Capitalism, Socialism and Michael Moore: Reflections on Capitalism: A Love Story

          Upon hearing merely the name of Moore’s newest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, I knew that I simply had to see it. And now that I have, I can say, without hesitation, that it truly is a "must-see." However, while watching the film, I must admit that I felt an uneasy tension. On the one hand, I was thoroughly impressed with what I was hearing — Moore’s identifying "capitalism" by name, and treating it so objectively as to actually refer to it as a "system." Yet, I was very conscious of how the average American citizen might receive this movie. What would be, for them, the resounding messages? What would be the likely conservative response? Which would prevail?

The Problems

          When people leave the theater and are asked about the film by family and friends, I believe that they will likely recall one of the boldest messages of the film — that capitalism is "evil." While Moore makes this argument provocatively (even going so far as to consult with several Catholic priests and a bishop, who argue the same point), I cannot say that I agree. Capitalism is not evil. Capitalism is not good. Capitalism is amoral. "It," so to speak, is essentially driven by a market systemwhich is to say, by human beings. If capitalism is evil, and if it is driven by human beings, should we therefore deduce that it must be human beings themselves who are inherently evil? A deduction of this nature is dangerous insofar as it bypasses the reasonable (and far more persuasive) argument that capitalism exacerbates and intensifies the human quality of being self-regardingto a pointand instead leads one, potentially, to the conclusion that humanitys inherent "evil," perhaps originating from the time of Adam and Eve, has inevitably produced a system which harnesses this evil and guides it, more or less, toward socially productive functions. If one accepts this argument, then the best we can hope for, presumably, is that humans (especially capitalists) will strive to make pious, godly choices rather than greedy, destructive choices. The danger, of course, is that the entire argument against capitalism has effectively been eclipsed by an argument about humanitys inherent evil and, more importantly, the power of the working classand humanity more generallyto consciously chip away at capitalism has been subordinated. In other words, the entity that should be at the steering wheel in this debate, the human being, is quickly placed in the backseat. For that reason, Moore should have avoided an argument that could lead one to deduce that human beings are inherently and inescapably "evil" (as opposed to simply "self-regarding," which is, of course, not necessarily socially destructive).

          I caught a glimpse of Moore on Bill Mahers show, Real Time, and he unfortunately flubbed an opportunity to clarify this conundrum. Maher said that 1% of the population may be taking 90% of "the pie," as Moore argues, but that the remaining 99% is comprised of equally selfish, greedy people, so why must we blame capitalism? Obviously, this is not an uncommon view, but I could almost see Moores brain at work to form a response. I believe that he was about to say something along the lines of:


"Yes, there certainly do exist some terribly selfish working class people who would do the exact same things as the richest 1% if given the opportunity to do so. But what we must realize is that these people were not created within a vacuum. Capitalism is a system that forces us to compete against one another. It turns us into these selfish people; it exacerbates the problem, and offers absolutely no remedy except to simply advise that you must ‘do what you have to do, thereby further perpetuating the problem. Thus, you frequently have working class people turned against one anotherrather than against the wealthy 1% (whom, quite predictably, they have come to envy)because, simply put, that is the easier fight. For working class people to become enraged when the dreaded subject of government welfare arises is a testament to the point that capitalism effectively serves to create capitalist-minded individuals out of everyday laborerseven if these laborers are underpaid, overworked, and relentlessly exploited."


This is what I think (or at least hope) Moore wanted to say, more or less. The fact that he didnt on Real Time is not a terribly big deal, but it would have been useful for him to explore this point a bit more in the film. If he had done so, he might have even tapped into the radical Lefts understanding of "alienation" and how it does not only occur between classes, but within them as well. That capitalism can, in precisely this way, essentially function as a "school," is a powerful concept that Moore did not convey as persuasively as he could have.

          The second problem has more to do with Moores very usage of the word "socialism," and the way in which he confuses (or, at least, portrays in a confusing way) the distinct notions of Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism. At one point in the film, he characterizes the 2008 U.S. election as a vote between "socialism" and "capitalism." He calls capitalism evil outright, but then features a long segment of FDRs championing of a so-called "Economic Bill of Rights." He calls attention to Germany and Japans constitutions and their corresponding provisions of "economic rights," only to then advocate for the replacement of capitalism with "democracy." Needless to say, FDRs policies, Germany, and Japan are all capitalist. In other words, Moore fails to convey the distinction between what is simply "managed capitalism" and what is "socialism" — and, more importantly, which he is actually advocating for. This becomes even more confusing when, at one point, Moore identifies Senator Bernard Sanders as a socialist. Granted, Sanders too identifies himself as a "Democratic Socialist," but the extent to which Sanders regards capitalism as fundamentally unmanageable is unclear in the film. What he, and Moore for that matter, seem to advocate most during the film are workers cooperatives and greater economic provisions for Americansneither of which are necessarily "socialist."

