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?
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 apitalism 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 system — which is to say, by human beings. If capitalism is evil, and if it is driven by human beings, we therefore deduce that it must be human beings themselves who are inherently evil? — — ‘"," ‘ — — ""","
I caught a glimpse of Moore on Bill Maher‘s 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 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 Moore‘s 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 apitalism 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 another — rather than against the wealthy 1% — 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 — even if these are underpaid, overworked, and relentlessly exploited."
This is what I think (or least hope) Moore wanted to say, more or less. The fact that he didn‘t 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 Left‘s understanding of "alienation" and how it does not only occur between classes. That capitalism can, in precisely this way, essentially function as a "school," is a powerful that Moore did not convey as persuasively as he could have.
The second problem has more to do with Moore‘s 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 FDR‘s championing of a so-called "Economic Bill of Rights." He calls attention to Germany and Japan‘s constitutions and their corresponding provisions of "economic rights," only to then advocate for the replacement of capitalism with "democracy." Needless to say, FDR‘s 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 Americans — neither of which are necessarily "socialist."
Bill Maher‘s 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 America — that 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 film‘s 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 Moore‘s 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 Moore‘s provocative films. Had those films not enjoyed the financial success that they did, Moore‘s films would never have had the opportunity to reach as many people as they did. If capitalism were evil, then even this outcome — the immense popularity of Michael Moore‘s films — would necessarily be evil. This is why we — and Moore — should 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 point — the more provocative point — is 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.
These qualms aside, Moore‘s 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 Sinclair‘s fiery, fearlessly anti-capitalist novel, Oil!, had virtually nothing to do with the book at all. Sitting in a theater watching Moore‘s 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 Moore‘s most resounding and challenging points, for Americans especially, is that Republicans and Democrats are both to blame for 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 hold — e.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. I‘ve argued in the past that this is the only viable strategy for moving toward socialism in the U.S, and Moore‘s 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 Left‘s 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 Moore‘s 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-starter — the 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 [email protected]