Schmucks With Powerbooks

December 19, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Americans usually think about class as money. But there are still areas where structural position and power trump income. Athletes, in strict Marxian terms, are part of the proletariat. They toil for wages, they have a union.

They aren’t the only well-paid workers of the world with a working-class consciousness. As we speak, some very well paid writers of movies and TV shows are walking the picket lines. The studios made an offer last week which they claim will pay writers an average of $230,000 a year. The Writers Guild considered it an insult. The offer and the claim were misleading, but even if they were accurate, the Marxian class division – bourgeoisie and proletariat, owners and workers – would still hold.

Nearly thirty years ago, Ben Stein wrote a book about the way Hollywood writers portrayed America (The View from Sunset Boulevard, 1979). The writers were making what by most standards was a lot of money. Stein, a conservative then and now, seemed to be especially puzzled by their demonization of business and wealth, not just in the scripts they wrote but in their private beliefs.
Even those with millions of dollars believed themselves to be part of a working class distinctly at odds with the exploiting classes – who, if the subject came up, were identified as the Rockefellers and multinational corporations. For an obscure reason, the name of Nixon was also thrown in frequently.
(Stein was a big Nixon fan and obviously sensitive to any mention of the name of his hero. He’d been a Nixon speechwriter, and some years later – I wish I could track down this quote – he said that Nixon had “the soul of a poet.”)

But a few pages later, Stein describes the structural position of the writer in classic Marxist terms:
The Hollywood TV writer . . . is actually in a business, selling his labor to brutally callous businessmen. One actually has to go through that experience of writing for money in Hollywood or anywhere else to realize just how unpleasant it is. Most of the pain comes from dealings with business people, such as agents or business affairs officers of production companies and networks.
And the current clash seems to be over surplus value (another Marxian term) in the form of residuals. It’s also about the owners’ expropriation of the workers’ product, for regardless of who actually creates the words in a script, the legal author of a movie is the studio. And I also suspect that at some level it’s about respect. I get the sense that the studios’ basic view of their employees hasn’t much changed since the days of Jack Warner, who said famously

Actors – schmucks. Writers – schmucks with Underwoods.
Except now the schmucks have Powerbooks, agents, and unions.

The LA Times has been running a good colloquy – or “dust-up” as they call it – between a writer and a media mogul discussing the strike. You can find it here.

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