Monday, June 21, 2010

Capitalism: A Love Story (Overture, Starz, Paramount Vantage, Liberty Media, Anchor Bay, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was one I’d recently ordered from Columbia House and which I’d really wanted to see: Michael Moore’s latest Leftist documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story — which he clearly intended (or at least hoped) as a political game-changer that would force Americans to re-examine their infatuation with the private sector and the alleged infallibility of the “free market” — and which instead, like his last film Sicko (a methodical destruction of the myths surrounding America’s health-care non-system and an open propaganda piece for single-payer), came and went, got seen by a disappointingly small number of people and didn’t affect the political debate one whit. He’s not kidding with that title: America really does have a love affair with capitalism, which seems not to have abated much even while real-world capitalism did that spectacular flame-out and near-total self-destruction in late 2008 (you remember) and even while the love affair is totally unrequited.

Basically, Moore’s is a tale of sin, redemption and new sin: in his telling of economic history, the struggles of organized labor in the 1930’s (let’s face it: for Michael Moore all roads lead back to Flint, Michigan, where he grew up and his father worked in the AC spark plug plant, a division of General Motors, for 30 years, and he shows film clips of the 1937 GM sit-down strike in Flint as well as clips from his film Roger and Me and a few glimpses of Flint today, such a barren wasteland that he and his father can’t quite locate the spot where the plant Moore, Sr. worked in for 30 years once stood), America’s emergence at the end of World War II as the world’s largest industrial power (helped, Moore points out and illustrates with film clips, by the destruction of the industrial infrastructure of Germany and Japan by U.S. and Allied bombing raids during World War II) and the lack of international competition for the U.S. auto industry in the 1950’s led to a golden age in which people had industrial jobs for life, they were able to lead middle-class lifestyles (including regular vacations and employer-paid health care) and send their kids to college without student loans.

Then … I’d date the era when that started to fall apart as the 1960’s but Moore puts it a decade later, when Jimmy Carter (who comes off rather well in Capitalism: A Love Story — from Moore’s film you wouldn’t get the impression that the deregulatory frenzy that reached its peak under Reagan and subsequent presidents really began in the four years of Carter and a Democratic Congress, but in fact it did) made his “era of limits” speech (the speech is remembered as the “malaise” speech, though Carter at no time used that word — judging from the clip included here, it seems as if Carter was attempting to level with the American people about the challenges ahead and the need to scale back their expectations of the future in the face of rising energy prices and the impending end of cheap fossil fuels — and attempting to level with the American people about such matters is a mistake no American president has done since, at least not until Obama threw out a few hints along those lines in his recent Oval Office speech about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) and the American people responded by throwing him out of office and putting in someone who told them what they wanted to hear: that America had an unlimited future if we’d only get all those pesky government bureaucrats out of the way, unleash the power of the private sector and give them tax cuts so they’d have more money to stimulate the economy and pull us out of recession. Moore’s treatment of Ronald Reagan is cheerily irreverent — a nice antidote to the relentless Republican propaganda that has turned him into a virtual saint, seemingly deserving of a place alongside Washington and Lincoln on Mount Rushmore (and, to the American Right, more deserving of a place there than RINO Theodore Roosevelt, who actually said nasty things about corporations and was the first U.S. president to make preserving the environment a priority).

Capitalism: A Love Story is at its best when it documents the human costs of rampant capitalism and the deregulatory mania that has been sustained by both major U.S. political parties at least since the 1970’s: the airline pilots who have to work second jobs as waiters or collect food stamps (or both) to make ends meet; companies like Wal-Mart that take out life insurance policies on their employees (industry-speak for this is “dead peasant” policies!) with themselves as the beneficiaries, so their workers are literally worth more to them dead than alive; the people who’ve lost their homes and farms because they signed up for refinancings they couldn’t afford once the economy turned south (and for those inclined to blame every foreclosure victim for having got in over their heads, Moore deftly intercuts this with old commercials for Countrywide and similar companies illustrating just how the people were misled and sold a bit of goods). It’s at its weakest when Moore tries to pull the old-fashioned agent provocateur stunts that made his reputation — like trying to get into the offices of Goldman Sachs and AIG to make citizens’ arrests of their CEO’s and, when he fails, wrapping their buildings in crime-scene tape — moments of levity that worked in his early films but seem to clash with his increasingly somber message.

It occurred to me, beginning with Bowling for Columbine, that Moore lost his faith in America’s leadership class: when he made Roger and Me he still seemed to have the idea that both America’s political and corporate ruling class would clean up their act and move away from such highly destructive actions once they realized how many real-world people they were hurting. Moore may never have been that naïve in real life, but that’s the impression he gave in his early films — until Bowling for Columbine, when his radicalism began to turn into a fatalism, a suggestion that there’s just something mean and nasty about the American character that leads them to blind faith in the “free market” and a worship of greed and corporate power.

