Capitalism: A Love Story

The opening credits to Michael Moore’s latest film appear against a backdrop of bank surveillance videos, shot during actual bank robberies. As I sat through this assortment of real life holdups – showing robbers sticking guns into tellers’ faces, jumping over counters, quickly grabbing the cash and stuffing it into bags – criminal human behavior that most of us have never experienced – it dawned on me that these bank videos depicted greed at its most intense and personal. This sets the tone for the rest of the film.

A 1960s Encyclopedia Britannica educational film, like the kind many of us saw in grade school, follows next, explaining the fall of the Roman Empire. The clip shows how Roman decadence, including a vast gulf between rich and poor, as well as bread and circuses for the poor, brought the empire down. This is brilliantly intercut with scenes from contemporary America, scenes that the original producers of the Britannica film could never have imagined. It’s as though the decades-old voiceover is describing our own time, instead of the Roman.

Moore then does a great job showing how the general prosperity of post World War 2 America gave way to Reaganism, from whence the looting of this country shifted into gear. Having grown up in a rust belt town in the 1960s – not unlike Flint Michigan – what Moore showed from his youth paralleled my own experience of how good those times were; this must seem unbelievable to younger generations.

A central, if not explicitly stated theme of the movie is how unbridled capitalism is turning our country into a nation of serfs. Wall Street dictates to an impotent government, even to President Ronald Reagan. Destitute citizens are hired by companies to issue foreclosure notices to those who are still clinging onto their homes. Those being evicted from their homes are hired and paid by the bank to clean up their home, before the bank takes it over.

For most Michael Moore films, I have found – because I’ve spent a lot of time on the internet – that I pretty much already know the subject matter going into the theater, and am simply thrilled that someone else gets it, and has the guts and vision to put it into a film. This movie went beyond that for me. I learned about Dead Peasant insurance – life insurance policies taken out by major companies on their employees. When an employee dies, the benefit goes to the company. While this might make sense in the case of hard to replace, highly valuable individuals, Moore shows that this practice is widely used on thousands of ordinary employees simply to make a buck, to add to the bottom line.

There were two other segments that opened my eyes. One was a memo written by Citigroup to (I believe) its biggest investors. It spoke of how the USA has become a Plutonomy – an economy run by and for the benefit of the wealthy. It openly talked about threats to this arrangement, notably the fact that everyone still has a vote. I have long realized that this was the state of affairs in the US, kind of a dirty secret that most people know to varying degrees; but to see this explicitly revealed, with all the implications, in black and white from a major player in the oligarchy was stunning.

The other segment is rare footage of FDR delivering a speech on a Second Bill of Rights, shortly before his death. None of these rights – for example, the right to a job and a good education – essentially elements of economic security – ever became part of the American way. Moore argues that they did become part of Germany and Japan, whose constitutions were rewritten after World War 2. He shows how the Japanese and German carmakers survived despite this, while American automakers have faltered and failed. Moore shows us a few worker owned companies in the US, and how their wages and conditions are much better than their top-down, capitalist competitors.

The villains in this movie are less the Republicans – although George W. Bush makes quite a few appearances via his speeches – and more the plutocrats who are behind both the Republicans and Democrats. The major heroes in this movie are: Marcy Kaptur (Rep-OH), Elizabeth Warren (chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, formerly known as the TARP program), and William Black, a senior regulator during the S+L crisis. The minor heroes are many: among them are the Republic Window and Door workers who staged a successful sitdown strike to force the company’s bankers to pay them withheld wages; a poor family in Miami who organized their neighborhood and successfully rebuffed the bank’s (and the law’s) attempts to evict them.

Of course, there are the usual Michael Moore stunts of trying to speak to some corporate executive by storming the front gate – these are annoying but probably a necessary comic relief given the density and impact of the surrounding material. I felt that this film is probably Moore’s finest, most polished work. Having a large budget with lots of assistants to find the best archival footage, the best subjects to interview, and great music really helps. There are brilliant gems and nuggets throughout. It’s not easy to fit a critique of a huge subject like capitalism – something that all of us live and breathe in, to the point of being unaware of any other way of life, a sacred part of our national mythos, into a powerful 127 minute film.

Capitalism: A Love Story opened September 23 in NY and LA; it opens nationwide October 2.

18 thoughts on “Capitalism: A Love Story

  1. For most Michael Moore films, I have found – because I’ve spent a lot of time on the internet – that I pretty much already know the subject matter going into the theater, and am simply thrilled that someone else gets it, and has the guts and vision to put it into a film.

    Right it is rare to hear such truthiness. I really like Moore, it goes back to “pets or meat”. I have family from Battle Creek, Livonia, so I can relate to the vaugeness.

    Ok I am totally bullshitting, sorry maha, big gifantic storm hitting the windy city right now. Power coming in and out.

  2. Sorry about the 11:55 post.. I was trying to get the cap lock off and somehow I launched the a post.. Aside from seeming a bit egotistical, it is probably the most coherent thing I said today. I’ll try again in the morning. Nite-all.

  3. In these times, the true measure of one’s worth is the credit score.

    Moore gets it right so much of the time.

  4. I pick-up the NY Post on Sundays, for the sports, but I also read through it to find out what the other side is “thinking.”
    And here was their take on Moore and his film (warning – there’s enough stupid in this to make you retch):
    Basically, it accuses Moore of being a communist because he didn’t deny it.

