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Review of Capitalism - A love story by Louis Proyect
Despite its formulaic quality and despite some very dubious politics, I have no problem recommending Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a Love Story”. Since there are so few movies (or television shows) that reveal the human side of the largest economic crisis since the 1930s, we must be grateful to Michael Moore for his steadfast dedication to the underdog. Except for Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s American Casino, a documentary that covers pretty much the same terrain as Moore but without his impish humor, there’s nothing out of Hollywood that would give you the slightest inkling of the scale of human suffering.
There are two passages in “Capitalism: a Love Story” that I found particularly compelling. As an erstwhile analyst of airline deregulation, I thought that Moore’s interviews of a couple of low-paid regional airline pilots effectively illustrate how capitalism puts profits over human needs. One pilot was forced to go on food stamps while another had to take additional jobs to make ends meet. As Moore puts it, he would not want to step foot in a jet plane piloted by somebody making about the same money as a fast food employee. Other pilots, who are higher up on the salary scale working on nationwide routes, tell a similar tale of woe. After losing pensions and taking drastic pay cuts, they stick with their profession for the love of flying.
One of them is US Airways pilot “Sully” Sullenberger III, the hero who taxied his plane into the Hudson River, who is seen testifying before a packed audience in Congress about his rescue mission. But once he starts talking about the corporate attacks on airline workers, the politicians begin to sneak out like rats. He eventually ends up talking to a bunch of empty seats. This image–worth a thousand words–is Moore at his best. Another powerful image is the wreckage of a regional carrier Colgan Airline jet in Buffalo, New York from last February that cost 50 lives. Shortly after the plane crash, the NY Times reported that co-pilot Rebecca Shaw drew an annual salary of $16,200 a year and once held a second job in coffee shop. Both Shaw and the pilot were undertrained and exhausted much of the time. But it hardly mattered to Colgan if it remained profitable. If this isn’t an argument for socialism, I don’t know what is.
Since so much of the current crisis involves the housing market and its injustices, Moore hits a home run by demonstrating how politicians are bought off by the big players in the industry, especially Countrywide, the nation’s largest mortgage broker. He interviews an assistant to CEO Angelo Mozilo, who administered the “Friends of Angelo” program. This was a way of allowing elected officials to get discounted mortgages, including Senator Christopher Dodd, a Democrat with populist pretensions. As was the case with “Sicko”, there has been a major PR effort on behalf of the capitalist class trying to undermine Moore’s reporting. If you Google “Mozilo” and “Michael Moore”, you will find thousands of articles emanating from the same source that try to clear Dodd’s name as well as discredit Moore’s other claims. This one from Yahoo news is typical:
THE FACTS: Dodd has acknowledged that he participated in a VIP program at Countrywide, refinancing loans on two homes in 2003. One was a 30-year adjustable rate loan for $506,000 with an interest rate of 4.25 percent and a fee of 0.45 percent. He also got a 30-year adjustable rate mortgage for $275,042 with an interest rate of 4.5 percent and a fee of 0.73 percent.
Both interest rates and fees were within industry norms for that time, according to data provided to the AP by
Last month, the Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics cleared Dodd and Kent Conrad of North Dakota of getting special treatment on the mortgages. But the bipartisan panel also said the senators should have “exercised more vigilance” in their dealings with Countrywide to avoid the appearance of sweetheart deals.
One has to chuckle about the idea of a Senate Select Committee on Ethics clearing Dodd and Kent Conrad, another pig at Mozilo’s trough. It reminds me of how when the New York Police Department “investigates” an incident of police brutality, the malefactor is always cleared as well. The best tribunal for Dodd and company is the nation’s movie theaters where there are no special interests, except a desire to see bad guys nailed by the famous radical movie director.
I also got a big kick out Moore’s attempts to bust into the offices of AIG, Goldman Sachs and other financial corporations that received tax-payer bail-outs. As a former employee of Goldman who walked through the gilded doors at 85 Broad Street for about 2 years in the 1980s, I had to laugh at the spectacle of the bearish, baseball-cap wearing Moore trying to weave through security guards and into the lobby of by now the country’s most despised corporation.
Like “Roger and Me”, “Capitalism: a Love Story” contains autobiographical material about growing up in Flint, Michigan as the son of an auto worker. Moore’s father, who is still alive, escorts the director to the site of the auto parts company that employed him. Now it is nothing but a two mile wide vacant lot. Nowadays, the main industry of Flint is sending out foreclosure notices to the victims of the latest economic upheaval. Moore observes that the United States is rapidly turning into one big Flint, Michigan.
For Moore, the 1950s were a kind of Paradise Lost for the American working class. His father enjoyed four weeks of vacation every year and had enough money to participate in the post-WWII consumerist bonanza. Except for Jim Crow and the occasional imperialist war such as Korea or Vietnam, this was an unblemished society. Like many young people coming of age in the 1960s, Moore was deeply affected by these blemishes, so much so that he seriously considered becoming a Catholic priest, following the example of a Phillip Berrigan.
Moore’s revelations about his early religious leanings clarified for me what kind of compass he has been using from the very beginning in his career as a documentary maker. He has a deeply moralistic sensibility that is most often reflected as a kind of yearning for a more innocent and more egalitarian America, symbolized by his father’s good fortunes as an auto worker and the New Deal.
Although some critics have compared Michael Moore to Charlie Chaplin, I associate his moralism with the movies of Frank Capra, especially “It’s a Wonderful Life”. With the banks in his gun-sight, Moore evokes the struggle in this movie between an idealistic banker James Stewart and the evil banker Lionel Barrymore. There is a strong sense that Moore’s problem with capitalism is not that it is based on a class system per se but that it has broken a social contract established during the New Deal. His enemies are of course the Republicans but also the Democrats who abandoned FDR’s vision, starting with Jimmy Carter who is seen delivering a speech in 1979 with these words:
