Unsolicited movie review: Capitalism…

…A love story. Which is what the film is, an unsolicited review of Capitalism. If you’re expecting standard, Michael Moore agit-prop you’ll be mildly disappointed. If you’re expecting a full deconstruction of Capitalism, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting a call to Socialism and all power to the proletariat, you’ll just be mildly confused. It’s a pretty good flick, partly because Moore doesn’t pull many silly stunts and spends less time than usual getting in your face. In fact, he’s downright nostalgic through the better part of the first half. It’s UAW, middle class autobiographical complete with old home movies. Now maybe it’s just that i was raised amidst the UAW middle class at the tail end of its existence, but this focus did a good job of setting me up. I know the way the story ends. His shots of abandoned neighborhood’s are depictions of my own mental imagery rather than cinematic. I’ve already got the sadness, confusion and anger that he’s hoping to build.

I’m curious if the set up works for others from a different background.

I assume that it looks like a fairy tale to people younger than 35, roughly the same as hearing the old folks talk and wondering if they’re describing reality or editing out the bad for the sake of nostalgia. Moore kind of does that. He credits the unions’ bravery and sacrifice that won a middle class existence for the working class. He points out the hollowness of marketing the free-enterprise American Dream. But he leaves the vision of the good ole days largely intact. Quite possibly they were more good than bad and that’s enough.

Then he starts to muddle through, employ the agit-prop, and seem more than a little out of his league…or at least talking down to the audience. We watch the changes in American Capitalism from the late 1970’s on through telling graphs with little pictures of The Gipper. Moore gets the timing right, but never bothers to explore the intellectual changes that prompted what he displays in graph form.

He lumps it all in as “Capitalism.” It is, but the broad strokes do Moore’s purpose a huge disservice and leave him open to attack. He never bothers to name the changes as the ascendancy of neo-liberal (or neo-classical) capitalism, what gets passed off as “pure, free market” by its purveyors. You have to know more than it appears Moore knows to understand his juxtaposing the two halves of the film.

He might have said, “Once upon a time in America, the market served mainly as a means for industry to raise capital. After the ascendancy of the neo-liberal model, industry became a means for the market to extract capital.” He never even comes close to being so direct, and so leaves the viewer with a feeling that he must choose between loving Capitalism and hating it. That’s actually a tough choice after seeing all the WonderBread goodness of the first half of the film.

He then pins it all on the bankers, which is a true but shallow analysis, and heads to New York for a few populist stunts along with interviews that continue to dance around the meat of his (assumed) argument. He does spend a fair bit of time outlining how a handful of economic actors have hijacked the political process, but you’d have to be living under a rock to not know that already.

In what feels like the end of the film, he leaves the thinking viewer completely befuddled…or maybe it’s a matter of being forced to share the befuddlement that stems from his loose argument. Many people ask, “What does Moore suggest we replace Capitalism with?” And Moore is prepared to give them an evasive, lacking answer: democracy. How we replace an economic system with a political system is beyond me. Moore perpetuates a huge, American problem by giving this answer; worse, he plays right into the hands of his neo-liberal targets who’ve managed to equate “free markets” with freedom itself. He never attacks “free markets” as a code word for “markets without rules,” nor does he ever make the argument that well functioning markets do have rules.

But for all that, the film is worth watching for its actual ending. Moore managed to dig up an American document that’s been buried for more than half of a century. At the end of FDR’s last State of the Union address, given over the radio because he was too weak to go to Congress, he produced a short newsreel. Why this was only shown once and then buried is beyond me. Why the Democratic Party did not make it the party platform is also beyond me. In any case, we’ve gone all these years without it, and that’s a damned shame.

It’s worth listening to. Here’s the address, and the key elements of the transcript follow.

… We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

For some reason, when Moore repeats the “Economic Bill of Rights” he leaves out, “The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.” And so leaves himself standing there like a supersized target for, “Michael Moore is a pinko who hates America.”

I don’t understand it, because he sets the whole film up to make all the right points and even be something that those who hate him will agree with. Then he throws it all away. I don’t want to destroy Capitalism, i want to imagine an America that adopted FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights. I imagine that it would look similar to the childhood that was so good to Moore.

The full text of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights is here.

19 replies »

  1. That was a strange omission. FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights would never fly today. Many (most?) Americans don’t think they deserve all that (from the government anyway). Americans are too buy loathing themselves and blaming others to consider their rights.

  2. I think the “rights” you highlight from FDR are more properly “aspirations”. To be a right you would have to be able to go to court and have your rights enforced.

