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DVD review; “Capitalism: A Love Story”

May 13, 2010

Up front, I’ll admit that Michael Moore movies appeal to me. My politics lean left, I embrace populist sensibilities on many issues, and I strongly believe that humor can be employed to levy an effective critique of politics.

  • Roger and Me,” which told the dismal story of the relationship between General Motors and Flint, Michigan, was a personal story for Moore since it concerned his hometown and was a strong beginning for his career as a documentary film maker.
  • Bowling for Columbine,” which used the infamous Colorado high school shootings by two teenage boys to examine America’s love affair with guns, was an outstanding work — certified by its Oscar victory.
  • The polemical “Fahrenheit 9/11” revealed some interesting truths to a wider audience concerning the Bush administration, the “war on terrorism,” and its application to Iraq.
  • Finally, Moore’s health care movie, “Sicko,” had some strong moments and made Americans think about the U.S. system compared to systems available in other countries. Not every sector of the economy, he seemed to be saying, should be ruled by free market principles.

In his latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Moore extends this critique more widely.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Unfortunately, even though the film included some very fine moments, such as the focus on the 2008 worker sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors in Illinois, I did not enjoy most of Moore’s latest film. Too often, it seemed like Moore lost his narrative thread by exploring weak tangential points.

For example, consider the fairly long section revealing that companies sometimes take out life insurance policies on their workers. It does seem crass, particularly the way Moore framed the issue, but it is also pits one for-profit enterprise (the company buying insurance) against another (the insurance company). Actuarial tables and luck play a big role in deciding who earns and who loses in individual cases. Moore implied that companies had a profit motive in the death of their employees, but the insurance companies likewise have a profit motive in their life. Why is this a generalized critique of capitalism?

Moreover, rhetorically, I think the film would have been better targeted at the corporate and financial sectors of the economy rather than at the economic system as a whole. This is especially important given that the film offers very little about what he thinks might supplant “capitalism.”

Like Moore, I am very sympathetic towards FDR’s second bill of rights and share many of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 concerns about Americans’ worshiping self-indulgence and consumption. Yet, these ideas are not introduced in the film in such a way as to suggest a viable alternative to capitalism. Indeed, the men who originally offered those ideas likely saw them as means by which to counter the power of “economic royalists” (to use FDR’s phrasing). Reforming capitalism to make it more European doesn’t seem like a death sentence.

Worse, I thought that this film’s populism teetered awfully close to the anti-bailout arguments made by the tea party members. I’m not sure Tim Geithner (read this terrific profile) is an economic genius, but Moore’s criticisms of the bailout used many of the same rhetorical devices employed by those who don’t understand Keynesian economics. Moore seemed to be criticizing the size of the bailouts and the government efforts to stimulate the economy as much as he was the corporate recipients.

Yes, many of the funds were employed in dubious ways, but the TARP repayments provide a major counterargument to Moore’s apparent thesis. Moore’s populism works better against corporate greed (when he focuses his camera appropriately) rather than against government efforts to stimulate the economy. FDR would have designed different programs, but his thinking was similar

:“Into the ears of many of you have been dinned the cry that your Government has been piling up an unconscionable and back breaking debt. Let me tell you a simple story. In the Spring of Nineteen hundred and thirty-three, many of the great bankers of the United States flocked to Washington. They were there to get the help of their government in the saving of their banks from insolvency. To them I pointed out, in all fairness, the simple fact that you couldn’t make bread without flour. The simple fact that the government would be compelled to go heavily into debt for a few years to come in order to save banks and save insurance companies and mortgage companies and railroads, and to take care of millions of people who were on the verge of starvation. And every one of these gentlemen expressed to me at that time the firm conviction that it was all well worth the price and that they heartily approved”.

The film’s ending, featuring Moore trying to make a citizen’s arrest of AIG executives, backing a Brink’s truck up to various banks and asking for “our money” back, and wrapping “crime scene” tape around Wall Street’s famous bull, all seem like self-indulgent publicity stunts rather than valuable symbolic acts of political protest. By comparison, Moore lining up Cuban health care for some needy Americans in “Sicko” seemed high-minded, poignant, and effective.

I think “Capitalism: A Love Story” is worth viewing, but don’t expect to be wowed. This Michael Moore fan wasn’t.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.