First of all, I will give Moore credit for making certain ideas mainstream (what other remotely progressive or even politically challenging material are you going to see at a multiplex cinema?), and for his interviews with the working people of the United States and coverage of their struggles, which helped to energize me a bit. On the flipside, it must be stated that his new film “Capitalism: A Love Story” is not a condemnation of capitalism.
It is a “middle class” lament.
It is an Obama promotional video.
It is periodic social-democratic indulgence to release latent tensions that threaten to burst the restraining tethers of bourgeois society.
As usual, I don’t care for Mike’s theatrics. In general, I think that “street theatre” is an impotent mode of political agitation, and his clown tactics rarely yield constructive results. On the other hand, I recognize that he has to maintain an element of mass appeal, so he packages his film as a comedic documentary, as opposed to the conventional stuff on PBS.
The show begins, as do most Moore films, with a montage of old media clips and clips from his own childhood home films, showing a flurry of 50’s American nuclear families enjoying themselves in decadence (i.e. waterskiing) and working in industry, representing American capitalism in it’s consumeristic, not-yet-moribund state during the early Cold War.
So, early in the film it becomes clear that by no means is Moore criticizing capitalism. On the contrary, he exalts it to the high heavens, and waxes nostalgic about it during his youth. He shows this montage of clips representing how good capitalism was at one point, all with only the most minimal references to imperialism. How can anyone do a serious documentary about capitalism by focusing on the one country that is the recipient of all of the finished goods, wealth and flow of capital?
He states, without irony, that the US auto-manufacturing sector rose to prominence because of the destruction of the manufacturing sectors of both Germany and Japan (including horrific crimes against humanity like the attacks on civilian population centers at Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki). What Moore is noticeably quieter about is how these defeated countries were then turned into proxies of the United States and markets for their exported goods. He does point out that the United States rewrote the constitutions of the defeated Axis powers, but paints this as a very positive thing rather than imperialism.
So, it is not capitalism that Moore is criticizing; it is the post-Cold War polarization in wealth. It is the decimation of the “middle class,” and their subsequent loss of socio-economic privileges.
Moore then goes on to feature a lot of stuff about “What does Christianity think of capitalism?” This may ruffle the feathers of the more materialist and anti-theist, but I actually don’t criticize Moore for this approach. The United States is a deeply religious country, so he is finding his way to make some ideas acceptable to the existing level of consciousness of the people (I myself began as a Christian Marxist, despite the obvious contradiction). Scoffing at the religious sentiments of millions of American workers negates them, so Moore instead doesn’t directly tell them “abandon all ye Gods!” when he is (supposedly) targeting capitalism.
The only issue with this is, from a materialist point of view, it becomes pure bourgeois metaphysics. Moore literally asks the Catholic priests and Bishops “is capitalism a sin?” By doing this, he takes the root of the problem with capitalism out of the material world of tangibility, and places it onto the no-no list of divine preferences.
So now, the crimes of capitalism are put into the same basket as worshipping idols and unwed intercourse—there are no tangible negative effects from doing these things, but the faith considers them morally repugnant.
Moore could have settled for a compromise that showed Christian attitudes towards socialism, such as Acts 2:42 to 2:45, which state, “42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” He could’ve then contrasted these with attitudes towards capitalism: “…I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” –Jesus Christ, Matthew 19:23-19:24. But he did not attribute the ills of capitalism to moralism and the displeasure of a deity. This would have been a preferable stance.
Moore, at one point, looks at the rash of home foreclosures in the states and says, “This is capitalism.” Well yeah, but not in its entirety. That is only one of the symptoms, and it becomes meaningless because Moore doesn’t raise issues with the fact that even during the golden prosperity of the Cold War (built on the backs of rampant military expansion) workers were still confined to exploitive relations. So, ultimately, again it is not capitalism that Moore is raising issue with, but rather the disenfranchisement and polarization of the “middle class” in the face of monopoly capital. At no point does Moore draw the conclusion that capitalism is inherently exploitive, despite all of his “capitalism is evil” rhetoric.
At one point in the film, a couple that is being evicted in Peoria releases a pearl of wisdom. The husband says something along the lines of “there needs to be some kind of uprising of the have-nots against the haves.” If only Moore himself had taken this to its logical conclusion. Throughout the film, Mike endorses “socialism,” but of course by “socialism” he means Sweden, not the USSR. He literally drools over the “socialism” of Germany where Unionized workers have a say in choosing their board of directors (and of course, at the end of the day, they don’t own the factory that they are working in), and gives a cheer for the New Deal policies of FDR.
