The History Place - Movie Review

Capitalism: A Love Story

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

In case one moviegoer in a million is unaware of Director Michael Moore’s politics, the opening titles of Capitalism: A Love Story clear that up.  Moore uses security-camera footage of bank heists as a metaphor for his chosen subject.  But by the end of the film, one wonders if this is more than a metaphor.  Midway through this documentary – one in a long line that began in 1989 with Roger and Me, Moore’s dirge to his hometown of Flint, Michigan – an evicted homeowner suggests that he might resort to robbing a bank.  By the film’s end, after applauding a worker sit-in and an evicted family successfully squatting in their former home, Moore is advocating a revolution.

“I can’t live in a country that does this to its people,” he complains.  “And I’m not going anywhere.”  After that warning, he asks for his audience’s help.  In doing what? In replacing capitalism with democracy, he tells us.

Michael Moore, despite the gloomy pictures he has painted about firearms (Bowling for Columbine, 2002), health care (Sicko, 2007) and other national ills, is at heart an optimist, when it comes to everyday Americans.  His hopes are not without foundation in our history, as this newest film demonstrates.  Following a brief interview with his ancient father at the bulldozed site of the giant auto plant where the old man had worked, Moore runs some footage of the 1936 UMWA strike against the auto giants that (in his words) helped create the American middle class.  Moore got it right.  The Americans whom Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” first won their unions and their worker rights, before going on to win World War II.

Where are the progeny of these workers today, Mr. Moore?  In a tragic twist on “It takes two to tango,” Moore’s film explains that average U.S. citizens were tricked into thinking their homes were banks from which they could withdraw hard cash in the form of home equity loans.  The loan documents were loaded with fine print that permitted the holders of the paper to escalate the monthly payments, often dramatically.  This, so far as I know, was frequently the case.  When it was done, it was criminal and its results were often tragic.  But what were these homeowners thinking?  And, if they weren’t thinking then, are they likely to start thinking now?  My point is that Moore’s optimism may be misplaced.  Today’s Americans, daughters and sons of “The Greatest Generation,” are not the same as their fathers and mothers.

We saw Moore’s misplaced optimism before in Fahrenheit 9/11, the ‘expose’ of the 2000 presidential election and the Bush presidency that he hoped would help swing the election John Kerry’s way.   Republican partisans countered with Fahrenhype 9/11, which effectively challenged many of Moore’s contentions and exposed some exaggerations that undermined Moore’s credibility.  At best, Fahrenheit 9/11 was a neutral factor in a race which ended with a second Bush/Cheney win and four more years of Republican rule.

Just as Fahrenheit 9/11 featured scenes of protesters taking to the streets after the Supreme Court awarded the 2000 election to Bush, Capitalism: A Love Story features the sit-in mentioned above, as well as other protests.  Moore also points out that five years ago few, if any, pundits imagined that the black state legislator from Illinois, who gave the keynote speech at the Democratic presidential convention, would wind up in the White House.  Even two years ago, when Obama was the junior senator from the Land of Lincoln, precious few could see his candidacy going all the way.  (I admit I couldn’t.)

Still, in the film’s final moments, Moore engages in a farcical attempt to make citizen’s arrests of the CEOs of AIG, Bank of America, and the other big winners in the Bailout.  The Obama administration has indicated that it will not attempt to “claw back” the bonuses that have enriched the very corporate executives and dealmakers who brought the U.S. economy to the edge of the cliff, requiring a $700 billion parachute from us taxpayers.  Don’t count on radical reforms from that quarter, Mr. Moore.

Then what of “The People”?  In 2008 only 56.8 percent of all eligible voters went to the poles.  This figure was only 1.5 percent higher than the comparable turnout in 2004.  How can Moore place his trust in democracy, when 100 million of his voting age countrymen don’t even go to the polls? 

Furthermore, what would really have to replace capitalism?  Democracy is not an economic system.  Moore briefly makes fun of people, from Sarah Palin to some of the men and women in the street, who tried to brand Obama a “Socialist.”  Chortle all you want, Mr. Moore, but the alternative to capitalism does seem to be socialism.  And, while some of the Scandinavian countries seem to have figured out how to make democratic socialism work pretty well, warnings of potential economic stagnation should not be taken lightly.

Moore, I think, is on firmer ground, when he argues that a return to serious regulation of the financial and banking industries, a more-fairly graduated income tax structure, and revival of labor unionism would go a long way toward closing the gap between rich and poor, resuscitating America’s middle class, and realizing some of the job security and employee benefits that (ironically, as Moore shows) our former foes, Germany and Japan, accord their citizens.

That this will come via a grassroots rebellion is wishful thinking.  Obama’s approval rating hovers around 50 percent.  His healthcare initiative is teetering on shaky ground.  Pressure is mounting to put more troops in Afghanistan, which will siphon scarce federal funds.  And many ordinary folks I meet are expressing impatience with him – never mind that he has been in office little more than eight months.

No, Mr. Moore, the people will not be rising up any time soon.  AIG has distributed its bonuses with impunity.  And I had to see your new film in an “art house,” because the big multi-plexes aren’t screening it, at least not in Philadelphia.

Rated R for some language.

Jim Castagnera is the author of "Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education" [Praeger 2009] and 16 other books.

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