Searing indictment of capitalism spoilt by nostalgia for New Deal

Jim Creegan reviews Michael Moore’s (director) Capitalism: a love story 2009 (no UK release date yet)

Reporting over a year ago in this paper on the US presidential elections, I observed that ‘capitalism’ is a word seldom heard among the radical-liberals who comprise most of the American left. Michael Moore has gone a long way toward correcting this omission.

In his latest documentary, Capitalism: a love story, Moore takes advantage of the still reverberating shock waves from the great crash of 2008 to move beyond the single-issue muckraking of his previous films. Capitalism is nothing less than a full-fledged indictment of the social order. A profit-driven economy, Moore concludes toward the end of the movie, is irredeemably evil. It cannot be regulated to serve human needs. It must be abolished. Such an explicit declaration represents a radical departure for one who is perhaps the best known spokesperson for a broad leftish current that has not dared to dream about revolution for over 30 years. Yet, as we shall see below, Moore’s indictment is not quite as sweeping as it may at first appear.

Trademark tropes

Anyone expecting Moore’s bold new content to be accompanied by corresponding innovations in technique will be let down (or reassured, depending on taste). All his trademark devices are on full display.

There are the self-dramatising stunts: once again, the faux-naive, ursine everyman in a baseball cap shambles forth to confront the CEO of General Motors as he did 20 years ago in his first film, a meditation on the auto industry in decline titled Roger and me, only to be unceremoniously rebuffed for a second time. He then descends upon Wall Street carrying a burlap sack into which the financial behemoths are invited to deposit their misspent bailout billions for return to the US treasury. When they refuse, Moore single-handedly cordons off the New York stock exchange with yellow police tape, informing the occupants through a loud hailer that they are all under “citizen’s arrest”.

There are also the familiar mordant juxtapositions of current news clips with archival footage and sound. Capitalism opens with an old made-for-the-classroom movie about fall of Rome, intercut with parallel scenes of contemporary American decay, starring Dick Cheney as a latter-day Nero. Franco Zefirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth is redubbed to produce a neoliberal Christ, who refuses to heal the lame beggar on the roadside because his affliction has been classified as a “pre-existing condition”. But, now as before, Moore is at his best in bringing to light tales of horrific suffering inflicted as a result of capitalism’s insatiable and calculating profit lust.

Capitalism takes the audience into the living room of a Tennessee family, nervously huddled together filming its own eviction for mortgage delinquency at the hands of the local sheriff. He is beating down their door with a crowbar, backed up by six squad cars of police.

In a segment that Dickens could not have outdone, Moore interviews several teenagers sentenced to confinement in a recently privatised ‘juvenile detention facility’. Their offences included “throwing a piece of meat at my mom’s boyfriend” and posting sarcastic comments on the web about an assistant headmaster. It was later discovered that the judge who gave some of them a year in jail after hearings lasting about two minutes each was being bribed by the reformatory owners to lock the kids away so the owners could collect a per-head government fee on their incarceration.

We are introduced to a grieving widower whose young wife recently died of an asthma attack. He accidentally discovered that her employer had collected $1.5 million on her death from what is known in business circles as a ‘dead peasant’ life insurance policy, taken out in secret by the company, which gave nothing to the bereaved family. A lawyer-expert says this practice is routine among some of the country’s biggest corporations; he produces an actuarial analysis from one firm, which concludes that the insurance policies did not meet original expectations of profitability: although as many insured employees died this year as last, two of this year’s deaths were suicides, which could not be counted upon to recur regularly in future.

Then there are the full-time airline pilots paid less than a McDonald’s restaurant manager by their non-union companies (between $16,000 and $20,000 a year). One of them was forced to moonlight as a waitress in a coffee shop, another to take government food coupons. The propeller jet that went down in a ball of flame over Buffalo, New York, last year, killing all aboard, was operated by two such underpaid, undertrained pilots. In a typical attempt to blame workers for the disaster, the media reported that the plane’s black box had recorded the pilots chatting about their careers at the time of the crash. Moore points out that their ‘career chat’ consisted of complaints about low pay and exhausting flight schedules.

Tales like the above are not only heartbreaking; they are also becoming typical. Sicko, Moore’s 2008 exposé of the American healthcare industry, concentrates not on the country’s 47 million uninsured, but rather on tales of woe from those who could afford to purchase the commonly high-priced, woefully inadequate coverage offered by the insurance profiteers. Similarly, Capitalism’s horror stories are told not only by illegal immigrants or denizens of impoverished black ghettos, though these are included. The subjects are also white people - of city and country, young, old and middle aged, most of whom have solid work records and consider (or until recently considered) themselves solidly middle class. With Katrina fresh in the country’s collective mind, and the crash of 2008 still sending out tidal waves of evictions and redundancies, feelings of solidarity across racial and national lines may be quietly gaining ground - a process toward which Moore’s Capitalism is an outstanding contribution.

