I have a confession to make: I love It’s A Wonderful Life. You might like the movie, or you might find it cheesy. But I’m one of those people who tears up at the end of the film. Having seen it many times, I even get a bit choked up during the first half, watching the set up for those end moments. I would wager most people don’t have this reaction. Probably even fewer people are like me and get emotional at the points when the socialist message of the movie comes through the clearest. Because at its core It’s A Wonderful Life is a movie about socialism and how socialist values can triumph over capital. It makes a more thorough—though at times subtle—case for socialism than any piece of American popular culture I can think of and it contains as many lessons about solidarity and collective action as it does about the kind of holiday morality we usually associate with it.
I’m not the first person to point this out. When the holidays come around, you sometimes see an article that briefly mentions the movie’s economic or even socialist message. But I want to take a deeper dive. People have called it communist propaganda since it came out. It caught the attention of both the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. They did not like the fact that the movie portrayed the capitalist Henry F. Potter so negatively. Indeed, Potter is one of the classic villains of American cinema. He is also, I would argue, an accurate portrayal of what is wrong with capitalism. Despite his considerable wealth, he seems to have no other interest than accumulating even more money at the expense of Bedford Falls’ poorest citizens. He has no friends or family. He owns slums, department stores, the bus line and eventually the bank which he uses to squeeze people even more, so he can own even more. Yet he never seems happy.
Then we have the protagonists: George Bailey and the Bailey Building and Loan. George fights to keep this business going because he believes that Bedford Falls needs it, so that people have a place to go for loans and they don’t need to crawl to Potter. We get the impression that his father started the business for this purpose. This is one of the major conflicts taking place in this movie—the fight between the Bailey Building and Loan and Potter.
This institution that George Bailey repeatedly makes sacrifices to save is at the very least an attempt at a “socialist business.” For some residents of Bedford Falls, it offers a way to finance the building of a new home so they don’t have to live in Potter’s slums. For others, it is a place they can keep their money knowing it will get invested back into their community. We don’t have all the details on this fictional company’s operating practices, but we can get a good picture by looking at actual building and loan companies and paying attention to some key scenes from the movie.
According to Investopedia, “building and loan associations are usually mutually held, meaning that depositors and borrowers can direct the financial goals of the organization.” So people who deposit or borrow money with the Bailey Building and Loan have some kind of say in its operations. This is the basis of democratic socialist institutions. But it also presents a weak point for capital to exploit. When we look at the board it is made up of local businessmen, including Potter. I would estimate that these men deposited large amounts of money into the building and loan, which has given them seats. At one point we learn that Peter Bailey put Potter on the board in an attempt to placate him, a move he seems to regret. To make the institution truly socialist, the Baileys would have to change how they award seats, but the building and loan still has a collective element to it.
Potter can’t stand the Building and Loan. Mostly because it represents economic activity he can’t control, but also because the very idea of it is antithetical to his view of the world. After Peter Bailey dies, the board meets to decide who should succeed him as head of the BBL. Potter calls to liquidate the BBL and complains that it gives out loans too easily to people and that this creates “a discontented rabble instead of a thrifty working class.” Of course, this kind of argument has not disappeared. You can hear a whole array of right-wing pundits make similar claims today about how working people just need to work harder, or how they have a culture that does not value work. George Bailey had a response that gets me as choked up as the graveyard scene gets some people
What’d you say just a minute ago?… They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait! Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken-down that they… [sic] Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about . . . they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!
This speech impresses even the board of local businessmen. They decide not to liquidate the building and loan so long as George takes over for his father. Although George wants nothing more than to get out of Bedford Falls, he stays because he knows what it would mean for his hometown.
We see more of this solidarity at work in the bank run scene. A larger bank calls the loans of both the BBL and the local bank. Afraid that the BBL will go bust, worried customers crowd outside the door looking to get their money out while they still can. Potter sees this as an opportunity to buy the bank and the BBL. He sees people panicking and offers to buy their shares for half of what they are worth, thinking they would rather get half than lose everything if either the bank or the BBL goes under. In the case of the bank, the scheme works and Potter takes over. But when it comes to the building and loan George Bailey makes a passionate plea for solidarity that reminds everyone their well being is tied to that of their neighbors.
