Rationally Speaking

In Pursuit of Positive Skepticism

Michael Moore’s Capitalism, a Love Story

Do we have a love-hate relationship with capitalism?

I’m not shy about admitting that I like and even admire Michael Moore. For those of you who made it past that first sentence (this blog has some highly opinionated aficionados who don’t necessarily buy all I write), let me qualify. I do not think for a moment that Roger and MeBowling for ColumbineFahrenheit 9/11Sicko or, for that matter, the current release, Capitalism: a Love Story are documentaries. They are clearly not. I think of them as op-ed pieces, films that blend factual information, anecdotes and silly (but funny!) stunts to make a point, to force people to think by shaking them out of their complacency. And boy does this country need a bit of shaking and a lot more thinking.

Yes, Moore is largely preaching to the choir. Isn’t everyone? The choir needs preaching, just ask your Sunday morning pastor, or anyone at Fox News. And the difference is that Moore is much smarter and more truthful than either your pastor or Sean Hannity (let alone that buffoon of Glenn Beck).

Capitalism is indeed a love story, because through all the criticism it is obvious that the director aches for a better America, and he does not envision that America as a communist country. Moore graphically shows what everyone knows and yet most people do their best to ignore: that greed ruins people’s lives. Many people’s lives. For every venture capitalist or speculator who gets rich on Wall Street there are millions of people who get poorer by the day, who lose their homes or suddenly see their pensions evaporate. In one of its most poignant moments the movie shows a scared family huddling in their foreclosed house surrounded by a large number of police thugs getting ready to break in and evict them, while at the same time an asshole from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal tells the camera with a straight face that he has a problem with democracy, because it gets in the way of corporate profit.

Of course Moore knows that he is just engaging in antics when he drives around Wall Street to make a citizen arrest on the financiers who got this country and much of the rest of the world close to bankruptcy. The same financiers who then turned around and benefited from a huge government bailout engineered thanks to the fact that the federal regulatory agents are run by former financial officers from Goldman Sachs. Capitalists are all against government intervention, it seems, until it is necessary to save their ass, at which point they find their inner socialist and hold on to it for dear life.

Michael Moore is no communist or socialist (the two are different things, contrary to most American’s perpetual misunderstanding). He is what in Europe is called a social-democrat, someone who wants a form of (seriously) managed and regulated capitalism because he knows that in moderation, capitalism really is a great engine of economic growth and prosperity for everyone. But when left unchecked, capitalism turns into a vicious machine that increases the gap between 99% of the population representing the middle and lower classes, and the obscenely rich remaining 1%.

And there lies the real puzzle. Moore explicitly asks the same question I’ve been pondering now for many years: how is it that the Republicans, the party that defends the interests of the rich, continuously manage to get close to half of the votes in each election, while their policies manifestly hurt the overwhelming majority of the population? Moore’s answer is only part of the truth, but it is truthful nonetheless: capitalist demagogues the world over (not just in the US) have managed to convince everyone else that the common person has just enough of a chance to become rich that it is in everyone’s interest to let the currently rich do what they want. After all, if you raise taxes on them, some day you may join the ranks of the high society and have to pay those same taxes. Call it the lottery fallacy, if you will (any undergraduate student of economics will tell you that playing the lottery is most definitely not a good strategy for your retirement).

As I said, this is only part of the answer. Conservative parties the world over successfully vie for power on the basis of a complex cocktail that includes the endorsement (if not always the practice) of traditional values, religion, and of course the military (including a continuous game of scaring the shit out of people using real or imaginary dangers to maintain perpetual wars that serve the dual purpose of keeping the conservatives in power while obscenely filling their pockets with profits).

And yet, it is incredible that so many people do buy into inane ideas like “trickle down economics,” “too big to fail,” “taxes are theft,” “we have the best health care system in the world,” “God bless America” and so on and so forth. Trickle down, Reagan-style, economics has in fact caused a huge leap in the disparity between the rich and everyone else, essentially undermining the foundations of the American middle class. The idea of a bank or corporation that is too big to fail (and therefore needs to be bailed out with taxpayers’ money) is a capitalistic oxymoron if there ever was one. If taxes are theft then by the same “logic” working is slavery (neither is true, obviously). We manifestly and demonstrably do not have the best healthcare in the world. And as far as God is concerned, of course he doesn’t exist, but if he did, why on earth would he prefer one nation over another (and at any rate, didn’t he already say he likes Jews the best?).

So what’s the solution to this mess? Moore does show some glimmer of hope in Capitalism: labor unions (despite their own share of problems) can indeed make a difference for the obvious reason that workers need to be united in order to counter the crushingly powerful interests of the elite. So let’s reorganize and strengthen our unions. Moore visits businesses in the United States that are run as cooperatives, where the members own an equal share of the company, where decisions are made democratically, and the CEO makes as much as any other employee! Guess what? They are highly profitable, so let’s use them as a model to re-engineer our economy from the bottom up. And there are some valiant members of Congress who did stand up to Wall Street when the bailouts were being rammed down their colleagues’ throats. So let’s re-elect them and throw the rest of these bought by corporate interests buffoons out of office at the next democratic opportunity.

The battle for justice and equality is a perennially uphill battle. That’s why the choir needs preachers like Michael Moore to get our juices running again, to get newly pissed off at what some politicians and big corporations are doing to our way of life. Now get out, organize, and vote.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Massimo Pigliucci is a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College. more...

Subscribe to Rationally Speaking

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.