Frequent readers of my infrequently read rants might be surprised to hear me, a denouncer of the moralistic and the messianic in all their forms, say that Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, is an astounding achievement and light-years ahead of the political curve.
Sure, the attacks on capitalism focus a bit too much on the sphere of circulation (the market) and not enough on the sphere of production, but Moore does delve into the tyranny of the capitalist workplace and the alternative of worker management. He covers the inspiring workplace occupation at Republic Windows last year, the sit-down strikes at Flint that birthed the UAW and the scattered resistance to foreclosures across this nation. The work is really missing a simple explanation of the concept of surplus labor that could have explained in concrete, materialist terms what’s inherently exploitative in the capitalist mode of production, but its overarching tone is a consistent “us vs them” one--fundamentally a call for class struggle.
Though commentators have questioned how unethical “dead peasant” policies Moore covers really are, they are missing the point. The very name “dead peasant” shows what our ruling class thinks about us. We’re inferior, mere subjects of our natural superiors and forced to obey our masters or starve. As John Lennon would say, “You’re still fucking peasants as far as [they] can see.” Capitalism, a revolutionary advance over feudalism, is rotten down to its core with the same original sin of class rule.
I do have some lingering problems with the simplistic characterization of capitalism and the FDR nostalgia, but I trust Moore’s judgment. He isn’t ignorant and is familiar with Marx’s ideas as an explanatory frameworks, but he’s decided to meet Americans on more familiar terrain. The welfare state, democratic rights, unions, all these have good connotations with the American people and for good reason. They were struggle for and won. The portions of the left who think that these were just clever ploys given freely by the bourgeoisie to fool working people will never understand this.
Moore’s latest is a mix of some rowdy populism, funny slapstick and a real subversive backbone. Yes, I just can’t shake the feeling that if he gave me 15 minutes with the script I could have made things a bit clearer, but given the ideological hegemony of our class enemy I can’t complain. Too often it’s crude anti-consumerist, pop-Heideggerism that passes for radicalism in Hollywood (Fight Club), but Moore’s work is different.
The watchword for this film isn’t socialism, it’s democracy, the foundation for the transformation that socialists would like to see. In a few candid interviews with various agents of the ruling class, the neoliberal wariness for real democracy is on display. “One person, one vote” does leave the door open for working people voting in their own economic interests and like Kissinger said about Allende’s popular support, “[The ruling class doesn’t] see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” There are a few hundred dead Italians that can testify to how deeply this hostility to popular “irresponsibly” runs.
The corporate control of our election process and the Democratic Party are highlighted by Moore, who uses the opportunity to subtly counterpoise what we have now to the ideals of democracy. So, go watch it. And do flier outside the theaters so something more tangible will come out of Michael’s call for action. Yes, Moore isn’t a socialist, but instead one of the Naomi Klein-esque rabid liberals that appear to most to be as far left as our political paradigm allows and I may sound a bit too enthused, but my cynicism was temporarily abated by the way the film concludes--an Americana rendition of "The Internationale." The final stanza of "The Internationale" (not the cute little Billy Bragg verison) sings,
Labourers, peasants, we are
The great party of workers
The earth belongs only to men
The idle will go reside elsewhere
How much of our flesh they feed on,
But if the ravens and vultures
Disappear one of these days
The sun will still shine
This is the final struggle
Let us group together, and tomorrow
Will be the human race
and stands counterpoised to the way the film starts--showing the decadence, inequality and suffering that ravaged the late Roman Empire. I don’t think that capitalism is in danger of imminent collapse, but it’s important to remember the dark times that befell Western civilization after the fall of Rome. Perhaps this century will be one faced by the choice between socialism or barbarism.
I have a feeling that somewhere Antonio Gramsci is smiling, hoping that this flawed masterpiece was just a few warning shots for a, forthcoming, war of position in our unions, our campuses and our communities that will put a radical, democratic discourse into the mainstream where it belongs. Or, conversely, we can just keep talking about where David Letterman’s penis has been and whether or not Barack Obama wants to kill grandma. I guess that is a moral choice.
P.S.: I took a phone call and missed around two minutes of the film that apparently covered how a workplace cooperative functioned.