You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house… and in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?… I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there’ll never be another decent house built in this town. He’s already got charge of the bank. He’s got the bus line. He’s got the department stores. And now he’s after us. Why? Well, it’s very simple. Because we’re cutting in on his business, that’s why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides. Joe, you lived in one of his houses, didn’t you? Well, have you forgotten? Have you forgotten what he charged you for that broken-down shack? Ed. You know, you remember last year when things weren’t going so well, and you couldn’t make your payments. You didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would have let you keep it? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.
At this point people start complaining that they need money to pay their bills before the bank opens up again. Mary Bailey offers to use her and George’s honeymoon money to tide them over. This is one of many times George has sacrificed his own desire to see the broader world so he can save the little slice of it he has seen already. We see the solidarity of the working people of Bedford Falls prevent the capitalist villain from making their lives more difficult.
We get a glimpse of how terrible the town would become without the BBL later in the film when, George sees what it would be like if he had never been born. No longer Bedford Falls, “Pottersville” shows what happens when capital gets its way. On the surface it seems a much more lively place to live. Instead of the sleepy Norman Rockwell town, we see a place with an active nightlife. (Mary Bailey is an unmarried librarian, which is apparently the worst fate that could conceivably befall a woman.) But a closer look reveals how much the citizens of Pottersville suffer under the stress of a place dominated by unrestrained capital. Bailey Park—the development of low cost homes that George built—is a graveyard. The friends and neighbors he helped to get out of the slums still live there and their personal lives have suffered because of it. His friend Ernie the cab driver—who Potter complained should not have gotten a loan—is now divorced. No doubt his marriage could not stand the extra economic stress he went through. Bert the police officer goes from being a friendly figure to someone quick to draw his gun on George (who he thinks is mentally ill). Indeed, we see a lot more law enforcement in Pottersville to protect property rights and deal with the unrest caused by income inequality.
The friendly neighborhood bar run by Mr. Martini in the Bedford Falls universe is run by one of his employees in Pottersville. The crowd here looks either callous and well-off or beaten down and mean, looking to drown their sorrows more than celebrate life. In Pottersville, Nick the bartender squirts a panhandling Mr. Gower with soda. The Nick of Beford Falls would never do that, having shown concern for a crying George Bailey. Pottersville Nick makes homophobic cracks at George and Clarence the guardian angel, after Clarence mentions angels and tries to order some mulled wine. The two soon get kicked out for not fitting in. Though I’m sure Bedford Falls had its share of intolerance, when economic times are bad people become even more susceptible to bigotry.
The juxtaposition between the two versions of this community seem as relevant as ever. Due to the rampant exploitation of capital, many small towns that used to look like Bedford Falls now look far worse than Pottersville, which at least had jazz clubs. Instead, they are some kind of ruin of their former selves. We have a president whose real estate background and mean spirit brings to mind Henry Potter. A president who leverages the kind of bigotry that becomes easier to pander to in tough times.In fact, Trump almost makes Henry Potter look like George Bailey—a Potter presidency might be preferable to this one.
The film is also about the decision people make about whether to pursue wealth or to build a better world for all. George wants nothing more than to travel. He dreams of building grand structures for everyone to see, monuments to his own ego. But whenever he has to make a choice between this dream and helping the people of his town, he chooses the latter. On some level he realizes these dreams pale next to the homes he has built in Bedford Falls and the difference he has made in the lives of his neighbors. Potter tries to capitalize on George’s ambition. He flatters George and tells him that a bright young man deserves more than the average yokel. He offers him a job with a comfortable salary and the chance to travel like he has always wanted. When asked what will happen to the building and loan if he takes the job, Potter tells him not to worry. A lot of people would jump at this job offer and feel totally justified doing so. I can hear the refrain, “I need to do what is best for me and my family.” Of course Bailey declines the offer and tells Potter off… again.
We are reminded here that we should not measure ourselves by Potter’s or capital’s standards. We should not mark success according to salary, notoriety, or the perks we can gain for ourselves but rather by how we serve something greater. Not that building a better world requires everyone to wear a hair shirt. But we can learn something from George Bailey. You can’t buy or scare off somebody willing to make some personal sacrifices.
