On Sunday I went to see the Glasgow Film Festival’s showing of Michael Moore’s new film ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’. Although out in the US since last September the film won’t go on general release in the UK till Friday. I’m not sure about other cinemas across Scotland but it will definitely be showing for a good while at the GFT.
I’ve seen a few of Moore’s earlier films and definitely wasn’t disappointed this time. It’s easily accessible for those who don’t care much for dry economics and has its funny moments while at the same time really showing up the utter devastation and despair which capitalism brings. We see 10 police cars turning up and the cops breaking their way into families’ homes to carry out eviction orders from the banks, leaving those who have lived there all their lives in tears with nothing left and nowhere to go. Many of these people had been encouraged to refinance their homes before being caught out by unfair terms and charges they were unable to keep up with.
And we see workers at a recently shut factory in Chicago who weren’t even paid the money owed to them since the bank wouldn’t provide the necessary finances despite themselves being at the receipt of billions of dollars of taxpayers money. Frustrated the workers go back and occupy the factory, receiving strong support from the local community and with even Obama expressing his sympathy for their cause. In the end the workers win a small but significant victory as the bank changes its mind and gives them their redundancy pay in full. The resistance in the US (and most other places too) may as of yet be isolated and sporadic but as cases like this show only through collective action can ordinary people ever hope to claim back what is theirs.
Moore returns briefly to his home town of Flint, Michigan to show us the twisted wreckage of the factory where his Dad once worked and which was torn down by GM despite record company profits. It is in Flint where he made his first film ‘Roger & Me’ back in 1989 not so long after GM’s chief Roger Smith had chosen to inflict so much misery upon the local population. As with many places hit by de-industrialisation the town has never recovered, being left to rot by successive governments and by an economic system which is completely incapable of meeting people’s most basic needs.
In some of the film’s funnier moments we see Moore, in his typical style, trying to get to get interviews with top bankers and CEOs and turning up at the banks with an armoured van to collect the American people’s stolen cash. It’s safe to say that security didn’t let him get too far in either instance. More successfully though he interviews some Catholic priests and bishops who seem to united in the belief that capitalism is a sin and an evil which must be eradicated. Moore, himself a Christian, asks on whose side Jesus would likely have stood in a country in which religion is so frequently used to justify inequality and right-wing political causes.
An interesting fact mentioned in the film is that the top rate of income tax in the US was once as high as 90% – and right enough this was the case from during the war through to the mid 60s. By the time Reagan took power in 1980 it was still 70% but he soon changed that – appointing a finance department completely filled with his Wall Street cronies who slashed the top rate to just 28% and oversaw a decimation of American industry. Any pretence about having a democracy which is impartial and serves the interests of all its citizens has been stripped away as one small interest group – that of finance capital – has been able to achieve total control over all decision making processes at the highest levels.
Moore’s appeal is primarily to democracy, to the right of all citizens to have equal to the political and economic decisions that shape their lives. We see two different examples of workers’ cooperatives, one in which assembly line workers get paid three times as much as the average American airline pilot all because there isn’t a profit being skimmed off to go on bonuses for fat-cat bosses and shareholders. Everything goes back to the company and to those workers who keep it going through their common effort. And decisions are voted on democratically by all which creates a sense of solidarity and belonging.
There’s also, in the film, a good deal of praise for the sort of social-democratic model most European countries at least attempted to adopt in the decades after the war. One thing I hadn’t heard about which we see in the film is Roosevelt’s proposal of a ‘Second Bill of Rights‘ which would have guaranteed all Americans a home, a job and adequate medical care among other things. Unfortunately he died a year later and no later President took up the idea. The 50s, 60s and 70s nevertheless are often seen as the golden age of capitalism with almost all Americans having a job, decent housing and extensive work-related benefits, particularly for those belonging to the strong middle class for whom anything seemed possible.
But, as I think Moore himself alludes to, this endless growth and endless consumption is of course not sustainable. Especially now with the dangers of climate change (which the film itself doesn’t go in to) we need to completely rebuild and reorientate our economy towards serving the needs of all in a way which is at harmony with our natural environment. We can no longer afford to see the two as somehow being at odds with each other. But this will of course never be possible for as long as a tiny business and finance elite remains in charge. All progressive change throughout history has come from the bottom-up and it’s up to us as ordinary people to fight back and construct a better society and a better world.
Despite its strong US focus ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ is, I believe, just as relevant here with a government which is equally committed to the insane neoliberal model which it so brilliantly ridicules and tears apart. As always there are right-wing fools who will denounce it as propaganda, and perhaps some of them genuinely believe our economy is being managed in the most sensible and rational way possible. If there’s one good thing to come out of the economic crisis though it’s the complete loss of credibility in the eyes of the public for the claims of the economic elites who expect all the praise when things are going (relatively) well but attempt to shirk all responsibility and shift the blame elsewhere when the problems inevitably begin to arise.