Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (Movie Review)

If Michael Moore's documentaries really had the impact that people on both the political right and left believe they have, we would be living in a very different America now.

Roger and Me would have convinced Americans to put the brakes on the corporate greed that through the 1980s crushed workers' unions, stole workers' jobs, exported them to sweatshops overseas, and destroyed communities.  

Bowling for Columbine would have exposed fear-mongering as the guilt trip that it is and effectively defused it as a tool of political and social manipulation.  

Fahrenheit 911 would have barred a second term for George W. Bush and ended the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

Sicko would have sold us all on the idea of public health options and altogether eclipsed the existing health insurance industry from the debate on reform and quite possibly put some of its executives in prison before they could destroy any more American lives.

Had America really listened to everything Moore ranted about and plied with ridicule for the past twenty years, he would never have had to make his latest movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, which, in effect, encapsulates all the above, but updated for 2009.

Ironically, then, given the excellence of Capitalism, it's perhaps best that Americans ignore Michael Moore, since his movies get better the angrier he gets.  Future generations (assuming a higher than warranted rate of survival) will look back on him as the American Cassandra, that ill-fated Trojan princess cursed with always being right but never being believed.

The new documentary is not Moore's biggest critical success (reviewers, even liberal ones, are apparently bored now with his antics, i.e. compulsive truth-telling), but it is his most sweeping and important film.  

In it he dismantles key myths about American capitalism, for instance, that American workers are capitalists, though capitalists are almost by definition not workers, but people who thrive off investments in and loans to stimulate and profit from the labor of others.  Capitalists are to workers what kudzu is to pine trees; they should be perceived as scavengers and, even more accurately, as parasites.  Vampires would not be far from the mark either.

Another myth of capitalism that the movie explodes is that the nation's founding fathers were sympathetic to capitalism.  Through the closing credits, Moore intersperses pithy quotations tinged with anti-capitalist feeling from quintessential dead white males like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.  

Much earlier, Moore pulls one of his typical stunts by scouring the U.S. Constitution for even small signs of support for capitalism, the free market, or the profit motive, finding only its wholehearted support for the value of democratic people's joining in "union" to support the "common good."  

Perhaps too generously, or even ingenuously, though, Moore ignores the Constitution's tacit endorsement of slavery, the most successful economic system in pre-industrial America and one that was capitalistic inasmuch as the benefits of labor went to slave owners, not to slaves.

The difference between slaves and employees is that employees have contracts, instead of physical chains.  But apart from cases of arbitration, the so-called free and mutual contract between employer and employee is entirely one sided:  

We get to fire you with or without cause if we deem circumstances as warranting your removal, but you have to give us thirty days' notice before leaving; we pay you what we feel like paying you, but you have only the choice of finding work elsewhere (after thirty days' notice and not, if you intend to maintain your current occupation, within 200 miles of your current workplace).  

Hence, we find in Moore's movie that pilots for some well-known budget airlines earn approximately $18-19-thousand a year and sell plasma to help make ends meet at home.

Moore also challenges the fundamental American tenet of faith that Christianity is conducive to capitalism.  Assuming that Jesus' teachings still have anything to do with today's Christianity, nothing could be further from the truth.  

Jesus, who blessed the poor, had doubts about redeeming the wealthy, and cured the sick and raised the dead, had no thought about turning profits or denying his signs and wonders to those with preexisting conditions.  

In on-camera interviews, priests and bishops tell Moore (raised an American Catholic) that  capitalism is a force of evil in the world, antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the early church.

Undoubtedly the ineffectiveness of Moore's movies lies in the fact that they mostly preach to the already converted, lefties like me, though about 90% of their content addresses the arguments of conservative Republicans and Libertarians.  Perhaps this accounts for the Cassandra effect.  

One could argue, though, that the films arm us lefties to contend with the specious arguments on the right, and indeed that argument carries weight with me, too, except it presumes that the left is and will be vigilant in its defense of sound sense and humanistic values.  

Sadly, though, lefties are habitually slack in this regard, preferring to react to the rants on the right with "respectful," though basically condescending silence:  quietly repeating platitudes about free speech (while forgetting that free speech only works towards democratic ends when flawed reasoning is regularly met with objections based on facts and clear logic) and bipartisanship (failing to recognize bipartisanship as the mistake that the reverend founding fathers tried to avoid by dividing the federal government into competitive yet complementary branches).

There's a sense of urgency in Moore's latest film that is lacking in its comparatively offhanded predecessors.  

Especially in Capitalism's closing minutes, Moore addresses the audience directly, pleading with them to take action against corporate capitalism's rapid dismantling of American democracy.  

There's a sense that a moment is about to be lost, a moment that was strongest and most lucid in the days after the election of November 2008.  

There's a sense, in the tone of Moore's voice there at the end, that if we do not enact the potential of America's democratic and humane values now, we may never again have the right circumstances for doing so again.

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