Michael Moore is a problem. He’s a nudnik, a troublemaker who is constantly poking his fingers in the eyes of the powers that be. Those powers, over the course of Moore’s career as documentarian and political critic, have consistently been the avatars of capitalism, the corporate elite, and their political lap dogs. In Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore is both more on target and much broader in his indictment of the top 1% of the population, those who own or control 95% of U.S. wealth, whose salaries are over 600 times more than the working classes they exploit, and who are making American-style capitalism increasingly miserable for growing segments of the citizenry.
To say that these oligarchs and plutocrats will hate Moore’s new film (should they deign to see it) is a foregone conclusion. They and their representatives within the film react instinctively, often with revulsion, to Moore’s presence. As he stands outside of the New York Stock Exchange, trying to get one of the worker bees to explain “derivatives” and “credit default swaps” (financial arcana that contributed directly to the current economic crisis), one suit offers Moore the “help” of “counseling” him to “stop making movies.” Elsewhere, such as at GM headquarters, Moore never gets past security or the front door in his attempts to meet with corporate execs. These men (and they are mostly men, still) clearly don’t like Moore very much.
Neither do rank and file Republicans, other right-wingers, and Blue Dog Democrats. They will dismiss this movie precisely because they have bought the line that corporate capitalism is in their and everyone else’s direct self-interest and the magical cure for all social ills if we would only leave it alone. Laissez-faire! Government deregulation! Global free markets! Well, as Moore points out repeatedly in Capitalism: A Love Story, we’ve all seen behind the curtain of this particular lie over the past year of economic meltdown and recession.
And yet, despite the ways our own experiences might bear out the truth of Moore’s diagnosis, Capitalism: A Love Story has the same problems as all of his films. Like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, it is sometimes glib or reductive. That said, such a tone can help to make the details of diabolically complicated corporate practices a bit easier to swallow. For instance, when he asks a Wall Street trader tries to explain those derivatives and credit default swaps and the man fails to do so, Moore just throws up his hands and makes an analogy to gambling. Capitalism is here literally a crap shoot.
As he makes this analogy, Moore cuts to archival footage of flashy Vegas tableaux. It’s a gimmick that he resorts to throughout Capitalism: A Love Story, the insertion of the visual detritus of corporatized American culture, usually in the form of advertisements and Hollywood films, to drive home a particular point. It’s too cutesy, and made more so by its repetition. Such maneuvers also point to a related problem, Moore’s pedantry. Too often, he comes across as preachy, which will surely alienate some viewers.
These barriers that Moore puts in his own way are unfortunate because the film offers many examples of capitalist greed on steroids, and how this greed impoverishes us all, materially and ethically, that should give us pause, and make us reconsider our blind faith in the power of the market. Moore reports that, in an effort to maximize profits, the airline industry has followed the dictates of neoliberal capitalism, making its workforce more “flexible” and “informal.” This translates into the case of a regional commercial pilot, for, say American West, just out of university or flight school with $80K-$100K in student debt, making a starting salary of $16K-$20K per year. As a number of pilots note here, this crushing debt and pitiful pay necessitate second jobs to make ends meet, resulting in exhausted and stressed-out pilots shuttling us all around.
A similar problem arises in the privatizing of prisons. I’m not sure if law and order initiatives and increased prison construction make any of us safer, but they certainly have made PA Child Care, a for-profit juvenile detention facility, buckets of money. As Moore describes in Capitalism: A Love Story, the privatization of the Luzerne County Juvenile Center brought together local judges and lawyers with the corporate entity PA Child Care in a number of schemes and kickbacks that kept kids in juvie. As a number of kids formerly imprisoned in PA Child Care assert, they were given the maximum sentence for any infraction and incarcerations of three or four months routinely stretched to nine or 11 months without any further appearance before the local judge. So much for “Capitalism and Freedom,” the title of Milton Freidman’s “bible” of modern, free-market capitalism.
Such outrageous violations of basic civil rights exercised by corporate capitalism might explain Moore’s pedantic tone. We should be outraged, and his illumination of the base motivations of capitalism today elicits an emotional response that Moore clearly hopes might translate into collective action.
In this, Moore is acting in the mode of the populist. Not only does he expose the hypocrisies of the elite and their construction of a New American Plutonomy, but he also demonstrates, through the actions of groups like the workers at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors who took over their place of work to demand the back pay they were owed before the company shut down their operation, that change is possible. He exhorts the rest of us to begin the process, individually and collectively, of dismantling corporate capitalism. Contrary to neoliberalism’s insistence on the direct connection between “free markets” and “free people,” Moore shows that capitalism today makes most of us less free. The answer, according to this love story, is a radically revitalized understanding of democracy and its possibilities.