Friday, October 9, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of the best parts of Capitalism: A Love Story is the footage shot in a Chicago factory whose laid-off workers occupied it for several days last December. The workers filed out obediently when they were let go but then returned, barricading themselves inside to demand the vacation and severance pay that had been denied them.

Capitalism writer/director Michael Moore’s camera was the only one allowed inside the building, and it captures some inspirational moments as downtrodden workers stand up for themselves. We also hear from a quietly charismatic union organizer, who says the workers are starting to consider options – like running the plant themselves – that they never would have thought of before. There’s no telling where this new thinking will lead, she says, but questioning the status quo is a huge step in the right direction.

I think Moore wants this movie to spur audiences to take that same step. Capitalism is peppered with calls to the vast majority of Americans, urging us to rise up against the wealthiest 1% or so -- along with laments about how slow we are to wake up. Can't we see how the moneyed elite controls not just nearly all of our wealth but also the legislative and regulatory checks and balances that are supposed to keep the robber barons from stripping the rest of us down to our skivvies? Like Howard Beale, the mad prophet of Network, Moore wants us all to declare that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more.

Moore doesn’t have any more ideas than Beale did about just what we should do, once we've awoken from our capitalism-induced coma. That doesn’t seem to bother him, though. Maybe he trusts us to figure it out.

As we all know, Moore has pretty much single-handedly invented an engaging form of cinema. I think of his movies as pop docs, with the "pop" standing for populist as well as popular.

Moore frames his pop docs as a personal quest to figure out something that’s been bugging him. That can seem annoyingly self-aggrandizing at times -- he puts more of himself in this one than he does of several subjects I wanted to hear more from -- but it's an effective way of hooking us in, eliciting some kind of emotion even if it's just irritation. And he always starts out with a good question. Bowling for Columbine wants to know what’s with all the guns in America. Sicko asks why we can’t we have a decent health care system, when so many other countries manage to. Roger and Me wonders how corporate executives can sleep at night when they make millions of dollars by laying off thousands of people. And Capitalism wants to know what it will take for America's poor and middle class majority to throw off an economic system that drives thousands more into desperate instability every day.

He may not be much on visuals – his films often look like YouTube videos – but Moore is a whiz with words, coming up with metaphors and phrases that memorably characterize or caricature a problem (In Capitalism, he calls Congress’s 2009 bailout of Wall Street “a financial coup d’etat.”) He knows the value of a strong anecdote, too, and he and his researchers always unearth some wrenching real-life stories.

Most of the people featured in Capitalism have lost their homes or their jobs to the recession brought on by the games Wall Street played with other people’s money. Moore outlines the financial shenanigans and dismantling of regulations that led to our economy's near-collapse, but he doesn't go into much depth. His aim is to launch a broad ideological -- and surprisingly religious -- attack on the organizing principles of capitalism, and to show its effects on working-class Americans.

As always, he keeps the energy level high and the laughs coming fast, in part by cramming his movie full of found footage that becomes wryly funny out of context. And he’s got plenty of glib gimmicks to entertain us, like showing up outside AIG with burlap bags “to get the money back for the American people.” But his thesis is so poorly defined that many of these bits, like a segment on the low salaries of regional airline pilots, feel random -- a splattering of BBs rather than a few well-aimed rifle shots.

I’m no great defender of capitalism, but Capitalism brings out the devil’s advocate in me. A sidebar on the so-called “dead peasant” life insurance policies that corporations often take out on their employees will enrage you, but what’s the culprit here: greed or capitalism? And is the lack of democracy within the workplace really a problem only in capitalist countries?

Moore’s nostalgia about the working-class paradise of his childhood undercuts his own argument, since the economic system that allowed his family to thrive was as capitalist as they come. Moore himself claims here that our economy was strong in the 1950s and ‘60s for a couple of reasons. First, so many of the world’s other industrial nations were still recovering from WWII that there wasn’t much competition for our manufactured goods. Second, a robust system of regulations and high taxes on the rich kept Wall Street in check and reduced the gap between the richest and poorest Americans.

So does that mean capitalism could work if we put the right regulations in place -- and found a way to deal with honest competition? Moore says no, but he never says why. “Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil,” he asserts in the voiceover that runs through the film. “You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that is good for all people. And that something is called democracy.”

Hold on. Isn’t capitalism an economic system and democracy a political system? So how can you replace one with the other? I’m confused.

Moore maintains his near-religious faith in unions as the best hope of the working class. He also exhibits a touching belief in the power of democracy and populist politicians.

One of Capitalism’s heroes is Ohio congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, who urges her constituents to become “squatters in your own homes” if someone tries to evict them. Banks, she says, can rarely locate the mortgage on the properties they’re repossessing, because the financial deals behind them are so convoluted. And they can’t prove they own the house unless they can show you that paper.

It’s a galvanizing insight -- and a rare piece of pragmatic advice in a movie that’s rich in anecdotes but poor at analysis.

I used to know an organizer for the International Socialist Organization who told me Sicko was a great catalyst for organizing people around the need for health care reform. I can see how Moore’s movies would be useful tools for the ISO, or any other political group with a clear-cut agenda, and maybe that’s what Moore is aiming for.

But I got pulled far enough into Capitalism to be frustrated when I couldn’t go further, and that’s not the first time one of his movies has left me feeling that way. Like a lot of other Americans, I think there's something seriously wrong with our economic system, but I don’t know what to do about it. That puts me square in the middle of the audience Moore seems to be trying to reach here, yet I left the theater feeling all fired up with no place to go.

In a Q&A with Moore on the movie’s press site, a young woman -- she gave her name, but I'm not sure I heard it right -- describes the excitement she felt when she first saw Roger and Me. “I wanted to do something to make the tragedy that I’d see on the screen better,” she says. “And that’s how I’ve felt every time I’ve seen one of your movies.” She can feel that same excitement spread through the audiences she watches with, she adds, yet it never seems to translate into effective action once the movie is over.

Then she asks the question I can’t stop thinking about: “What do you think the disconnect is between the excitement, the desire for change, that we all feel together as an audience when we watch the movie and the actual change happening? And what can we do to bridge that gap?”

The young woman says she wants to make movies like Moore's. I'd love to see her make one that tackles that question.


  1. I think the change has to come from "outside" the official channels. But it's precisely for this reason that people don't know how to proceed. We're not taught how to act, or necessarily to think, for ourselves -- especially in instances when this threatens to antagonize the very employer class on whom we rely for so much.

    The reality is that advocating systemic change carries a significant cost, and most people don't take this for granted. We want to balance advocacy with successful, lucrative careers; and we are reluctant to take significant risks in this regard.

    The other side to this is that I don't believe people are cognizant of the rewards that can come such activism, largely because they are not remunerative. As long as we think like consumers, it will be difficult to put a value on things of greater social significance; we are used to thinking in terms of narrow material interest.

  2. thank you so much, whoever you are, for this very smart and thoughtful comment. That makes a lot of sense to me.

  3. Well, thank you for a great blog. I enjoy reading your thoughtful and well-written reviews!