Search View Archive

Inside the American Ruling Class: John Kirby And Libby Handros in conversation with Williams Cole

The American Ruling Class is a self-proclaimed “dramatic-documentary-musical” featuring ex-Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham as guide on a voyage of discovery into what is America’s “ruling class.” Part of the conceit involves following two Yale grads, one coming from a wealthy family and the other coming from more modest means, as they consider their career choices or “inevitabilities.” The film not only dives into a daunting and complex subject but its style is also highly experimental. For example, one memorable segment has Lapham bring the guys into a diner where, lo and behold, the immersion journalist Barbara Ehrenreich is waiting the tables, thus starting a musical number called “Nickel and Dimed that various low-wage workers sing in their real places of employment.” The Rail’s Williams Cole sat down with the film’s director, John Kirby, and its producer, Libby Handros, to discuss power, wealth, and happiness, and how Obama might not actually offer that much change.

Williams Cole (Rail): How did you come up with this kind of creative approach for a documentary?

Pete Seeger sings to one of the Yale grads.  Photo courtesy of The Press & The Public Project, Inc.
Pete Seeger sings to one of the Yale grads. Photo courtesy of The Press & The Public Project, Inc.

John Kirby: It took a long time. The class issue was at the top of all of our heads. But the thing for us was: how are we going to make this other than an ordinary documentary? It took a year or so of gestation to come up with the particular tone, and with more or less success we finally got there. I don’t even know if the musical part came first or the dramatic part came first. We knew we wanted to make a dramatic story, and we thought why not put musical elements in? At one point, I wanted to have Nina Simone sing this Phil Ochs tune, “The Ringing of Revolution,” at the Rainbow Room. Then we came up with the idea of using young men as guides that Lewis would counsel and we actually found the first one in my step-cousin who was this Harvard kid, blond, almost like too much of an archetype. Then I met a guy who wrote a song called “The Revolution Song,” and I heard it, and I thought “Oh my God, we can make this into an honest to goodness musical,” which really got me excited. I handed him a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and he came up with a great song with that same title.

Rail: Tell us more about that number.

Kirby: Well, it’s all real people in their real places of work. So in that sense, it is a “documentary musical” moment. We found them, gave them the cds to learn the song, and asked them “Can you sing?” People would say yes and we believed them. Sometimes that was true, sometimes it wasn’t. But they all did it, sometimes bravely. In Wal-Mart, for instance, we had to hide a camera on top of a bag of birdseed and inside of a bag with a cut-out hole, and we had seven spotters wandering around with hidden walkie talkies, you know, looking out for store security. But we managed to film that whole scene under the noses of the cameras and all that, so that was fun!

Rail: What about Lapham and his connection to the “ruling class”? How did that figure?

Lewis Lapham and Kurt Vonnegut speak to one of the Yale grads.  Photo courtesy of The Press & Public Project, Inc.
Lewis Lapham and Kurt Vonnegut speak to one of the Yale grads. Photo courtesy of The Press & Public Project, Inc.

Kirby: Well, Lewis would be proud to call himself a class traitor. I mean, his pedigree is truly incredible. He’s got a great-great-grandfather or something beyond that who was Secretary of War under Jefferson. He’s got relatives who have been in the oil business, and relatives who have been in the slave-trading business. He went to Hotchkiss and to Yale and then off to Cambridge. His brother was general council to the Central Intelligence Agency. He certainly could have taken—and you could argue that he actually did take—a high seat in society. Now, one could make a distinction between being on the steering committee of the ruling class—people like you imagine James Baker to be—and someone who’s the editor of a lefty intellectual journal. It’s true that certain foundation heads, certain magazine editors, are members of the influential class, and they probably don’t get to where they’re going unless they’re in some favor from the ruling class itself. Some people have called Lewis a gadfly in a disparaging way, but he’s definitely a guy who has gotten more radical as he’s gone forward. He would call himself a small-D democrat and a small-C conservative, and I think those are appropriate labels for him. He’s truly interested in conserving the republic as it was founded, and he’s truly interested in democracy. Nowadays, that makes him a radical because the forces of reaction are so potent.

Rail: How do you think he’s looked at by the class that he comes from? Isn’t there always some built-in space for high-class dissenters in modern capitalist society, at least those that don’t take up arms anyway?

Kirby: I think you’re right. I think the enlightened ruling class understands that you need to make that space and that they need to hear that voice to keep them in some balance with what’s going on. But with Lewis, he keeps getting invited to these things like the World Economic Forum in Davos—even though he writes scathing critiques of it. We asked him why and his answer was that those people just don’t read him up there. Maybe a few do.

Libby Handros: For example, a lot of Wall Street reads Doug Henwood’s The Left Business Observer because he’s smart, and they want to know what he’s thinking, and they’re not afraid to read the other side. I remember going with Lewis to a state dinner, the first one that the Clintons gave after the Monica thing. As we were walking up, Lewis said, “Don’t they read me? Haven’t they been reading what I’ve been writing?!”

Kirby: It’s useful when discussing a “ruling class” to make a distinction between the men of wealth and the men of power. Now, sometimes those two worlds meet, but one does not necessarily mean the other. And I think a lot of the men of wealth and business; they’re not men of power. As our friend Michael Parenti points out, the state comes in and says, “No, you can’t trade with Cuba.” But if it were up to the businessmen, they would trade with Cuba. There would be no embargo. They’re pragmatic. They’re not necessarily historical; they’re not necessarily born with thinking except how to build their business. They are, in a way, refreshingly neutral. Whereas the state comes in and says, “We need to make an example. We have to stop trade with Cuba.” They’re not interested in money.

