…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.