Here we were sitting in box seats in the balcony of a high-end theater. Who should appear but Karl Marx. Marx announces that the capitalists sitting right here – yes, we were dressed like the Monopoly Man – have to go. He grabs AIER President Ed Stringham by the lapels, lifts his body in the air, and hurls him off the balcony to the ground.
Then something else happens but I’m not going to spoil the plot for you. You will find out more when the full music video of the Marx vs. Mises rap battle releases this fall, posted on AIER’s media channels.
The moment was hilarious in a slightly morbid way, but the silliness of the scene disguises the incredibly hard work and creative genius that is behind what I think will be seen as a milestone achievement in economic thought. It is the “Hamilton” for economics, reducing vast treatises and a century of economic theorizing – indeed, the main debate in modern history – into rhyming couplets that speak to the core debate today in public life.
The video couldn’t be better timed. We are daily being told that markets have failed us (economically, technologically, culturally) and that we desperately need the state to take a much larger role. We must choose between two forms of control, socialism or national planning, because laissez faire is so obviously dangerous and almost dead.
This video seeks to reset the terms of the debate. It gives Marx a fair hearing (even being kind enough to exclude his most disgusting views on race and religion). He is permitted ample time to pontificate about his theory of history, the conflict-based narrative of economic life, the dangers of consumerism to the environment and our personalities, and to provide his answer of expropriating the exploiter class.
In fact, I can easily imagine a viewer watching this and thinking, this guy Marx has some swagger and makes great points that confirm what I’ve learned in class! I’m not among them but I can imagine it.
Then Mises shows up (I cheer!) to explain where Marxian theory goes wrong when it traces economic value to labor inputs only, how the socialist solution is wholly destructive of everything we love, how trusting the state to manage our lives is contrary to human dignity, peace, and prosperity. He gets deep into the history of thought, covers the terrible record of socialism, and ends on a high note that celebrates the freedom to trade, own, create, associate, and love.
Consider just how important this message is right now. A vast amount of the modern political and economic debate is a distraction. Socialism vs nationalism, two forms of collectivism both claiming to better embody the values of the country, both empowering the state in different ways.
The real debate is between freedom and state control. It matters not for our liberty and prosperity whether that control is branded this way or that way. State control of our lives is made no more workable or consistent with human rights when the excuse under which it is enacted fits with our own personal vision of how the social order should work. Ideology cannot overcome the brutal reality of political control.
This (in my view) is the great takeaway from this video. However, because this is also beautiful art, I can imagine that some people will come away thinking that Marx makes a number of good points, as strange as that sounds. What matters here is the framing of the debate. It doesn’t, perhaps, finally settle that right and wrong of the debate. But it provides clarity in how to think, and (we can hope) inspires viewers toward more serious thought. And study. It was Mises who said that liberalism wins not through bombast and demagoguery but through clarity and reason.
The proper framing of the terms of the debate is a remarkable achievement that fundamentally upsets the current political narrative. That’s what this video achieves.
The debate I’ve just described is the main event but it takes place in several different fields of action: in the theater, on the balcony, in the concession stand, and even on the streets with protesters facing off against each other and against the police that arrive to break it up. Violence nearly erupts. On the set in the streets, even I (working as an extra) felt it. Extremely powerful.
The magic will emerge in the editing process in which all this will toggle between each scene and be surrounded by a genuinely compelling story of two gentlemen who disagree, going to a movie with a lively audience behind them.
The Creative Process
Let me offer some thoughts on the creative process of moviemaking here, simply because most people will not find themselves on a movie set working the strange hours of the industry (1pm-3am).
There are some professions in which a person is tasked with imagining the existence of something that doesn’t yet exist and then bringing it into being. This is what entrepreneurial capitalists do in the marketplace. They see a product or service in their heads – an act of faith – and then work furiously to instantiate it in real life.
An artist is the same. The painter starts with a blank canvas and sees the finished product in his mind and then works to reveal it. The composer of a symphony experiences a furious unfolding of a musical piece in his mind and then scratches together dots on paper to represent what he hears. The choral conductor hears the perfect performance in his head and rehearses the choir relentlessly in order that the singers realize this vision.
Michelangelo is supposed to have said: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”
That’s the essence of true artistic genius.
It’s a remarkable talent, one that only a minority of creative geniuses possess. Having that talent in one area doesn’t mean it appears in other areas. Some people’s capacity for creativity is focus on a specific sector over which they have developed expertise and wild passion. They are the people who cause the narrative history to shift.
It’s been my great honor and privilege to see this process working itself out in the passion of the director, the producers, and the actors in the making of this film, the title of which is: The March of History. The actors who play Marx and Mises (Tyler and Tripp of YouTube fame) worked to memorize long and complicated lyrics, doing takes more than a dozen times at least, working hard until the wee morning hours. The extras threw themselves into the action the instant they were asked, earning every penny. You won’t believe the exuberance of the dancers, especially the ticket-taking girl whose camera presence seems destined for stardom.
In the end, there will be hundreds of people involved in the production of this piece. Above all, I must give a shout out to the man who wrote the words, mapped out the story, shot much of the film, operated the drone, chose the music, framed the ethos, and so much more.
He is John Papola, the creator of the first and second economics rap videos. To watch him work is to see a man “in the zone” for 12 straight hours, with a nonstop focus on excellence and integrity. Absolutely tireless. It was an inspiration! And yet, even late in the evening, after grueling hours and hard frustration, he still managed to carry himself lightly, smile, and laugh.
Which reminds me of a final point here: there is an element of humor in this whole video. It deals with hugely serious subjects but does so with a smile and invitation to learn. In this sense, it makes yet another contribution to the cultural moment. It lightens things up a bit and encourages everyone to think from a different point of view, without treating your opponents as enemies.
Yes, I know you want to see this now. Let’s wait a few months. It will be here before you know it. You can enjoy re-reading this piece once you see the film and considering all that went into making it. In the meantime, there is still time to support marketing efforts for which we are currently raising money at IndieGoGo.
We are planning a series of videos that follow, including interviews with scholars, activists on the ground, and reports from around the world. Already AIER has produced a book of The Best of Ludwig von Mises.