For nearly two decades, Michael Moore has built a career out of staging confrontations between himself, as representative of the poor and working-class populations, and the incredibly rich. Moore’s trademark baseball caps, blue jeans, and his Everyman physique have fed into a public persona meant to expose the limits of capitalist exploitation and political manipulation. However, as Moore’s street theater antics, which often involve being barred from entering steel-and-glass skyscrapers by bemused security guards, have become increasingly predictable, they have lost much of the power. Thus, much like Erik Marshall, I went to see his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, with relatively low expectations, but as I consider what Moore is doing here, I think the film serves not only as a productive contribution to the conversation on What Went Wrong with the economy over the last year but also as a thoughtful consideration on the potential of activist documentary.
Like many of his films, Capitalism is grounded in Moore’s personal childhood experiences. In fact the opening sequence both echoes and cites Roger and Me, establishing that many of Moore’s family members had been able to maintain a comfortable middle-class living working for General Motors and related companies and establishing, from the beginning, that union-busting in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan had created the conditions where today’s disparities in wealth were made possible. These connections are powerfully reinforced when Moore walks with his father past the site where his factory had been located, now an empty lot, a small sign on a chain link fence the only indication of the work that had been done there. Moore’s father reminisces about his colleagues and describes his ability to provide for his family, a modest goal that now seems lost in the Flint, Michigan, where Moore has set so many of his films.
But, unlike many of Moore’s films, especially Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, the “antics” he uses to stage conflicts between rich and poor were, if anything, underplayed, as the film took on a somewhat more somber tone. This tone is established when Moore shows a number of people, from various parts of the country, having their homes foreclosed. In one heartbreaking case, a worker from Peoria, Ilinois, living on a disability compensation, sees the home and property that has belonged to his family for a generation being taken by a bank. In other scenes, we are introduced to a foreclosure vulture who is remarkably unapologetic for his practice of seeking out and turning over foreclosed homes and to commercial pilots who earn something close to the wages paid to a fast-food employee, forcing them to take part-time work in addition to their flight schedules. Moore also traces out the absurdity of “dead peasant” insurance, where an employer can take out a life insurance policy on their employees, without their knowledge or consent, setting up a situation in which the employee may be worth more to the company dead than alive.
All of these segments are carefully designed to illuminate some of the absurdities of unregulated capitalism. If the logic of capitalism is to maximize profit no matter what, then our safety and health may be sacrificed. From there, Moore traces a historical trajectory, starting with the 1950s and ’60s and running through the union-busting practices in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and, via Alan Greenspan’s economic manipulations, through the Clinton era, to the present. Moore is careful not to present an overly rosy picture of the 1950s, acknowledging that economic prosperity not only depended on the destroyed German and Japanese auto industries but also allowed the violence of segregation and other social ills; however, he does show how higher taxes on the wealthy made possible eveything from bridges and dams to the interstate highway system.
As Erik points out, Moore’s primary argument is essentially as follows: “Americans are no longer in control of the economic system in the United States, and that we must act to reintroduce democracy into all areas of government.” Instead, corportions, through political contributions and through nominations to organizations meant to regulate capitalism, have control over how our financial system is managed. And although Moore (insightfully) reads Obama’s election as an ideological expression of a desire for social change, he is somewhat careful to indicte that he will be holding the President accountable, especially given that Goldman Sachs and other financial companies became some of his most significant campaign contributors.
Another valuable insight here is that Moore offers two distinct tactics that have led to current capitalist practices. One is ideological and echoes arguments made by Thomas Frank and others: supporters of hypercapitalism have promoted the idea that capitalism is identical to freedom, and argument Moore undercuts by crosscutting between a Bush speech espousing “free enterprise” and the “choice” to work anywhere with the image of unemployed workers skimming classified looking for any jobs for which they are qualified. Mortgage ads by Countrywide offer home ownership to people who cannot financially afford it and are given APR mortgages that become impossible to pay. But he is also attentive to issues of power and the ability of the very powerful to control all of the financial regulations and tax codes.
Given these conditions, it is somewhat difficult to imagine an alternative to the existing system. The powerful have rigged the game, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting the bailout last year. Jobs continue to disappear, and corporations continue to carve out increasingly perplexing ways of extracting profit. Moore himself even expresses concern that his movies are not having the desired effect of translating awareness into action, concluding with a reminder that, as the film ends, the next step is up to “you,” the viewer. Moore does offer some useful alternatives: a small company where each employee makes a similar salary and has one vote each on company decisions and, most powerfully, a brief segment on the sit-in at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, where workers succeeded in using media publicity to get their modest demands. For the most part, however, Moore can do little other than posit a renewed democracy as an alternative to capitalism.
Update: In skimming Gerry Canavan’s excellent review, I realized I’d forgotten to mention one of the film’s key scenes, in which Moore shows footage of FDR delivering his final State of the Union address when he proposed a Second Bill of Rights, one that would have (among other things) protected the rights of all Americans to have a job and to be able to support their families. The footage, apparently, was believed lost, and Roosevelt, speaking from beyond the grave, offers a haunting presence, one that is marked by Moore’s admiration of him and of the unrealized potential of FDR’s agenda. If anything, that proposal represents the closest thing to Michael Moore’s utopia and a goal toward which we can strive.
Gerry’s review is a must-read, especially for its trenchant critique of Moore’s shoddy historical analysis and his conflation of left and right populism. As Gerry notes, Moore seems to imply that opposition to the bailout came from principled Democrats, when much of the opposition was expressed by right-wing populists. There is quite a bit of slippery analysis here, but as an attempt to use documentary as a tool for populist activism, Moore’s film is worth engaging.