Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story review

Note: A slightly edited version of this review has recently been published on Devtome.

You can’t deny that Michael Moore has mastered the art of creating documentaries that are persuasive, entertaining and informative. Well, the first two at least; the informative part is a little murky in some ways. He hits you with a series of interesting and usually infuriating or depressing facts, adds personal anecdotes and then draws some very broad conclusions. Capitalism: A Love Story is an extreme example of this style.

This documentary goes from one outrage to another: heartless banks, the Bank of America plays a large role as villain, repossess the homes of struggling families; a loyal workers are fired with three days notice, a corrupt, privately owned juvenile home bribes a judge to incarcerate innocent teens; commercial pilots are paid less than fast food workers, giant corporations are bailed out while the poor are neglected…it goes on and on. By the time you’ve watched all this, you are ready to join the revolution. But what revolution, exactly?

Michael Moore is a propagandist par excellence. He knows exactly how to pull at the heartstrings and evoke the maximum amount of rage and class resentment in his viewers. The problem is, the target in this case, “capitalism” is ultimately an abstraction. The particular cases Moore focuses on are real, and they are examples of injustice, corruption and ignorance. However, to blame an ideology for such things is a kind of simplistic and naive conclusion that doesn’t really solve anything.

For philosophical ammunition, Moore curiously turns to an institution that is at least as tainted as capitalism –the Catholic church. He quotes priests and a bishop, who assure us that capitalism is evil and that Jesus would not have endorsed it. Now when right wing Christians try to invoke the widely satirized, “What would Jesus do?” we can smirk at the silliness of it; apparently liberals are allowed to do it, though.

Moore could just as easily have done a 2 hour expose of the Church’s many evils (which happen to be in the headlines right now). Moore could have done a polemic, perhaps following in the footsteps of fanatical atheists like Richard Dawson, against religion. This, however, would be out of line with his populist image. He is betting that the masses in America are more likely to turn against capitalism than God. Nor would such an anti-Church message have been any more accurate. However, at least the Church is a discrete institution; capitalism is really just a word; the exploitation and robbing of average people by the rich and powerful is not dependent on the current economic system.

How, exactly, is Capitalism: A Love Story a distortion? Because, like all propaganda, it simplifies and gets you to make a mental leap from particular cases to broad generalizations. Exploitation and injustice are as old as civilization, while capitalism is a mere few centuries old. In what may be the best part of the film -the very beginning- Moore shows scenes from the Roman Empire, using the familiar but still effective analogy between that empire’s decline and our own. The problem is, the Romans weren’t capitalists.

Libertarians and fiscal conservatives will, no doubt, argue that Moore is wrong because the actions he condemns are not really capitalism at all in the pure sense. After all, bailing out a failing company is not an example of the free market. This is true, but all this does is show how murky words and semantics can be. The truth is, banks who operate like loan sharks, corrupt politicians and special interest groups are not really ideological creatures at all; their kind has always been around, and they are able to wear any sort of political mask that the times demand.

In another of the film’s sneaky ideological gimmicks, Moore associates the Obama election with a populist revolt against the status quo. There is, no doubt, truth to this. He does not, however, show exactly how Obama has done anything differently. Obama, it turns out, has been just as complicit when it comes to corporate bailouts as Bush.

Like all of Moore’s documentaries, Capitalism: A Love Story is worth seeing even if you don’t accept all of its conclusions and implications. The outrages it portrays are real enough. The problem with associating them with such a broad target is that it makes it all too easy for someone to come along with the right banner, such as “socialism” and play out the same agenda.

The fact is, we are living in, or on the verge of a post-ideological, post-industrial and probably post-political era. There will probably never be a purely capitalist or socialist economy again (if there ever was, which is unlikely). Moore evokes FDR’s New Deal as a paradigm of benevolent government, but looking to a past era, with completely different economic conditions, is not really a solution. Another thing worshippers of the New Deal fail to consider is that many of the cultural and environmental woes of today, such as suburban sprawl, the proliferation of automobiles and the rise of the permanent war economy and military industrial complex follow directly from that era.

Capitalism: A Love story may move you and remind you how greedy people can be, but it ultimately fails to suggest a viable solution.

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