Dead Peasants…

Capitalism - A Love Affair

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].

9 thoughts on “Dead Peasants…”

  1. Hi! Tony,
    I thought that yesterday post unearthed crooked people doing unscrupulous things…but this post most definitely, take first prize!

    Tony, I must admit that you are taking this different approach …When it comes to juxtapositioning the darker side of today shady business practices with film(s) with noir theme(s) in the 40s and 50s that plots focused on dark business practices too…interesting.

    …Thanks, for the introduction to(and meaning of) the word(s) dead peasant’ or ‘dead janitor’ and featuring the film clip from the 1947 film “Ride The Pink Horse”…I recently, acquired a copy of the 1945 film Allotment Wives…, which I truly plan to watch only after you mentioned the film again in this review.
    Thanks for sharing!
    DeeDee 😉


  2. Aye, Tony, terrific reference there with Gogol’s DEAD SOULS, which I know well and have long-revered. And I know the basic situation you’ve described here too, as I’ve seen CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY.

    Ha! Your comparison here is telling:

    “Sound familiar? How about if we substitute sub-prime mortgages for dead serfs.”

    And yes I remember your review of ALLOTMENT WIVES and the racketeering elements. Ditto your most recent review. Excellent you tube clip too!


  3. Same here Sam.

    CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY was for me as an Aussie very informative. I had not heard of the “dead peasant” insurance or the radical action taken by factory workers to get their entitlements from Citibank, nor of FDR’s actions in support of the workers who occupied the GM plant in the 30s, and his intention for an expanded bill of rights.

    This said, Moore failed to explain the causes of the GFC in plain terms. His street antics looked silly and were I fear counter-productive, giving easy ammunition to his detractors. He was very short on a solution, his closing answer of ‘democracy’ was basically empty…


  4. Indeed Tony, on what you say about Moore’s film lacking a “solution” and his shameless grandstanding made his sincerity a hollow proposition. Still as for the informative aspect I quite agree.


  5. I like this post quite a bit, I happen to be a big Gogol fan (though I admit I’ve read just ‘Dead Souls’ and a collection of his short stories, of which ‘The Trenchcoat’ is included), I’ve also always loved the song ‘Dead Souls’ by Joy Division, and NIN cover version as well. It’s subtle in its connection, but there is one there.

    What can I add to the ‘dead peasant’ comment(s) and the fact that it exists? Shameless.


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