Its a Wonderful Life is a film that functions on many levels, its in part a psychological investigation of depression and the way people come out of it, in part a film about the way that men and women fall in love, in part a bildungsroman and in part just a brilliantly crafted story and film, with amazing acting from the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed and Gloria Grahame. One aspect of this famous film that is often understated though is the fact that it is also a political film- which concentrates upon the way that human lives are bound together by ties of love and friendship and the way that individualism ultimately corrupts the polis. The film is divided into two segments- one in which the story of George Bailey is told and the other in which Bailey is given 'a great gift, a chance to see what the world would be like without him'. In the first segment we see the town of Bedford Falls, a slumbering Middle American town, and in the second, Pottersville the town as it would have been if Bailey had never lived and his enemy the millionaire Mr Potter had taken over. George is invited to see the distinction between the two as a justification for his life- as a means of seeing his acheivement in his life. Its up to us though to think seriously about what that acheivement is- before we return to think about Pottersville.
Bedford Falls is built around the Building and Loan- the Building and Loan Company is managed as a typical mutual. People are allowed to take out loans who would never have been loaned money by the Town Bank. Mr Potter at the beggining of the film tells him that his father never had any business sense- and George Bailey appears to be the same. Throughout the film in little ways we see that the society maintained by the financial organisation of the building and Loan company is one which denies the traditional values of the business world- so for example as George and his wife can't afford a honeymoon, their friends design a suite for them using posters ripped down from the walls. One of their friends turns round to another and tells him to stop taking down the posters- its against the law, the other turns back and asks him what law is when you have romance. The whole film in many ways makes this precise point- the ethics of mutualism are counterbalanced to the ethics of business. George as the linchpin of the town's mutual sustains this society- it is built on his self denial and all the way through the film George's life is a life of social self denial. Continuously he gives up things- whether it be his own career and dreams of travelling through Europe (to sustain the mutual against the Bank) or his own honeymoon (he gives all that money to the mutual to fund other people's houses) George lives by an ethic of mutualism and consequently reaps the rewards of friendship from others.
Pottersville on the other hand is a town built by selfishness- its presiding genius is selfish enough to give the whole town his own name. It is supposed to be a dystopic vision of the world as it would be if selfish instincts were left to run wild- women are beaten up, strangers thrown out of pubs, drunkenness proliferates and everyone reacts in a street smart way. The great state represented by the police anonymously arrests and holds people. Part-1984 and part-Rousseau's vision of capitalism the lack of mutualism and political friendship creates a nightmare world where everyone is out for themselves and lacks affection for each other. Capitalism and socialism together are big and anonymous and turned into monsters- the little looking out for the other fellow that Jimmy Stewart lauds in another Frank Capra film Mr Smith goes to Washington is destroyed. Without it human society loses its meaning because it loses all that makes it worth something.
Matthew Sinclair has recently addressed the idea that democracy is made up far less of voters than it is of citizens and for democracy to function well, its citizens need to behave in a way that is democratic. Matthew is right but his insight can be applied further. What sometimes gets lost in the argument between socialism and capitalism is the insight that the early theorists of capitalism like for instance Adam Smith, Tom Paine and Say had, that capitalism can only be accompanied by the creation not of consumers, who serve merely themselves, but of citizen consumers who act in mutual communities. Frank Capra's film is a massive statement in favour of principles of mutualism- neither socialist nor capitalist it aims at a third type of economic organisation. Obviously a film can't advance a systematic examination of how such a society would work, it can't answer the critique advanced by Gary Kammiya in Salon who worry about the spontaneity of a society of communities as opposed to individuals, but it can provide us with a moral critique of anonymous big society institutions that operate by laws of inexorable selfishness- and support a model of society based upon unselfishness and cooperation. Arguably it does present some of the downsides of such a society by using the template of Bailey's unhappiness to explore it- the perfect citizen becomes depressed because he has given so much of himself up to being a citizen, Capra offers us a vision of the collapse of the society through the consciousness of the individual. The last message of the angel Clarence to George Bailey is very illustrative in this regard. He writes inside a copy of Tom Sawyer that
no man is a failure who has friends
That is not merely a statement addressed to the depressive George Bailey, its also a political statement. Because George through his friendships props up and even creates the society of Bedford Falls- because George moves and operates by friendship not the logic of selfish wealth creation, he sustains the lives of others. In that sense what Capra offers is a truly republican vision of American society- one in which, as in the dreams of the early economists like Adam Smith- the operations of invisible hand and self interest coexist with citizenship and a society based on Neo-Roman virtues.