Sep 24, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore can get on one's last nerve with his shtick but I am always very grateful for his indestructible outrage.  
Capitalism: A Love Story is more genuinely moving and less smartass than some of his other films. It's both funny and heartwrenching.
He seems to have matured. In one of his better pranks he surrounds the offices of the major Wall Street culprits with crime scene tape. It feels like performance art, and it speaks volumes.
The film is a passionate indictment of capitalism. It's major premise is that capitalism is evil. As far as I'm concerned, I'm glad to have him: he is about the only relatively mainstream entertainer with these pinko-reddish ideas. And he's found a unique way to express outrage much more effectively than with bleeding heart solemnity. If we can have vermin like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, we should certainly have room for the likes of Michael Moore. Unfortunately, he is not as popular as they are.
I'm not so sure that capitalism is Evil (historical experiments with other isms have not been very encouraging). But I'm absolutely certain that capitalism, in the unfettered, ruthless way it is practiced in this country is sick, evil and depraved.
Moore gives several jawdropping examples of this free market depravity: blue chip employers (you'd be astonished at the list) that take out life insurance policies on their employees, without their knowledge, and make a profit when the employees die.
How can this possibly be legal?
To this day, it is beyond my comprehension why the government has allowed the banks to foreclose millions of homes instead of forcing them to renegotiate mortgages with their customers. Entire communities, even cities, have been so decimated by greed, they actually look like war zones (see the excellent documentary American Casino. Your stomach will turn). One wonders, where are all those people going? What jobs are they going to find? Where are they going to live? 
An amazing figure emerges in Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur from Ohio, who in a speech to Congress urges foreclosed people not to leave their homes. Since the banks sold their debt to someone else, they have no right to take their homes away from them. After Henry Paulson and the Democratic majority make a backroom deal to award the bailout despite enormous public opposition, she tells Moore that neither the elected politicians nor the people have any control over the country.
She should be the next Democratic Presidential candidate, or start training for that.
Now, I am not so sure that the bailout was a bad thing (we liberals have to be pragmatists, otherwise we're toast). It was an unpopular measure that needed to happen to restore so-called confidence in the markets. But is not acceptable that there were no strings attached. That money should have come with stringent regulation.
Except for Roger & Me, Capitalism: A Love Story, is Moore's most personal film. Moore is the son of a GM factory worker, proud union member, who worked at GM for over 40 years and was able to give his family a perfectly solid middle class life because in those days unions were powerful and there was regulation. In a moving scene, he and his dad go to see the place where his dad used to work for 33 years; it is now a heap of rubble. GM destroyed the unions, laid off thousands of workers and still declared bankruptcy.
The Moores are also Irish Catholics, and members of a liberal Catholic community that, quite uniquely in this country (cf. the Kennedys), identifies for the most part with the downtrodden, not with the wealthy. Moore has two American priests and a bishop say that capitalism is Evil. I find it fascinating that he picks a fight with the Protestant/religious right and decides to skim over it. In the end, this is the crazy pendulum from which this country oscillates like a yo-yo, if you forgive the metaphor. We are caught between the impulse to guarantee a good life for all (F.D.R., Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy, M.L.K, the Jesus who says "blessed are the poor"); or you are on your own (Reagan, The Bushes, the post-Reagan Democrats, a distorted Jesus that feels contempt for the weak). Worst of all, we can't seem to come to a happy middle without falling into hysterics, as the healthcare debate amply demonstrates.
Moore is a masterful manipulator and exaggerator, but his films would be even more powerful if he was a little less facile and dug a little deeper. It doesn't take that much to make the connections, but he suffers from glibness, and this is his Achilles heel.
For instance: he shows the magic moment when America learned that Barack Obama was elected. He claims the rise of Obama is a sign that the poor have finally had it with the rich. He also says that Goldman Sachs was Obama's biggest campaign contributor, and shows who is in charge of the Treasury now (all Goldman Sachs alumni) yet he squanders the opportunity to connect the dots.
Moore makes a point of showing pockets of change that are feasible. As a good lefty, he gets all teary eyed at the sight of factory workers in Chicago resisting their layoffs by staging a successful sit-in and forcing Bank of America to pay their outstanding salaries. He shows a robotics factory and a bakery that operate as cooperatives, with equal employee ownership. He tries to show that "socialism" isn't so bad. But his terminology is confused. He claims that the alternative to capitalism is democracy. This is not right. Democracy is a political system; capitalism is an economic system. The alternative to capitalism should be a social democracy, where government is strong, taxes are high, the government provides equal rights and basic services to its citizens, but they are still free to choose whether they want Froot Loops or Frosties for breakfast. As the Magnificent Arepa says, there's no real choice nor freedom when you are hungry.
Moore ends the film with footage of F.D.R. giving a speech to the nation in which he proposes a Second Bill of Rights that includes far reaching protections for all Americans. By invoking F.D.R, who led America through the Great Depression and a champion of social works, Moore is telling Obama what his model should be and where the opportunity is to turn this country around toward its original noble intent.
Sadly, it doesn't look like it's gonna happen.

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