When I reviewed Bowling for Columbine in 2003 I quoted Moore’s comments at the Cannes Film Festival when he introduced that movie — “Historians will write about us in the same way we now read of the Greeks and Romans — as warrior cultures hell-bent on killing people. We think of ourselves as more civilized, but trust me, five hundred years from now that’s how historians and anthropologists will describe us — as a very strange group” — and it’s worth noting that he begins Capitalism: A Love Story almost exactly the same way: with an Encyclopedia Britannica film from the 1950’s about life in ancient Rome (depicted by clips from a Hollywood extravaganza — the 1952 Quo Vadis?, I suspect — because life in ancient Rome was shown far more spectacularly than it could have been on a Britannica film’s budget) in which a narrator made the point that Rome had once been a republic, governed by elected leaders, until its worship of money and greed led it to become an empire, a dictatorship in which virtually every sort of power and privilege were for sale.

What’s most disappointing about Capitalism: A Love Story to me is that Moore offers surprisingly little insight into why Americans have this fierce, ongoing, unrequited love affair with capitalism, to the point where any alternative way of organizing the economy (even the kinds of worker self-determination practiced in Germany, the guaranteed labor rights of the U.S.-dictated constitution in Japan, or even the handful of U.S. businesses that are run as worker-owned cooperatives — two of which he profiles in the film) seems utterly inconceivable. Moore savors the irony that Americans fiercely believe in their democratic right to elect their political leaders but are equally convinced that it’s right, proper and part of the divine order for them to be subjected to dictatorial control at work, but aside from pointing out some of the propaganda that comes from the ruling class and its media that leads them to believe that (including clips from some 1950’s “educational” films promoting private ownership and the profit motive as well as the libertarian myth that capitalism makes its citizens “free to choose” how hard to work and how far to advance — when, as I pointed out in a letter I wrote to the Los Angeles Times on the death of Milton Friedman in 2006 and they not surprisingly didn’t print, “too often the choices people get to make under Friedman’s economic policies are between food or rent, between food or health care, between accepting whopping pay cuts or risking losing their jobs to outsourcing”).

Moore really doesn’t offer much insight into what there is about the American character that has accepted capitalism in general and, in the post-Reagan era, lassiez-faire in particular, as part of our historical legacy and a bulwark of our society right along with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (none of which, as Moore points out here, contain any specific references to capitalism or even private property in general — though James Madison did say in Federalist #10 that “an equal distribution of wealth” was one of the social evils the Constitution had been created to prevent — so the Right-wingers who insist that private property and, by implication, capitalism are built into the U.S. constitutional system have a better argument than Moore concedes to them here). Had Moore gone into more depth about why Americans still love capitalism even as it makes their lives more and more miserable every year, Capitalism: A Love Story would be an even stronger film than it is.

Capitalism: A Love Story ends with the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president, and though Moore isn’t sparing of the Democratic party — he notes how the connections between the economic policy-making arm of the U.S. government and the investment banking business in general, and Goldman Sachs in particular, were just as strong under Bill Clinton’s administration as under George W. Bush’s; and he also points out that just as soon as it looked like Obama was going to win the big investment banks and financial institutions started pouring money into his campaign (“like they always do,” he laconically said) — I suspect even he wasn’t prepared for the utter fealty Obama’s administration would show towards the financial industry and the way he would essentially subcontract his economic policy to it (just as both Clinton and Bush had done before him). Moore doesn’t even mention that Obama, as a U.S. senator, voted for the $700 billion bank bailout bill in October!

Interestingly, Moore questions whether the U.S. economy was even in a state of unusual crisis in September 2008, when the bankruptcy and collapse of Lehman Brothers led to the biggest one-day drop in the Dow Jones average in its history and the demand that Congress immediately pass the bailout bill with absolutely no strings attached on Treasury Secretary (and ex-Goldman CEO) Henry Paulson’s decisions about what to do with the money. He equates this with the phony story about “weapons of mass destruction” the Bush administration used to sell both Congress and the American people on the necessity to attack Iraq — and, though he shows the figures of how Obama rose in the polls in the last two months of the campaign, he doesn’t make the point (although his numbers do) that if it hadn’t been for the Lehman bankruptcy and the resulting economic scare, Obama probably would not be President today: John McCain had held a steady lead from the Republican convention until the Lehman bankruptcy, and it was only after that that Obama caught up with and overtook him.

What the film doesn’t mention — probably because it hadn’t happened yet when Moore finished shooting — is that the populist uprising against the bank bailout legislation that killed the first version in the House of Representatives would ultimately evolve into the Right-wing “tea party” movement and into a demand for less, not more, government involvement in the economy. Moore does provide one clue as to why that happened when he points out that the bankers finally got their bailout by getting the Congressional Democratic leadership to adopt it — but he doesn’t show what we now know: that this actually helped the Right by essentially making the Democrats, in the public imagination, the party of Wall Street and giving the tea-party crowd the organizing tool they needed to get people to vote Republican (and extremist Right-wing lassiez-faire Republican at that — among the “tea party”’s biggest targets are Republicans like Utah Senator Robert Bennett who voted for the bailout).

