Cutting through the bullshit.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Capitalism: a love story

Revolutionaries steeped in Marxist theory and the history of class struggle who flog socialist papers on street corners and picket lines, who organise and leaflet for protest marches, play an important part in fomenting revolution.  But as everyone knows, ultimately, we are not the ones who are going to overthrow capitalism once and for all and create a new society based on solidarity and cooperation.  Cast in that role are the ordinary working grunts who make everything and do everything and comprise the vast majority of the world’s population.  It’s no mystery why ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’.  Through our collective activity in the process of revolution we learn that we have the capacity to run our society ourselves, in our own interests, without the benefit of bosses, politicians, and clergy.  It’s also through this process that we acquire the skills that enable us to organise production and distribution.

For all the criticism Michael Moore has copped for his latest film, Capitalism: a love story, he manages to address an audience of millions and tens of millions of the very people that revolutionaries can only dream of reaching in ones and twos.  So I was keen to see what message he was conveying and whether it was the kind of thing that would provoke people to walk out of the theatre proclaiming, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore’.  A free pass to the preview last night provided the opportunity.

As it turns out, I couldn’t form an impression of how it would impact on such an audience.  Screening in what I think is the biggest cinema in a pretty small town, the crowd didn’t quite fill it.  There was scattered applause at the end, which might have been for the film, or perhaps, as a comrade speculated, for Tony Babino’s swing rendition of The Internationale.  Anyway, I doubt the preview attracted many of the people I thought Moore was trying to reach. 

When push comes to shove, Moore does not seem to be a revolutionary.  He clearly wants to create enough anger to propel people onto the streets, but I think he would like our objective to be to ‘get Obama’s back’ so he can implement the ‘kinder and gentler society’ Moore believes he really wants in his heart of hearts. 

Furthermore, he resiles from pigeonholing himself as a socialist, as shown in this exchange from the end of his 24 September interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales on Democracy now!

AMY GOODMAN: In a word, would you describe yourself as a socialist?
AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.
MICHAEL MOORE: I’m a heterosexual. I’m, you know—I’m—I’m—
MICHAEL MOORE: I’m overweight.
AMY GOODMAN: —five, four—
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Moore, here on Democracy Now!

Maybe he’s not a socialist.  Or maybe he just doesn’t want to distance himself from the demographic he’s trying to appeal to by accepting the label.  But that’s not a criticism of the movie.  If he can motivate millions onto the streets, it won’t be up to him what we demand.

The film itself comprises interviews with foreclosees and politicians, pilots earning US$20K or less and economists, actor Wallace Shawn and some priests; footage of foreclosures and resistance to foreclosures, the inspiring and successful Republic Windows and Doors occupation, and Katrina victims stranded on rooftops; along with typical Mooreish stunts and scenes of dilapidated abandoned houses and demolished factory sites.  The ruling class is wise to him now, so he never gets close to a CEO.  If you’d never seen a Michael Moore gag before and missed the trailer, the ‘give back the money’ scene with the moneybags and the armoured car or the crime scene tape around Wall Street might have raised a chuckle or two, but on the whole I thought the stunts fell flat without making much of a point. 

This contrasts unfavourably with his brilliant 2007 effort Sicko, where he takes a group including volunteers from the 11 September 2001 disaster in New York who were denied medical coverage to the US concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay where the unconvicted prisoners are alleged to receive exemplary free health care.  Failing to gain entry, they receive free treatment in the unoccupied part of Cuba and procure ridiculously cheap prescriptions to take with them to the land of opportunity.  He also interviews doctors and patients in Canada, Britain, and France about the quality of treatment they provide and receive under the dreaded scourge of socialised medicine.  He also focuses on some of the victims of the US’s ‘nonprofit’ health insurance companies, forced into bankruptcy or worse when their insurers found loopholes in their policies and withheld or withdrew payment and interviews with the insurers’ employees, who explain how it’s done.  Frankly, I expected that movie to launch a healthcare revolt in the US.  From what he told Democracy Now!, Moore thinks Obama should have stuck to his erstwhile ‘single payer’ policy, claiming that would ‘it would make the town hall meetings and the teabag stuff look like the Disney Channel’.  According to a Rasmussen poll conducted in August, however, 57% of Americans oppose single payer, 52% believing it would reduce quality of care and 45% that it would increase costs!  Another Rasmussen survey, released yesterday, found that 51% oppose even Obama’s current lukewarm proposal.  So go figure.

