In his sixth major pseudo-documentary film, Michael Moore essentially attempts to summarize the underlying thesis of all of the others. “Capitalism: A Love Story” is anything but an ode to the American form of the economic system of the title. It is, rather, a loosely scripted and altogether mean-spirited screed in which Moore shows his disdain for anything that rewards human greed.
The problem with the film is not in its entertainment value. As with all Moore polemics (including his several books, which largely speak to the same theme), this film is all about finding a way to make misery funny.
Moore is nothing if not a consummate entertainer, and, while his shtick (seeking out the “bad guys,” microphone in hand, to try to get them to “confess” their sins) has grown just a little tired since he first introduced it in “Roger and Me” two decades ago, it still works fairly well, even when he tries to corral Wall Street traders as they hustle out of the New York Stock Exchange.
As with most of Moore’s cinematic “studies” of a subject, he is all over the place, both figuratively and literally. In “Capitalism,” he is on Wall Street one minute and in D.C the next. He rails against inside traders and on-the-take politicians. He despises corporate greed and human greed. He uses the down-trodden and those dealt a cruel hand by fate as props, including the weeping widow and the homeless family as victims of the nasty system he scorns.
It is easy to see why Moore is despised by those on the political right, although in this film he is no less hard on many on the left. Connecticut’s Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, in particular, gets hit very hard for an alleged ethics violation that may have bordered on criminal conduct, if the charges Moore presents are true. (Dodd claimed it was an innocent, albeit stupid, mistake when it was first revealed in the mainstream media.)
Moore never pulls a punch. He’s like a heavyweight boxer who only knows how to throw haymakers. When they connect, those blows are potent. When they miss, you can chuckle, shrug, or just dismiss him entirely. Too often, in this film, you’re only left with those three options.
In a large sense, Moore misses his mark because he mistakes what he should be aiming at. It isn’t capitalism, per se, that is the problem; it’s capitalism in twenty-first century America that is.
Stated more precisely, it’s capitalism cum corporatism that is the evil Moore’s wrath should be directed at.
Capitalism, lest we forget (as Moore apparently has), is what provided many Americans with a better life in the years following the Industrial Revolution and, even more meaningfully, in the decades between World War II and the Viet Nam War. The ability of many entrepreneurs to benefit from their own enterprises during those years led to an explosion of wealth that elevated the lifestyles of a large percentage of American workers as well as the owners of the businesses in which they worked.
When it is thoughtfully regulated and controlled, capitalism can provide an effective means for satisfying individual greed, which, lest we forget the many failures of socialist “experiments,” is an endemic part of the human condition that must be acknowledged and appeased. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” was the catch phrase of the 1950s, not because the Joneses were evil, but because everyone wanted a larger piece of the pie, and if the Joneses could get it, why shouldn’t we (everyone else)?
But somewhere along the way, capitalism in America got twisted. We don’t talk about keeping up with the Joneses anymore, because the focus of our current form of capitalism isn’t on the individual. It’s on the corporation.
Thus, we see Congress passing laws, not based on what is good for the consumer (or the worker) but based on what is good for mega-corporations. And they, in turn, serve only themselves (i.e. their top managers and corporate executives first and foremost, their shareholders almost as an after-thought, and the public only if it can’t be manipulated into submission in most cases).
Freedom of choice (for consumers), a key element of capitalism at its best, has been replaced over the last forty years with freedom from restraint (for corporations). “Don’t tread on me,” is much more likely now to be a cry from corporate board rooms than from individual citizens.
If Moore had approached his subject from this perspective, he would have focused on the strange legal construct that American capitalism now serves. Think for a moment about the nature and existence of a corporation.
It is, by law, given all the rights and immunities of a real person, with precious few of the concomitant responsibilities. It cannot be thrown in jail, and any and all efforts to punish it are met with cries that the innocent (shareholders and workers) will be the ones who suffer most if it is (an often all-too-true fact).
And the larger a corporation gets, the more indestructible it becomes (as witness the bailouts for the largest banks and automotive companies just this year). Corporations largely control our legislative agendas. They donate heavily to politicians who desperately need their “contributions” to attain (and stay in) office, and they are most effective at lobbying Congress and state legislatures, largely because they can afford permanent staff for just that purpose.
Corporations increasingly control the information Americans receive via their news media. You think you get all the news, fair and balanced, that’s fit to print? Check out the ownership of your favorite news source.
Put it all together, and you have a system that worships at the feet of institutions that care only about themselves, that seek to control what the masses want, that ignore the needs of society and the future of the planet, that, in sum, represent the worst that humanity can be.
We live in the Golden Age of the Corporation. It is the fatted calf of our decadent society. Corporatism is the evil. Capitalism is just the vehicle.