Monday, March 01, 2010

Moore's Kapital

Michael Moore's new film is an attack on capitalist ideology. Is this different from an attack on capitalism as such? In a sense it is, as the film is neither a comprehensive indictment of capitalism's ills, nor is it a theoretical survey of how capitalism works. It is not ideologically consistent, nor does it avoid some illusions of its own, as FDR's haggard corpse is reanimated so that we can hear once more about how his vision of American society would, given the chance of fulfillment, have left American workers with a security and autonomy they now lack. Still, the film works best as a critique of American capitalism's soft-sell mythologies, as well as a celebration of working class resistance.

The time-frame in which the narrative unfolds is familiar: from the lustrous post-war fantasies of the American Dream - anyone can be rich one day, workers can have middle class lifestyles, property equals freedom and opportunity - to the cynical 2005 Citibank memo celebrating a new "plutonomy" in which the richest 1% of households owns more wealth than the bottom 95% combined. The financial technocrats who wrote that memo were not whistling dixie. They intended their analysis to enable their bosses to properly assess how wealth was owned, who the important consumers were, and thus how money was to be made. These are the people whom Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur characterised as "enemies" of the American people. And when did the American dream turn nasty? By Moore's account, it begins with the Reagan counter-revolution, and a coup of big capital led by bankers, in which unions were destroyed and workers subject to harder labour while wages flatlined. A more critical attitude to the Democrats would be useful here. It was Carter who began the task of switching to neoliberalism. The big fall in union membership and density began in 1978, when Carter imposed job cuts in return for bailing out Chrysler - the union leaders were too dependent on the Democratic leadership to resist. Moore knows all about the Democrats and the complacency of US business unionism, so the ommission is curious. He certainly doesn't give Bill Clinton the same free pass.

Other ommissions also weaken the force of the narrative. For example, it is quite appropriate that the narrative begins with the post-war era. This is the period in which the situation of American workers, with respect to militancy and ideological radicalism, began to diverge sharply from that of their European counterparts. And Moore is quite clear that the dominance that enabled the American ruling class to begin the process of intimidating workers resulted from the destruction of its major capitalist opponents in WWII, leaving it the world's productive centre. But the reference to America's subsequent empire-building is fleeting, as if it was incidental to the cultural power of the ruling class, and its ideological domination in that period. And while there is a focus on the carrot of capitalist strategy - that alluring Dream - there is no glimpse of the stick. It might have been useful to look at the way US radicalism was destroyed by the state's anticommunist purges in workplaces and the unions, if one wished to understand how capitalist ideology acquired such dominance.

The religious critique of capitalism as an "evil" that cannot be "regulated" but must be "eliminated" is the moral centre of the film. It is obviously intended as a counterpoint to the appropriation of religious ideology by the rich, and this amounts to an important cultural intervention, especially as the teabaggers advise us that God put capitalism in the US constitution. Moore can't find a reference to capitalism and free markets in the blessed founding document, but he can find a priest or two to cite scriptural hostility to the rich. And there's even a bishop on hand at Republican Windows and Doors to offer the Catholic church's support for the sit-in strike. A churl might point out that the church has a rather patchy record on the rich vs poor issue, and the theological virtuosity of their rationalisations for supporting bosses, bigots and right-wing dictators can hardly be in doubt. This churl might add that one can either base an attack on capitalism on God's say so, which is intellectually dubious, or one can say that such a critique can stand with or without God's approval, which makes the appeal to religion superfluous. Nah. But this churl would be missing the point that Americans are an unusually religious - not to say spiritual - bunch, and religion is a field of ideological contest. It doesn't necessarily do any harm to remind people who claim to be religious of the social gospel. And speaking as an atheist (some call me an auto-theist, but one forgives them), I've always preferred - say - Terry Eagleton's heterodox take on religion to the literal-minded and unimaginative pannings of the 'new atheists'. And I don't mind the language of good and evil: capitalism is an evil regime, arguably the most evil system ever invented by man, including the church.

At other points, Moore's attempt to give socialism an American face is less convincing. Egalitarian coperatives can certainly be very humane and fulfilling enterprises for the workers involved, but the same profit-motive that Moore castigates elsewhere motivates these institutions. They're still subject to the pressures of competition, and the same basic labour discipline, with its hierarchy of managers and line workers, obtains. There is still the drive to externalise costs, which poses a risk to consumers. It still acts as a competitive unit of production in a capitalist society, and the competitive pressures on a cooperative enterprise trying to work effectively in capitalism can be lethal. It can be bought up, or put out of business, or it can respond to those pressures by producing a more rigid hierarchy, introducing wage differentials to boost productivity, etc. Still, the basic idea that Moore is trying to communicate - democratising industry, bringing about workers' control of industry - is vital. Any case against capitalism, and for socialism, would be threadbare without it.

The strongest part of the film, in my opinion, is the treatment of the bailout, the "financial coup d'etat" in which the secretary for Goldman Sachs, Henry Paulson, organised the expropriation of the public treasury to the tune of $750bn (just for starters) so that favoured banks could build up their capital stock. Where, you may still be wondering, did all that money go? Answer: no one knows. Congressional overseers don't know, and the banks aren't telling because no clause in the bailout compelled them to. And it isn't just the money. There was the attempt to change the law so that the treasury could more or less do as it wished to siphon money to finance-capital without court review or oversight. There was the stitch-up of Congress, the campaign to deflect public opposition, and the threats of martial law. However the handling of Obama's part in this jack, presumably based on the faint hope that he would do something differently, is exceptionally delicate. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur alludes to it, but beyond that there is no discussion of Obama's decision to use his popularity and bargaining clout with Congress to force the bailout through. In that respect, the film was dated before it was even distributed. Most Americans are furious about TARP and its successors, and this is one of the biggest factors in the rapid drop in support for Obama and the Democrats. And Moore is far too nice to Bernie Sanders who, even if he calls himself a socialist, isn't to the left of many liberal Democrats.

Capitalism: A Love Story does not involve the emotional crescendos of Moore's previous output. Think of the jarring juxtaposition, in Sicko, between the entranced exploration of European health systems and the bitterly cold treatment of America's poor by the healthcare giants. There are shocking, appalling moments in Capitalism, but these are interspersed with stories of resistance as Moore's cameras film people preventing the eviction of local families, and capture workers at Republic Windows and Doors as they force the Bank of America to back down and fund their severance packages. You're less likely to weep like a punctured ulcer, watching this, than jab your fist in the air, and start a war cry. And it's about fucking time. Forgive me, but as much as I admire Moore, I don't know if I could take him doing the "who are we, what have we become" schtick once more. There is no "we". Kaptur was more right than she knew: American capitalists aren't fellow patriots, citizens, equal before - y'know - God and whatever. They're enemies of the people. Do you hear me, Americans? They're your enemies! They're your enemies! Death to American capitalists! Death to capitalism!