          Bill Mahers final, facetious words to Moore, when finishing up the interview, were basically, "I hope you make zillions of dollars off of your movie and become rich beyond your wildest dreams." This will likely be the immediate, sneering rebuke of mainstream Americathat Moore, in making a financially successful film against capitalism, is being shamelessly hypocritical. Unfortunately, those who reach this conclusion will have missed and/or purposely overlooked many of the films valuable points. However, this argument does have one grain of importance with regard to my (and many others) view of capitalism as amoral, not evil. After all, capitalism is what has allowed Michael Moore to produce the movies that he has. The "profit motive," which is fiercely vilified in the film, is in fact what has enabled Moore to show his film in theaters across the country and across the globe, while lesser-known filmmakers must make do with much smaller audiences. Capitalism is what placed commercials and advertisements for Moores films on televisions and computers virtually everywhere, promoting his film, creating consumers for a new product. Capitalism is what will stock the shelves of video stores everywhere with the DVD version of Capitalism: A Love Story. Capitalism helped develop a "market" for all of Michael Moores provocative films. Had those films not enjoyed the financial success that they did, Moores films would never have had the opportunity to reach as many people as they did. If capitalism were evil, then even this outcomethe immense popularity of Michael Moores filmswould necessarily be evil. This is why weand Mooreshould avoid calling capitalism evil, as though some mystical force from beyond the planet has created a system that only produces immoral outcomes. The more salient pointthe more provocative pointis that capitalism is a mindless, careless, amoral institution that we as human beings, whether consciously or subconsciously, permit to exist; permit to guide our actions, relationships, thoughts, and aspirations. This argument is obviously far more complex (and therefore less accessible) than simply calling capitalism "evil," but in the struggle against capitalism, the accuracy of argumentation is essential.

The Prospects

          These qualms aside, Moores film is shockingly exceptional. I cannot personally think of another major motion picture that so overtly stoked class consciousness. Even films based on highly provocative, politically-motivated books often fell dreadfully short of anything Capitalism: A Love Story accomplishes. The film version of The Grapes of Wrath, for example, barely scrapes the surface of the class struggle contained in the book. The highly acclaimed There Will Be Blood, though based on Upton Sinclairs fiery, fearlessly anti-capitalist novel, Oil!, had virtually nothing to do with the book at all. Sitting in a theater watching Moores anti-capitalist magnum opus, all while just a few feet away from another theater that was playing Toy Story 2 in 3D, almost gave me a fiendish sense of rebellion. Just being in that huge theater, watching the film, for me, at times felt like a political statement in and of itself.

          One of Moores most resounding and challenging points, for Americans especially, is that Republicans and Democrats are both to blame for the current financial crisis, and for hurriedly passing the TARP legislation. True, Moore (predictably) makes a mockery of George W. Bush, while painting Obama in a fairly optimistic light. But charging that Capitalism: A Love Story is simply another two hours of Moore deriding the Republican Party would be disingenuous. In fact, Moore is very critical of Senator Dodd (D-CT), who currently faces a challenging upcoming election. If Moore were simply the Democrats version of Rush Limbaugh, it is unlikely that he would do anything that could potentially jeopardize the Democrats 60-vote majority in the Senate. In this way, he offers a potential "third" perspective that deeply challenges the dichotomous conception of politics that many Americans continue to holde.g., conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat, pro-this vs. pro-that, and so on.

          As noted earlier, this "third" perspective is not dogmatically "socialist" in nature, but it does offer a variety of critical points that could enable many Americans to change their perceptions of American politics. Ive argued in the past that this is the only viable strategy for moving toward socialism in the U.S, and Moores film thoroughly works toward this end. For millions of Americans to learn, perhaps for the first time, that workers can democratically run a firm; that workers can refuse to have their factory shut down without notice and without pay; that the citizens of a community can refuse to relinquish a home to a bank; that the Lefts arguments go much further than simple Republican-bashing; that the strains they are now feeling are felt everywhere, and that there is still much to be done, is a powerful and encouraging prospect.          

          In sum, the ideologue may spend hours critiquing Moores film for its theoretical shortcomings and ideological inconsistency. But for the average person, I believe the film will be, at the very least, an immediate conversation-starterthe beginning of a potentially radical American dialogue. And for that alone, Capitalism: A Love Story is a tremendous achievement.


John Kane currently teaches political science at St. Joseph’s College in New York and can be reached at jkane@sjcny.edu

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