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Is the Opposite of Capitalism Democracy? A Review of Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story

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CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
Directed By Michael Moore

Until Sicko (2007), Michael Moore's movies, from Roger & Me (1989) onward, showed a progression in radical questioning. We expected each movie to take us to the next logical step, and although each time he would refrain from going all the way, we felt it was only a matter of time before he did. Sicko was his most subversive movie, and his best by far, since he used the opportunity to comment not only on the health care industry, but on why capitalism as practiced in the U.S. fails to deliver a satisfactory quality of life for workers. What would follow? Why, a movie on capitalism itself, where we would rigorously learn the evils of the system itself, not a particular company or industry or cultural conflict or political cabal! So he takes us there, but unfortunately--while everyone should watch the movie--he again pulls back from the brink. He's no revolutionary, after all, we learn in Capitalism; he's unable, at last, to top what he's done in the preceding movie.

Capitalism has a very different visual and auditory aesthetic from Sicko. The anger is more manifest, the funereal music ubiquitous, the humor of the inserts (images from a century of collective amnesia and paranoia, otherwise known as popular culture) relatively flat, and the process of questioning not so much digressive, roundabout, and Socratic as top-down, linear, and loaded. The movie opens with the eviction of a family from a piece of land and the house they've owned for a long time, losing everything that gave them pride. All over America, there are similar tableaus of hardworking Americans confronting foreclosure, homelessness, and humiliation. Later in the movie, Alan Greenspan -- that protege of Ayn Rand, and maestro appointed by Ronald Reagan to run the Fed -- encourages, during the present decade, home owners to "tap into their home equity." Predatory "vultures" scour foreclosure listings to buy property at the lowest possible value -- this bottom-feeding is, for Moore, capitalist evil at its worst. No one cares what happens to the families whose lives have been ruined by the after-effects of the great financial hysteria that swept nearly all of us along.

All of which is true, but Moore is pulling punches. He keeps returning to Flint, Michigan, his lodestar and hometown, a place where the war on the working class truly gained momentum after Reagan's election in 1980, as General Motors and other employers continually downsized and outsourced, in order to forestall bankruptcy. (GM recently declared bankruptcy anyway, Moore points out.) Many people no doubt lost their homes in the last few years because they lost their incomes. Did others simply make bad decisions? Who should ultimately be responsible for their lack of financial savvy? Did many not get into financial trouble because they too were infected by greed, the same as the CEOs at the top of the pyramid? Just because Greenspan said you could tap into your home equity doesn't mean you have to; many didn't. Where is the praise for those who lived within their means, didn't fall for the seductions of the consumer economy?

Moore has well and truly run into the problem over which Marxists used to throw up their hands. Who is the revolutionary guard, when the system reaches a certain point of rot? In the last half hour of the movie, Moore explicitly turns to this question. At a Chicago factory, Republic Windows and Doors, workers laid off without notice deploy a sit-in to gain severance and vacation pay, and temporary health benefits. Moore presents this as a success -- and it is, as far as it goes -- but it is success of a particularly tainted kind. It rings hollow, when capitalism's systemic assaults go so deep, and spare no one. Can this sort of spontaneous "revolt" (this seems too strong a description for the examples Moore provides, of polite disobedience geared to achieving small, discrete purposes) lead to reorganization of American workers into strong unions, as used to be the case during the heyday of American manufacturing? To even pose the question is to betray mind-boggling naivete.

Which gets us to the biggest problem with Capitalism: its lack of historical insight, despite Moore's use of footage such as President Carter's famous 1979 eulogy for consumerism, or Ronald Reagan's 1950s corporate hucksterism, or even Franklin Roosevelt's late admonishment that the country needed a second, economic, bill of rights. Moore's father worked at the same factory for thirty years, and could afford some of the perks of the middle-class life, such as college education for children, vacations, and retirement savings. With the onset of globalization in the 1980s, all of that security was gone. Moore notes that though the German and Japanese industrial machines lay in ruins at the end of World War II, it is they who make the better cars now, not us. It wasn't quite paradise, America's Golden Age (which actually stalled in 1973, not 1980), as Moore shows, for a brief second or two, physical assaults on African-Americans and the dropping of bombs (presumably on Vietnam). So racism and imperialism were a necessary offshoot of the social contract, which worked for most Americans, but we need not focus too much on the evils then, because at least most Americans were getting a living wage, and Mom didn't need to work to make ends meet.

The "love story" in the movie's title reveals much; we (like Moore and his family) were once in love with what capitalism could do for us, in that hallowed age, but now we're not so much in love with it. Love usually means putting on blinders; why did we have them on in the first place? There has never been an intellectual class in this country able to mobilize popular opinion where it matters most, and we're not about to get one.

