Last night, here in Singapore, I went to the cinema to watch Michael Moore’s latest film: Capitalism: a love story. I had read that morning a very negative review of the film in the Straits Times newspaper, the island’s man daily newspaper, owned by a government linked corporation. Apart from the reviewer’s frustrations with Moore’s flamboyant theatrical style – his trademark, in fact – the review was ultimately a political rejection of Moore’s approach. For Moore, said the reviewer, viewed “capitalism as an evil, and an evil cannot be regulated”. But, went the rejoinder, there are many evils in the world that have been successfully regulated: “abortion, gambling, prostitution”. So much for the hegemonic Singapore viewpoint.
Capitalism: a love story is a strong but complicated and sometimes confusing film. Like all of Moore’s films his basic appeal is to sentiment, to the emotions of those Americans who have been exploited or oppressed or those who are angry that such injustice exists. The film moves through a series of examples of such injustice: grossly underpaid men and women piloting jet passenger planes, families being evicted from houses that they have lived in for decades, men and women thrown out of work, employees sacked as their factory closes down but without being paid the wages and redundancy payments they are owed, poor people stranded by the Katrina catastrophe and so on. These cases are movingly presented and do indeed reinforce the sentiments of both compassion and anger that any humane person feels.
Moore then makes sure also that the anger is deepened by contrasting the plight of these poor and ordinary men and women with the greed, wealth and arrogance of the people he argues created and benefit from the system that has devastated the working majority and who instituted the policies that have created the specific current worsening of the situation. He concentrates on the bankers and financiers and the management and owners of General Motors, and the politicians they control. He shows experts in “derivatives” who have no idea of how to explain what they are selling; exposes their enormous, obscene wealth running in the hundreds of millions for some of them; and lists the policy decisions they have made through their power in government to enrich themselves at the expense of the great mass of people. He shows how the system also allows the most disgusting of vultures to make millions: firms who take out life insurance on their employees based on calculations of likely percentages of deaths or “entrepreneurs” who surf the web to find foreclosed homes that they can buy up cheap and sell.
He makes a strong case that they are all criminals and should be treated as such.
His picture of society is divided clearly into two: 1% who are super-rich, greedy and wield power and 99% who are done over, are powerless but have the potential to wield power.
Again, mainly at the level of sentiment, Moore presents examples meant to get across the message that things do not have to be like this. He chooses examples which will not be challenging or confronting to his American mass audience: 1950s America (although he reminds the filmgoer of race riots and the wars of the time) and post-war Europe and Japan, before neo-liberalism (though he doesn’t use that term for the recent period of welfare wind back.) He doesn’t hold any of these up as models. 1950s prosperity was, he argued, only possible because Europe and Japan had been destroyed in the World War II so US industry had no competition. Japan and Europe were now going the same way as the US. His message is simply that it has been and can be done differently.
All these messages are delivered with harrowing, emotional, close up interviews; with Moore’s flamboyant theatrical satire; and with stark images and facts. They do present a coherent picture of society, but in a very minimalist way, aimed primarily to reinforce the sentiments of anger and rejection. Capitalism is a system which divides society into two: a tiny ruling gang of white-collar criminals who will do anything and everything to stay wealthy, no matter how it hurts the other part of society.
It is clear Moore makes this film with the purpose of spurring people to action. The final line he narrates is an appeal for people to act, and to speed up their actions against the situation he depicts. What kind of action does he propose and what kinds of solutions does he present?
There are three kinds of actions he shows in a favorable light. The first is resistance at the point of injustice: refusal to leave a house or the occupation of a factory. The second is street protest: vigils, pickets and marches. The third is to vote.
Visually he presents all three as essential; his narrated analysis gives a lot of weight to voting. It is an interesting appeal in that it is a kind of class appeal. His assertion is that the ruling elite of white collar criminals who own and run the system are a tiny minority: ordinary people are the majority. (He avoids traditional labour movement or socialist terms like capitalist and worker or labour.) His is an argument for majority rule, having defined the majority as the exploited second “half” of a divided society. It is a populist them versus us sentiment that he is reinforcing.
