Some Dead Peasant Policy Holders. From Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
In the United States many large corporations take out secret ‘dead peasant’ or ‘dead janitor’ life insurance over the lives of rank-and-file workers for a tax-free payout on the death of an employee. Insurers have sold millions of these policies to companies such as Dow Chemical and others. Michael Moore in his documentary film, Capitalism: A Love Story, recounts the story of one young middle-manager who died of cancer, and whose employer received a payout exceeding US$1.5 million. His widow learned of this when the payout letter was mailed to her by mistake.
In Moore’s film no-one was aware of the origin of the term ‘dead peasant’. As I was watching the film, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel, Dead Souls, came immedately to mind. In Gogol’s novel, a savage social satire of pre-revolutionary Russia, the protagonist, Chichikov, an aspiring bourgeois con-artist, has hatched a get-rich scheme. His plan is to ingratiate himself with landowners and buy dead serfs, dead souls.
At the time the Russian government taxed landowners based on how many serfs they ‘owned’, as determined by the most recent census. As census were infrequent, landowners often had to pay taxes on dead serfs.
Once Chichikov had accumulated enough dead souls, his plan was to make massive borrowings against these phantom assets.
Sound familiar? How about if we substitute sub-prime mortgages for dead serfs?
Similarly, at times of war, there is no shortage of criminals and the unscrupulous who will seek to line their own pockets through corruption and profiteering.
Two films noir I have reviewed here at FilmsNoir.Net use war racketeering as plot elements. In April last year there was Allotment Wives (1945), the story of a woman who uses her social status and ill-gotten wealth to front a bigamy racket where women marry multiple GIs during WW2 to skim the allotment support paid by the Defense Dept to spouses of men on active duty. Last week I looked at Ride the Pink Horse (1947), where a disillusioned war vet wants to blackmail a war racketeer using a check made out to a crooked govt. official signed by the hood.
In Ride the Pink Horse, the hood when cornered at the end tries to talk his way clear by appealing to the vet’s bitter resentments. This spiel resonates just as strongly today and the argument has power because it is sadly still true: [the short clip of a few minutes has been removed by YouTube after NBC Universal claimed a breach of copyright].