Looking for Bedford Falls

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is a heart-warming Christmas classic that, by exploring the life of the selfless yet frustrated George Bailey, masterfully affirms a politics of the common good. That is to say, Bailey’s adventure through despair helps him realise that the happiness he brings to his friends, family, and townsfolk is far more significant, and wholeheartedly fulfilling, than the fleeting pleasure that travelling the world on his own might have brought him. This, in more ways than one, countervails the dominant cultural assumption, far stronger now than it ever was back in Bailey’s time, that the primary responsibility of the individual is to pursue his or her own self-creation; to follow their bliss, as Joseph Campbell would put it, and prioritise one’s own fulfilment as a solitary, atomised creature. Capra’s success was demonstrating that the pursuit of individual gratification is an ignoble act. His masterful filmmaking makes it unavoidably clear that when we solely pursue our own ends, we create miserable, rootless communities defined by greed, cruelty, and indifference; places where living is expensive, and where being good to one another is unaffordable.

This analysis neatly explains, for example, why Michael Gove once claimed he would rather live in Pottersville — the bleak, seedy pit of despair that replaces George’s hometown if he were to never have been born — instead of the the warm solidarity of Bedford Falls. Only a man consoling himself with the greedy, Thatcherite delusions could come out with such a loathing view of the world; a perspective that only makes sense if one starts believing that the absence of society — where we relate only as atomised, self-seeking individuals — is both the beginning and the end of freedom. It is regrettable, then, that much like the communitarian experiments that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, this political philosophy has become the exception rather than the norm; for do we not all now live in our own little versions of Pottersville? Where the local pubs are always closing, the churches are eternally empty, our homes are constantly at the mercy of buy-to-let landlords, and where stagnant wages mean most of us work only to survive. You may not have realised it, but the eighties marked the rebirth of the West’s most attractive and yet subtlety destructive religion; the love of coin. And you better get in line, too, because those who value anything else these days — be it family, friends, community, or common good — are setting themselves up for nothing less than alienation.

Do not take my musings here as idealistic call for a utopian alternative. My understanding of the 20th century, and the host of talented political thinkers who, be it Marx or Plato, inspired the trailblazing movements that irrevocably scarred the people who lived through it, tells me that utopian projects are perhaps the worst way to solve problems and build a better world. Indeed, after six years of dedicated philosophical study, I have come to admire much more the great, quiet pragmatists; the men and women who think seriously about politics as a muddled, difficult practice that demands one keep their eyes firmly fixed on the nagging contingencies of the societies we inhabit. If you want to meet these people, here’s a handy list of bedside reading: George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Albert Camus. Give them a read, and you’ll get a sense of the strange political outlook that I have developed over the years; a perspective that, anathema to some, has shades of liberal, socialist, and conservative thought in its complexities of expression.

My admiration for Bedford Falls stems less so from any boundless blueprint of a just society, and more so from the firm conviction — validated, I think, by the greatest political achievements of the last few centuries — that solidarity in the pursuit of the common good is the fundamental basis of a healthy, confident, and long-lasting political community. This may sound a little vague, I admit, so let me clarify; the only political communities that are worth preserving are those that are able to sustain some sense that we can do better, that although we cannot engineer a perfect world, and that attempts to do so will simply collapse into something far worse, we are still completely capable of identifying pervasive miseries and ameliorating them. Politics, in this sense, is a practice of historical comparison that informs present choices; it is the practice of continually pushing the boundary of what is possible so as to protect and grow the wellbeing of the everyday citizen. When one drops the need to rationally justify and apologise for the present order, or defend the dream of a rootless place where ills of no kind exist, metaphysical bullshit becomes nothing more than an impediment to political progress. Not, as the utopian would suggest, progress toward that ideal end of history, but progress in the sense that we have more of the good stuff and less of the bad; where the measure of our success lies in how much better things are compared to how they were, or how they could have been.

This, I confess again, is still pretty vague — so let me give you an example of anti-utopian political pragmatism and the way in which utopians might have responded instead. When George marries his beloved Mary, he is gifted a hefty chunk of money for their honeymoon and future. On the day of his wedding, however, The Wall Street Crash begins; and the people of Bedford Falls are panicking about their loans and savings. George, at this point, is in charge of Bailey Brothers Building and Loan; a mutual bank, started by his late father, that helps the townspeople take out affordable mortgages for high-quality housing. Mr. Potter, the greedy property baron who owns most of everything in Bedford Falls, hates what the Building and Loan stands for, and is offering to buy anyone’s shares for roughly half of what they’re worth. If enough people give in to his offer, the community bank will die, Potter will own all of Bedford Falls, and high quality, affordable homes will be replaced by his steady supply of overpriced, dingy rental properties (sound familiar?).