Of course, in the American context, however, for whom can one actually vote? The film cannot avoid giving the impression that it is only among the US Democratic Party that you can find people worth voting for. Moore interviews outspoken critics of the banks from the Democratic Party and shows footage of the fiercest Democrat speeches in Congress against the banks. He points to the huge mobilisations in support of Barak Obama’s presidential campaign as an example of what the white collar ruling criminal gang is afraid of. There is a surprising absence of criticism of the Obama administration, given Moore’s regular criticisms of the White House on US television. He does hint, quite strongly however, about the ultimate character of the Obama administration when he delves into the criminal failures of duty to society in the service of the super-rich and the wealth of the man Obama has put in charge of the US Treasury, Timothy Geithner.
Protest, be militant, and ultimately vote: this appears to be the recipe for action that Moore presents. What about the changes he advocates? Here the picture is very clear and hazy at the same time. First, he wants all of this criminal gang removed from power. The last scene is Moore wrapping Wall Street in a crime scene tape. They should all be out of power and in gaol. They should be out of power and the people – through the vote, the film says – in power. What should the people to with this power, once they have it. There are two components to Moore’s package here: one clear, one much less clear. The first part is embodied in the screening for the first time of a statement by Franklin Roosevelt in support of a bill of economic rights. The system must guarantee rights to a decent livelihood, health, education, recreation and so on. These are rights which over which there can be no compromise in Moore’s view: they are all possible. How are they to be achieved? Moore seems to advocate, or imply, two principles. First, policy decisions that affect the economy must be accountable to the people through the representative institutions. Second, and this is less clear, there should be democratic ownership and control of the workplace itself. I say this is less clear because although Moore visits two worker-owned businesses, he nowhere explicitly advocates this as a model for all economic activity or for the system as a whole.
Reinforcing sentiments and political education
If there is a fundamental message in the film it is this. If your sentiments regarding this situation are anger and rejection, then act on those sentiments. If you think the ruling gang of super-wealthy white-collar criminals should be in gaol and rather than in power, act on those sentiments. If you are angry that society is based on 1% versus the 99%, don’t just be angry, act. This is the strength of the film and why democratic, progressive and socialist people will welcome it.
Moore’s concentration on appealing primarily to sentiment, however, facilitates confusion. He has clearly assessed that to be effective in appealing to that sentiment out there among the hurting section of the American working class (which both he and so many working class people in the movie refer to as ‘middle class’), he should not confront or challenge them with ideas which he thinks they have hitherto been indoctrinated to believe as evil. He appeals to them at a very basic level of consciousness and attempts to get them to act based on that consciousness. He hints at possibilities, rather than argues for them. He might drop a mention of “that other ism” (socialism?) in passing. Are the worker owned and run businesses he visits meant to be metaphor for a worker and owned and run economic system, or just a form of enterprise to be given some more encouragement within the current system? How should we interpret the sympathetic presence of Obama and the scathing presentation of Geithner in the same film? What does that mean for voting for Democrats as a strategy? Is there not something else one can do?
Perhaps the greatest and most in-one’s-face gap in his condemnation of capitalism (as he tries to connect with his American audience) is the absence of picture of how American capitalism has contributed massively to the misery of billions of other people outside of America.
I may be being too soft on Moore in assuming that his public stances on issues are tactically crafted to be accessible and have an impact on a still, fundamentally conservative audience and that his own private views are more radical. In the end, however, when a popular social critic speaks publicly, it his public critiques that are important. In this respect, the strategies for change that he presents and his picture of what change can be achieved will not be effective as a guide to those who do want to do what he suggests: act on your sentiments.
The movie therefore stands on a contradiction. It calls for the 99% to act to make American society a democracy by instituting majority rule over the 1% of the rich, preferably getting them off the scene altogether. That is not a bad ethic to make stronger. The more calls such as that the better. The contradiction is that by identifying the basis of the majority’s power primarily in the mass vote, in a system where ordinary working people have not yet built a party nor a mass movement of their own, he confines their struggle for power to within political processes still owned and controlled by the rich. (For a list of what Moore says on his website Americans can do today click here.)
But if the people do start to act more often and seriously on the basis of these sentiments, as the film advocates, there will be more and more people eager for a political education process where they can work out what is the necessary strategy.