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Michael Moore and Barack Obama: A Love Story


If you liked Michael Moore’s latest movie, "Capitalism: a Love Story" (I did) and are long past being fed up with Barack Obama’s deep allegiance and service to his corporate paymasters (I am), then this essay might be for you. I start with some happy reflections on Moore ‘s apparent ideological evolution. The mood darkens, however, as I raise unpleasant questions about the extent of Moore ‘s break with existing American power relations. I discuss two critical and related matters that exist in curious tension with Moore ‘s newly proclaimed rejection of the capitalist system (portrayed as a sin in his new flick): the President of the United States ‘ love affair with capitalism and Moore‘s continuing love affair with the President.


 

"CAPITALISM’S GOT TO GO"

 

Moore’s film career began with a brilliant satirical, neo-Dickensian documentary (titled "Roger and Me" [1989]) on the bad behavior of General Motors’ (GM) CEO (Roger Smith) and other top GM managers towards autoworkers and ex-autoworkers in Moore’s corporate-de-industrialized hometown Flint, Michigan. Subsequent targets of Moore’s dazzling Dickens-like eye have included the managers and owners of: the gun and "defense" industries ("Bowling for Columbine" [2002] and "Fahreneheit 9/11" [2004]), Wal Mart ("Bowling for Columbine" and "The Big One"), the athletic shoe industry ("The Big One" [1997]), the mass retail book chains ("The Big One"), and the leading drug and insurance corporations ("Sicko" [2007]).

 

By the end of the Bush-Cheney administration, itself a leading Moore target, however, Moore seemed to have lost patience with skewering specific sectors of the capitalist and political elite. He had decided that the underlying profits system was the issue. As Moore announced last September, explaining why he "may stop doing documentaries" (he said he might take up fictional movie-making) to the audience at an early Toronto showing of his 2009 movie "Capitalism: A Love Story":

 

"I’ve done this for 20 years. I started out by warning people about General Motors, and my whole career has been trying to say the emperor has no clothes here, and we better do something about it .I’ve been having to sort of knock my head against the wall here for 20 years saying these things."

 

"Two years ago, I tried to get the health-care debate going, and it did eventually, and now where are we? We may not even have it. What am I supposed to do at a certain point?"

 

"I started this film before the crash. The crash happens, I’m thinking, oh, somebody’s going to start talking about what I’m talking about in this movie…I’ve yet to see a talk show or read an op-ed where somebody has just named it, just come out and said, ‘Folks, what has to happen here is capitalism’s got to go.’ Because we can’t have a system where the richest 1 percent own as much as the bottom 95 percent. That just isn’t democracy. That’s not America ."

 

"I’m tired of feeling like I’m doing this alone. All through the eight years of Bush, you Google `Bush’ and `nemesis’ and I’m the first name up. And there aren’t a whole lot of other names," Moore said. "It doesn’t work with Michael Moore and Sean Penn and Ted Kennedy and a few others. The people have got to get involved in their democracy." [1]

Near the end of his new must-see movie, Moore declares that "capitalism is evil" and that "you can’t regulate evil."

 

I turned to the person sitting next to me and said, "Damn. Right on"

 

Moore had come to the conclusion that the profits system doesn’t work for any for the privileged Few – a judgment that the historical Left has held (with good reasons) going back though Marx and back at least as far as the great 17th century British "Digger" Gerrard Winstanley. Moore is announcing something of a mid-life shift from Charles Dickens (for whom the crucial issue was indecent behavior on the part of specific Victorian capitalist and other authorities)[2] to Karl Marx [3] (for whom the key issue was the underlying capitalist system of class oppression), consistent with the conclusion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who decided by at least the middle 1960s that: "only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in men or faulty operations;" [4] "radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced;" and "something is wrong with…with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America should move toward a Democratic Socialism." According to one of his aides, King would commonly demand that his assistants "turn off the tape recorder" while he held forth on the virtues of "what he called democratic socialism" and on his belief that the needs of the poor could not be met under capitalism. "If we are going to achieve equality," Kingtold ayoungCivil Rightsworker (Charles Fager) in a Selma , Alabama jail in the winter of 1965, "the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.’" [5]

 

Welcome aboard, Michael Moore. I am an anti-capitalist too.

