Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Scattered Thoughts on Michael Moore's "Capitalism"

Twenty years later, Michael Moore is back where he started out with "Roger and Me". In that first movie, he eulogised his home town of Flint and laid the blame for its ruin squarely at the door of the myopic and greedy corporate executives who felt no allegiance to roots of their success, nor to what their predecessors had built, and put the interest of shareholders ahead of their responsibility to the community where their business had operated and prospered. Now, with "Capitalism: A Love Story", Moore has come full circle.

Some will try to sell you the interpretation that the core idea of Moore's movie is that capitalism is intrinsically bad. In doing so, they will be trying to pit capitalism against Michael Moore, counting on the fact that a vast majority of Americans will quickly choose the former. Actually, the theme of the movie is far more nuanced. I don't think that Moore believes that capitalism is intrinsically bad. However, he does hammer home the point that capitalism is the host to the parasite that will lead to its ultimate destruction: greed. Left in the hands of greedy men capitalism will turn out to be a self-destructing system, just like socialism, left in the hands of a different type of greedy men, degenerates into communism. I remember having such a discussion with a very good friend of mine almost twenty years ago, and now I feel sadly vindicated by the recent turn of events.

Before capitalism completely self-destructs, enabled by the inability of the human race to regulate its innate selfishness, it will litter the trail with the lives of many people. In a twist of bitter irony, many such lives will be those of people who have bought lock stock and barrel the argument that capitalism can essentially do no harm, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. And the evidence is starting to mount, as seen in the dozens of cities like Flint that have been destroyed by greed, in the thousands of mom and pop stores that have been put out of business by the likes of Wal-mart, in the hundreds of thousands of people who have been left to die with their pre-existing conditions by health insurance companies, and in the millions of people who have lost their homes to foreclosure after paying billions of dollars towards the impossible dream of owning a house to corporations who treated them worse than gamblers in a casino. Nonetheless, Americans have been successfully brainwashed for decades into believing that capitalism is inherently good.

And now, in quick and short order, the most memorable parts of the movie:

  • The Citigroup strategy document about plutonomy, which you must read to get a glimpse of how you and I are viewed by corporations and their handsomely paid analysts.
  • The part about America's corporate spokesman turned president (Ronald Reagan) and his role in paving the path to the destruction of the middle-class, aided and abetted by his accomplices in Congress (including, sadly, a good deal of Democrats).
  • The way Congress squandered the lessons of 9/11 and again caved to President Bush and Secy. Paulson, much as it had caved after 9/11 in clearing the way for the war of choice against Iraq, and consented to lavishing hundreds of billions of dollars on CEOs who should be behind bars and on the companies they almost bankrupted with their greed.
  • The indefensible corruption of politicians like Sen. Dodd (D-CT) who were taking advantage of the sweetheart financing deals offered by Countrywide, all while they were publicly decrying companies precisely like Countrywide.
  • The segment on the hard-to-believe contention that capitalism and Christianity are compatible, reciprocally reinforcing, belief systems (as exemplified here). Granted, not all Christians support this view (see here for a contrasting example), but that is precisely the "beauty" of religion as the opium of the people: Christianity is not an objective science, it is a fantasy that thrives on the interpretive powers of the various individual that use it to further their ends and on its truthy book, which is as pliable as the prophecies of Nostradamus.
So far so good, and little to disagree with.

The disagreement, and it is not one of minor consequence, comes at the end, when Moore advocates the elimination of capitalism, to replaced it with democracy. Apparently Moore means democracy as in true democratic rule, in the workplace and in society at large. The error of this demand is gigantic, for it assumes that it is not democracy, better yet--the inevitable manipulation of it made possible in a capitalistic system, that has gotten us where we are.

We live in a world, as described in the above-mentioned Citigroup document, where 1% of the American people holds 95% of the wealth. In this condition we see the magic (and I mean the word as literally as possible) of capitalism at work: Its admirable ability to convince a huge number of voters that the system is not inherently inequitable and flawed, and that the fact that the share of wealth accumulated by the top 1% is the result of superior ability to create wealth, rather than the unnatural outcome of a rigged system. The underlying illusion, that we are all endowed with the original ability to be successful given an illusory level playing field, is the evil genius of capitalism.

Message to Michael: We live in a democracy already, one in which a large share of 95% of the people has sacrificed its sense of fairness, equity and justice to the altar of Mammon though it will never even be allowed in the vicinity of the temple.

I, too, refuse to live in a country like this as Michael Moore proclaims at the end of his undeniably important movie, but--unlike Moore--who can stay to fight, I might not have that leisure. May Michael Moore, and all of us, live to see the better system that will eventually take capitalism's place. Whatever it is, it would all have to begin with taking money out of politics, which is precisely the opposite of what the Supreme Court seems about to do.

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