“Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil. It must be eliminated.” That’s the conclusion Michael Moore comes to at the end of Capitalism: A Love Story, the latest blast of agitprop musket fire from the enfant terrible of documentary film making. As a socialist, it seems as if I should be experiencing unalloyed joy over the fact that the most visible and successful documentarian of all time is making this argument to millions of moviegoers in the U.S. and around the world. Unfortunately, I’m not. The film certainly has its share of bravura moments, but I’m afraid that the limitations of the messenger have limited the potential effectiveness of its often muddled message.
Moore’s general argument can be summarized as follows. From around World War II through the 1970s, capitalism in the United States seemed to work pretty well. People like his father worked for companies like the old General Motors, where the postwar settlement between management and the union provided a good salary, benefits, and job security and lifted workers into the middle class. Notwithstanding a few imperfections such as Jim Crow and Vietnam, this was the Golden Age, captured in the nostalgic Moore family home movies that appear in the film. Then came the Fall, marked by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which ushered in a period of rising inequality culminating in the collapse of the financial system and the grinding recession we’re currently suffering through.
In this fallen state, privatized juvenile detention centers make kickbacks to corrupt judges, airplane pilots live on food stamps, families get foreclosed on and evicted from homes they’ve lived in for decades, the rich buy off most of Congress through campaign contributions and receive favors from politicians and regulators in return. Only if we could return to the good old days of the New Deal and FDR, Moore not so implicitly suggests, the Golden Age could be restored and justice would once again rule the land.
Aside from the fact that Moore’s historical reconstruction is based on an overly rosy view of the postwar era, how does this argument square with his final conclusion that capitalism is an evil that cannot be meliorated, only overthrown? It simply doesn’t. Many of the abuses that he highlights in his film could be prevented with within the framework of a generally capitalist system, though doing so would of course require large-scale political struggle. FDR’s proposed economic Bill of Rights, which Moore presents as a set of principles that should provide the moral and ethical foundation our political economy, has largely been implemented in the more social democratic countries of northern Europe and is not in any way incompatible with capitalism as such. As is common with jilted lovers, Moore doesn’t seem ready to completely abandon the system that betrayed his trust and toyed with his emotions, even though he says that he really wants to. What results is an often incoherent whirl that doesn’t make a fully effective case for either reform or revolution.
Now, it’s entirely possible that I’m completely over thinking this film, and should just be happy with the things Moore does well. He rather effectively argues that capitalism and democracy are not necessarily compatible and gets on camera three Catholic priests who explain how capitalism violates moral precepts at the core of all major religious traditions. With the help of former industry insiders and bank regulators such as Bill Black, he accessibly explains how and why subprime mortgage speculation brought the financial system to the brink of collapse. Sitting down with Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and bailout oversight chief Elizabeth Warren, he shows how Wall Street and its political allies held Congress hostage in return for billions of dollars in public money. The workers who occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago last winter are offered as models for workers around the country to emulate, and even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) makes a cameo appearance to show that socialists can be as American as Mom and apple pie. The film will expose millions of Americans to even a muddled critique of capitalism as a system for the first time, and I’m sure that many who see it will be spurred into political action. These are good things, and Moore deserves credit for making a film that takes on such a politically taboo subject.
Still, if moviegoers leave the theater ready to storm the barricades after watching this film, under what banner will they march? Since it does not offer any coherent alternative to the system it denounces, we don’t know. Unfortunately, even for Michael Moore, a man who has just made a major motion picture denouncing capitalism and calling for its elimination, socialism is still the love that dare not speak its name.