I am not a big fan of Michael Moore’s work. This isn’t because of a big difference in political outlook, but rather, it’s because he suffers from a condition endemic in Hollywood: a tendency to oversimplify. I do understand that the market he is trying to reach generally require more punchy messages than complex facts, but it is a penchant of mine to prefer the latter to the former.
That said, I had read a number of positive reviews of his latest work, “Capitalism: A Love Story”, which suggested that I should take a second look. I also thought that the discussion of a theme as broad as our present economic system perhaps would be more conducive to the type of film Moore likes to make.
Early indications were good: Moore unearthed a clip from a 1950’s documentary regarding the fall of Ancient Rome. The narrator described the factors which led to its fall: a widening gap between rich and poor, a lack of suitable employment for the unskilled, the deployment of violent spectacle in order to distract the populace, and the concentration of power into the hands of an elite. As if these similarities weren’t jarring enough, Moore interspersed pictures of modern Washington and today’s television programmes in order to drive the point home. Moore then delivered another killer blow by showing a forcible eviction occurring in Lexington, North Carolina: thanks to the evictee possessing a video camera, we see the view from the inside as well as out. The pounding on the entrance by what looked like half-a-dozen officers, then the final taking of the door off its hinges was horrific: but again, the point is clear, this is what recession in America looks like, in all its gruesome detail.
Moore’s penchant for oversimplification reared its head soon afterwards: he described a “Golden Age” of capitalism, i.e., the period during which he grew up. While he accurately mentioned that the wealthy paid a 90% tax rate, he ignored the entire global system which had been constructed to maintain the economic order: he never mentioned Bretton Woods (I take it that John Maynard Keynes isn’t on Moore’s bookshelf). Nor was the subsequent collapse of Bretton Woods mentioned; the oil shocks and rise of inflation were also ignored. Rather, we jumped to a powerful and relevant speech by President Carter in which he stated that consumerism was undermining human identity.
The film was at its best when sticking to particular narratives. I was utterly horrified by his expose of a case in Pennsylvania in which a privately run youth detention centre had made an arrangement with a couple of corrupt judges. The officials agreed to funnel almost any young offender into the “care” of the centre, both sides thereby making massive profits in the process. Even more appalling were the stories which described “Dead Peasant” insurance; apparently, companies take out life insurance out on their employees with the firm as the beneficiary. In some cases, it is indeed to the company’s good if their employees die. A bereaved wife found out that her husband’s employer made $5 million out of his death from cancer; a former Wal Mart employee found out that the company made $81,000 when his wife died due to a severe asthma attack.
Having established that capitalism leads to immoral and depraved behaviour, as well as wrecking neighbourhoods across the United States, Moore failed to land a knockout punch: as a number of academics including David Harvey have stated, capitalism (at least in its present form) simply doesn’t work. Moore was right to highlight the complexity of derivatives and show modern finance as being little more than a glorified casino. However, he missed out on how Merck nearly was wrecked by producing Vioxx, a drug it had to withdraw: this was a consequence of an innovation model which no longer works in a era of diffuse information. He also seemed to suggest that the collapse of the financial system was an elaborate swindle: not quite. Moore may not have been aware of Harvey’s calculation that for capitalism to endure that it has to get 3% return, year on year, but the opportunities to achieve that are becoming more and more limited. As a result, capital is attracted to fictions which eventually detonate; we are living in a “post-detonation” period at the moment. The environment also received no mention in Moore’s film; it’s all very well to be nostalgic for a previous era, but even that way of life couldn’t endure simply because the earth can’t take it.
A final oversimplification was Moore’s referral to the “rich”. It’s difficult to take this broad brush description too seriously as Moore isn’t precisely poor himself, though he did his best not to let on. It also failed to make a distinction between the Lloyd Blankfeins of this world and say, the Andrew Carnegies: as much as the latter was a “robber baron”, at least he produced products that people wanted, and left behind educational (Carnegie Mellon University) and cultural (Carnegie Hall) institutions which persist to this day. What can certainly be said is that the parasites do outnumber the benefactors at the present time: however Moore didn’t say this, and it blunted some of his argument.
Moore seems to hope that the election of Barack Obama was a significant political moment, and that somehow Franklin Roosevelt’s agenda for a “Second Bill of Rights”, which had full employment and health care at its core, will be fulfilled. While there have been steps in the right direction, given the presence of people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner at the heart of government (who Moore rightly castigated), this hope seems somewhat forlorn. But as ever, it was individual stories which made the film sparkle: Obama may not represent a turning point in and of himself, but the tale of the sit-in by the workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago certainly showed that the boundaries of possibility have been extended by Obama’s election. Indeed, this one tale may represent the best of Moore’s film and his message: it is not necessary to accept things as they are. Given a bit of leverage and a willingness to say “no”, the world can indeed shift.