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Socialism Today 134 - December/January 2009-10

Michael Moore’s assault on capitalism

Capitalism: A Love Story

A Michael Moore film

Reviewed by

Dan DiMaggio,

Socialist Alternative (CWI USA)

MICHAEL MOORE’S new film opened in nearly 1,000 theaters across the US in early October with a simple message: capitalism is evil, and must be replaced with a system that puts the interests of ordinary people over profit.

The film puts the suffering of ordinary, hard-working Americans facing job losses, home foreclosures, and declining wages and benefits on full display. Capitalism is exposed as a system that is rotten to the core, subordinating every social concern to the limitless quest for profit.

Moore calls this movie "the culmination of all the films I’ve ever made". As he explained in an interview on Democracy Now: "I am tired of having to dance around this or deal with this symptom of the problem or that calamity caused by capitalism… I guess I can keep making movies for another twenty years about the next General Motors or the next healthcare issue, but I thought I’d just kind of cut to the chase and propose that we deal with this economic system and try to restructure it in a way that benefits people and not the richest one percent". (24 September 2009).

The significance of this phenomenon – a major filmmaker denouncing capitalism in front of an audience of millions in the most powerful capitalist nation in the history of the world – should not be lost. While Moore does not provide a clear alternative, he is forcing open a popular debate on the need to transform the entire social system.

The film relies on intimate portrayals of the human costs of capitalism. In one example, Moore shows a privatized juvenile detention facility in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The owners of this facility made tens of millions of dollars by bribing judges to unjustly convict over 6,500 kids and lock them up for months for offenses ranging from throwing a piece of steak at their parents to making a MySpace page about their assistant principal.

Moore interviews families facing foreclosures and layoffs, giving voice to working class anger at the bosses, bankers, and politicians responsible. He traces the devastation of Randy and Donna Hacker, as police force them from the home they built on their family farm. As Randy Hacker says, "There’s gotta be some kind of rebellion between the people that’s got nothing and the people who have it all… There’s no inbetween anymore".

Capitalism vs democracy

AT THE end of the film, Moore concludes: "capitalism is an evil, and you can’t regulate evil. You have to eliminate it, and replace it with something that is good for all people". Yet while Moore is clear on the problems of capitalism, he avoids putting forward a coherent alternative. His alternative to capitalism is ‘democracy’, though exactly what this means is left unclear.

Moore clearly exposes the anti-democratic character of capitalism, decimating the claims of the corporate media and political elite that the free market goes hand-in-hand with democracy. As he told Democracy Now, "The wealthiest one percent [of Americans] have more financial wealth than the bottom 95% combined. When you have a situation like that, where one percent essentially not only own all the wealth, but own Congress, call the shots, are we really telling the truth when we call this a democracy?… Just because we get to vote every now and then, we can call this a democracy, when the economy is anything but?... There’s not democracy in the workplace. I mean, through most of our daily lives, the idea of democracy is fairly nonexistent. And I think things work better when the people who have to work with whatever it is we’re working with have a say in how it’s working".

Moore’s call for ‘democracy’ means in part the building of social movements of workers and oppressed. The film cites some important examples, including community struggles to prevent evictions and, most notably, the successful factory occupation by workers at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago last December where workers forced their employers to give them the back pay and severance owed them. Moore also shows several factories that are owned and democratically operated by workers themselves, rather than corporate bosses.

Yet while highlighting the need for struggle from below, and calling for an alternative to capitalism, Moore avoids calling himself a socialist. For example, when asked on Democracy Now if he was a socialist, he evaded the question, answering, "Uhh, I’m a heterosexual! Uhh, uhh, I’m overweight!" before they ran out of time.

Yet many of Moore’s descriptions of ‘democracy’ could accurately describe genuine socialism! Democratic socialism does not mean the dictatorships that existed in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, or the sort of top-down system in which the government controls every aspect of life, as the right-wing likes to caricature it. Nor does it have anything to do with bailing out the biggest banks and corporations with trillions of taxpayer dollars.

A socialist alternative

A SOCIALIST society would put the economy and political system under the democratic control of working people, whose labor actually creates all the wealth. If we all had a democratic say in what got produced, the methods of production, and how products were distributed, the world would be a fundamentally different place. The resources of society could be used to benefit all of humanity and the environment, rather than just a tiny minority of super-rich people.

For workers to control what is produced the economy would need to be run on an entirely different basis than the current system of private ownership. Socialists call for taking the top 500 US corporations, including the big banks, auto and oil industries, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, and more, out of the hands of their wealthy shareholders and placing them under public ownership and democratic working class control.

This doesn’t mean putting the resources of these corporations into the hands of government bureaucrats appointed by big money politicians, like the recent nationalization of General Motors. Instead, the current government, controlled by a two-party system thoroughly awash in corporate cash, must be replaced by a government made up of direct representatives of working people.

In this way, socialism would mean a massive expansion of democracy. Instead of simply voting for representatives every few years, while the real decisions are made behind the scenes in corporate boardrooms, socialist democracy would bring collective decision making into the day-to-day functioning of every workplace, every neighborhood, and every school and university. Elected workplace committees would replace existing bosses.

Neighborhood and workplace councils, holding regular meetings open to all, would send representatives to expanded city and regional councils. In turn, such regional councils would elect national representatives. Elected representatives would be paid no more than the wage of the average worker, and be subject to immediate recall (imagine if voters had been able to recall all the politicians in congress who voted for the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, or the bank bailouts!).

