Oeconomia

How does capitalism work? Does capitalism work? In Carmen Losmann’s new film, the director puts some very simple questions to leading business people: Where does money come from and where is it produced? How does a bank work? How can an economy grow while debts and the concentration of wealth is increasing? You may well be surprized by the vacuousness of some of the responses.

The “financial experts” answering – and often not answering – the questions are not irrelevant no marks. There’s the chief economist from the European Central Bank (ECB), and leading figures from BMW and the Allianz Bank. Yet on several occasions, they seem unable to understand the questions, even though these are not complicated and Losmann is prepared to repeat them several times.

Her modus operandi owe much to that great finance expert Lieutenant Columbo. Her opening questions come across as naive (and are thus much more effective when the answers that they produce are so inadequate). But just when her interviewees appear to dismiss her as being an uninformed little woman, she pounces with a deeply intelligent killer follow-up.

Sometimes the financiers concede that actually, she may have a point (there is a lovely scene where a worried PR person tries to correct a manager of the ECB, only to be swatted away and told “you don’t understand it properly. It’s much more complicated than that”). But the very best snippets are when the interviewees are slack jawed and unable to answer, while the camera stays on their silent faces for many seconds.

Sometimes the interviewees are not prepared to speak any further on the record, so their words are read out by actors. One speaks of the “elephant in the room” – that money is the result of debt, and the banks offer customers credit because they expect to make a profit. It is all smoke and mirrors – none of this money is actually real.

Meanwhile rich banks and bankers in the West make increased profits on the backs of increasingly impoverished and indebted countries and people in the Global South. This all carries on, barely challenged, because it is accepted as being natural. I mean, how could society be run any differently?

Losmann produces experts who show how part of the problem is how economics is taught in our schools. It’s not just that it’s being taught wrongly – the wrong things are being taught. I must testify to this from personal experience. I did economics in school, and though the concepts put forward in Oeconomia could not be simpler, at times my eyes started to glaze over. This is my problem (and that of my economics teachers), not Losmann’s.

Economics has been divorced from politics. Decisions about who profits and who starves are taken by unelected bankers, who – purely by coincidence, of course – are among the few who profit. Although the system is unsustainable in the long term, in the short term the gap between rich and poor – on a national and international level – continues to rise, and irreversible environmental damage is caused because there’s no short-term profit in saving the world.

The film is enhanced by the location shooting. Just about every shot is made in a soulless meeting room or beneath a concrete or glass-walled monolith. This is the Brave New World that neoliberal capitalism has brought to us, and it is very, very dull. The fate of our environment is in the hands of people (most of whom are rich, white men) who rarely come into contact with even a potted plant.

There are two wrong reactions to Oeconomia. The first is to say that the replies of Losmann’s interview partners are so inadequate that something must have been taken out in the edit. Her questions remain in the room, for any apologists of capitalism to try to deal with as best they can.

The second wrong reaction to the film would be to accuse it of not offering any solutions. That was not its point. Oeconomia has opened an important debate, and pointedly ends with a call for the audience to suggest its own solution. This is how a non-didactic film should be – making us aware of the serious problems we have in society, but understanding that any response must be communal.

Part of this response must be to engage with this film and encourage anyone you know to engage with it as well.

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