In Michael Moore’s latest film, “Capitalism; A Love Story,” he is again the spokesman for the working class, this time attacking the entire economic system that for many is the sacred underpinning of the American way of life. The film is largely a success for those of us on the left. Although sometimes meandering off point and glossing over others, Moore is our cheerleader, fighting the war most of us are too busy or timid to wage. When preaching to his choir he is funny and persuasive, leading us in sputtering indignation and anger about the “greed is good” mentality that seemingly permeates today’s society.
Yet as in the case of “Sicko”, the many compelling facts revealed and stories illustrated are sometimes diluted by his desire to also be the class clown. His tendency toward bombastic stunts weakens his ability to have credibility with anyone on the right or perhaps be convincing enough to those in the center.
The film’s basic premise is that the nation’s capitalistic system has been perverted into a plutocracy by the corporate excesses we have seen running rampant in the late 20th and especially the early 21st century.
But Moore is upstaged by an aristocratic American born in the 19th century.
The most compelling moment in the film is a little-seen clip of Franklin Roosevelt reading his proposed “Second Bill of Rights.” The piece shows an obviously sick and sunken FDR near the end-days of World War II and a year before his own end, reading the proposed bill beginning with these words:
“It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.”
FDR’s proposal goes on to outline the shocking idea that all Americans should expect to share in the prosperity of our nation, with the right to a job that provides adequate shelter, food, clothing and recreation. But perhaps most startling is his inclusion of “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.”
So what happened? According to Moore, that great promise blossomed in the 1950s and 60s with the post-war boom and the glorious rise of a dominant and powerful middle class (although as he asserts, our prosperity was helped along by the fact that most of our global competition was still climbing out of the rubble of bombed cities).
Moore’ s idyllic depiction of the heyday of the middle class is overly idealistic, diminishing the fact that it was not enjoyed by more than 10% of U.S. citizens. While including a quick clip of civil rights strife, the contrast of the silent majority reveling in two-car suburban paradise while African-Americans toiled in low-pay or no-pay jobs could have been an illustrative analogy to the growing inequity we are seeing today. The resulting civil rights movement was a revolution of oppressed people that led to positive change (albeit, a work still in progress). Perhaps Moore could have used this to remind the Wall Street crowd what the power of the people can do.
Moving on from the “Happy Days” era, the filmmaker cleverly illustrates how the country’s mood shifted when times got tough during the Carter administration. As Carter is shown chastising Americans for their loss of values and consumerism in his famous “malaise” speech, Moore’s voice cuts in with “what a bummer dude, we need someone more upbeat!” This is of course followed by a clip of Reagan riding in on a Hollywood horse from one of his many bad movies.
Taking Reagan to task for the beginning of the end of middle-class America, Moore leads us up to the recent banking crisis that has left us all feeling befuddled, bewitched and ultimately, bamboozled.
The shameful tales of sub-prime mortgages, predatory lenders and financial vultures are effectively presented, including some very funny attempts at explaining just what a derivative is (even the economic experts fail). Especially illuminating and compelling are the first-hand accounts by legislators such as Ohio congresswoman Marci Kaptur regarding the apparent Wall Street take-over of our Treasury Department and Congress, led by ex-Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson. Describing it as a “financial coup d’ etat,” Kaptur describes how Paulson and company rushed Congress to the decision before all facts were in using widespread public panic and fear as their instrument. For most of us who are still wondering what the hell happened, this is scary stuff.
Moore also uncovers even more frightening and little-known evidence of the plutocracy. Apparently many leading corporations have taken out insurance policies on some workers only to cash-in upon their deaths to help sweeten the bottom line. Perhaps even more mind-boggling is the language insurance companies use to describe this practice—dead peasant policies.
A 26-year-old mother and Wal-Mart worker dies unexpectedly of asthma, leaving young children and a husband in horrendous debt. Meanwhile, the boys in Bentonville, Arkansas cash-in on their own blue-light special by collecting $80,000 on a policy they had taken out on her, unbeknownst to her own family.
There are several other more familiar stories—of families thrown-out of their homes or the Chicago window factory in which the workers were fired with no severance or vacation pay after their bankrupt company was taken over by Citibank (a beneficiary of the bail-out).
Moore’s tried and true shtick is employed throughout. Once again, we watch him trying to enter the halls of the elite with the demands of the people. When he marched up to GM headquarters in “Roger and Me” twenty years ago it was surprising and effective. This same tactic is used here with Moore trying to enter AIG, Goldman Sachs and other bastions of Wall Street (this time to demand we get our money back). But here it comes across as a self-aggrandizing “wink-wink” to his fans without adding anything to the very compelling case against unrestrained and unregulated capitalism.
He also undercuts the soundness of his premise by ending with the idea that we need to abolish capitalism in favor of democracy. Since one is an economic system and the other a governmental one, his proposal is not sound. What he is really advocating is a socialist democracy more closely aligned to what we had under FDR. It’s almost as if the great liberal Michael Moore is too afraid to utter the “s” word.
But, the overall point of the film hits home. To again quote FDR, let us not forget that “people who are hungry and out of work are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”