So here, “socialism = New Deal.” “Socialism = capitalism with concessions.” No worker control, no expropriations from the bourgeoisie, no abolition of private property, no abolition of class. Pension, pseudo-nationalized health care, giving the Unions a say in management… this is called “socialism.”
He points out how historically the National Guard under Roosevelt was used to protect striking workers in Michigan. He ignores all of the other times when the National Guard (or other state forces of the US) was used to put down strikes, which has usually included wholesale murder of strikers and union organizers. He unloads all of the crimes of American capitalism onto Ronald Reagan and George Bush Jr., and absolves Jimmy Carter and FDR in the act. Bless their heart, they were just trying to help (at least he does shy away from Clinton nostalgia though).
And then, in the midst of all of the legitimate human misery portrayed in his film by the American people, a messiah emerges. That’s right—his name was Barrack Obama. The movie starts to wind down on a high note. Obama was elected, and this signaled the dawn of a “New America.” How so? Who knows?
Obama has so far continued the wars of aggression in the Middle East, voiced the same unconditional support for Israeli apartheid, clings to the same founding myths of the United States, still maintains the same capitalist system in place (in fact, he kept them on life support with public funds), and America is hardly “post-racial” as exemplified by the case of Professor Gates among others. So the film winds down as an Obama campaign ad. Things were horrible in the United States, but then Obama came, parted the Red Sea, and lead his people out of bondage in Egypt. Roll credits.
While to his credit, Moore features the fantastic action of the Republic Windows workers, who occupied their factory in lieu of unpaid wages, he ends their story on the high note that they got their wages and the struggle ended peacefully. So, here Moore reinforces the moral of his story: if the workers and oppressed people fight tooth and nail, the capitalists will part with some of their ill-gotten gains. Don’t really challenge capitalism, just take your bribe and go home.
He also portrays some worker -owned and operated industries in the US, like the reclaimed industries in Argentina portrayed in Naomi Klein’s documentary The Take, but he portrays this syndicalism as being a new stage of capitalism—collective capitalism as opposed to the top down pyramid model. Now, of course factory syndicalism in the US becomes meaningless because the overwhelming majority of the American economy is still in privately-owned hands with a division between ownership and labor, the United States ruling class still exists and thrives, and political power rests in their hands.
Essentially, all that Mike is advocating is Argentinean-style syndicalism in the workplace, Swedish-style social programs in society, and Jeffersonian democracy for all! Together, these elements do not equal socialism.
The whole thing ends with, of all songs, the Internationale (Billy Bragg lyrics) sung over the credits. I can’t tell if this was admirable or vulgar. Considering the pace and content of the rest of the film, about shrinking “middle class” privilege where “socialism = concessions from the bourgeois state,” this appropriation of the battle hymn of all humanity striving for emancipation seems like so much tasteless and degrading appropriation of socialist iconography as “revolutionary chic.” At least they didn’t defile the GOOD version of the song.
From start to finish, as usual, Moore plays the loyal opposition to the state wrapped in “radical” rhetoric. While this has succeeded in ruffling the feathers of the overt reactionaries like the National Post in my country, which featured a front-page article where they photoshopped Moore’s trademark glasses and ball cap onto Karl Marx, it boils down to same-old-same-old. Any condemnations of the still-ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Haiti are absent from the film. Why condemn them? Just make sure that the American working class gets their cut of the plunder, because that is what “socialism” is, at least according to Moore.
In the end, it becomes just another band-aid on the growing cracks in a dam that is about to burst. Just as the bourgeois economists of the recession declared “We Are All Socialists Now,” and defiled the legacy of working class emancipation by linking it to their own fascistic self-serving bail out, Michael Moore declares that workers’ need to fight for their right to more concessions.
Over all, Mike’s “middle class” woes become tiresome. The working class doesn’t need concessions, nor should they aspire to a relatively less exploited position as the “middle class” beneath bourgeoisie. If anything useful can be taken from this film, it is the knowledge that no problems have been solved in the United States, and the conditions that give rise to revolution have not been alleviated at all. If anything, the situation is more dire.