    I’m looking forward to seeing his movie.

    BTW – After over 10 months,I finally found a job! It’s a telemarketing job for a small publisher who deals in books for colleges and libraries. The pay isn’t much. But, it’s something, and I get to sit, which is important to me because of my disability. And benefits after 3 months, if I make it – which I will do my damnest to do.
    So, I”ll be commenting here less frequently, which should make some people happy! 🙂

  5. Congrats on the new job. I will miss your comments.

    Michael Moore has been all over the TV the last week. I couldn’t handle “Sicko” at all but I’ve seen his previous films and admire him.

    I understand the CEO of Republic Windows and Doors is in jail with a huge amount set for his bail.

    And, it was obvious to me in 1985 as I was finishing an Associate Degree, that GM was going in the wrong direction and I never invested in them in my IEA.

  6. wow I have the misfortune of living here in flint a benighted place if ever there was. There is no social dysfunction that does not ail this city coupled by the rapacious practices of the most nefarious corporation in human history well the results are to be seen to be beleived. I have europeans who come here and I always show them the blight the vast ghettoes the real america not the lies and hollywood crap veryone thinks is the true america. Anyway as a flint resident I had the fortune of seeing this film presented by the maestro himself and I’ll tell you he received a standing ovation. What I most enjoyed about the film was his exposure that capitalism and christian religilon are incapatible eat shit Reagan. As an atheist I was never blinded by these unholy lies!!! Thank You Maha your blog rules!!

  7. Gulag – congrats on the new job! Come by here when you can, your wit always makes the day brighter.

    I’ve already seen one semi-negative review of Capitalism… essentially it said, “Oooh that jerk Michael Moore he just hates our capitalism SO MUCH!” Granted, I haven’t seen the film yet, but maha’s in-depth review makes it clear that Moore expresses no such thing. The reviewer I read clearly doesn’t get the whole “plutonomy” concept. A plutonomy can arise from corrupt capitalism, but not all capitalist economies and societies are plutonomies. Duh, dude. “Those who can’t… are film critics.”

    btw, I was already in the fan clubs of Elizabeth Warren and the Republic Windows & Doors workers. I’m happy that Moore is spreading the word.

  8. Make it a third congratulations for Gulag. If anyone cares I’m still unemployed, but taking a class and getting involved with volunteer work to strengthen my resume.

    In regards to Moore, I appreciate his movies for making me think. “Sicko” just would have been too much for me, taking a boat to Cuba for medical care is obviously done to make an over the top point. This movie sounds like it is the best he has done.

  9. a Canadian Reader,
    Thanks! But, I’m getting better ain’t I (thanks to you and Joan)?
    And don’t worry, I’ll still be around, just not 24/7. This is my favorite site and I won’t quit until maha kicks me off (not to give her any ideas).

  10. CAUP – yes, we care! It sounds like you’ve got a smart plan. Good luck, and keep the gang posted.

  11. Gulag, I’m glad to hear the good news of your employment situation. I hope it work’s out well for you!

    Just to see if you’re paying attention… 🙂

  12. —from boingboing(dot)net—

    The American Prospect reviewed a couple of books about Wal-Mart, and included this charming anecdote about Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton

    Around the time that the young Sam Walton opened his first stores, John Kennedy redeemed a presidential campaign promise by persuading Congress to extend the minimum wage to retail workers, who had until then not been covered by the law. Congress granted an exclusion, however, to small businesses with annual sales beneath $1 million — a figure that in 1965 it lowered to $250,000.

    Walton was furious. The mechanization of agriculture had finally reached the backwaters of the Ozark Plateau, where he was opening one store after another. The men and women who had formerly worked on small farms suddenly found themselves redundant, and he could scoop them up for a song, as little as 50 cents an hour. Now the goddamn federal government was telling him he had to pay his workers the $1.15 hourly minimum. Walton’s response was to divide up his stores into individual companies whose revenues did not exceed the $250,000 threshold. Eventually, though, a federal court ruled that this was simply a scheme to avoid paying the minimum wage, and he was ordered to pay his workers the accumulated sums he owed them, plus a double-time penalty thrown in for good measure.

    Wal-Mart cut the checks, but Walton also summoned the employees at a major cluster of his stores to a meeting. “I’ll fire anyone who cashes the check,” he told them.

    The “values” of Wal-Mart, the largest private-sector employer in the U.S., are shaping our national economy — and that’s a very bad thing. (Via WashPost)

  13. A very late addition to this string of comments, but I saw CAPITALISM today in Greensboro, NC: there were 25 at the 1:00 afternoon show and 50 in the 2:45 showing — not bad for the middle of Friday afternoon, and there was a line of over 20 waiting to get in for the next show when we came out from the 2:45. There was only positive commenting among ticket-buyers and viewing reactions.

    I was sadly amused by the film. The only thing I had not seen/known before was the FDR video. That should become a rallying point for progressives. I’m going to look for a transcript to add to my files for use in letters to legislators.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of the right will not see it — they’ll just get heavily filtered snips and commentary. Where does the ground exist for them to encounter reality in a way that an penetrate their preconceptions? (Note that I have no preconceptions, having been assured that reality has a strong liberal bias, which I can report is observably true!) I really thought the priest’s comment on his admiration for propaganda’s ability to get people to support things that hurt them was one of the most perceptive things said.

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