As is the problem with other populist (as opposed to truly systemic) renditions of the historic arc, Moore identifies greedy CEOs and Wall Street insiders (Goldman Sachs, above all) who buy off presidents as the culprits in this tragic story. The shortcomings of this personalization become obvious when Moore goes very easy on Obama, and even Bill Clinton, though the extent to which Obama has continued George W. Bush's policies must have been apparent by the time Moore wrapped up the movie, and certainly Clinton was the one who, after NAFTA, sent globalization (which is really what Moore is critiquing) into overdrive. Robert Rubin and Larry Summers get noticed for the amount of money they each made on Wall Street, following their stints at Treasury, but the real crime Rubin and Summers committed, as Moore notes, was to dismantle Glass-Steagall on Clinton's watch in 1999, setting off financial collapse. And Timothy Geithner, after all, was chosen by Obama to continue his "failures" (as William K. Black, Moore's most impressive interview subject, puts it) at another level altogether.

Obama is very lightly touched on, for the comment he made to Joe the Plumber that it's good for wealth to be spread around; Moore makes it sound as if Obama was indeed some kind of a closet socialist, but Wall Street panicked and quickly put him in his place. It's closer to the truth to say that Obama is the candidate Wall Street felt most comfortable with, to salvage it, to resurrect its image, and to continue its monopoly on American politics; and Obama has, so far, delivered big-time. Nary a disappointment for Wall Street in all that he has said and done. With news of financial ruin, Moore keeps interspersing Bush's creepy face--his squished eyebrows and beady eyes--but couldn't he as well, since the subject is Wall Street's bailout, show Obama's face? If Moore is making a movie called Capitalism-- that ultimate abstraction -- he ought not to get in the muck of individual personalities, channeling hatred this way or that, since individual leaders are beside the point. Carter may have delivered the malaise speeches; he was also the one to set deregulation in motion, and just as Clinton laid the groundwork for Bush to follow, so did Carter for Reagan in many ways.

What comes next after tapping into populist anger? Where is the argument, the manifesto, the plan, the vision? Angry laid-off workers with foreclosed homes and devastated retirement savings are as likely as not to turn to populist demagogues like Sarah Palin, and whoever follows in her train. To stoke the anger is fine, and Moore deserves enormous credit for pointing out the different ways that Wall Street and Washington have sold out the country, at the expense of people who want to do no more than live honorable lives as part of the social contract they grew up with, but how should the anger be channeled? No national party currently exists to mobilize popular frustration into any sort of an economic strategy good for workers. Indeed, the Democratic party is explicitly now a party not of workers, but of the alleged middle-class; there is a big difference. In the last election, among all the candidates running for president, only Dennis Kucinich offered any kind of a vision to address the kind of evil Moore shows in Capitalism. And someone like Kucinich doesn't have a shot in the oligarchic system capitalism has managed to set up as its political branch (Moore refers to a Citigroup document praising it as "plutonomy").

Moore explicitly states that we ought to turn to democracy as the alternative to capitalism. But the opposite of capitalism is not democracy, it is socialism. Democracy is the opposite of fascism. One might say that fascism is really corporate control of politics, which is the sense in which Moore is using the term capitalism, so in fact democracy would then be the opposite of capitalism. This is true, and it is convenient shorthand (to appeal to the masses, who may not understand what socialism entails), but it betrays the confusion in Moore's thought, in mixing up politics and the economy. Thus we fail to get a picture of deindustrialization as a perfectly rational, profit-making opportunity, in the context of global capitalism. Thus we fail to understand how the American empire of the 1950s and 1960s (during the supposed golden age for American workers) had to be continued in a different form, particularly after the end of the cold war, but that empire in its current version is not a fundamentally different beast. The two parties -- branches of the same corporate engine -- have a monopolistic stronghold. Wouldn't it be the first idea for democracy to break this stranglehold, to allow real alternatives to emerge? Where is the intellectual class to educate voters over the very long haul about this necessity? Moore shows how Congress, at least for a few days, put the $700 billion Wall Street bailout on hold; but he also shows how Bush then worked with Democrats to quickly turn that defeat into a success; Wall Street got exactly what it wanted after all.

A social welfare society would deliver a living wage, health care, job security, free higher education, consumer rights, and civil liberties for all. Just to mention these ideas seems ridiculously utopian, given our present political reality. The program would have to be led by a viable political party, able somehow to break though the combined strength of the capitalist juggernaut, which also happens to own the media. Let us not forget the so-called Reagan Democrats, typified by the Macomb County, Michigan working-class voters who stayed with Reagan despite deindustrialization, welfare cuts, and military aggression.

The agenda is continuous and one-sided, and remains so under Obama. Sure, Moore gives voice to the people in Capitalism. But it is a voice desperate and pleading and lost; the people are on their last legs, unable to think beyond today, deprived of oxygen. This movie can almost be read as a final victory statement of everything the evil capitalists, from Donald Regan to Robert Rubin, ever stood for, though Moore surely didn't intend it that way. His repeats of his signature move--trying to speak to top executives at company headquarters, and unable to break through the security cordon--prove this point; this time, there's no heart in it.