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
Moore understands that the business about “piling up material goods” was a green light for American corporations to cut wages. What better way to get workers to become more spiritual than to reduce their earning power, after all.
Unfortunately, the Capraesque vision is ill-equipped to explain exactly why Flint and other rust belt cities hemorrhaged jobs from the 1970s onwards. Or why the banking sector was deregulated in a kind of New Deal reversal, leading to the marketing of derivatives and securitized mortgages. Were such decisions ultimately a failure of leadership at the top, when businessmen stopped behaving like good Christians?
There are glimmers of understanding in “Capitalism: a Love Story”. In one key segment, Moore shows exactly why General Motors earned the kind of profits that allowed his family to live well. He shows footage of the devastation in Japan and Germany following WWII. No wonder so many people bought Chevrolets. The competition had been bombed into rubble.
A real examination of the capitalist system would be far more systemic than Moore is capable of delivering. It would lead to the devastating conclusion that the groundwork for prosperity in such a system is war and nothing else. Periodically the system has a deep convulsion that leads to millions of deaths. If the current economic crisis is as intractable as the Great Depression, then the logical outcome would be a new global bloodletting with the unleashing of nuclear weapons. If this sounds suicidal, you must remember that an Adolph Hitler was ready to sacrifice every German life for his mad quest to build a thousand year empire. With the US in a far more prosperous state today than 1920s Germany, it is still capable of churning up the kind of madmen hounding Barack Obama. Imagine what this nation would look like if the unemployment rate ratcheted up to 20 percent.
There is one scene toward the end of “Capitalism: a Love Story” that really piqued my interest. For Moore, the formation of the UAW was a key historical step forward, an insight that naturally would come to somebody growing up in Flint. He reveals that his uncle was a sit-down striker in 1937, one of the biggest labor struggles of the 1930s. For Moore, a key element in winning union recognition was FDR’s deployment of the National Guard to Flint. Supposedly, FDR—unlike other presidents past and future—saw the National Guard as a pro-working class force. In February 1937, for the first time in history, the Guard protected strikers from the Flint police on FDR’s instructions and the battle for union recognition was won.
I have an interest in Flint labor history as well, mostly as a comrade of the late Sol Dollinger, a long-time UAW member and revolutionary socialist. Although not a participant in the sit-down strikes, Dollinger was married to Genora Dollinger who was a leader of the Woman’s Emergency Brigade in Flint in 1937. She was known as Genora Johnson at the time, married to Kermit Johnson at the time, a strike leader and socialist like her.
Sol Dollinger’s “Not Automatic”, a book about the Flint strike that depends heavily on Genora’s papers and recollections, paints a somewhat different picture from Moore’s. I reread Genora’s report on the sit-down strike, which is contained verbatim in Sol’s book. I also looked at the chapter on Flint in Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”, a book I read shortly after joining the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, Jeremy Brecher’s “Strike!”, and N.Y. Times articles from February 1937. Here is what all this material adds up to, from my admittedly far-left-of-center perspective.
To start with, the decision to send in the National Guard was made by Governor Frank Murphy, a Democrat who did have strong New Deal sympathies but those sympathies were not exactly in sync with the deepest aspirations of the strikers. Murphy’s intention was to get the strikers out of the factories and not to defeat General Motors. He hoped for a peaceful settlement of the strike and negotiations at the table. To put pressure on the sit-in, the Guard was instructed not to allow food to be sent into the factory. To my knowledge, the same pressure was not applied on the men and women who owned General Motors, who continued to enjoy three square meals a day.
Not long after the Guard was mobilized, Genora Johnson formed an Emergency Brigade of women who not only put their bodies on the line but dramatized the willingness of the entire community to come to the aid of the workers. Workers flowed into Flint from all around the industrial heartland in caravans, each one ready to confront any armed force that would be used against workers, either the local police or the National Guard. Additionally, many of the National Guardsmen were workers themselves who could not be relied on to shoot fellow workers. All in all, Murphy had to step gingerly around what was arguably the greatest display of working class militancy in the 1930s.
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Flint auto strike, Genora Johnson at 2:33
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The role of women in the formation of the UAW
To give some credit to Moore, he certainly does understand the need for such actions. A fairly lengthy portion of his film is shot in Chicago at Republic Windows, where workers were being screwed out of severance payments after the owners decided to shut it down. They sat in, determined to force the bosses to pay what was owed to them. However, in keeping with his tribute to FDR, Moore makes sure to credit the candidate Barack Obama who said that the workers deserved what the company owed them. At the time, many leftist supporters of Obama interpreted this as the second coming of FDR. In a way they are correct insofar as FDR came into office with the same loyalty to the big bourgeoisie as Obama. It was only the militancy of a desperate working class that forced him into taking a modicum of progressive actions.
However, these actions in and of themselves were not sufficient to break the back of unemployment. It took the hellfire of WWII and the cranking up of the arms industry to finally have the stimulus effect that led to postwar prosperity and all the rest that looms so idyllically in Moore’s memory. Humanity can not afford another cataclysm like this in order to sustain a consumerist economy that will eventually lead to ecological crisis of a scale never experienced before. In critical times such as these, it takes a deeper and broader vision of society than that found in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It will require a willingness to break with class society and go deeper into the roots of the crisis than any Hollywood producer might be willing to bankroll.
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it." Karl Marx

"He would, wouldn't he?" Mandy Rice-Davies. When asked in court whether she knew that Lord Astor had denied having sex with her.

“I think it would be a good idea” Ghandi, when asked about Western Civilisation.

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