Sunday, November 01, 2009
Michael Moore versus capitalism by Brian Jones
In France, you pay nothing to go to college. In Britain, the National Health Service is free. And in Sweden, any woman who gives birth receives two years of paid maternity leave.
Meanwhile, in the richest country on the planet, the United States, college graduates are buried in debt, medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy, and if you have children — well, you’re on your own.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the former countries have formidable labour unions and even independent parties of labour. In the US, we have no such labour party.
But we do have Michael Moore.
His new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, is at turns infuriating, hilarious, shocking and inspiring.
He could have made a film just about the financial crisis, or just about the foreclosures, or just about Wall Street, but he didn’t. Moore made a film about the whole damn system.
His work is both an expression of a new consciousness and a catalyst for its development. Millions of people will find, in this film, confirmation of their own ideas, frustrations and aspirations.
Crucially, Moore reminds us of the high hopes that were invested in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
Obama talked about “redistribution”, and for that, the right wing labe’led him a "socialist," which only made him more popular, and left young people curious about “the S word”.
But this isn’t a film about socialism. It’s a film about capitalism.
And yes, it’s a love story.
In many ways, Capitalism plays like a long-delayed sequel to Roger and Me, the film that put Moore on the map precisely 20 years ago. Like Roger, Capitalism makes clever use of vintage propaganda reels and home movies, and casts Moore as a barnstorming muckraker, pounding on the doors of power with cameras rolling.
The love story begins with Moore’s own home movies, through which we experience his nostalgia for the middle-class lifestyle his family enjoyed, based on the once-thriving automobile industry in Flint, Michegan.
In exchange for their loyal service, workers could count on jobs for life, family wages and a good pension.
But that social contract was shredded in the 1970s, and Moore runs down the numbers on-screen with graphs that explain our pain — workers’ growing productivity versus their stagnating wages versus the corporations’ skyrocketing profits.
Moore tours us around the “heartland” — foreclosures in Cleveland, evictions in Peoria, young people incarcerated for profit in Wilkes-Barre — and asks what all of these things have in common.
The answer: each is an example of how the free market works against human needs.
We are shown a leaked Citigroup memo that boasts of the results of Wall Street’s unbridled profiteering. The US has become a “plutonomy”, the memo gloats, where 1% of the population owns and controls almost everything.
The memo warns about a lingering danger — everyone else still has 99% of the vote — and asks: “Is there a backlash building?”
Enter Barack Obama.
On virtually every issue that matters, Obama has deeply disappointed his supporters. Capitalism, however, takes us back to a moment when the Obama campaign mobilised the very backlash Citigroup foresaw.
Moore shows us the faces of people — particularly African Americans — living through a moment of extraordinary change: Election Night 2008.
We see the tears of joy, the dancing in the streets, and we remember the feeling that things were changing for the better in this country.
Enter Goldman Sachs.
Moore shows how “Government Sachs” alumni worked in the Bush administration and in the Obama administration to manipulate the financial crisis to their advantage — at our expense.
Moore shows up on Wall Street with empty sacks to “get the money back for the American people”. It’s pure shtick, but the point still lands — these people wrecked the economy and were rewarded with trillions of our dollars.
Moore is happy to skewer Democrats and Republicans alike for corruption and corporate cronyism. However, he leaves the question more open regarding Obama.
Viewers may be shocked to see and hear the footage of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt arguing that jobs, homes, education and, yes, health care should be guaranteed to all US people under a new bill of rights.
We should keep in mind that FDR was speaking in a context of a labour movement that was organising near-insurrections in several US cities — and was on the brink of forming its own political party.
One gets the feeling the intended audience for this film isn’t only those who are questioning capitalism, but also Obama himself. Moore seems to be saying to the president: “You don’t have to be a corporate tool, you could be an FDR.”
But there is another, more radical dimension of the film that mainstream reviewers have missed: Moore points to solutions beyond what Obama may or may not do.
He points to what we could do to replace capitalism.
“There's got to be a rebellion”, says a man in the process of being evicted from his home in Illinois, “between the people that have nothing and the people that have it all”.
But what would that rebellion look like? What is the alternative to the free market?
Here, Moore turns our attention to the arena that does the most to define our lives — the workplace. Most workplaces, he says, are “dictatorships”, with zero democracy.
But is democracy possible at work?
Capitalism takes us inside the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago, where workers staged an old-fashioned occupation of the plant when it faced closure without workers getting promised severance pay.
Inside the occupied factory, we see workers meeting, discussing and making decisions together.
Moore shows us a worker-owned robotics plant, where employees make collective, democratic decisions about their work.
Moore is introducing the audience to a fundamental idea of socialism — workers’ democracy.
There’s much more to the case for socialism than this film takes up. But Moore is expressing something basic about what's wrong with the system we live under, and what could replace it.
“Capitalism is evil”, he says, “and you cannot regulate evil. You have to eliminate it and replace it with something else ... with democracy.”
For people without health care, who are losing their jobs and losing their homes, the love affair with the free market is already over. They may not know what the solution is, but many are ready to discuss the fact that capitalism itself is the problem.
In other words, being ready to break up isn’t the same thing as finding someone new. But millions of people are starting to look.
Go ahead and make the breakup official — get yourself to the nearest socialist meeting. And while you're at it, bring three or four of your friends with you.
[Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. His commentary and writing has featured on GritTV, SleptOn.com and in the International Socialist Review. This article is slightly abridged from www.socialistworker.org.]
From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #816 4 November 2009.