The ironic result is that, contrary to Moore’s desperate hope that the 2008 financial crisis and the recession it produced would make more Americans skeptical of capitalism and willing at least to look at alternative ways of organizing and managing an economy, its actual long-term political result appears to be a move towards even more deregulation, more unfettered capitalism, and a more destructive economy. For all the grousing about the bailout, it’s not at all clear whether the alternative of defeating it altogether (rather than tying it to re-regulation and antitrust actions against the largest financial institutions to reduce both their economic and political power) would have been any better: the result of no bailout at all would quite likely have been an economic train wreck and a new depression rather than just a new recession, as some of the big banks not only failed but took down companies that actually make goods and services on which the American people depend down with them.

What the Obama administration and its hapless record has shown is not only that Democrats have to stop nominating and electing presidents with an allergy to ideology — on the contrary, progressives have to be every bit as militant about holding Democrats to their principles as the activist Right has been with Republicans — but that it’s unclear whether any Democratic administration and Congress can govern given the relentless and flagrantly hypocritical propaganda onslaught they will face from an increasingly Right-wing media, both the far-Right media party of talk radio and Fox News but a more conservative center-Right “mainstream” media — the big-city newspapers, broadcast TV networks and CNN — who are being driven to the Right by the ratings success of Fox and other Right-wing outlets. This is why, if Michael Moore gets to make another movie — which might be problematic given that his last two, Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story, have been box-office flops — I’d like to see him do it about the media and their role in driving American politics ever further and further Right. — 6/19/10


On Saturday night Charles and I screened at least some of the special features attached to the DVD of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. These included longer interviews with some of the people featured in the main part of the film — Congressmember Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), who doesn’t use the “S”-word but does dare suggest the unmentionable (at least in the U.S.) idea that maybe there just might be another economic system that might do a better job than capitalism in ensuring the economic survival and dignity of Americans; Father Dick Preston, a Roman Catholic priest who makes the point that capitalism goes against the values not only of Christianity but of the world’s (or at least the West’s) other major religions as well; and Max Rameau, who with his partner Bernadine runs a Miami-based organization called Take Back the Land, which specializes in resisting foreclosures and getting people who’ve been foreclosed on back into their homes, nonviolently but not always strictly legally.

There were also several features on people and institutions that weren’t included in the main film that was released theatrically, including author and former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges on the links between capitalism, imperialism, empire and war; UC Berkeley professor and best-selling author (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) Michael Pollan on how capitalism shapes the economics of food (including ensuring that the people who make the most money off food are not the ones who grow and raise it on farms, but the companies that buy their produce and package it into product); Fred Schepartz, Rebecca Kemble, Brian Hill, Brian Warneke and Karl Schulte, employee-owners of the cooperatively owned Union Cab Co. in Madison, Wisconsin (Kemble, an academic who completed everything needed for a Ph.D. in anthropology except the dissertation and then realized that she was learning far more about human beings and what makes them tick as a cabdriver than she ever learned as an anthropologist-in-training, was the most interesting interviewee, especially when she said bluntly that she couldn’t see why anyone would want to make more than $300,000 a year); an interview with professor Tom Webb on worker-owned cooperatives; an interview with political scientist Dr. Roxanne Emerson Junker on the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, which was founded in the early 20th century as a result of farmers believing they were getting screwed by the existing private banks, and which is capitalized largely by the state government, which deposits its tax receipts there and therefore earns a half-billion dollars a year in interest without having to do anything for it; as well as the usual trailers (including the “teaser” trailer in which Michael Moore announced that the theatre ushers were going to be coming down the aisles asking audience members to contribute to the needy bankers at Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America and AIG) and credits, and one of the most fascinating extras of all: the complete speech then-President Jimmy Carter gave to the nation on July 15, 1979.

Carter’s speech was at once a dispiriting call for the nation and its people to acknowledge that the era of cheap fossil fuel was over and we were going to have to adjust, a ringing demand to Congress that they pass legislation to kick-start the transition to renewable energy and a rather pathetic plea to his listeners to “say something nice about America.” This is the speech that has gone down in the history books as the “malaise” speech even though Carter never actually used that word, and Carter’s subsequent electoral defeat has been a lesson to future politicians never again to address the American people with any appeal that even approached the kind of intelligent “leveling” Carter attempted. Indeed, the Republicans were overjoyed when Barack Obama gave his energy speech last week, again calling for a transition to renewables, an acknowledgment that we can no longer depend on cheap fossil fuels and we’re going to have to make long-term adjustments in our lifestyle to save not only our pocketbooks but the planet; they eagerly compared it to this speech of Carter’s and said it will similarly ensure that Obama, like Carter, will be a one-term President: a propaganda strategy that really underscored Chris Hedges’ comment here that America no longer has dreams, just illusions.