 

 

ANTI-CAPITALISM AS SHRUGGING RESIGNATION

 

There are two critical qualifications to Moore‘s conversion, however, from my perspective at least. First, I found it hard not to notice (with consternation) Moore ‘s sense of resignation as he accompanied the rolling out of "Capitalism: A Love Story" with a statement to the effect that he might "quit" documentaries. What ought to be a fresh beginning – a shift into hard-hitting investigative film work on and against the profits system as a power structure to boldly name, break down and resist – comes across instead as something of an ending linked to a sense of futility in trying to reach the public with fact-based narratives. Moore‘s move from Dickens to Marx (at least metaphorically speaking) was problematically connected to a statement of exhaustion with explicitly political left-documentary film activism. It sounded to me like Mike was saying that discovering "the real problem is capitalism" amounted to shrugging one’s shoulders and giving up.

 

In his new movie, Moore’s seeming resignation is captured by his comic exasperation at his final effort to speak directly with the CEO of General Motors and as he engages in the lonely and futile act of streaming yellow "Crime Scene" tape around the headquarters of a leading Wall Street firm. "I can’t keep doing this," Moore says.

 

"Actually Mike," I thought to myself, "you might want to think about how you’ve just started on a welcome new path of explicitly criticizing the class dictatorship of capital. This is new and exciting to see, isn’t it?. I’d like to think you’re beginning anew."

 

 

MICHAEL MOORE AND BARACK OBAMA: A LOVE STORY, PART 1: "THIS EXCEPTIONAL MAN"

 

Second, consistent with his apparent confusion (at the end of his Toronto statement quoted above) between being anti-capitalist and being (along with Sean Penn and the late Ted Kennedy), anti-Bush, Moore’s unveiling of "Capitalism: A Love Story" was strangely accompanied by statements of attachment to the distinctly un-left president Barack Obama, whose first nine months in office have been marked by militant surrender to Wall Street and to, well, ummm……capitalism.

 

As the New York Times reported on the first page of its Sunday "Arts & Leisure" section last September 20th, "After the screening in Toronto, Mr. Moore took questions from audience members eager to know exactly what they should do. He offered some broad suggestions, stressing that he was worried that Democrats in the United States would begin to abandon Mr. Obama (whom he enthusiastically supports) now that the election is won." [6]

 

This account was consistent with Moore ‘s ringing spring 2008 endorsement of the future president, which mixed up the corporatist Senator from Illinois (see the next section below) with a vast social justice movement and called for a "nation of millions to stand behind" Obama’s supposed effort to seize control of "our government" from "corporate America ." Here’s what Moore wrote on his Web site in the April of 2008:

 

"There are those who say Obama isn’t ready, or he’s voted wrong on this or that. But that’s looking at the trees and not the forest. What we are witnessing is not just a candidate but a profound, massive public movement for change. My endorsement is more for Obama The Movement than it is for Obama the candidate."

 

"That is not to take anything away from this exceptional man. But what’s going on is bigger than him at this point, and that’s a good thing for the country. Because, when he wins in November, that Obama Movement is going to have to stay alert and active. Corporate America is not going to give up their hold on our government just because we say so. President Obama is going to need a nation of millions to stand behind him." [7]

 

 

BARACK OBAMA AND CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY

 

"Our Greatest Asset:" Capitalism

 

Perhaps the now fully anti-capitalist Moore would like to look back both on the pro-Wall Street policy record of the Obama administration and on Obama’s recurrent campaign statements of "love" for the so-called "free market" (code language for the profits system) and at an interesting passage from the candidate’s 2006 book The Audacity of Hope. One key question addressed in Audacity came straight out of the neoconservative world view: what makes the United States so exceptionally wonderful? To a remarkable extent, Obama found the answer to this nationally narcissistic question in the wise and benevolent leadership of the nation’s great white Founders and subsequent honored policymakers like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and JFK. But Obama also grounded the United States ‘ distinctive greatness in its "free market" capitalist system and "business culture." The American over-class should have been gratified by Obama’s paean to the United States ‘ "free-market" system of (state- and corporate-) capitalism:

 

"Calvin Coolidge once said that "the chief business of the American people is business," and indeed, it would be hard to find a country on earth that’s been more consistently hospitable to the logic of the marketplace. Our Constitution places the ownership of private property at the very heart of our system of liberty. Our religious traditions celebrate the value of hard work and express the conviction that a virtuous life will result in material rewards. Rather than vilify the rich, we hold them up as role models…As Ted Turner famously said, in America money is how we keep score."