Despite having gender roles and racial caricatures that fall in line with the times, we do see some ethnic solidarity in the film. Bedford Falls has a large number of Italian immigrants. The film’s director Frank Capra was an Italian immigrant who dealt with his fair share of discrimination. John Wayne once said of him, “I’d like to take that little Dago son of a bitch and tear him into a million pieces and throw him into the ocean and watch him float back to Sicily where he belongs.” We see this racist attitude towards Italians reflected in the film when Potter ridicules George Bailey for “playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters” by helping them get loans for new homes. But the Baileys seem to love their Italian neighbors and take great joy in christening the Martini family’s new home—even as they drive home in a broken jalopy while their friends have brand new cars. As an Italian-American, It’s A Wonderful Life always provided a good depiction of how things have changed for the group I find myself in, and taught why we should do our best to welcome other newcomers the way the Baileys welcomed their Italian neighbors.
Some people might object to the labeling of It’s A Wonderful Life as “socialist.” I know that my Trump-voting uncle loves the movie. How socialist could it possibly be? To me, the socialist themes are obvious, and I’ve wondered why it’s not widely recognized this way. Why does my uncle identify with George Bailey even though he sounds a lot more like Potter when we discuss economic issues? The first reason is that no matter how socialized in structure an organization like the Bailey Building and Loan is, most people don’t recognize any kind of financial institution as socialist. It doesn’t matter that institutions like this and the solidarity that people in Bedford Falls show come a lot closer to what most socialists have in mind than gulags and bread lines. Right-wingers who like the movie just see George Bailey as a kind, honest businessman and Potter as a nasty, dishonest one.
The second reason gets a bit more complicated. People see George Bailey’s actions as having to do with his personal morality, not as having any kind of broader political significance. Considering that many of the good deeds he does are not of a strictly economic or political nature, this makes sense. You can find this skepticism on both the Left and the Right. To the Right, for whom the only acceptable form of collective economic action is charity, nothing about Bailey’s actions seem like socialism. They see socialism as something imposed on people by the government, and they don’t think of the movie as having a socialist message because George and his neighbors act in solidarity of their own free will. Likewise, many on the Left might just see the actions of one man and nothing that constitutes a political project of any kind. It’s “just” charity and interpersonal kindness. Some on the Left might make the mistake of thinking it’s not socialist because it does not involve government programs.
I think this message of the film gets overlooked by both Left and Right because it asks people to look at some of their economic choices through a moral lens. While right-wingers like Potter have no trouble arguing that moral failings contribute to a person’s own poverty, he would reject the idea that someone has a moral obligation to look out for the well being of others. In fact Potter does so explicitly in a scene where he suggests to Peter Bailey that he should foreclose on some people who can’t make their payments. “These families have children,” says Peter Bailey. “They’re not my children” responds Potter.
I hesitate to criticize the Left response. I worry that it sounds too much like the centrist liberal moralizing that I find tiresome and unhelpful. I don’t want to minimize the material conditions people need to grapple with and the often difficult choices they need to make in order to survive under these circumstances. I don’t want to suggest the mere presence of “good” people like George Bailey can solve systemic social problems. Nor do I ignore the fact that choices don’t always look as clear as they do in the movies.
But if It’s A Wonderful Life has a message, it is that our lives matter. How we live them matters. What we choose to do with our talents matters. Yes, material conditions influence our decisions. But not everyone who finds themself in the same situation makes the same decision. More importantly, not every situation calls for us to look out for number one above all else. Once we reach a certain level of of material wealth, it becomes harder to justify acting entirely in our own self interest, especially when it negatively affects others. Sometimes, like George Bailey, we do have a choice.
One thing I’ve noticed about the socialists I know is that they often find work doing something that helps others, when they could have had far more lucrative careers. They are teachers or they work at nonprofits. The half-dozen lawyers on the Current Affairs editorial staff could find high-paying jobs in big firms if they wanted to. If I wanted to, I could have found work that pays more than the jobs I have held (public librarian, stay-at-home dad, writer). The Henry Potters of the world will surely suggest that if someone is not rich it is because they could not hack it well enough to make a large salary. But the George Baileys of the world know better. To some extent, that seems as important to socialists as the desire for a socialized means of production. They reject capitalist values as well as capitalist economics. The George Baileys of the world might not get the extravagances Potter promises. But Potter never got the experience of mutual aid we see at the end of the film, nor any of the other things that really make for a wonderful life.