Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Capitalism" Hits The Mark. Stuff Might Happen.

I saw Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism: A Love Story last weekend. It did not disappoint.

In one way, Capitalism is like Moore's other films. He frames his arguments with witty Cliff's Notes-style history lessons, highlights personal stories that are at turns devastating and inspiring, and sprinkles satire over the whole thing. You're clinching your teeth, ready to storm the barricades alongside some of the people on the screen, then your laughing out loud at the utter ridiculousness of the thing he's criticizing. That's his brand, and he does it well.

But Capitalism is also bigger, scarier, and more exhilarating than anything else Moore has done. From the start, you get the feeling that he's playing for keeps. You get the feeling that people will leave the theater and take action, that stuff might happen. He describes it as the culmination of all his other films. It might be more accurate to say that he finally makes the intellectual leap and chases down the logical conclusion of what he's been getting at all along. Finally, we're not just talking about the gun lobby (Bowling for Columbine), or the military industrial complex (Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911). We're not just talking deadly insurance companies (Sicko) or a lying president (all of his films, I think). As powerful and necessary as a single-issue focus can be, it's too often just a game of "whack 'em all." Whack the gun lobby and mercenary corporations pop up. Outlaw the mercenary corporations and we're suddenly in a death spiral toward war with Iran. Get out of Iran and Goldman Sachs operates the Treasury Department. The media, and the permanent political class in general, tend to treat these things as separate, unrelated issues. To the extent that they acknowledge them as problems at all, they cast them as individual cases of "a few bad apples." Well, dare we ask why we're sitting beneath this tree eating these crappy apples?

With Capitalism, we're finally stepping back to examine the sick tree--the tree that gives us Enron, Blackwater, and Gilded Age inequality for its fruit.

What's Moore's diagnosis? He says the disease is capitalism itself. In nearly every area, too few people have too much power. Shrug it off as some hackneyed radicalism. Laugh it off as a lame echo of the Sixties. And then read it again, because it's not going anywhere. (And it's going to get louder.) Too few people have too much power. How is this possible if we are a democracy, with "one person one vote?" Because too few people and too few corporations have too much money. And money means power. And people abuse power. The idea that we can have political democracy alongside economic royalism is folly. One will always eat the other. Perhaps the most inspiring thing about this film is the suggestion, hinted throughout the picture, that the royalists have gotten fat and lethargic and the democrats are hungry.

So what's Moore's cure for capitalism? Democracy. And this is the strongest aspect of the film. "But wait! One's an economic system and the other's a political system," critics will object. Well, maintaining that artificial division has been an important strategy for the capitalists. "You can keep your democracy over there," they say. "Just don't touch the good stuff." We are allowed to elect American Idols while they decide what the richest nation in the history of the world does with its money. The truth is, democracy is a decision-making system. And it's the system that distributes power as evenly as possible over the widest group possible. It's the perfect medicine for what's killing us: Too few people have too much power.

But isn't a democratic economy some form of SOCIALISM? And here's where the whole discussion could devolve into a battle of competing definitions for words like capitalism and socialism. (One of these words make us think of Stalin and Mao!) Moore does a good job of navigating this minefield. He removes the mystique of the S-word by interviewing a real, live socialist sitting in the U.S. Senate. He pokes fun at how the word has been used recently. He looks at what made America a strong middle-class nation in the middle of the last century and then at how that broadly-shared prosperity was systematically dismantled.

Then, somewhere in the middle of the movie, it strikes you: This thoroughly radical movie--rebellious in the true sense of the word--is playing on thousands of screens across the country. How did this become possible? Then you'll see a scene of George W. Bush giving an awkward speech defending capitalism itself. This is when you start to wonder, does Moore's movie say more about where we are heading or about where we already are? Then cut to scenes of families squatting in their own homes to fight eviction, of radical labor activism, of prosperous democratically owned and operated factories. You start to think, it's not just that stuff might happen. Stuff is happening. Democracy is rising up against capitalism all over the place, and we can be a part of it. We have to be a part of it.


Has anybody else seen it yet? If so, please share your thoughts.


Sara said...

I was kind of waiting for you to report on this. Haven't seen it myself, but good post.

"Perhaps the most inspiring thing about this film is the suggestion, hinted throughout the picture, that the royalists have gotten fat and lethargic and the democrats are hungry."

I've had that feeling too lately, like they figure 'the jig is up.' The plan all along, to just ride that pony as long as they could...knowing full well the pony was going to drop dead in the end.

Three cheers for "Stuff!"

Dave said...

Good point about the pony. I think they have known for a couple of years that the political winds were shifting. And I don't just mean from Republican to Democratic power. I mean from the financial industry having pretty much free reign, to a time of (small-d) democratic resurgence.

In the film, Moore kind of depicts the 2008 financial bailout as one last, big stick-up by big business, before Obama and the New Order came to town. I think I agree with him. If you remember, that was late last year in the heat of the presidential election. The financial industry came to Washington and said, "Give us hundreds of billions of dollars RIGHT NOW, or else everything will collapse!" Moore shows that Congress had no idea what was going on. It all happened so fast. And maybe the creepiest thing of all is that the way the Treasury Department (staffed former and future employees of the financial industry) initially wrote up the bill, it had a clause saying that nothing in the bill could be reviewable in the future by any court.

"Give us all your money right now or you're going to die! And don't ever look back and figure out what happened here!"

Sara said...

Creepy indeed!

It's like Al Capone. A bunch of gangsters!