In Capitalism, Moore lets his interviewees speak for themselves without glossing over, in fact emphasising, how inarticulate many of them are.  The grieving families of the victims of ‘Dead peasant’ schemes, where the employer somehow manages to name itself the beneficiary of life insurance policies, collecting in some cases millions of dollars and leaving the survivors with squat, are understandably choked up.  And he reveals in glaring detail the cynicism of the policyholders.

The foreclosees who earn US$1000 for a week’s work emptying and cleaning out their houses on behalf of the bank are poignant, but really don’t have a great deal to say.  I gather Moore dwells on them because they are iconic of his viewers – overweight, underpaid, and with no assets but the house they’ve lost to the ‘vultures’.  ‘There but for the grace of god’ sort of thing.  Time will tell whether depicting these victims’ sorrow and suppressed rage evokes the fury it deserves.

When it comes to the economists he interviews about derivatives and credit default swaps, their inability even to begin to explain what they do barely merits a snicker and leaves the viewer no better informed.  I suppose the point he’s making is that these exotic financial instruments are so arcane that nobody understands them, including the regulators, such as they may be.  It wasn’t at all obvious to me what Wallace Shaun contributed to the economic analysis, or to the movie.

I guess I have three principal complaints about Capitalism: a love story. 

Moore focuses his attention on a couple of the most cynical, depraved, in your face abuses of unregulated finance capital.  I think it would have been a more powerful condemnation of the capitalist system had it devoted some time the quotidian depravities that pass below the radar – the way under the dictatorship of capital, we ‘educate’ our children to groom them into adults who can successfully market themselves as if they were commodities to prospective employers who may then determine in their infinite wisdom whether they merit the privilege of being employed, literally, to do their bidding for a significant portion of their waking day for most of the days of their adult lives.  Stuff like that. 

It’s true that he does condemn capitalism outright as a system, but this is couched almost wholly in religious terms.  It was kind of clever to dub capitalist platitudes over scenes from Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth.  But then later in the film, he interviews two priests, not exactly selected at random – the ones who presided at his wedding and his sister’s – but he claims not chosen for their outspoken socialist positions, either.  They readily concede that capitalism is entirely contrary to Christian values and is indeed a ‘sin’.  The bishop he interviews makes similar concessions somewhat more reluctantly.  I suppose it goes without saying that in general I consider appeals to religion a counterproductive distraction.  But even if Moore is right to think it’s useful, in a country where over half the population is avowedly protestant, and less than a quarter catholic, I’m not convinced that this is the most persuasive strategy. 

The second issue is some confusion about class.  Moore is nostalgic for the middle class household he grew up in and seems to think everyone is entitled to.  His father, who appears briefly at the site of GM’s flattened AC Spark Plugs plant in Flint Michigan, where he worked for over 30 years in a unionised shop, earned enough on his single wage to pay off the house before Mike started school, enjoyed comprehensive medical and dental cover for the whole family, and had a generous retirement plan – benefits later generations of American workers can’t even imagine.  But the hard won gains organised workers achieved through decades of struggle do not magically elevate them into the middle class.  Small businesspersons, self employed professionals, middle managers, and the like are middle class.  Their relations to the means of production are quite distinct from those of workers, whose interests are systematically and diametrically opposed to our employers’ interests. 

From some of the things workers he spoke to said, I surmise that this is a common misconception, and maybe it helps to connect with that audience.  But by eliding relative prosperity with the actual relations of production, Moore misses the central contradiction of capitalism – the relation of exploitation whereby the boss pays workers the market value of their ability to work and enjoys the much greater rewards of the value that their labour creates.  Consequently, he can’t explain why it is workers, however well remunerated, who are uniquely positioned, as the middle class is not, to wrest control of production from the exploiters.

