Date of Degree

2-2016

Document Type

Capstone Project

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor(s)

Roslyn Wallach Bologh

Subject Categories

Fiction | Political Economy

Keywords

New York, Public Housing, Democracy, Capitalism, Popular Culture, Fiction

Abstract

This capstone project takes the form of a popular fiction novel that introduces parts of the academic discussion on capitalism to a wider audience through storytelling. Using a fictional fiscal crisis in New York as its setting, the novel discusses the relationship between capitalism and democracy. It therefore aims to address the underrepresentation of the debate on capitalism in popular entertainment and raise awareness about some of the debate’s key issues.

Popular culture be that music, film, books, media, videogames or advertisement surround our lives and expose us to a plethora of messages that help shape our understanding of the world around us. In that sense popular culture both reflects and shapes society. Even so, some parts of society are reflected more than others and this gap is particularly apparent in the way discussion about capitalism is reflected in today’s popular entertainment.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, public interest in political economic topics has risen. In 2011 the Occupy Wall Street Movement raised public awareness about economic inequality, and in 2012 a survey by Pew Research Center shows about two-thirds of the American public believe the conflict between the rich and poor was “very strong” or “strong”, up 19 percentage points since 2009. There has been attempts to capture this trend in popular entertainment, yet none of the top selling fiction novels and movies since 2008 through 2015 feature stories on capitalism.

For instance the movies Joy and The Big Short, the only two movies out of 144 that features a capitalistic centered theme, earned a combined 0.7 percent of the total $11.1 billion in the 2015 domestic box office revenue, reflecting the degree to which capitalism is represented in popular entertainment that, if movies mirror society, falls short of the sentiment reflected in the Pew Research survey or the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

It raises the question whether capitalism makes for a likeable topic in the first place. Does realism have a place in popular entertainment when it is escapism that draws in a large audience? Susan Sontag’s reminder on anyone attempting to impose morality on literature is to “let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature – that matchless storyteller.”

This capstone project therefore seeks to address two questions. First, what can a fictional account of New York’s fiscal crisis tell us about the relationship between capitalism and democracy, and second, how to explain this relationship using popular entertainment that appeals to a mass audience? The novel must overcome the difficulty of simplifying the complex and dry topic of capitalism and condense it into a story that will grip readers’ attention.

The story’s concept is as follows: As New York City is on the verge of bankruptcy, newspaper reporter Elliott and photojournalist Bridget must race against time to expose corruption in public housing sales before a group of radical activists resort to terrorism to stop the injustice. But can Elliott and Bridget succeed, when powerful business interests obstruct their investigation, and the activists’ enigmatic leader draws the pair deeper into his world of violence?

The reason for using novel writing for this project is that despite today’s emphasis on escapism, storytelling remains an effective tool of education. From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which raised awareness on child labor, to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged with its advocacy of individualism and capitalism, storytelling can open readers’ minds.

The novels focuses on the conflict between capitalism and democracy through the struggle for New York’s public housing in a time of crisis. On one hand creditors demand New York sell its public housing to pay up its debt, while on the other hand citizens demand the city maintain public housing. The story explains the role of debt and how it affects society and thereby draw readers’ attention to the fundamental role financial capitalism plays and how it has been a key driver, although not necessarily the cause, behind many of worldwide financial crises from the one in New York in 1975 to recently in Greece.

In writing the novel I follow the conventional novel writing techniques to produce a story that despite its complicated and polarizing topic of capitalism appeals to a mass audience. Key to achieving this is character identification. The novel’s two main characters, Elliott and Bridget, represent readers’ polarized views on that topic. It enables readers to follow the story through the point of view of the character who most closely resemble their personal view, thereby avoiding the impression of grandstanding that Sontag has warned writers about. The alternating views do not result in a conflicting message, rather it allows the novel to depict the conflict between capitalism and democracy through different angles, giving readers the freedom to draw their own conclusion from it. Their conclusion then is what I hope will more closely reflect society’s sentiment on the question of income inequality.

The significance of this capstone project is not merely in introducing a critical take on capitalism, but also in trying to shift the public debate on capitalism beyond the tired dispute of capitalism versus socialism, which has only divided the public along partisan lines, to the more salient question of capitalism versus democracy. This project is also an attempt to defy popular entertainment’s prevailing trend of pursuing profit by pushing escapism to the point of losing touch with reality. It aims to show that what is relevant can also be entertaining.

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