Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review: Michael Moore's "Capitalism - A Love Story"

I'll begin by admitting I'm a fairly big Michael Moore fan.

His trademark baseball cap, faded jacket and blue jeans, and
rumpled Everyman persona make him unique among
Hollywood producers.

Ever since I first saw Roger and Me twenty years ago, I've enjoyed
watching Moore's use of of kitsch and video clips, street theater
interviews to create trenchant social commentary.

Roger and Me accurately predicted the demise of General Motors
through arrogance, neglect, and the relentless pursuit of
Soviet-level build quality.

Bowling for Columbine portrayed the "weaponization" of
disagreements and disputes . Fahrenheit 9/11 showed how
misinformation, arrogance and ignorance get a country
into unplanned and unnecessary wars.

And if you saw Sicko and didn't come away convinced
about the need for Universal Health Care, you haven't
been paying attention.

So, in that spirit, I took myself yesterday to the local Movieplex,
got my Supersize Coke and buttered popcorn, and settled in
to be both entertained and ideologically motivated.

Was I? Yes and No. Yes - I was entertained. But no, I wasn't
convinced any more than I was before that certain aspects
of Capitalism have gotten out of hand.

The film opens with security-camera footage of actual bank
robberies (set to a hip-hop version of Louie Louie) , and then
cuts to a scene of twelve Sheriff's deputies in rural North
Carolina, breaking down a door to serve a huddled and
frightened rural family with an eviction notice.

Hmm... I guess while some people rob banks, some banks
rob people. But the connection between the two isn't really
made clear.

Scenes from a grade-school educational film of ancient
Rome are there to illustrate the decadence of our Moneyed
Classes. Juxtaposed with clips of current pop culture, I
suppose these are the modern "bread and circuses" meant to
pacify the populace.

But the film picks up from there. Scenes of the industrial
devastation of Moore's hometown of Flint are spliced
together with some of Moore's childhood home movies.
Good old stolid, reliable Dad supporting the wife and kids
on his good job at the GM plant. Nicely kept little home.
Well-scrubbed, neatly dressed kids attending Catholic
school. Completely familiar to anyone who grew up
in Middle America in the 50's or the 60's.

But then, things changed. The Powers That Be decided
that a contented, unexploited workforce was Bad For
The Bottom Line. And so dour but wise Jimmy Carter
was replaced with a "Corporate Spokesmodel" as
President - Ronald Reagan.

Here Moore gets his facts wrong. The open
subversion of the government by financial interests
didn't begin until the Clinton administration. And
Reagan sent the "financial innovators" of his era -
Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky - to prison.

But then there are moments when Moore gets it
spectacularly right. "Dead Peasants Insurance" -
(yes, that's what it's called by the industry) shows
modern capitalism at its creepy and atavistic worst,
insuring the lives of ordinary workers for huge sums
without their knowledge or consent. The practice
only ceased when workers started outliving the
actuarial tables - not when states started outlawing
the practice.

"Influence Peddling" depicts how Angelo Mozilo, the
CEO of America's largest subprime lender, Countrywide
Mortgage, bought influence and favors with low-interest
or no-interest loans to the powerful, including Sen. Chris Dodd
(D-Ct.), and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) .

The former loan officer in charge of the operation
detailed page after page of Senators, Congressmen,
Administration officials and lobbyists who were
"Friends of Angelo" and received his largesse.

And Angelo Mozilo himself? Think Vito Corleone
with a bad toupee, dental caps and a too-deep tan.

"Juvenile Justice" showed a corrupt Pennsylvania
juvenile judge sending youths brought to court for
offenses such as truancy, school misbehavior, and
traffic violations to a juvenile detention facility run
by private investors.

The judge received a kickback for every young inmate
committed - and was under pressure from the prison
company to commit more and more young people
to the facility. Eventually, the judge went too far -
imprisoning a young woman whose "offense" was
publishing an unflattering website about her high
school principal. Moore doesn't mention it, but
that case brought in the ACLU, and the judge,
the prison company officials, and two county
supervisors eventually wound up in federal prison.

