Capitalism: a movie review

As Capitalism: A Love Story approaches its conclusion, filmmaker Michael Moore makes a pretty bold pronouncement: “Capitalism is evil, and you can’t regulate evil. You have to eradicate it.”

Ooh! Fighting words!

Unfortunately, they’re the sort of  fighting words that are largely bluster, without ever really landing a punch.

This is not to say that Moore doesn’t make some good points about the immorality of capitalism. He interviews several religious leaders (including the bishop of Detroit) who condemn capitalism with varying levels of vigor. He commandeers some footage from an old Jesus movie (starring blue-eyed capitalist Viking Jesus) and humourously re-dubs it so Jesus has a free market ideology and declines to heal someone’s “pre-existing condition.”

Moore also paints a really grim picture of what was going on behind the scenes as last fall’s $700 billion Grand Unification Bailout was being debated, defeated, and rammed through anyway. Moore has members of Congress coming right out and describing said ramming as an effective coup d’etat committed by the dark forces of Goldman Sachs. There was even footage from the House floor calling for fired workers to squat their workplaces (a la Argentina, 2002 and Republic Windows & Doors, 2008).

Best of all, Moore avoided my usual pet peeve for the social critic documentary, which is to overwhelm viewers with negativity and leave us with a sense of hopelessness and despair. (Food Inc. was a prime example of this problem.) Moore actually showed some tangible alternatives to capitalist business: Alvarado Street Bakery and Isthmus Engineering are both democratically organized, worker-owned cooperatives. They represent a real live alternative to capitalism. I would have loved for him to look at more systemic challenges like Mondragon, but I suppose I’ll never be satisfied until I make my own danged movie.

It was hard not to watch the film without a clear sense that something is deeply, seriously, tragically wrong with our economy.  When the president-elect supports workers seizing their workplace, and the Sherriff of Wayne County (Detroit) declares that he’s not going to evict any more foreclosures, it seems obvious that something is very wrong with capitalism.

But what is capitalism?

Moore doesn’t clearly define his foe. I’m not sure how he would define it, since he didn’t really tell us when he had the obvious opportunity. He paints a pretty clear picture of what he thinks are the negative effects of capitalism but stops short of  outlining the cause itself. His apparent interest in worker ownership suggests that he is more inclined toward libertarian forms of socialism.

Alas, he can’t resist the temptation to make fun of people’s very real fears of socialism, flashing pictures of Stalin and Mao. By his use of those models of socialist organizing, Moore reinforced the myth that state socialism is the only alternative to capitalism. His cooperative examples are solitary and function within the market economy only by collaboration with capitalist firms and financial structures. Alvarado and Isthmus are great micro-alternatives, but they are not macro-alternatives.

To build an alternative without  resorting to a command economy, we have to separate out capitalist exploitation from the market mechanism itself. Co-op systems like Mondragon have found ways to work within the market while making a fundamental change in how it is used: Rather than the capitalist model in which capital is sovereign and served by labor, we can create new systems in which capital is a tool used by labor to meet peoples’ needs.

Capitalism is ultimately based on giving power and profit to those who already have capital. That is, wealth tends to attract more wealth. This process continues inevitably until it is either reversed by taxation or reset by revolution. I am personally not attracted to either of those solutions, and think that it would be far better for us to organize our economies based on cooperative principles of one vote per person, and allocation of profit based on use. That would be a natural extension of U.S. democratic values from the political to the economic sphere, and would reduce the need for regulation and active redistribution of wealth by government.

Ultimately, the movie is a lost opportunity. Because Moore didn’t clarify what he meant by capitalism, he appears to attack the very mechanism of the market. That might have been his intent, but his focus on cooperatives suggests otherwise.

Capitalism is a fierce and serious opponent, and it calls to mind a saying that roughly states, “if you strike the king, make sure he doesn’t get up.” In this context, I guess that means Moore needed to have a really clear replacement for capitalism before he tears it down. If we try to reject capitalism without an effective Plan B, we might wind up with a train wreck like state socialism turned out to be.

Moore is a gifted propagandist, but by failing to define what he condemns, he missed a huge opportunity to provide a real alternative. His latest contribution is a good, inspiring movie that preaches to the choir and admittedly got me all riled up. However, it probably won’t seriously challenge many beliefs, and if we are going to seriously challenge capitalism, we need to present an alternative that is realistic and clear.

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One Response to Capitalism: a movie review

  1. John says:

    As I understand it, Mondragon declined his request. At first they didn’t know who he was. Once they figured out who he was, they decided that their partnership with GM was more important.

    Nice review–I often point out that co-operation is a market economy model that is separate and distinct from capitalism. I think that is how the Italians see it as well. However, many lefty Americans simply equate market with capitalism. I imagine it has a lot to do with their majors in history, poli sic, and sociology instead of business, marketing and management.

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