Contradictions of Capitalism

Yet if Capitalism exhibits many of Moore’s characteristic strengths, it also suffers from his principal weakness: the absence of a solid explanatory framework. His films are like rambling monologues, in which images, soundbites and talking heads tumble forth in torrents, sometimes forming divergent streams or, at other times, running in counter-currents.

So, for instance, one part of Bowling for Columbine, Moore’s 2002 reflection on US gun violence, notes that the death-by-firearm rate in Canada is lower than that in the US by several orders of magnitude despite the ready legal availability of guns in both countries. The overall argument of the film, however, is for stricter anti-gun laws in the United States in order to prevent grisly shootings like the one perpetrated by alienated students upon their classmates at Columbine high school in Colorado. But surely the US-Canada comparison indicates that the absence of tougher American gun laws cannot explain the disparity in violent crime? The inconsistency is never resolved.

In Capitalism Moore meditates on a much bigger theme, and is caught up in a far more serious contradiction. The movie’s major premise is that capitalism cannot be fixed and must therefore be abolished. Yet the film is awash in nostalgia for capitalism’s ostensible golden age of the 1950s and early 60s. Old home movies show a carefree pre-teen Moore romping in the backyard of his family home in the auto-manufacturing town of Flint, Michigan, where he grew up. His accompanying voiceover speaks wistfully of the plentiful, decently paid jobs and accessible higher education of that contented time. He says our bygone prosperity was grounded in an economy that produced useful things like cars and steel, as opposed to credit default swaps.

One of Capitalism’s final clips is of Franklin Roosevelt reading a proposed bill of economic rights a year before he died. This is followed by scenes of the grieving multitudes that thronged Roosevelt’s funeral procession, accompanied on the soundtrack by the plaintive lilt of (Thomas) Moore’s ‘Last rose of summer’. Elsewhere in the film, Moore speaks glowingly of western European welfare states.

The above segments pose a number of questions. How did we get from the post-war halcyon days of Moore’s home movies to the security-camera film of bank robberies, with which Moore opens the film and intends to symbolise the gangster capitalism of today? And are not the more congenial capitalist regimes the director praises - under Roosevelt or in Europe - capitalist regimes nonetheless? Would it not be more realistic - and maybe a lot easier - to humanise the social order, as it was humanised, in the past and in other places, than, as Moore proposes, to risk the well known pitfalls of attempting to abolish it altogether?

If Moore is suggesting that the welfare state was due in significant measure to the beneficence of a Roosevelt, and - as he also implies in the film - that its undoing can be traced to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, cannot a less voracious capitalism be restored by the rise of another liberal benefactor (like Barack Obama, perhaps)? These questions are barely raised in the Capitalism, let alone seriously answered. They are obvious enough, however, to have popped up in various forms on the television talk shows where Moore is now appearing to publicise his movie. His answers are no more convincing there.

A popular documentary is not a theoretical disquisition. It would be unreasonable to expect Moore to delve into the falling rate of profit or Kondratiev’s long waves. Yet Capitalism would benefit from a stronger interpretation of recent history. It might go along lines something like these:

Ever since the industrial revolution got into full swing following the civil war, the United States has been dominated economically by the owners of capital, which is, broadly speaking, huge hoards of privately owned money in search of profitable investment. The capitalist ruling class that controls these hoards has also enjoyed the decisive voice in politics.

However, in times of great crisis, when the economy has ceased to function, and greater numbers of people are becoming disaffected with the system, the ruling powers sometimes feel constrained, albeit reluctantly, to concede to certain popular demands in order to rescue the system as a whole. Such a time was the great depression, and such concessions were embodied in the ‘new deal’. Then the population obtained government old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, and the right of (mostly white) workers to form unions, bargain with their employers over wages and working conditions, and strike.

But the ruling class was never completely reconciled to these broad popular gains, as they will never be to any major reforms of benefit to the working class. What is more, the enormous wealth concentrated in their hands gives them not only the will, but also the power, to undermine progressive reforms. In the decades immediately following World War II, when unions were strong and the US was unrivalled among imperialist powers, it was true that most of the American bourgeoisie concluded that a frontal assault on the new deal was not worth the social and political risk. They contented themselves for a time with more modest efforts.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 placed severe limits on the use of the strike weapon, but did not challenge the right to organise and strike as such. Employers did not as a rule use scabs to break major industrial strikes. Instead, they quietly began investing less of their capital in the union-dense industrial belts of the northeast and midwest and more in the non-union south and southwest. This was the period that certain liberal historians have dubbed capitalism’s ‘golden age’, in which there was said to be an tacit ‘social contract’ between capital and unionised labour.

