When news emerged that Michael Moore’s new film was to be about the failings of capitalism, it struck me that we were still waiting to find out what the man from Flint actually favoured as a replacement.
We certainly know what the American documentary-maker doesn’t like. The list of Moore hatreds is a long one and includes, in no particular order: greedy corporations, the National Rifle Association, health insurers and the private health industry, Wall Street bankers, the Iraq War, Republicans (especially George W Bush and Dick Cheney), Guantanamo Bay, security officers in downtown corporate headquarters, the Afghanistan War, and shaving.
Fair enough. I’d put many of those on my No Thank You list too. But what does Moore actually believe in? What does the man stand for?
His last documentary Sicko, for example, was a sustained polemic on the need for better healthcare in the US — by which he meant government-supported. Few in this country (or in much of Europe) would disagree with him here. What didn’t emerge clearly was a sense of what kind of political system he felt had the best chance of achieving this aim. Would a Democrat administration led by Barack Obama be all that was necessary for the healthy delivery of better healthcare? Or did he have a more radical alternative in mind? (Let’s leave aside for now the fact that a good swathe of the US population seems convinced that Obama’s healthcare plan makes the President the nearest living equivalent of VI Lenin: I really don’t want to have to go there.)
The release this week of Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story means we finally get to learn the answer. I mean, you can’t call into question the workings of the capitalist system without implying that it needs to be replaced by something better, can you?
Finally, I thought as I turned up to a screening, Moore will outline his political program. Will it turn out that he supports the Communist Party, or is he espousing one of the more radical Trotskyist alternatives? Surely, if he is going to advocate tearing down the system that brought the United States its historic wealth, we’ll finally get at least a vague outlining of his general principles.
So I sat there and watched. I saw a film about bad things being done by bad people. I saw evictions of poor folks and I saw victims of the foreclosures which have multiplied immeasurably in the wake of last December’s Wall Street-caused financial collapse (there’s now one every seven seconds, reckoned Moore in a recent interview).
Moore uncovers alarming stories of heartbreak caused by jaw-dropping venality. He talks with the widow of a man who was shocked to find out that her late husband’s employer had secretly opened a life insurance policy on him while he was still alive. This meant implicitly it was in the company’s pecuniary interest for him to die. Now they were reeling in more than a million dollars from his death — and yet refused to give his struggling family a cent. Moore flashes up on the screen the names of some of the companies that have engaged in similar, apparently legal, conduct — they include several all-American brand names, including Wal-Mart.
As Moore leads you through some odd byways, such as the low salaries of US domestic airline pilots, it’s hard to figure out where he is actually taking you — or indeed what kind of argument he’s trying to construct, other than that "capitalism is bad, folks — very, very bad".
But then, as has long been obvious, Moore doesn’t really build arguments as such. His shtick is emotion. I lost count of the number of sequences in which he holds the camera steady as an interviewee tears up.
He comes up with stories that will — or at least should — be shocking to people of any political persuasion. He knows how to make a rabble-rousing doco that talks the language of ordinary Americans. He sells what they like to buy — tabloid stories full of shouting headlines, sentiment and outrage, goodies and baddies.
And Moore is very good at it. In fact, he is a consummate entertainer. He’s funny and he knows how to make even a rambling narrative come to life. That old routine where he tries to force his way into some corporate HQ can be very amusing, like when he announces he’s there to make a citizen’s arrest, or surrounds a Wall Street institution with black and yellow crime scene tape. I like the guy.
But the question remains: what does he think ought to replace all this corruption and greed? Toward the film’s end, he finally supplies an answer. The USA needs to move beyond the tired old tug-of-war between capitalism and socialism. What it needs is "democracy" Come again? Don’t Americans already have a democratic system?
The context reveals that Moore is being sly. When he speaks of democracy, he means democracy in the workplace. He shows us an example of a workers’ co-operative, and also cites the example of German workers’ participation on company boards.
But workers’ democracy was also a basic principle of immediate post-revolutionary Soviet Union — the word "soviet" refers to the workers, soldiers and sailors councils that were meant to be the instruments of grassroots power. At least, it was until 1921, when the Bolsheviks sent troops across the ice to crush the rebellion of left-wing military men and civilians at the naval fortress of Kronstadt. Workers’ self-management was also a central principal of another radical movement which was influential at the start of the 20th century — anarcho-syndicalism — associated in the US with the International Workers of the World, or the "Wobblies".
So is Moore an anarcho-syndicalist or a communist? He talks about moving "beyond socialism" — yet what he advocates sounds quite a lot like socialism. Or is he merely thinking of the kind of democratised industrial relations system in Germany, where workers can elect representatives on to corporate boards? Alas, the film doesn’t explain.
Nor did he make matters any clearer when he was a guest on ABC TV’s Lateline Business last week. Asked by host Ali Moore to explain what his system to replace capitalism would look like, Moore paused for an awkwardly long moment before uttering the words: "I dunno".
He continued, "Am I supposed to know that? I can tell you that cancer is bad. Now, do I have a right to say that without having to now give you the cure for cancer? I mean, it’s enough to point out, doing my job as a documentary filmmaker, that something here is really, really wrong, and it’s really hurt millions of people. That’s my job.
"My hope is that when people see my films, that someone or someones out there, some people out there are going to leave the theatre and go, ‘You know what, we can do better than this. We can come up with something different, because this isn’t working.’ So it’s not really up to me to figure that out."
Thank you, Michael Moore — loved your film! But as deftly as it exposes some of the problems with capitalism in its current state, foisting off all responsibility to figure out an alternative, well, that’s really not very helpful at all.
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