Asked to pick a spot for lunch to discuss his new Netflix documentary, “Saving Capitalism,” Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, proposed Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, across the street from the New York Stock Exchange.
It was an odd choice. Mr. Reich, the pugnacious economist and ardent critic of income inequality, has spent his career railing against Wall Street and what he sees as its corrosive influence on American society. Bobby Van’s is a watering hole for investment bankers and stock traders.
Nonetheless, the maître d’ lit up as soon as Mr. Reich walked in the door. “I love your posts on Facebook,” said the host, a barrel-chested man wearing a power suit and pink tie. “I watch you on MSNBC all the time. Keep up the good work, Dr. Reich.”
Two decades removed from his position in the Clinton cabinet, Mr. Reich, 71, is a multi-platform attack dog of the far left, a verbose gadfly who can be counted on to deliver withering critiques of Republicans, Democrats, lobbyists, lawyers and even former colleagues.
His newfound social media acumen seems only to have made him more quarrelsome. He has more than a half million followers on Twitter, where he posts a daily fusillade of indignant tweets aimed at President Trump.
He is even more prolific on Facebook, where he has more than two million followers. His Facebook show, “The Reich Report,” has accumulated about 35 million views. A regular guest on cable news shows, his celebrity is remarkable for a former cabinet official — a labor secretary at that — and his fulminations have won him fans, like the Bobby Van’s host, who admire his sharp-witted sense of exasperation.
“Saving Capitalism,” which debuts on Netflix on Tuesday, is based on his 2015 book of the same name. It is his second film, and he has written 16 books, including “Supercapitalism” and “Beyond Outrage.”
But where the French economist Thomas Piketty brings an academic distance to his writing on inequality and Senator Bernie Sanders channels a righteous indignation in the political realm, Mr. Reich comes across as exactly what he is — a frumpy, sometimes pedantic professor from the University of California at Berkeley, eager to lecture anyone who will listen about our broken financial world.
“The central thesis of the book and the movie is that the game really is rigged,” he said over a small garden salad, which he ordered as an entree.
That thesis, presented with a look of grave concern, makes for an easy sound bite, but it can be hard to prove. Yet Mr. Reich gives it a try in “Saving Capitalism,” which was directed by Jacob Kornbluth, who also directed Mr. Reich’s previous film, “Inequality for All.”
”Saving Capitalism” follows Mr. Reich on a journey around the country as he talks to rural voters, politicians and small business owners. Along the way, using historical footage and animations, he explains what he says has been the systematic takeover of the legislative process by corporations and the wealthy.
Mr. Reich traces the origins of this effort to a paper that a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, who would later serve on the Supreme Court, wrote for the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1971. Known as the Powell Memo, the document called on big business and Wall Street to become more active in the political process.
Though the Powell Memo surely wasn’t the only reason, lobbyists began flooding Washington, and over the last 50 years, he said, many laws have been enacted that favor corporations and the wealthy.
Mr. Reich saw the early results of this influence as a staff member at the Federal Trade Commission during the Carter administration. When his agency proposed rules to curb food companies’ ability to market sugary products to children, the industry pushed back forcefully. The proposal was ultimately dropped.
As another example, Mr. Reich points to legislation like the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, which was ostensibly designed to help seniors pay for health care, but in actuality barred the government from using its clout to negotiate lower drug prices from pharmaceutical companies.
For Mr. Reich, these episodes and countless others he can cite are proof that lawmakers are more often than not looking out for the interests of corporations, not voters. “With great wealth has also come great political power,” he said. “Wealth buys everything from tax breaks, to bailouts, to subsidies, to laws that on their face look to be neutral, but actually help particular companies or industries or wealthy people.”
This is a sorry state of affairs, he suggests, and one that wasn’t inevitable. Democratic presidents could have embraced labor law reform and made it easier to form unions, he said. Politicians, workers and investors could have pushed back against the corporate raiders in the 1980s, who glorified short-term profits and made enormous personal fortunes. And the government could have resisted the push to deregulate Wall Street.
Putting the genie back in the bottle won’t be easy, though. As convincing as he is in making his case against the flaws in our current version of capitalism, Mr. Reich is less so when it comes to prescribing a remedy. He comes prepared with a laundry list of progressive pipe dreams. Get big money out of elections. Stop the revolving door between government and industry groups. End gerrymandering of voting districts. Raise the minimum wage.
Yet for any of these to happen, Democrats would have to start winning more elections. And at the end of the Netflix film, he implores viewers to organize and vote. He knows it won’t be easy, but he says the alternative is bleak. “If we’re not vigilant, we will lose our democracy,” he said. “The public is waking up to that fact.”
If it all sounds familiar, it is because Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and even Donald J. Trump have appealed to disaffected workers in recent presidential campaigns.
“The country is catching up with him,” Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said of Mr. Reich. “For a long time he was preaching in the wilderness. Now there’s a closer fit between his critique and how ordinary people view the world.”
Not surprisingly, Republicans disagree with Mr. Reich on just about everything. His arguments, they say, oversimplify the legislative process, misrepresent the true effects of some laws and ignore the ways in which big business has benefited workers and consumers. And Mr. Reich is sometimes criticized as a fabulist. His confessional memoir of his years in the Clinton administration, “Locked in the Cabinet,” included embellished scenes and dialogue.
In the new film, he takes credit for introducing Bill and Hillary Clinton, though they tell a different story that does not involve Mr. Reich. More recently, critics have questioned the veracity of a purported conversation he had with a former Republican member of congress that Mr. Reich shared on Facebook.
Yet for all his showmanship, Mr. Reich’s critiques have proved prescient in the past. Two years before the current round of hand-wringing about big technology firms, Mr. Reich warned about the growing influence of companies like Google and Facebook. And in 1994, while still labor secretary, he gave a speech that anticipated the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, and the resultant social strife.
“We are on the way to becoming a two-tiered society, composed of a few winners, and a larger group of Americans left behind, whose anger and whose disillusionment is easily manipulated,” he said. “Once unbottled, mass resentment can poison the very fabric of society, the moral integrity of a society, replacing ambition with envy, replacing tolerance with hate.”
Captured in “Saving Capitalism,” Mr. Reich’s remarks, made 23 years ago, could have just as easily been spoken today.