A follow-up on one former inmate, a young man who
aspired to be a pilot, segues into a devastating segment
on airline compensation. Hero pilot Sully Sullenberger
testifies before Congress that because of low wages, both safety
and industry integrity are compromised. A commuter
airline first officer details getting food stamps and housing
assistance for his family. Another waited tables to make
ends meet.

And the cockpit crew involved in a fatal crash in
Buffalo, NY earned less than a first-year manager at
Burger King - combined.

That's not an accusation - that's an indictment that
should cost an airline the loss of its operating certificate.
And as I have family connections to the airline industry,
I know that if Moore said anything, he understated the

But there are uplifting moments in the movie as well.
A foreclosure-impacted Miami neighborhood faces down
the "repo man" - with the aid of the police. The sheriff of
Wayne County (Detroit) goes public announcing he will
serve no more foreclosures until he is satisfied that those to
be evicted have been availed every legal right possible.
And the gallant workers of Republic Window and Door
in Chicago barricaded themselves inside the plant rather than
forfeit their back pay when Bank of America shut the company
down on no notice.

Chicago rallied around the Republic workers as if they were
the Cubs. Neighbors and friends brought food and clothing.
Donations poured in. The Archbishop of Chicago came in and
celebrated Mass for the strikers. Even the Thinking Nationalist
- hard-bitten and cynical - had to blink back a tear at that one.

And for once, the workers won. Under pressure, Bank of
America caved - to the tune of $6,000 a head. And Moore
deftly followed that up with footage from a 1935 strike at a
Chevrolet plant in Detroit, where FDR sends in the Army -
to arrest the cops and strikebreakers hired by GM.

And the best moment in the film? Footage of FDR from 1944
proclaiming a "Second Bill of Rights" for the American worker.
The right to a decent job at a livable wage. The right to housing.
The right to organize. The right to Health Care and higher education.

It was intended to be a reward for those who did the
fighting and the dying from Normandy to Iwo Jima in
the Nation's most desperate struggle. And had he lived
a few more years, we might have had it.

At this moment, Michael Moore has us in the palms of
his hands - ready to go off and fight to replace a corrupt
and rotten system. But here he lets us down.

He doesn't prescribe what he would would replace "Capitalism"
with - only mumbling a few words about "democracy".

But "Democracy" isn't a system of economic organization - it's
a form of government. Like monarchy, oligarchy, or autocracy.

And what we have today, if Moore is right, isn't Capitalism.
Capitalism concedes that while capital may be unevenly
distributed, everybody at least has some. And, if people
spend or invest their capital wisely in a system of free
markets, all of society benefits.

But when 1% of the population owns 99% of the capital,
and 99% of the population must grovel to that 1% for
its daily existence, that's neither capitalism nor

That's Feudalism.

And the last time I looked, I didn't see anything
resembling an American titled nobility.

Except perhaps the Lords and Ladies of Wall Street.
Or the Congress. Or the clueless, bailed-out occupants
of corporate corner offices who make up the
"Plutonomy" (in Citibank's artless phrase), that
controls our economic destiny.

Now, I'm not a doctrinaire socialist. But neither am I
an apologist for a shameless institutional kleptocracy
that has looted the people, brazenly bought off the
government, and brought the country to the brink
of ruin.

So now, Thinking Nationalist readers, it's up to you.
Flawed though it may be, this is an important film
portraying a deciding moment in our history.


Better yet, break out a few bucks and take your
neighbors, family and friends. And then go home and
discuss it, over a traditional American potluck dinner.

And see what you can do to turn things around.

Before we become the next Argentina, Mexico, or
the Phillipines.

1 comment:

  1. So true, so true. It is a great movie!

    Whatever Hero Man Sully Sullenberger wants from Congress, he should get. He earned it and overall everyone in America owes him a debt, not just for his one gallant action but for raising awareness of the plight of those who work in the airline industry.