The really sad thing about Capitalism: A Love Story is that one gets the impression that here — as with his last film, Sicko, about the U.S. health care system and how poorly it functions relative to those in other countries in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality and other measurable indicia of health — Michael Moore is really pissing in the wind. His calls for an evolution away from dog-eat-dog capitalism (it’s with a weird, sinister irony that his production company is called “Dog Eat Dog Films” and its logo is an animation of a smaller dog suddenly growing a bigger mouth and gobbling up a larger dog) in the direction of a more cooperative economic system that would ensure everyone a basic standard of living at the cost of allowing fewer, if any, people to become super-rich are sad to hear in a world that, if anything, is moving headlong in the other direction.

His citations of Europe as the example America should be following also ring hollow in an era in which Europe is becoming more like America, not the other way around: the most recent elections in Europe’s three richest and most economically important countries — Britain, Germany and France — all brought conservatives to power, and Europe’s overall economic crisis is being used as a pretext for whacking cuts in social services and a much weakened, if not entirely eliminated, welfare state. Meanwhile, the radical Right in this country is crowing about Europe getting its comeuppance and proving once again (at least according to their point of view) that socialism doesn’t work in the long term because only a free market, individual enterprise and the use of mega-riches as the lure needed to get anybody to do anything productive for the economy actually produces the kinds of growth needed to boost the economy to a point where it can take care of everybody.

The message boards on the page of Capitalism: A Love Story were unwittingly revealing; they were mostly dominated by Libertarian Right-wingers denouncing the film and saying things like “capitalism is the most moral economic system ever invented” (and it’s true to form for the modern-day Right that they regard that as so blindingly self-evident they don’t think it even needs to be defended with evidence) and capitalism is a more progressive economic system than any that preceded it. That is something no one seriously doubts today — even Karl Marx conceded that one — and Moore’s own movie admits that there was a point in the 1950’s when a suitably regulated capitalism, in which aggressive government action and a strong labor movement put limits on the capitalists’ tendency to drive wages to subsistence levels and instead forced them to pay their workers enough so the workers became middle class and were able to buy the products they produced, gave most Americans (or at least most white Americans) a quite comfortable lifestyle.

It’s not how capitalism begins that’s the big problem; it’s how it ends, with companies finding it ever more difficult to grow their businesses and make more money, combining into trusts and oligopolies, driving the threat of meaningful competition out of the system and either pressuring or bribing the government to deregulate them, and ending up squeezing ordinary working people more and more until the capitalist society resembles the land-based aristocracy capitalism arose as a progressive challenge to in the first place: a handful of people at the top living in luxury, a huge majority at the bottom suffering in misery, and little or nothing in between. One of the grim ironies is that a capitalist country institutes these reforms only when there is a strong Leftist movement — whether it’s communist, socialist or anarchist really makes no difference — that threatens the very existence of capitalism; without such a Leftist threat (and there’s virtually nowhere in the U.S. or Europe where the Left is a serious threat today), the capitalists put pressure on the government to end regulations and the recognition of unions so they can go back to squeezing their workers dry to make more money.

At the same time, as I noted when Charles and I watched the main movie, America’s emotional commitment to capitalism really is a love story — however unrequited (we love the capitalists heart and soul, and how do the capitalists repay us? By laying us off, driving down our wages, shipping our jobs overseas and raising their prices, as well as running unsafe workplaces and polluting the environment to a level that the future existence of the human race itself is in jeopardy from their actions) — to the point where New Left Review writer Fredric Jameson wrote in 2003, “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” If there’s a grain of hope in Capitalism: A Love Story it lies in the possibility of organizing worker-owned cooperatives and having them compete with capitalist enterprises in a free market — one part of the Union Cab story that fascinated me is that, contrary to the assertion of conservatives that a cooperative workplace cannot long survive because the workers will simply pay themselves the entire receipts and not save enough to maintain the business, the worker/owners at Union Cab are well aware of what they need to keep as overhead and vote accordingly at their governing meetings — though of course the capitalist system will make it as hard as possible for such enterprises to exist, either by keeping them from obtaining credit or banding together to drive them out of business through undercutting them competitively.

Rather than Joseph Stalin’s rallying cry of “socialism in one country” (of course the system Stalin put in place has nothing to do with what either Michael Moore or I mean when we call ourselves “socialists”!), maybe the only realistic call we can make in the future is “socialism in one workplace,” with the hope that at least we can spread it one workplace at a time and create little islands of cooperation in the middle of a great sea of relentless competition and profit-taking. — 6/21/10