Arising directly from this, Capitalism: a love story is virtually silent on the crucial question of how we get from here – the dog eat dog world of production of social goods for private profit, of exploitation, oppression, poverty, and war, to there – a world of creation of social goods for social need, of empathy, solidarity, care for our only planet.

He does hint obliquely at a way forward in depicting the successful efforts of a small group of Miami residents – it looked to be about 30 strong – who held nine squad cars full of sheriffs at bay when they came to foreclose on a member’s home.  And as I mentioned before, there are scenes from the Republic occupation, which while inspirational, ultimately failed to inspire other workers to adopt their tactics, as I hoped it would at the time.  For their efforts, the Republic workers secured all their demands, which left each of them some six grand ahead, but still without their jobs.

In an ironic twist, on 10 September, too late to include in the film, Cook County court remanded Republic CEO Richard Gillman in custody when he was arraigned and failed to post the required US$10 million bail.

Gillman and two other undisclosed executives abandoned Republic Windows' crushing debt, stole its assets and secretly trucked the equipment from the plant to the new operation in Red Oak, Iowa, the charges alleged.

But that operation failed, too, just a month and a half after it started, leaving hundreds of employees from both Chicago and Iowa out of work and devastated.

All told, Gillman and the others defrauded company creditors who were owed at least $10 million and stole more than $200,000 cash from Republic Windows, prosecutors alleged.

Poetic justice.  The system must really work, after all.

Beyond that, he visits a worker owned robotics manufacturer and bread factory.  They are doing well at the moment, with assembly line workers at the bakery, he emphasises, earning three times the pay of an entry level pilot working for a regional airline in the US.  I gather he reckons this is the way forward, or perhaps backward, to the halcyon days of the long boom when factory workers earned enough to imagine they had become middle class.  To all appearances Moore is unaware of the failure of the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation, the kibbutz movement, and other experiments in worker management.  In isolation, such enterprises are doomed to fail.  If they refuse to exploit workers as ruthlessly as their competitors, they are almost certain to be forced out of business.  And if they exploit themselves effectively enough to survive, they aren’t much of an improvement.

On the whole, I thought Capitalism: a love story was not nearly as moving or funny as Sicko.  It fails to address crucial issues and is way off track on others.  But that would all be much much more than forgivable if it manages to connect with ordinary workers and mobilise them to start organising seriously against the capitalist behemoth.  As I always say, you never know what the last straw is going to be.  But it’s been over a month since the US release, attendance is declining steadily, and we haven’t yet witnessed an upsurge in working class mobilisation. 


  1. On reflection, to be fair, Moore does present some information about the banksters' shenanigans that may be entirely unfamiliar to a lot of his viewers.

  2. The only thing worth noting in this movie is the title. Both Moore, and his investors, certainly love capitalism. As usual his ridiculous antics and poorly thought out arguments makes any points he was trying to make worthless.

  3. somehow the sequence in miami of 30 or so people resisting the foreclosure on a member's home doesn't surprise me.

    when i was growing up in the US, the "american dream" was always portrayed as being able to own your own business -- somehow the pinnacle of freedom.

    but, according to delores hayden's great book (Redesigning the American Dream) that dream was slowly shifted, after WWII, to being able to own your own home and that might explain, very indirectly, moore's focus on saving a home from disclosure.

    now, as i watch the news, especially PBS (the so-called "public" education network in the US), it becomes fairly clear that the american dream has dwindled to being able to own your own car. time and time again, when the NOW show focuses on some struggling family, i am always struck by the newness and size of the vehicles these "poor" families drive. is car ownership the last refuge of the "american dream"?

  4. oops! i meant "foreclosure", not disclosure. slip of the tongue?

  5. Thanks for your comment, anonymous. I understand the reason you see so many new cars around in the US is that they are all leased. It's the same as a house or a tv - as long as you can make the minimum monthly payment, you can get what you want. Now that credit has dried up, it should erode ordinary people's standard of living appreciably and we'll see what happens.

  6. The flick was really great until I started researching, Pilots pay really isn't that bad. I gave up to since its just more capital BS from another source like Gore.