It might look as if Michael Moore's time has come. Certainly, after the economic meltdown he no longer seems just a harmless jester. Unfortunately, he now looks instead more like an exploitative pest, doing his bit to perpetuate the woes on which he feeds.
If we were ever in love with capitalism, we aren't any longer. These days we're all well aware that it's destroying jobs, snatching homes and enriching a tiny few at the expense of the hard-pressed many. It's not news any more to see the victims of this process describing their plight to the caring fat man. If it was ever funny to turn up at a corporate HQ and pester the security guys for an unscheduled interview with the boss, the joke has long worn off. Arriving at a bank with a bag and demanding the return of taxpayers' cash isn't much more rib-tickling.
What we want to know now is what's to be done. On this, Capitalism: A Love Story seems clear enough. Capitalism, Moore tells us, can't be regulated: it must be replaced. The reason seems to be this. Politicians whose job it is to control the system conspire with financial fat cats to make it further enrich the privileged instead. Thus the bailout of the banks wasn't a desperate attempt to rescue the world economy, but a plot against the people.
Moore acknowledges that things might have been different. Apparently, if FDR hadn't died, every American would now enjoy an inalienable right to an affordable home, a decent wage, a paid vacation, a comfortable pension, a Winnebago and a Super Bowl ticket. Obama gets lauded, but it's not clear why. Since he's failed to deliver the above, we must surely assume that he's just like all the rest.
So what's that replacement for capitalism actually going to be? In its wisdom, humanity has come up with a reasonable supply of possible alternatives. Hunter-gathering, subsistence farming, feudalism, communism, fascism and the rest all have their merits, but our mentor seems loth to plump for any one of these. In fact, at this point things get hazy.
Moore finds guidance in Catholicism, shows us a feisty factory sit-in and takes us to a beatific workers' co-operative. So perhaps what we're all meant to do is to take holy communion, then find ourselves a failing outfit to occupy or an employer who wants to give the workers his business. Beyond that, all Moore has to offer is "democracy". This seems an even less helpful suggestion. After all, the United States has already enjoyed this method of government for longer than most other places. Anyway, it's a political process, not an economic system.
So a satisfactory replacement for that wicked pecuniary regime remains elusive. Still, you can see why Moore might have faltered. After all, even in the face of capitalism's current crisis, no one else seems to have much to propose by way of an alternative. We can only assume that people continue to believe that incentivising the pursuit of profit will serve them better than anything else available, in spite of the disruption and inequality that it's bound to bring in its wake.
Like it or not, the western world seems fated to remain inseparably wedded to capitalism. It may now be a loveless relationship, but we daren't contemplate divorce. Nonetheless, the terms of the arrangement require urgent revision. That will require not infantile bombast, but sober negotiation.
The real task confronting us is not to replace capitalism but to make it work properly. It's not such a glamorous undertaking, but it's one that will call on the ceaseless attention of the citizenry if it's not to be blown off course. The only way people will be able to make things better will be by taking full advantage of the opportunities actually available. It won't help them to be diverted by empty dreams.
Peddling delusion doesn't beget change. On the contrary, it fosters frustration, disappointment, resentment, alienation and therefore passivity. In doing so, it entrenches the status quo, instead of undermining it. Capitalism has nothing to fear from Michael Moore, but the struggle to bring it to heel could do without him.
The loudest voice in Michael Moore's latest film speaks to us from the grave. It belongs to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, less than a year before his death, calling for a Second Bill of Rights for Americans. He says citizens have a right to homes, jobs, education and health care. In measured, judicious words, he speaks gravely to the camera.
Until a researcher for Moore uncovered this footage, it had never before been seen publicly. Too ill to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress in person, Roosevelt delivered it on the radio, and then invited in Movietone News cameras to film additional footage in which he advocates for the Second Bill of Rights. It was included in no newsreels of the time. Today, eerily, it still seems relevant, and the improvements he calls for are still unachieved.
In moments like that, Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" speaks eloquently. At other times, his message is a little unclear. He believes that capitalism is a system which claims to reward free enterprise but in fact rewards greed. He says it is responsible for accumulation of wealth at the top: The richest 1 percent of Americans have more than the bottom 95 percent combined. At a time when America debates legalized gambling, it has long been practiced on Wall Street.
But what must we do to repair our economy? Moore doesn't recommend socialism. He has faith in the ballot box, but believes Obama has been too quick to placate the rich and has not brought about substantial reforms. The primary weapon that Moore employs is shame. That corporations and financial institutions continue to exploit the majority of Americans, including tea baggers and Town Hall demonstrators, is a story that hasn't been told.
Here are two shocking revelations Moore makes. The first involves something that is actually called "dead peasant insurance." Did you know that companies can take out life insurance policies on their workers, so that they collect the benefits when we die? This is one form of employee insurance they don't have a problem with. Companies don't usually inform a surviving spouse of the money they've made from a death.
The second is the reckless, immoral gambling referred to as "derivatives." I've read that derivatives are so complex they're created by computers and not even the software authors really understand them. Moore asks three experts to explain them to him. All three fail. Essentially, they involve bets placed on the expectation that we will default on our mortgages, for example. If we do, the bets pay off. What if we don't? Investors can hedge their bets, by betting that they will fail. They hope to win both ways.
Our mortgages are the collateral for these bets. Moore says they are sliced and diced and rebundled and scattered hither and yon. He has an interview with Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who advises her constituents: If a bank forecloses, don't move, and demand they produce a copy of your mortgage. In many cases, they can't.
You may have seen that weirdo screaming on the financial cable show about shiftless homeowners who obtained mortgages they couldn't afford. Moore says that in fact two-thirds of all American personal bankruptcies are caused by the cost of health care. Few people can afford an extended illness in this country. Moore mentions his film "Sicko" (*cough*).
The film is most effective when it explains or reveals these outrages. It is less effective, but perhaps more entertaining, when it shows Michael being Michael. He likes to grandstand. On Wall Street, he uses a bullhorn to demand our money back. He uses bright yellow police crime scene tape to block off the Stock Exchange. He's a classic rabble rouser. Love him or hate him, you gotta give him credit. He centers our attention as no other documentarian ever has.
He is also a working-class kid, no college education, still with the baseball cap and saggy pants, who feels sympathy for victims. Watch him speaking with a man who discovered his wife's employer collected "dead peasant insurance." Listen to him speak with a family who is losing a farm after four generations.
The film's title is never explained. What does Moore mean? Maybe it's that capitalism means never having to say you're sorry.