    Who would you sue to get ” a useful and remunerative job”? The employer who was only offering one job but got many applicants? The state for not creating sufficiently good conditions for economic growth?

    What is a “decent” home?

    How will any businessman “sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living”? If there are ten farmers all making a profit selling a given good and an eleventh opens up … if demand from consumers remains the same then there is a choice, either the extra doesn’t get sold, or prices go down until all the goods find a buyer.

    Many governments have certainly intervened in this process but the end results are always messy.

    The attempts to end the credit crisis are rightly called “stimulus” rather than “compulsion”. Legislating that someone has the right to sell for a profit is the same as legislating that consumers have an obligation to buy things that they may not want. Legislating that someone has a right to a job is the same as legislating that employers have an obligation to hire a set number of people whether they want them or not.

    This is not to disagree with the sentiments you express but it is to call into question the idea that there are simple “bills of rights” that could be legislated into existence to make economies work better.

    Certainly, it takes good legislation and regulations but these are not as easy as all that to come up with. It requires sensitivity of current conditions, which means that regulation, like interest rates, must change with the needs of the day.

    A static set of new rights as listed will not work.

    • Yeah, except that it’s all defined by law. The right to a job is ultimately no different from the right to free speech, except that the Bill of Rights picked one and not the other. There’s no fundamental reason why that has to be.

  3. Sam, not sure that a job is the same as free speech. You can certainly say what you like, but newspapers don’t have an obligation to print every opinion they receive. Free speech can be expressed individually but a “job” implies a complicit relationship based on mutual agreement. That mutuality would be difficult to create as a right in law. After all, I would be more than happy if you created work for yourself by coming round and washing my car, but you’d expect me to pay you? If not, please … it needs a wash.

    • It’s true that speech and a job represent different kinds of “rights” – one is a guarantee that an entity will simply stay out of the way while the other requires the entity to DO something. However, within the context of modern governance, I’d argue that this is a philosophical difference only. There are governments that do treat things like health, for instance, as basic rights to be guaranteed by the government, and there are also governments that do not guarantee rights like speech or religion or assembly.

  4. I saw his movie several months ago in a pre-release and thought it to be big on hyperbole, and short of substance. However, I’ll accept Moore’s ability to make money off bashing the right, as that’s his shtick, much like Ann Coulter in the right has her thing. Both have the ability to get the sheep and tools riled up, and that sells books and polarizes ppeople. Funny thing I noticed on S&R was how a few weeks ago everyone beat up Rush Limbaugh’s casa on 5th Ave in NY. Being one sided, they ignored Moore’s place. Perhaps they ought to critique Moore’s casa if they want to see tackiness on steroids. Maybe Moore and Limbaugh are evil twin brothers, but their tastes in luxury are the same…..very tacky.

  5. Sam, there are even governments that offer “jobs” as a right, but they’re not “jobs” in the terms of value-add that you would want. They’re more “make work” things. India guarantees one month (I think) of paid work a year to everyone. Usually this is street cleaning, or manual labour.

    A government that guarantees healthcare has to raise taxes to pay for it. A government that guarantees work has to do the same but also undermines whichever industry it creates that work in, and so undermines the tax-base to pay for that work.

    Creating work in this fashion also tends to create “museum” work; that is, jobs that are neither innovative nor intellectually challenging. They are low-paid and result in depressed innovation and economic growth. Look at any purely communist country for the natural progression of such make-work programs.

    This is not to say that governments don’t try to create jobs through tax incentives (the US has just offered a tax subsidy to companies who take on new hires). But all of this can only go so far.

    Sooner or later, in order to create an increasing total requirement for workers, the economy itself must grow. No growth, no jobs, low growth, no jobs, high growth, some jobs. High growth of brand new industries …. lots of jobs since such industries are naturally inefficient when they start.

    In other words, the most critical of those rights mentioned is the one Lex rightly flags as unjustly left out of Moore’s movie: “The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”

    It is these monopolies and unfair competition by established firms and industries that prevents the sorts of innovation that leads to new industries and new jobs.

    • I can’t see that we disagree on much, Gavin. In order for the system to work – and the key there is system, in its totality – you have to account for all the agents. The golden age that Moore and Lex are pointing to was good for everybody because businesses could innovate and compete and the people who worked for them could afford to buy the products they made. A hardcore welfare state, of course, leaves out that first part, and America circa right now could give a happy fuck about anything but maximizing shareholder profit THIS QUARTER.

      History will spend a lot of time looking closely at the US from the end of WW2 through the period we’re in now, because in that relatively short period of time you have an epic case study of how capitalism can work and then how it can destroy a society.

