Michael Moore's ode to capitalism

Capitalism: A Love Story
Written & directed by Michael Moore
Runtime: 127 minutes
In cinemas now

In his latest venture, US filmmaker Michael Moore bluntly asks of the 2008 global economic meltdown, “What the fuck happened?” While you don’t leave the cinema with an entirely clear understanding of what happened in 2008, you do leave with a sense that capitalism is past it’s use-by date.

Moore describes Capitalism: A Love Story as a culmination of his 20-year career, beginning with his 1989 film Roger and Me. It’s certainly his most broadly focused film, but is probably not his best. (That title arguably lies with 2007’s Sicko, a clear and damning indictment of the fatally flawed US health care system contrasted with various single-payer systems across the planet.) This is not to say Capitalism is not worth seeing, but perhaps to say that Moore could have done more with such a topic.

Capitalism begins with a clever comparison of the Roman empire and the modern-day USA and segues into home video footage of a family being evicted from its home in 2008. Firmly grounded in the recent past of economic turmoil, rampant foreclosures,and the hope of electoral salvation, Moore jumps around from the past (1950s USA and his own experience as the child of a blue-collar GM worker) to the present — interviewing Wall Street brokers and politicians to try to find out how such a mess could occur under an economic system held up as the best ever invented — “free-market” capitalism.

Moore exposes an internal 2006 Citigroup memo declaring the US a “plutonomy” (a society where economic growth is powered by and benefits the richest class), with the richest 1% of the population controlling more financial wealth than the bottom 95%. In the same memo, there is worry about what would happen if the majority insisted on a more “equitable” sharing of society’s wealth.

Moore lays the blame for the current economic crisis largely at the feet of the 1980s Reagan administration, while completely glossing over the role of the 1990s Clinton administration in helping lay the foundations for the 2008 banking industry collapse. There’s no doubt that “Reaganomics” had a destructive impact on the incomes of US workers, but to ignore Clinton’s removal of the legal separation of investment and commercial banking is lazy at best and disingenuous at worst.

Moore brilliantly contrasts the heroics of US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who successfully ditched an airliner in New York’s Hudson River in January and saved the lives of 155 people, with Sully’s own testimony in February before the congressional subcommittee on aviation. He stated that his “pay has been cut 40% [and his] pension, like most airline pensions, has been terminated…” Moore goes on to interview less senior pilots, some of whom qualified for food stamps while fully employed and others who had to work second jobs to supplement their meagre salaries, all the while remaining responsible for the lives of thousands of airline passengers.

The strongest points in the film are the interviews with “regular” Americans affected by the capitalist economic crisis. Moore has a gift for emotive interviews and has some downright shocking ones here. In addition to the families under threat of eviction, he interviews two families who lost a breadwinner unexpectedly and were struggling to make ends meet — all while the companies they worked for cashed in on secret life insurance policies, known colloquially as “dead peasant policies”. These policies, once commonplace among major corporations, paid out as much as US$5 million in compensation to the dead worker’s employer.

Sadly, Moore leaves himself open to easy criticism from the right by glossing over the fact that some of the companies named and shamed as participating in the scam phased out the policies by the beginning of the decade or earlier. While it doesn’t make the practice and its outcomes any less appalling, it provides a needlessly easy target for the apologists for corporate capitalism. His website provides some additional clarification on the issue, but this could have been made much more transparent in the film.

He also examines the story of PA Child Care – a for-profit, privately run juvenile “correctional” institution in upstate Pennsylvania that took over after the state-run institution was closed with the help of Luzerne County Judge Michael Conahan. Conahan, along with Judge Mark Ciavarella, took $2.6 million in kickbacks to lock up young people in the facilities run by PA Child Care. Some of the young people’s offences were as trivial as one teenager making a MySpace page mocking her school’s assistant principal. Sentences were continually lengthened and in the end, some 6500 young people were unjustly convicted and imprisoned — all to pad the bottom line of PA Child Care’s financial accounts.

In contrast to the “profits at any cost” mentality of “free-market” capitalism and the corporations that have flourished under it, Moore highlights two worker-run cooperatives — Isthmus Engineering in Wisconsin and the Alvarado Street Bakery in California. Both cooperatives function on the “one member, one vote” rule and bar non-workers from making management decisions. Moore implies such worker-run businesses may be an alternative to corporate capitalism. However, CNN Money reported in September that “Isthmus laid off two paid-by-the-hour workers earlier this year, but it still employs 20 non-owner assembly workers”. It quoted one of Isthmus’ four founding worker-owners as saying, “We have reshuffled duties to keep the work that we do have from going out the door, while also spreading out the pain as much as possible.”

The frustration with Capitalism is that while it conveys the message that “free-market” capitalism is a disaster for working people, Moore seems to capitulate to the idea that all we really need to do is be informed and vote in the right people (i.e., “good” Democrats). After the release of the film in the US, he posted “Michael Moore’s Action Plan: 15 Things Every American Can Do Right Now!” on his website. He wrote: “It’s the #1 question I’m constantly asked after people see my movie: ‘OK — so NOW what can I DO?!’ You want something to do? Well, you’ve come to the right place! ‘Cause I got 15 things you and I can do right now to fight back and try to fix this very broken system.”

Moore goes on to list five suggestions each under three headers, and it’s sadly here that you get the idea of his ultimate solution. The headers read: “Five things we demand the President and Congress do immediately”, “Five things we can do to make Congress and the President listen to us” (including Number 2 – Take over your local Democratic Party organisation), and “Five things we should do to protect ourselves and our loved ones until we get through this mess” (At the top of this list is: “Take your money out of your bank if it took bailout money and place it in a locally-owned bank or, preferably, a credit union.”).

Channelling one’s energy into electing “good” (capitalist) politicians won’t do a thing to end the capitalists’ control over the government and the economy. This is especially apparent after the election of Barack Obama, someone sold to voters through the buzzwords of “hope” and “change” but who has only delivered a change in the rhetoric used to promote the continued accumulation of wealth in the hands of the Wall Street investment bankers.Moore is absolutely right that capitalism is an unsustainable, unjust and inhumane system. “Capitalism is evil”, Moore says, “and you cannot regulate evil. You have to eliminate it and replace it with something else ... with democracy.” But real democracy, the rule of the common people, won’t be achieved by trying to “fix” the existing political system by replacing one gang of pro-capitalist politicians with a supposedly “better” bunch of pro-capitalist politicians. That’s the con game the capitalists already have to going to keep working people powerless.