Rail: Do you think, then, the film updates the nature of what the ruling class is in America these days?

Kirby: I would say that the film updates it to a point—a lot of barriers to ruling class entry have been lowered. It’s no longer simply an old boys’ club; there are different ethnicities involved. What becomes clear is that when you talk about running a large state you are looking for people who will maintain and preserve the system and extend it. You want to put responsibility in the hands of those people. Someone like Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brezinski. These guys are not Fords or Rockefellers. Now, that’s not to say that the Fords and the Rockefellers and the Carnegies have disappeared. David Rockefeller is still alive and is still up to God knows what. The guy has his finger in every pie. But I think that in many ways the wasp elite has gone underground to a certain extent but is still very much with us. It’s just that the membership circles have widened to a degree—even as the middle class is disappearing, and we look more and more pyramidical in our social structure. That’s where the film takes us—if you’re willing to be ruthless, and smart, and diplomatic, then you can make it to the ruling class as opposed to just being an owning class member or a celebrity. I would say that the film doesn’t go far enough about the degree to which power is centered in what C. Wright Mills calls the “Power Elite.” I think, personally, that military and intelligence play a larger role than we understand.

Rail: What do you make of Obama, who is giving people so much hope for change?

Handros: Obama comes out of the Chicago political machine. His wife’s family members were lieutenants in the Daley political machine. And it’s clear that Obama was selected. I mean, everyone who gives nominating speeches at the conventions is being lined up and tested. He rose to the top. I mean, anybody who thinks he’s a maverick and that Obama as president would give us all that he’s been talking about just has to dissect his speeches: “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, there’s hope.” That’s two cents worth of nothing, and as John is fond of pointing out, there is sort of a Republicrat/Demublican thing, a lack of a difference between the two parties. We’re in an energy meltdown among other things because of the suv; who gave us the suv and rechanged the emissions cap? It was Clinton. Who gave us Welfare-to-Work? Who changed all the infant and child and mother benefits? It was Clinton. So you can get a Democrat to institute certain reforms and changes that a Republican can never get away with, and Republicans can take on issues that Democrats won’t, like immigration.

Rail: Let’s get back to one important issue the film also addresses—how to do “good work” in society. It often means one that can afford not to get paid much. At the same time, how can you tell people who come from poverty that they shouldn’t want to be rich?

Kirby: Really, this is the fundamental problem with any class-based society. Everyone wants to get rich in America. Everyone may not want power, but everyone certainly wants to get rich. Of course that’s really sad. It’s a real cheapening and demeaning of the human spirit. It takes a rare person to eschew wealth when they haven’t had it. In the film, we have a girl who has grown up wealthy and is now rejecting it. Maybe it’s impossible to do otherwise in our society as it exists now. The point is, you see this class-striving, even from people who come from comfortable middle-class existences who then go onto places like Harvard and Yale. They are still so uncomfortable in their skin, despite having had this great education. Instead of putting a life of the mind as the pinnacle of achievement, these people value the basest things in life. It’s an American sickness that class matters as much as it does. It’s wrecking us. It’s making us stupid, it’s making us cruel, and it’s wrecking the earth as people are still buying their Escalades and their goddamn Humvees. What do you say about that? Unfortunately we’ll probably have to hit a wall before we can move on.

Handros: But what is it that we value? That’s the issue: what’s more important—the university professor, the school teacher, the cancer researcher, or the businessman? In the post-World War II era, what’s happened is the gap in income between certain types of jobs has gotten so extreme that it’s very, very hard to tell someone who comes from a lesser background, “Well, you know what, you should go teach. Or you should take your brain and do something that will be good for mankind.” It makes it even harder when they look at their fellow graduate who is going to make $2 million in a couple of years working in the financial sector.

Rail: Near the end of the film we see rich people on their death bed saying that “I want meaning.” So, in the end, can money buy you happiness?

Handros: The question that should be addressed is how much is too much? Obviously, a roof over your head and being able to eat, and being able to take care of your family, is important. And there’s a certain amount of money that means you don’t have to worry about emergencies. To worry about how you’re going to live can destroy absolutely everything in your life. But then, what is too much? Do you need to have your name carved into the public library like Steve Schwarzman is doing? What do you do with ten homes? How do you even keep them running and know what’s in them? It’s just insane; it’s ludicrous. There was that whole class, particularly when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, of what I would call the educated upper-middle class. It wasn’t that they had so much money, but they had good educations and decent lives and didn’t worry. That’s rapidly disappearing, yet I think these people have added so much to our culture and society.

Kirby: On the material vs. spiritual point, here’s a quote from the poet Matthew Arnold: “Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and a becoming.” You see people who are very wealthy around you, and you realize that some of them are the most miserable bastards around. Too little is corrupting, too much is corrupting. Living for acquisition is corrupting and stupefying, and I can tell you that 99% of the people who walk into therapists’ offices are people with “acquisition problems.” They basically have affluenza. They’ve gotten a lot, they live on the Upper East Side, and they’re constantly worried. They want double what they have. Their houses aren’t big enough or in the right place, etc. They get to shop every day, but somehow it’s never enough. It’s not fulfilling. I would say, by the way, the only answer is healing through activism. That is the ultimate Freudian, Marxian, Thomas Paine, Jeffersonian mix. You’ve got to go out and work on the world. And not just on yourself. Yes, you’re working on yourself as you go, always. But it’s the world that needs work and all of us that needs help from each other. If you’re active, and you’re trying to change the world, then you will be happier. And the people who aren’t doing that are invariably miserable, decadent, decaying, lifeless husks. So, vote Nader!

To learn more or purchase the dvd visit:


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

All Issues