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I finally managed to get to see Michael Moore’s new film Capitalism: A Love Story after travel and other duties prevented me from seeing it as soon as it came out. I am sorry that I waited so long. It is a film that must be seen. Unlike most feature films where once you have seen the trailer you pretty much know what the entire film is about, the trailers and what you read in articles and in mainstream media commentary about Moore’s film capture only a tiny slice of it. The film is much richer.
There are Moore’s trademark funny stunts (trying to make citizen’s arrests of Wall Street executives and roping off their headquarters as crimes scenes) and these tend to be shown in highlights but the strength of the film (for me, at least) was in his always dead-on portrayals of ordinary people struggling to live their ordinary lives, only vaguely aware of the powerful forces that treat them like chattels, squeezing as much work as they can out of them for as little as they can pay, and then discarding them when they are of no value anymore, literally throwing them out of their homes and their jobs and onto the streets. The invisible hand of the market that Adam Smith wrote about has become a claw wrapped around the neck of most people, squeezing the breath out of them.
Moore shows that this is not because of the actions of evil people but is the inevitable result of capitalism. Capitalism has an internal logic and dynamic that, in its early and healthy stages, produces competition and the manufacture of useful goods, resulting in growth and prosperity for large numbers of people. But in its later decadent stages, when wealth has become concentrated in a few hands, it results in a few people making money (and lots of it) not by producing any useful goods and services but by manipulating their money to make more money, which is what ‘derivatives’ and ‘credit default swaps’ are all about. It is all about taking bets (literally) using other people’s hard earned money stored in pension funds and the like. Wall Street is a casino.
As we know (and I have discussed exhaustively in my series, The brave new world of finance), this process of decay is now in the end stages in the US where the financial interests have essentially taken over the government. Moore’s film masterfully shows how Goldman Sachs now pretty much runs government economic policy and that they have both parties almost completely under their thumb.
I learned a new word from the film: plutonomy. It is a word coined in a secret internal Citigroup document in 2005 to describe a country that is defined by massive income and wealth inequality and it is only what the wealthy do that matters to the economy. The memo says that this is what the US has become, in which the top 1% of people have more wealth that the bottom 95%. In such an economy, the needs of the bottom 95% can be ignored because they do not influence anything. This is why we now see the stock markets rebounding and the news media cheering as if things are great, although unemployment is growing, people are increasingly in debt, and foreclosures keep coming thick and fast. Moore says that ordinary people are treated like the peasants in the final stages of the Roman empire, kept amused by spectacles of no value to distract us from the decay that is all around us. And yes, as I learned from the film, we are thought of, literally, as peasants by the plutocracy.
Only a few people in congress, notably Ohio congresspersons Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich are willing to speak openly about what is essentially a coup d’etat by the wealthy that has taken control of the country, rushed through the near trillion-dollar bailouts of Wall Street in secret deals behind closed doors, and then railroaded Congress to approve it.
What the wealthy fear most is true democracy, because the vote of a poor person counts as much (in theory, at least) as that of a rich person. That is why the election system has to be stacked in other ways to ensure that money plays the dominant role, so that no one who genuinely represents the interests of the poor will get into any major office. Barack Obama is as much in the grip of these powerful people as was George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan before him. The USA is a one-party plutocracy.
What the plutocrats fear is a mass revolt as people realize that the rules and the laws are stacked against them, and decide to take unilateral action. The high points in the Moore film are when workers in a factory who have all been abruptly fired and ordered to leave the premises immediately decide to illegally sit-in in defiance of the police. And when a small community challenges an eviction notice for one of their neighbors and forces open the padlocked door to let the family back in and forces the sheriff to back off. And when a sheriff in another county refuses to enforce eviction notices because he sees them as unjust.
These small victories are won by people saying, in effect, to hell with the laws and the rules, all of which are designed to favor the interests of the rich. We know what is right and what is wrong and we are going to fight for it. But as one young woman factory worker plaintively said, why must we have to fight so hard to get what people should be entitled to as the normal course of things?
Moore points out that a lot of poor and middle class people misguidedly sympathize with the rich and against those just like them because they have been deluded into thinking that they too can one day be rich, although the odds against that happening are huge. Such is the power of propaganda.
Moore also shows some workplaces that are run by the workers themselves and the kind of positive spirit that prevails there, where people look out for each other and put in their best work because they know they are benefitting the lives of themselves and their co-workers and their communities, not some distant shareholder whose only concern is profit margins and distant executives whose only concerns are to get a huge salary and stock options and bonuses.
I loved the film. While it was funny (because Moore deals with serious issues, people often overlook the fact that he has a deft touch with comedy) and heartwarming, it also made me angry at what is being done to defenseless people. I hope you see it and that it makes you angry too.
POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore interview
Moore is interviewed on ABC.