As US world hegemony eroded in the early 70s, the previous class détente began to come apart. Other major capitalist powers, devastated by the war, were on their feet once again, offering competition to American products in both foreign and home markets. The American policy of ‘containment of communism’ had suffered defeat at the hands of third-world revolutionaries from China to Cuba. The Vietnam war was bankrupting the treasury, and turning a whole generation of American youth not only against the government, but against the entire greasy-poll-climbing ‘work ethic’ upon which the system operates. And, most important, all these trends were reflected in a severely diminished rate of corporate profit, which fell precipitously in 1966, never to regain its previous heights until the late 90s, and then only briefly.

Faced with these challenges, the capitalist class’s former attitude of grudging complacency was clearly no longer sufficient. With the labour movement now bureaucratised and purged of radicals, and the system as a whole not threatened as it had been in the 30s, the capitalist class felt less inhibited about fighting back. Beginning hesitantly under the Carter presidency, but growing exponentially under Reagan, a series of attacks were mounted on the people’s standard of living through monetary and fiscal policy, union-busting and corporate deregulation. The attacks met with a degree of success that probably surprised even the attackers. And the fact that the ‘reforms’ Reagan put in place were not significantly reversed, but consolidated, under the eight-year term of Democratic president Bill Clinton illustrates that what Reagan had wrought was viewed as a gain for the whole ruling class, and not just its Republican faction.

Efforts were no less intensive - and just as successful - on the foreign front, where the US was also striking back with redoubled vigour after the ’loss’ of Vietnam. These efforts paid off in the Suharto coup in Indonesia in 1965, the overthrow of Allende in Chile, the negotiated defeat of the guerrilla insurrection in El Salvador, the peaceful toppling of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, and the most spectacular victory of all - the downfall of the USSR and its eastern European client states (the US and its allies did not bring about this development, but helped it along at crucial points, and did not hesitate to take credit for it).

These events, in turn, created the most hospitable climate for international business investment since before World War I. No longer fearing third-world revolutions or nationalisations, corporations felt free to invest around the world where labour was cheapest, hollowing out the industrial base of the west and further weakening first-world unions and political parties based on them.

What does this history teach us about the capitalist system as a whole? Moore could have argued that, even in the preternaturally unlikely event that the conditions that produced the New Deal could be reassembled, economic power, and hence the balance of political influence, would remain in the hands of a minority dedicated to undoing whatever was accomplished, and hence that the only way to ensure uninterrupted progress is to break the power of the capitalist class and move toward a society in which no-one will have any motive to challenge rule by the majority for its own welfare.

But Moore avoids such an interpretation of recent history, and the conclusions that would seem to follow from it, not because it would have been too arcane for the broad public he is trying to reach. Had he been inclined in the direction of a more systematic critique, there are a number of Marxist authors and professors (Richard Wolffe and Adolph Reed come to mind) who could have filled in the details in a lucid and publicly accessible way. It is rather that such an analysis would have shifted the film’s focus from morality to the struggle between classes with irreconcilably opposed interests, and from reform to revolution.

So Moore invokes the memory of Roosevelt as opposed to Lenin (or even Eugene Debs or Mother Jones), seeks anti-capitalist inspiration from two Catholic priests and a bishop from his native Michigan rather than from Marxists, and views democracy rather than socialism as the answer to the crimes of the profit system his film does so much to expose.

Capitalism is animated by the commendably radical impulse to synthesise the disparate issues of recent ‘social movements’, as well as those of Moore’s previous films, into a more comprehensive critique of the social system. This intent is, however, compromised by what seems like the director’s almost irresistible urge to lapse back into liberal ideology, just as his 2000 support of the independent presidential candidacy of Ralph Nader was followed by his hasty 2004 retreat back into the Democratic fold, when many left-liberals sheepishly concluded that their earlier experiment with political independence had helped to re-elect George W Bush.

Much of Moore’s equivocation no doubt arises from the genuine confusion of our time, in which the way forward is much less certain than it once appeared. It probably is the case that Moore’s anti-capitalism is grounded less in Marxism than in the Catholic activist inspiration of his youth, which the film emphasises.

But he is much more aware of the Marxist tradition than he chooses to let on, and one cannot escape the suspicion that the sentimental, soft-focus, moralistic anti-capitalism of Capitalism contains a strong element of political calculation as well. Moore probably feared that a harder, more analytical presentation would have been badly received, given the disrepute into which Marxism has fallen with the disappearance of the USSR. Maybe he was right.

But what his strategy gains in public acceptance and critical acclaim it loses in intellectual consistency. One can only hope that, in his future efforts, this cautiously treading partisan of the working class will see fit to carry his radical impulses through to their logical conclusion.