falling empire,” a real class analysis of how to change society is suspiciously absent here.  Now many Marxists would be accused of just projection too often their desire to see more class analysis in film and documentaries, especially when so much of it has been ignored even amongst the left today.  But in a film about the “American Ruling class” such a prescription of a more vibrant and militant labor movement seems to be the obvious conclusion here, but it doesn’t seem to be taken too seriously (other than a rather vague reference by Ehrenreich to “people will eventually demand better pay and change will come from that” in the middle of the film).

For the most part, from a Marxist stand point at least: the class analysis of the film is lacking quite a bit, yet it provides an interesting insider perspective on the American ruling class (often from the ruling class itself) and is certainly worth the time.  There are some awkward moments with the fictional characters, and the musical scenes aren’t really that good (although that could be a personal preference).  It critically examines the concept of the “American Dream” with the conclusion that the dream is a farce, but this could have been done in a more through way in terms of an actual class analysis. The cultural aspects of the ruling class are interesting, and just as interesting are the views of those who the film considers to be a part of that class. The answers to the questions the film sets out aren’t quite the clearest answers but the investigation the film goes into is pretty valuable nonetheless.

At the time of this writing the film can be viewed on Hulu