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It's the libidinal economy, stupid!

The box-office hit "The Wolf of Wall Street" is more than just a film about the irrationalities of the financial elites.

Last updated: 21 Jan 2014 11:29
Srecko Horvat

Srecko Horvat is a philosopher from Croatia. His latest books include "After the End of History. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement" (2013) and "What Does Europe Want?" (2013), co-authored with Slavoj Zizek and translated into ten languages.
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Leonardo DiCaprio's character portrays the story of Jordan Belfort, a former broker convicted of fraud [EPA]

The newest box-office hit "The Wolf of Wall Street" is much more than only a movie about the irrationalities of the financial elites

During Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign against sitting President George Bush Senior, the most memorable slogan was definitely "It's economy, stupid". If after the 2008 financial crisis Slavoj Zizek could rephrase it into "It's the political economy, stupid", with the newest Martin Scorsese's film we could say: "It's the libidinal economy, stupid!" Desires and drives not only form and govern individuals, they underlie capitalism, too.

Is greed fun?                                                                      

If the iconic Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" (1987) proclaimed that "greed is good" and the sequel "Money Never Sleeps" (2010) - that "greed is legal", then the "Wolf of Wall Street" showed that "greed is fun". After all, audiences all around the world laugh when Leonardo DiCaprio is crawling trying to reach his Ferrari or even when it comes to misogynistic relationships with women.

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Whether the most recent work of Martin Scorsese is a brilliant work of satire or it is just glorification of casino-capitalism, one thing is beyond doubt: It's about the deepest human drives and desires.

During a regular screening in a crowded movie theatre in Belgrade, with continuous rustling of popcorn and laughter in the background, the film found its ideal audience. Almost all spectators around me were literally dying from laughter for three hours. At the other corner of the world, during a pre-screening near the Goldman Sachs building in New York, bankers and brokers, having with popcorn and martinis, were cheering the main protagonist.

Although we are all aware that brokers like Gordon Gekko ("Wall Street") already caused several financial crises, even today, when he is at some restaurant, young brokers approach Michael Douglas and say: "Thanks, man, you're the reason why I'm working at Wall Street." Jordan Belfort, the real protagonist of "Wolf of Wall Street", also admitted that Gekko was his role model.

How do we explain that Gordon Gekko, this ultimate symbol of greed, became a good guy? We could say: No one is immune to wanting to earn more money. But how can we explain the strange overlapping of reactions to the "Wolf of Wall Street?" between a "normal" crowd living in a post-socialist impoverished country like Serbia and a crowd of bankers who all see Jordan Belfort as a hero?

First let us recall the story.

A wolf in broker's clothes

Based on true events, Scorsese's film follows the rise and fall of a young broker, portrayed in the film by Leonardo DiCaprio who is employed by a prominent firm on Wall Street in 1987.

After he loses his job on Black Monday, the young Belfort decides to set up his own business in a garage, and instead of operating with regular stocks, he chooses to work with penny stocks. He pumps up the price of shares worth a few cents to transform them into thousands of dollars and later to millions. And here starts the real rollercoaster ride for our anti-hero, which can be summed up as an everlasting wild orgy.

The point of the film is revealed by a detail that throws us back into the libidinal economy just after the narrator rationally tries to explain how he gained such wealth in the first place. Leonardo DiCaprio, in the best manner of characters from the early Woody Allen films, breaks the "fourth wall" and after trying to explain what an IPO (Initial Public Offering) is, stops and looks directly at the camera - and us, the audience - and says: "You know what, you're probably not following what I'm saying. The question is, 'was it legal?'"

"Titanic on drugs"

And exactly this is the "truth" of the film. "The Wolf of Wall Street" explains almost nothing. It's not the "Inside Job" or "Margin Call", which tried to show what's hidden behind the closed doors of Wall Street. Behind the doors of Stratton Oakmont lies nothing but a perpetual orgy, or in Jean-Francois Lyotard's vocabulary - "libidinal investments".

With 506 f-words, "The Wolf of Wall Street" has set a new record for a non-documentary film that was previously set by Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam". It's around 2.81 f-words a minute. And it's not only the f-word that is in excess. Sex and drugs are everywhere. The libidinal climax of the film is certainly a huge yacht that sinks just because our main hero wanted to get to Monaco during a dangerous storm.

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And what does Belfort do when the yacht, once owned by Coco Chanel, starts to sink? Just before a wave hits the yacht he will take a dose of his favourite "Quaaludes", a sedative-hypnotic drug popular during the early 1970s, because "it makes no sense to die sober". And that's the moment when the Belgrade audience, in an almost unanimous approval, burst out laughing, sympathising with the rich and licentious broker. This is the point when "The Wolf of Wall Street" turns into a "Titanic on drugs": Even when it is clear that the yacht will sink, the concern of Leonardo DiCaprio's character is not his wife's safety, but that last dose of "Quaaludes" to celebrate an almost certain act of self-destruction.

The rationality of irrationalities

And here is why "normal" crowds can cheer such a guy, even though he is responsible for their bankruptcies and miserable fates. It is "libidinal economy", the term coined by the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard. If Gordon Gekko was the symbol of (greedy) rationality on Wall Street, then Jordan Belfort is the symbol of its irrationality. But it would be wrong to conclude they stand in contradiction. The question of subjectivity, which is inseparable from enjoyment, is located in the very heart of political economy.

Take the famous experiment conducted by John Maynard Keynes in 1936, in his major work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, where he imagined a fictional newspaper contest in which participants have to choose six most beautiful women from a hundred photographs. The winner is the one whose six pictures come closest to the most popular combination of all participants' choices. The trick is not to choose the women who we think are the most beautiful, but rather the women that others would consider beautiful.

According to Keynes, it's a similar situation in the stock exchange: The winner is not the one that makes the greatest investment, but the one that understands the psychology of the masses, which is to say the subjectivity of other players. In other words, the price of a stock is not determined by its fundamental value, but rather by the opinion of others as to the value of those shares.

So, what necessarily comes with excessive elements of the system such as Jordan Belfort is the "administration" of subjectivity - "the micropolitics of desire" parallels the macropolitical economy of capitalism which functions exactly like the Keynes experiment.

Isn't the best proof of that found in the reactions to the last Greek elections? The day after the elections, newspapers triumphantly raved "Disaster Avoided", "Europe is saved", and "The world is relieved", while talking about "positive responses from stock markets around the world" and "the outcome that the markets most wanted to see". Markets today are like human beings: They have "expectations", can "see", and above all "react" simply on the basis of words.

If "The Wolf of Wall Street taught us anything, it's not only that desires and drives structure the very core of political economy, but that what looks like excess is not really excess. The excess is already part of the system.

Srecko Horvat is a philosopher from Croatia. His latest books include "After the End of History. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement" (2013) and "What Does Europe Want?" (2013), co-authored with Slavoj Zizek and translated into ten languages.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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