George and Mary see through the panic, and Potter’s crocodile tears, but know that they have to do something to stop the townspeople from giving in to Potter’s devious offer. Their decision is at once completely baffling, at least from our twenty-first century perspective, but utterly in tune with their integrity: they use all but one dollar of their matrimony money to save the Building and Loan and stop Potter from establishing a complete tyranny. Their motivation for doing so is not some pipe-dreamy, starry-eyed opposition to markets. Nor is it a reflection of some deep-rooted loathing of businesses and their efforts to acquire and expand. No, George and Mary sacrifice their own wealth to make sure that the good people of Bedford Falls can afford safe, comfortable homes; that they can hit a bump in the road without having to worry about homelessness; that they can raise happy families free from needless economic anxiety; and that they can escape and avoid the groaning slums that await them all if they let Potter get his way. Saving the Building and Loan means more than just rescuing a bank; it means saving a community where everyone is indebted to one another, and where each person feels a sense of obligation to one another in light of the common good that has grown between them.

There is something radical in this anti-revolutionary politics: a communitarian, conservative articulation of social democracy that focuses on tackling problems and conditions instead of attempting to engineer a society of perfection that is miraculously free of them. This politics of solidarity, of the common good, stems directly from the non-Marxist, Christian tradition of socialism in Western politics; the ethos that gave birth to the Labour Party in Britain and both the Progressive and New Deal Era’s in the United States. Community, dignity, solidarity, and mutual obligation are the chief characteristics of this shared conception of society, and they are values that produce citizens and politicians who are far more active and attentive in practically addressing the needs of human beings, than those who preserve our presently neoliberal political culture; a culture that cherishes the growth of capital and consumption above and against all else.

Potter’s drive to become the chief plutocrat of Bedford Falls — and thereby transform it into Pottersville — rests on that same principled adulation of capital that characterises our present culture. And like all visionaries, be they the Hayekian liberals of today or Marxist revolutionaries of the 20th century, his conception of society is wrapped up in inhuman notions of what human beings meaningfully pursue. In his case, this means the pursuit of abstract, unrooted, external goods such as money, power, and status that hollow out society and the individuals who compose it. This is magically exposed when George’s guardian angel — after saving him from death — shows him how people treat one another in the Pottersville that replaces his home. They are selfish, cold, suspicious and rude to one another, highlighting that the relationship between a person and their community is fundamentally symbiotic. Good places create good people, and good people continually create and sustain good places. The absence of one necessarily undermines the other, in the sense that, if you pay an ungodly amount of money to rent a horrible house in an unloving community where nobody looks out for one another, you’re unlikely to come out the other end as the kind, welcoming, generous person that you otherwise could have been.

The political philosophy that Potter espouses is, therefore, neither pragmatic nor common sensical; it’s as ideological and idealistic as that vision drummed up by the most committed Marxist revolutionary. It prizes the pursuit of capital even if doing so means making a great deal of people miserable, and it gives those who subscribe to it a plethora of principles and reasons that, endlessly hollow as they might be, allow them to dress up their greed in notions of fairness, opportunity, independence, and respect. Through visions of Potersville, Capra shows that we all become poor — and not just financially — when we build our communities around Potter’s alluring worldview. He shows that the most significant, and yet utterly neglected, responsibility of those with any kind of power is to not just grow and change our communities; it is to preserve those meaningful things in our lives — our homes, families, shared spaces — from the always-insatiable appetite of capital.

George is horrified by Pottersville because it embodies the selfishness he for so long wished he had not abandoned. He realises that when everything is up for sale, and when we squander our commitment to one another, we end up with nothing. He begins to see that all of us — however big our dreams of seeing the world may be — not only need roots; he realises that we have a responsibility to keep ourselves and our communities rooted. Doing so often means sacrificing our most self-centred dreams and desires. It will also mean, for most of us, living with a certain degree of regret; a yearning for what might have been. The greatest wisdom of It’s a Wonderful Life, though, lies in its incessant reminder that it is precisely when we create communities with and through one another — when we give each other a sense of place — that any real freedom can be created and protected. It may not be, I admit, the freedom from responsibility, obligation, sacrifice and suffering that you dreamed of at the onset of life. It will, however, be freedom from the delusion that such a rootless, meaningless life would be worth living. A life of dreams, after all, is as cheap as it is expensive. A life of family, friends, a good home, and a common good, however, will always be priceless.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s