They say that business owners are bad and exploitive. And workers are the unfortunate ones who are being exploited. That’s a pretty normal way of looking at things, even for non-Socialists.
That isn’t my view, however. Workers, on the whole, have a good thing going. We get the emotional satisfaction of labor and a steady, predictable paycheck. We don’t have any of our own money invested in the business, so we have nothing to lose. When our shift ends, we don’t have to think about the job at all; we can go home and focus our attention on cats and college basketball.
Owners have the chance to make more money, for sure. But money isn’t everything. Their role involves vastly more risk and stress.
Owners provide the jobs, and they often do not get peace or happiness in return.
With “The Little Foxes,” Socialist writer Lillian Hellman tries to paint business owners as rapacious and destructive. She fails. She also tries to present owners as mindlessly competitive and miserable. She succeeds mightily.
It’s the deep south, 1900. The three Hubbard siblings are already the richest folks in town. But they want more.
A northern industrialist has agreed to build a cotton factory. All the Hubbard clan has to do is line up the local politicians (easy) and come up with $75,000 each (not so easy).
Clever Ben has the cash and set up the deal. Angry Oscar has his share. All that’s missing is sister Regina (Bette Davis).
The catch for Regina is that her sick husband controls the money and they don’t get along. On the face of it, this puts Regina in a weak position.
The fun of “The Little Foxes” is that Regina never sees it that way. In her mind, she’s in total control. She has bargaining power because the deal falls through without her $75,000.
[spoiler alert] The film begins with a “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” vibe: unhappy rich southerners who ultimately love each other and have hearts of gold. But “Little Foxes” goes in a very different direction. It just keeps getting darker.
In the amazing climax, Regina’s husband is having a cardiac episode and pleads for Regina to go upstairs and get his medicine. Bette Davis sits there, stares at him, and waits for him to die.
Regina gets everything she wants and ends up alone and unhappy. Brother Oscar loses again and is angrier than ever.
Interestingly, Hellman and director William Wyler also show us a counterpoint to their anti-capitalism argument. Ben remains happy and upbeat the entire time. After being outfoxed by his sister, he just laughs and congratulates her.
Ben isn’t competitive or greedy. He’s driven by a sincere belief that it makes sense to move the cotton mill down south where the cotton grows.
Ben isn’t a hero and he isn’t naive: he understands that his plan only works because people in Alabama will labor for less than people in Massachusetts. But these are just natural regional differences in a big country.
It’s not as if he wants to move the factory to Asia, pay his workers next to nothing, and then import the finished product back to America with no tariff. That would be really bad.
Happy old Ben notwithstanding, “The Little Foxes” makes business ownership seem unfulfilling, corruptive, and stressful. I’ll take my regular 9 to 5 job any day.