 

"The result of this business culture has been a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history. It takes a trip overseas to fully appreciate just how good Americans have it; even our poor take for granted goods and services – electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, telephones, televisions, and household appliances – that are still unattainable for most of the world. America may have been blessed with some of the planet’s best real estate, but clearly it’s not just our natural resources that account for our economic success. Our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources…our free market system."[8]

 

The Audacity of Hope left it to more radically inclined left progressives – characterized by Obama and many of his elite supporters as insufficiently "realistic" and excessively "moral absolutist" carpers, "cranks," "zealots," and "gadflies" (Obama’s insulting description of the revered populist U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone [9]) – to observe some of the undesirable and less-than-"efficient" outcomes of America’s heavily state-protected "free market system" and "business culture." Those results include the climate-warming contributions of a nation that constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population but contributes more than a quarter of the planet’s carbon emissions. Other notable effects include the generation of poverty for tens of millions of U.S. children while executives atop "defense" firms like Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Raytheon rake in billions of taxpayer dollars for helping the United States maintain the deadly and controversial occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan . [10]

 

It was left to insufficiently "pragmatic" Left thinkers and activists to note the American System’s arguably wasteful and destructive allocation of more than a third of the nation’s wealth to the top 1 percent of the U.S. population and its systematic subordination of the common good to private profit.

 

"Unreasonable" "radicals" were left to observe that business-ruled workplaces and labor markets steal "individual initiative" from millions of American workers subjected to the monotonous repetition of often imbecilic and soul-crushing operations conducted for such increasingly unbearable stretches of time – at stagnating levels of material reward and security – that working people are increasingly unable to participate meaningfully in the great "democracy" Obama trumpets as the Founders’ great legacy.[11] They were left also to "complain" about the fact that U.S. social mobility rates are actually quite low in comparison to other leading industrialized states, indicating a relatively fixed class structure in "magical" (Obama’s description) America.[12]


 

"What’s the Dollar Value of a Starry-Eyed Idealist?"

 

Moore might also have consulted Ken Silverstein’s important article "Obama, Inc.," published in the November 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Silverstein told the story of Obama’s early vetting by the money and politics class in 2003 and 2004, showing that Obama was found to be an eminently safe candidate for concentrated wealth early at the beginning of his national political career. "On condition of anonymity," Silverstesin reported, "one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’" [13]

 

The filmmaker might also have examined an important in-depth take on his special candidate in the May 7, 2007 issue of The New Yorker. In a carefully researched portrait of Obama based on extensive interviews, MacFarquhar found that Obama was about as far from being a radical reformer as one could imagine. "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama," MacFarquhar determined, "is deeply conservative…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good. Take health care, for example," MacFarquhar noted, quoting Obama on how the United States ‘ for-profit health insurance companies were too deeply entrenched for us to evict them from their Mafia-like control of our health-care future. MacFarquhar’s essay was titled "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?" [14]

 


"No One Has Asked You to Build a More Just America "

 

If he were to ever undertake a serious investigation of Obama, Moore would find that Obama falls short not just of the filmmaker’s "radical agenda of scrapping capitalism" [15] but also of Moore ‘s earlier Dickensian take [16] on the elite business class. Another key expression of Obama’s desire not to offend the nation’s real power centers was his curious effort to appeal, ala Dickens, to their supposed underlying and far seeing benevolence. In the late summer of 2007, Obama made a revealing statement at the end of a speech that purported to lecture Wall Street’s leaders on their "Common Stake in America ‘s Prosperity." Speaking at NASDAQ’s headquarters, he told the nation’s financial elite that "I believe all of you are as open and willing to listen as anyone else in America . I believe you care about this country and the future we are leaving to the next generation. I believe your work to be a part of building a stronger, more vibrant, and more just America . I think the problem is that no one has asked you to play a part in the project of American renewal."[17]

 