  6. I didn’t realize that Moore’s place Up North (i.e. down south…of me) was for sale nor have i seen pictures of it. Though i do know the area and look down my blue-collar nose at it because it’s mostly an area for narcissitically self-entitled assholes to build vacation homes. You know the kind, don’t ya, Jeff? They think that money makes them smarter and better than everyone else. In any case, i wrote that post about Rush’s horrendous decorating taste; point me to some pictures of Moore’s place and if i think his taste is horrendous (which i probably will), then i might well write a post on it.

    But it would be better yet if you actually brought something thoughtful to the comment threads every now and again, rather than whatever it is you think you’re doing now.

  7. Whythawk,

    I see your point. A good many things on FDR’s list would be hard to legislate into existence, so in that they probably are national aspirations rather than true rights. But i figure that FDR was being somewhat rhetorical in an attempt to lend importance to those aspirations.

    While you can’t legislate that everyone gets a useful and renumerative job, you can legislate a minimum wage enough for people to live on.

    And some of these points can be negatively legislated (for lack of a better phrase), that is writing laws that keep individuals or corporations…or the government…from infringing on these aspirations.

    Some of them, like education and healthcare and economic security in old age can easily be legislated. Most developed nations have legislated a fair portion of the list.

    In any case, making them national aspirations would be fine. It’s strange that in the US, we seem intent on moving away from these aspirations…and then leaders wonder why everyone’s broke and angry.

  8. Sam, the end of WW2 saw millions of grateful young men and women (that they were alive) go home and rebuild their entire societies from scratch. Of course, to have a peace dividend you first have to have a war. And a war is, um, not really anything we’d like on that scale ever again.

    Thing is, the war also ended the old industrial order, bringing in new management techniques (based on military hierarchy) and distribution systems (based on military resupply systems). All of that was revolutionary and worked well for a time. It doesn’t anymore and we have to break with that past in order to move on.

    However, unlike with the war, there is no real call to break everything and start again. Things like the credit crisis call for that, but bail-outs tend to stop such changes in their tracks.

    The truth is hardly anyone is prepared to go through – voluntarily – the type of pain required to rebuild an entire economic system from scratch.

    • You raise some interesting points. While the management techniques you refer to weren’t new at the end of WW2 – Taylorism and Fordism had been around awhile at that point – you couldn’t be more right about the applicability (or lack thereof) of those techniques today. Learning organizations, anyone? (Hell, my approach derives more from Complexity than anything.)

      That said, whatever management or supply chain theories we apply to 21st century economies, these are the means to an end, and those ends ultimately derive from fundamental values. So the question raised by Lex (and Moore), I think, has more to do with the ideals upon which policy will be based and which the tools you allude to will be used to accomplish.

    • Heh. There’s been a few calls to break it up and start over, but as the calls are often from “pinko commie environmentalist weenies,” the calls aren’t exactly making headlines. Well, at least not in the US – I don’t know about Europe.

      Rebuilding the global economic system will almost certainly cease to a choice sometime in the first half of this century. And what I think is going to drive it is the end of literally dirt cheap energy. Growth demands not only resources, but also energy, and while we can probably recycle the bulk of our resources when it comes right down to it, we’ve advanced human civilization this far on the promise of cheap energy. When that energy goes away, the global economic system is likely to suffer a shock from which it may not recover.

      Ask yourselves this question – what happens when the recession ends and oil demand in the developed world climbs again? Oil prices will go up, prices for everything that is transported will go up, and economic growth will slow as a result. Until we get off oil entirely (and natural gas, and coal, and every source of energy that isn’t renewable), significant economic growth will not be possible. We’re not quite at 0-sum (China or India or the US get wealthy by actively keeping everyone else poor) yet, but IMO it’s on the visible horizon.

  9. Sam Smith said, “Ahhh, I love the smell of false equivalence in the morning” And I say, I love hearing the ramblings of an self righteous tool who can’t make it in the real world. A big mouth is not a good stock in trade in the future, especially in the near future.. If you don’t know what I mean, you won’t do very well and I pity you.

    • …who can’t make it in the real world

      Really? Tell me, Jeff – where do I work? What do I do for a living? How much do I make in a year?

      Oh, you don’t now? Hmmm.

      BTW, that last bit was nothing short of personal name-calling. There’s a certain value to it when you make clear that that’s all you have – I mean, Lex makes a fantastic argument and here you are in the thread calling people tools.

      You won’t be warned again.

  10. No shit, dude, do you even read the fucking posts anymore or just look for a good spot to spout off?