Recently Leonardo DiCaprio did the interview circuit for his new movie “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a movie that depicted a wealthy trader on Wall Street who had a “lust for wealth and the lust for consuming everything around him.” This drove him to extremes of debauchery that make up much of the movie. It is an “honest” (a word DiCaprio used several times) portrayal of the contemporary “lust for greed,” a world of “wild and rampant” consumption, lacking rules and regulation, totally “desensitized to the debauchery” in all its forms.[i]
One can applaud DiCaprio for his brave stand against the evils and abuses of Wall Street wealth and his critic of greedy life-styles and conspicuous consumption. Yet, during these many interviews, no one seemed to see irony of this actor—whose net worth is over two million dollars, living a life of extravagant wealth—making a stand against the evils of wealthy and greed. Here was a man whose Malibu home has seven bedroom, six-and-a-half bathroom and runs for a mere $23,000,000…oh, and it is just one of three houses he owns, not to mention his island off of Belize.[ii] Further, no one questioned the fact that the profits from this “socially conscience” movie would add to an industry known for its “unregulated” practices and its “desensitized debauchery” (just watch any Hollywood awards show). Didn’t it strike anyone that DiCaprio’s distaste for conspicuous consumption might be in fact seem a little strange? Wouldn’t this be just like Miley Cyrus coming out as a campaign spokesperson for modesty?
It is this kind of crazy, mixed-up Alice-in-Wonderland world that is so well illustrated in The Rebel Sell by Joseph Heather and Andrew Potter. The authors suggest that there has been a long series of cultural critics who viewed society as completely permeated by capitalism and consumerism, advertising and big business, which have taken control of all aspects life. Their task was to “wake people up, unplug them, free them from the grip of the spectacle….through symbolic acts of resistance to suggest that something was not right in the world.”[iii] For forty years, various attempts to fight the system and be counter-cultural have been both misguided and counter-productive.
The entire counter-cultural movement was based on false theory of society as an impersonal and all persuasive machine that dictates all of life. This led to idea that the system must be either jammed or avoided completely, which meant living a life counter to its ideals and practices. This rebellion often took the form of “polymorphous perversity, or performance art, or modern primitivism, or mind-expanding drugs, or whatever else turns your crank.”[iv] In short, hedonism was the doctrine of the revolution. The authors point out that what these counter-culturalists were battling was in fact non-existent. There was no dictatorial machine running all of life that one simply needed to jam or escape. Society was in fact a mosaic of “billions of human beings pursuing some more or less plausible conception of the good, trying to cooperate with one another, and doing so with varying degrees of success. There is no single, overarching system that integrates it all.”[v] Because they chose battle with a “system,” their effort was “not just unhelpful, it was positively counter-productive.”[vi] The wonderful irony is that the system these revolutionaries saw as needing to be over-turned, in fact co-opted the very symbols of the rebel cultural and made them mainstream because the consumer system was based on providing ever new products and ideas for the customer to keep the system going. Counter-culturalists were in fact the new entrepreneurs, creating new styles of clothing, new products for sale, and new music for distribution. Being themselves embedded in the system, they seemed unaware that their rebellion and radical life-styles were only feeding the very machine that they were attempted to dismantle. Like DiCaprio, the very focus of their protest was being furthered through the methods and symbols of protest.
The sad reality is that the turn to hedonism as a way of social protest did little to persuade people to make “any sacrifices in the name of social change.” [vii] Dropping out of the system did nothing to bring important social change, while positive changes in racial equality, women’s and gay rights, and security for the poor have all been won within the system and through slow progress. The conclusion then is that the radical counter-culturalist that practiced hedonistic, unplugged, self-absorbed rebellion did little to bring substantial social change.
Two questions come to mind from this study. First, is the Church immune to this tendency of counter-culture stands becoming merchandise and mainstream? Showing my age, I remember the beginnings of the whole Jesus movement with its radical shift in music and clothing and worship, which now has amazingly become the norms in most churches. Even attempts at teaching people to be Radical today comes in nicely packaged DVD sets with leaders guide and has swept the churches to popular acclaim (again, the dripping irony of EVERYONE now being Radical). And when non-Christian youth are found wearing WWJD bracelets, we understand that even our attempts to live counter-culturally can be easily co-opted by the capitalist, consumer system where merchandising Jesus and marketing Christianity brings in a lot of money.
Second, how can the Church bring about real social change? If we take the lessons of The Rebel Sell seriously, it isn’t by unplugging, escaping, or even turning inward. It is remembering that we are dealing with real people who make up that colorful mosaic of society…and not a system. It is about living the kingdom faithfully among these people, which means: caring for people that are collateral damage from the system; making the hard personal sacrifices for others; it means practicing the work of the Good Samaritan, or the sheep in Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and Goat, or living out the Beatitudes. All are examples of radical, self-empting, Christ-like love. Real social change, Jesus way, will come from small Eucharistic communities whose simple lives of love and care in radical identification with the oppressed will bring change as yeast to bread. In our hedonistic, greedy and debauched society, this might in fact be a radically counter-cultural approach that would actually touch lives rather than sell products.
John F. Woodward
[i] Leonardo DiCaprio Interview: The Wolf of Wall Street, Part 1 & 2, accessed February 26, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8tQyUrqs04.
[ii] “Leonardo DiCaprio House: Breakin’ Up is Hard to do,” Celebrity Net Worth, accessed February 26, 2014, http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/celebrity-homes/leonardo-dicaprios-house-breakin-hard/.