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On the Rentier

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

Extract

In Antiquity and the Middle Ages they who received slave or serf rents or in modern times rents from shares or bonds or similar sources—these are rentiers.

—Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”

On a long plane ride home on 1 january 2012, i saw the movie I Don't Know How She Does It (2011), a romantic comedy in which Sarah Jessica Parker plays a harried financial executive with two small children. The central issue is a common one: the conflict between work and family. And as is commonly true when this conflict is put at the center, the movie manages to be ambivalent about work without being very critical of it. It's not quite as uncritical as Mike Nichols's film Working Girl (1988), where we root for Melanie Griffith to make her spectacular rise despite the fact that the ladder she climbs is located in “Mergers and Acquisitions,” an activity then imagined as a sort of innocent corporate matchmaking. Three decades later and in an era when Occupy Wall Street has changed any number of conversations, I would like to think that studio heads have been obliged to consider possible adverse reactions to a heroine working in a financial investment firm. At any rate, I Don't Know How She Does It throws in one brief and unconvincing scene in which the upwardly mobile female exec unveils a new financial instrument that, she claims, will protect Americans' retirement income. This is, of course, an allusion, though perhaps a misguided one, to the widespread belief that if Americans today cannot retire when they had planned, it's precisely because of highly profitable trafficking in new financial instruments by companies like Sarah Jessica Parker's. But this belief (which I share) is not alluded to more directly. The only social consequences of work that seem to register are consequences for the heroine's family life. This means the movie can offer a simple solution to the work-family dilemma (no spoiler alerts: this film is already spoiled): if you're really good at your job, an appreciative boss will stop demanding that you pretend you don't also have a family. You can fly off to meet the big investors on Monday instead of leaving right now.

Type
Special Topic: Work Coordinated by Vicky Unruh
Copyright
Copyright © 2012 by The Modern Language Association of America

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References

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