All the dictionaries in my house are rather old, but Iâ€™m pretty sure the following definitions (from the Second College Edition of Websterâ€™s New World Dictionary) still apply:
capitalism: the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution â€¦ are privately owned and operated for profit
democracy: government in which the people hold the ruling power either directly or through elected representatives
Among the many, many problems with Michael Mooreâ€™s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, perhaps the most basic is his apparent inability to distinguish between economic and political systems. His conclusion â€“ one he repeated at length on Bill Maherâ€™s show last week â€“ is that we need to â€œabolish capitalism and replace it with democracy.â€ Itâ€™s a populist idea, to be sure, intended to rouse the (liberal, upper-middle-class) rabble to head directly from the theater to the local Home Depot for torches and pitchforks. But no matter what Moore actually meant â€“ and what he meant is that we need to limit the overwhelming influence that corporations and financial elites currently wield over American life â€“ his message is inevitably lost (at least amongst his decently educated audience) in his nonsensical juxtaposition of capitalism and democracy as mutually exclusive.
Sadly, little else about the scattershot Capitalism: A Love Story makes much sense, either. The film is a jumble of macro- and micro-economic diatribes that fails almost completely to show the link between the collapses and bailouts on Wall Street and the current struggles on Main Street. Moore wants desperately to make us see that link, and to get us angry about it, but he gets no closer than anyone else has to illuminating the complex financial instruments (derivatives, credit default swaps, etc., etc.) that played a major role in the banking catastrophe â€“ or to showing us how they affect the lives of ordinary people through foreclosures, job losses and the like.
That story is out there, waiting to be told, but Moore clearly wasnâ€™t the guy to tell it. For one thing, heâ€™s too much an entertainer to let himself sink too deeply into the morass of financial-industry lingo, other than to show comically that even the â€œexpertsâ€ havenâ€™t figured out how to explain this stuff either. For another thing, Mooreâ€™s stature as a liberal lightning rod has placed off limits a vast array of business executives, Republican politicians and conservative economists who might be willing to speak with a less polarizing documentarian, but wouldnâ€™t be caught dead giving Moore the time of day â€“ much less giving him a reasonable argument as to why it was a good idea to overturn the Glass-Steagall Act in 1998. Without access to such figures, Moore is left with a lot of less-hilarious-than-it-used-to-be footage of security guards stopping him at the entrances to skyscrapers, but with no footage of Phil Gramm or Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis saying something Moore’s audience can get outraged over, or even disagree with. (Such balance is what made documentaries like Why We Fight, Taxi to the Dark Side, and No End in Sight so spectacularly successful in getting to the heart of the Bush administrationâ€™s failed foreign policy.)
As a result, there are plenty of victims in Capitalism: A Love Story, but few (human) villains. For that reason, Mooreâ€™s parade of foreclosure and layoff sob stories here doesnâ€™t have the same resonance that such stories had in Roger and Me (the former GM employee turned rabbit skinner) or Bowling for Columbine (the survivor with bullets still inside his body) or Fahrenheit 911 (the dead soldierâ€™s mom). What we get in the new film are foreclosed-upon individuals whose full stories we never hear, and the spouses of deceased corporate employees whoâ€™ve discovered that companies have profited from their loved onesâ€™ deaths via â€œDead Peasantâ€ insurance policies. (Those stories of corporate greed are kinda despicable, sure, but what do they have to do with the financial meltdown?)
Similarly, Mooreâ€™s â€œstuntsâ€ in the new film arenâ€™t nearly as effective as they have been in the past. It doesnâ€™t require much inspiration to ask a security guardâ€™s assistance in making a citizenâ€™s arrest, or to circle AIGâ€™s headquarters with crime-scene tape â€“ certainly not as much as Moore displayed in showing up with that shooting victim at K-Mart to return the Columbine gunmensâ€™ bullets, or in taking a boatload of chronically ill but healthcare-free Americans to Cuba for diagnosis and treatment.
The latter scene, from 2006â€™s Sicko, is perhaps Mooreâ€™s most controversial moment â€“ and that moment, that film, are the ones we need to have fresh in our minds at this moment in history. Capitalism is frustrating, in part, because its story already feels like ancient history even as weâ€™re still dealing with the aftereffects of the financial meltdown. Itâ€™s not simply the fact that Wall Street collapsed a whole year ago â€¦ a whole presidential administration ago. Itâ€™s that, while Moore treats the election of Barack Obama as the triumph of change over the status quo, and of populist outrage over corporate greed, in fact the â€œnew populismâ€ of mid-to-late 2009 is more anti-government than it is anti-corporate. Itâ€™s no longer the corporate bigwigs whose heads the teeming, furious masses want on a stick; itâ€™s Obamaâ€™s, for having the gall to suggest that the government should get spend taxpayer money to compete with entrenched corporate interests.
I know Moore has dealt with healthcare already â€“ and done a magnificent job of it â€“ but itâ€™s too bad he didnâ€™t reserve some space in Capitalism: A Love Story to reiterate the essential (and destructive) role of the health-insurance industry in our current economic struggles. Focusing instead on the big banks, and on George Bush and Hank Paulson as targets for outrage, is sooooo 11 months ago. And Obamaâ€™s ascension hasnâ€™t brought much change at all to the financial markets, except to prop them up and allow them to resume business as usual â€“ a point that Moore himself acknowledges while noting that current treasury secretary Tim Geithner is as much a tool of the banking industry as Paulson was.
More essential to Capitalismâ€™s failure is the fact that, despite Mooreâ€™s protestations, the Wall Street collapse doesnâ€™t actually reflect the failure of capitalism itself. Yes, corporate greed and manipulations of our financial system have run amok over the last few decades, and the last couple years have exposed numerous systemic flaws in both the banking and the political sectors. Moore does a good job enumerating some of these flaws, from the lobbyist money that flows through Congress and the White House to the wholesale deregulation of the lending industry, to the top-heavy corporate hierarchies that punish the working class in order to provide greater rewards to CEOs and shareholders. Still, â€œoverthrowing capitalismâ€ isnâ€™t required to fix these problems; by claiming that it is, Moore overstates his thesis and radicalizes his film in a way thatâ€™s provocative, but not particularly useful to the current debate.
What Moore really wants is a form of socialism, or at least what the Europeans call â€œdemocratic socialismâ€ â€“ the establishment of an economic order that serves the middle and lower classes instead of the wealthy. Thatâ€™s a philosophy I can get behind — but itâ€™s a huge mistake, semantically speaking, to equate such an order with â€œdemocracy,â€ and in doing so Moore undercuts his own goal. Americans love democracy (no matter how elusive it sometimes seems), but they also love the idea of amassing a huge pile of money (and holding onto as much of it as possible). Thatâ€™s why America canâ€™t even seem to build a decent bridge anymore, or insure all its people â€“ and itâ€™s why Moore himself is afraid to use the word â€œsocialism,â€ leaving it to the right-wing jackals who have abused it in much the same way Moore abuses â€œdemocracy.â€ If he can’t even get his terminology straight, how can he expect Americans to allow the government to tax them appropriately?
So my conservative friends will be pleased to hear that I cannot recommend Capitalism: A Love Story, even though I know many of my liberal friends will see it anyway. To everyone, however, I would say this: If you see only one movie this week that subverts the social order in a way Bill Maher would appreciate, make it Ricky Gervaisâ€™ The Invention of Lying. Itâ€™s not a very good film either, but itâ€™s funnier â€“ and, unbelievably, more thought-provoking. After that, go rent Sicko, which is the movie we need now anyway, and head back to the barricades.