Capitalism: A Love Story
By now we all know that if Michael Moore makes a film called Capitalism: A Love Story, he's going to play the third wheel. The documentary filmmaker revealed his liberal leanings in his feature film debut, Roger & Me (1989), which stood up for the blue-collar workers abandoned by General Motors in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan. Since then Moore has established himself as a spokesman of the Left, fighting for gun control (Bowling for Columbine) and against the Bush administration (Fahrenheit 9/11), and, in his last film, attempting to expose the woes of the American healthcare system (Sicko).
In Capitalism, Moore circles back to Roger & Me's theme of corporate greed. Only this time he sets his sights on not just a company, but—in the context of the recent financial crisis—our entire economic system. It's an ambitious target and, as it turns out, rather elusive for Moore.
"If you wish to converse with me," said the French philosopher Voltaire, "define your terms." I imagine that Moore might feel some kinship with Voltaire—think of the satirical bent and progressive stance—but in Capitalism his standard for conversation is lower. The film's most frustrating aspect is Moore's sloppy use of terms—namely, "capitalism" and "democracy."
He assumes we know what capitalism is. Indeed, heargues that our country's history is "a love story" with capitalism, as Americans have let themselves be force-fed an affection for its fundamental principles. To illustrate this, he shows clips fromcheesy 1950s education films that fawn overfree markets and private ownership. But Moore's definition of capitalism (narrated over images of abandoned homes and businesses across the country) is a little different: "a system of giving and taking … mostly taking."
So the ostensible purpose of Moore's film is to discredit capitalism. But many of his representative targets—Reagan's tax cuts, or the deregulation of our banks—are not so much capitalism as they are fiscally conservative ways of operating within the system. Moore spends a lot of time skewering last year's Bush-led bailout bill, claiming that it was a robbery of the American people facilitated by some of Wall Street's close connections with Washington D.C. But even if he's right, that isn't capitalism per se, but rather political corruption. So what is Moore actually after: capitalism, Republican policies, backdoor politics, or something else?
At points in the film, Moore actually does touch on some dangers at the core of capitalism. In one troubling example, he shows how a number of companies take out life insurance policies on their employees. Whether or not it makes economic sense for the employer, Moore highlights how morally perverse it feels for a company to profit from someone's death—especially when a widow is suddenly strapped for cash while the giant corporation lands a cool million. Even more, Moore points out how companies talk about this policy in internal memos. One report shows certain companies failing to achieve their "expected mortality rates" for the year, and another refers to the deceased employees as "Dead Peasants."