On the basis of bringing the economy into public ownership and democratic control, and by replacing the ‘insane casino’ of the market with democratic economic planning, we could dramatically improve living standards for the majority, save the environment, and abolish poverty and war.

Under capitalism people are evicted from their homes and forced to live on the streets while millions of houses lie vacant. Workers are thrown out of their jobs despite the urgent need for more teachers, nurses, and public transportation. A democratically planned economy would not allow this cruel insanity, instead utilizing the resources of society to meet human needs, rather than profits for shareholders.

Role of the Democratic Party

MOORE’S FILM exposes the role of both the Democratic and Republican parties in implementing policies that have benefited the top one percent at the expense of workers. This film could have been a wake-up call, educating anyone interested in real change of the need for a political alternative to the two-party system. Unfortunately, Moore himself stops short of calling for this critical step, and at times, the film masks the true role of the Democratic Party, both in the current crisis and historically.

Moore shows a powerful clip of Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, Ohio, calling from the floor of congress for Americans to "squat in their own homes" and refuse to leave. He also shows left-wing Democrat Dennis Kucinich, also of Ohio, asking, "Is this the US congress or the Board of Directors of Goldman Sachs?"

But figures like Kucinich are marginalized within the Democratic Party, often functioning regardless of their intentions to provide a left-wing face while the party continues to carry out pro-corporate, pro-war policies. The important positions go to people like Christopher Dodd and Max Baucus, who after raking in health industry donations are now busy making sure that healthcare reform does not even include a public option. The real party leaders make policy within the strict limits imposed by the Democrats’ corporate donors.

Another weakness is Moore’s presentation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR appears in the movie as the champion of working people, supporting their struggles to unionize and fight for a decent living in the 1930s. Moore claims that had FDR lived a few more years he would have enacted a Second Bill of Rights guaranteeing the right to living wage jobs, healthcare, housing, education, and more, as FDR outlined in a 1944 speech.

Yet reality is far different from the popular mythology of the New Deal and this ‘great man theory of history’. It was not thanks to FDR’s leadership that workers achieved all the gains they made in the 1930s, from stronger unions to Social Security and unemployment relief. It was because they broke the law and defied court injunctions, local police, ‘citizens’ militias’, and National Guard troops with sit-down strikes, mass pickets, general strikes, demonstrations of the unemployed for relief, and more.

One would never know from Moore that, as labor historian Art Preis writes, under FDR "more workers [were] killed, wounded and jailed, more troops called out against strikers … than under any president in memory" (Labor’s Giant Step). It was only under massive pressure from below, and the fear that workers would go even farther and threaten the entire capitalist system, that FDR and the political establishment made concessions.

The even greater reforms achieved by workers in Western Europe and Japan, which Moore touches on, such as universal healthcare and free higher education, were also the product of massive struggles of the working class which threatened to overthrow capitalism, often including the election of mass workers’ parties.

Obama: defender of capitalism

MOORE’S FILM stands out because of its willingness to boldly tell the truth about the real character of capitalism. But when it comes to Obama, Moore treats him with kid gloves, despite criticisms of his economic team and some of his policies.

Moore himself was once a champion of the need to break from the Democrats and build a political alternative that represents working people. In 2000 he was a leading advocate of Ralph Nader’s left-wing presidential campaign, and in the 1990s he was a supporter of the Labor Party, which was founded by a number of the country’s most progressive unions. Unfortunately, Moore has retreated from this position under the pressure of the dominant ‘lesser evil’ mood among the left during the Bush years. In late September, he told the AFL-CIO convention, "Instead of us piling on [Obama], he needs our support… I see him out there [at the healthcare ‘town hall’ meetings] on his own. Who’s got his back?" (Washington Post, 16 September)

Clearly the racist attacks on Obama put forward by the right-wing should be sharply opposed. But Obama’s sell-out on healthcare reform, his bailouts for the banks, and his refusal to create the kind of jobs programs needed to reverse rising unemployment, are creating the conditions for a right populist movement to develop.

The half-measures of Obama and the Democrats have managed to antagonize the right while demoralizing the millions of workers and youth who had hoped for real change. That’s because Obama and the Democrats are fundamentally representatives of big business. Instead of ‘having Obama’s back’, the key is to mobilize, independently of the Democrats and Republicans, around the needs of working people, rather than from the standpoint of what is acceptable to the corporations and their two-party system.

Imagine if the AFL-CIO had mobilized its millions of members to demand single-payer healthcare (a guaranteed, universal healthcare plan in which the government insures everyone, cutting out the insurance companies, and allowing free choice of doctor and hospital)? Unfortunately, the right-wing has mobilized its base and dominated the debate. The left, meanwhile, not wanting to embarrass its ‘friend’ in the White House, has remained largely silent.

Far from being a socialist as the right-wing tries to depict him, Obama is a full supporter of capitalism. As Obama wrote in his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, "our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources... our free market system".

So Obama defends the very system that Moore is indicting with this film. Obama’s policies have been aimed at saving the capitalist system from a devastating crash like the Great Depression and, like FDR, preventing social upheaval that could threaten corporate rule. It is no coincidence that his top economic advisers have ties to Goldman Sachs and other big Wall Street firms.

Ultimately, as Moore shows, we need to build movements from below – for jobs, homes, healthcare, against the wars, and more – to challenge the corporate stranglehold over our political system. But that will also mean breaking from the Democrats, and linking those movements together into a new political party to represent ordinary workers and youth – a party of the millions, not the millionaires.


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