These were strange beliefs to (claim to) hold in light of the actual historical pattern of business behavior that naturally results from purpose and structure of the system of private profit. An endless army of nonprofit charities and social service-providers, citizens, environmental and community activists, trade union negotiators, and policymakers has spent decades asking (often enough begging) the "American" corporate and financial capitalist over-class to contribute to the domestic social good – to little or no avail. Moore ‘s pre-"Capitalism" films can be reasonably interpreted as efforts to shame the nation’s corporate and political elite into better, more socially responsible and morally respectable behavior – to play the role of "good rich men" recommended in the novels of Charles Dickens. The positive results of all these institutional efforts and moral haranguing have been (as Moore accurately suggested in Toronto last month) marginal and fleeting as the "business community" works with structurally super-empowered effectiveness to distribute wealth and power ever more upward over and above any considerations of social and environmental health and the common good at home or abroad. Holding no special allegiance to the American people in an age of corporate globalization, the state capitalist elite is more than willing to abandon domestic U.S. society and its workers and communities to enhancing its bottom line.

 

As the founder of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute Jeff Faux noted in his 2006 book The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future and What It Will Take to win it Back, America’s largely business-based and bipartisan "governing class" holds no particular attachment to the people, communities, health, or even competitiveness of the United States per se. "As early as the 1950s," Faux observed, "A Ford Motor executive corrected a U.S. senator who referred to the company as ‘an American firm. We’re an American company when we are in America ,’ he said, ‘and a British company when we are in Britain , and a Brazilian company when we are in Brazil ." Forty years later, Ford Motor Company chief Alex Trotman told Robert Reich that "Ford isn’t even an American company, strictly speaking. We’re global. We’re investing all over the world. Forty percent of our employees already live and work outside the United States , and that’s rising. Our managers are multinational. We teach them to think and act globally."[18] General Motors’ and Chrysler’s executives didn’t and don’t think any differently.

 


"I Love the Market"

 

During the presidential campaign, the supposed (so the Republican right wing noise machine ritually and religiously claimed) "radical leftist Obama"[19] repeatedly identified himself as a capitalism-enthusiast, saying things like, "Look, I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market." [20] His Inaugural Address proclaimed that "the question" of "whether the market is a force for good or ill" was not up for debate. "Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom," he proclaimed, "is unmatched."[21]

 

I and many other on the actual, officially invisible Left agree with Laurence Shoup, who observed in the summer of 2008 that Obama’s campaign trail declarations of "love" for the market "fail to note that the market loves and rewards those who already have money and power, not those lacking these advantages. To say that you ‘love the market’ is akin," Shoup noted, "to saying that you love the ruling class (the top 1 percent of the population that controls 20 percent of the country’s income and nearly 40 percent of the country’s wealth) and do not care about the great majority (the 60 percent of the population that controls only 25 percent of the income and 5 percent of the wealth). To say ‘I love the market’ — at a time when the financial system is deflating because of decades of lies about how great unregulated markets are which fueled rampant speculation, phony valuations, and deceitful assurances — is to be deaf to the reality of how powerful interests are protected by the government while everyone gets a lecture on personal responsibility. ‘Change we could believe in,’ would involve confronting the perversity of market-driven capitalism…." [22]

 

Growth Ideology

 

By connecting his "love" for "the market" to being "pro-growth," Obama sided with the corporate state’s longstanding ecologically and socially disastrous notion that the solution to contemporary difficulties is material expansion not the radical redistribution of wealth and power. A "rising tide lifts all boats," the standard Western maxim maintains, making "angry" comparisons between the Few’s yachts and the Many’s rowboats obsolete. "Expanding the pie," the reigning corporate wisdom runs, abolishes the supposedly irrelevant question of socioeconomic redistribution – of how the pie is shared out. "To escape any reevaluation," the French ecological writer Herve Kempf notes, "the oligarchy keeps repeating the dominant ideology according to which the solution to the social crisis is production growth. This is supposedly the sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment."

 

Abundant data over the last three-and-a-half decades shows that economic growth does not in fact reliably undo those and other social evils. But the notion that material growth is the answer lives on because it induces societies plagued by structurally imposed poverty and idleness "to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them."

 

Besides being demonstrably false on its own terms, moreover, the reigning doctrine ignores growth’s giant nega

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