I remember one day in the early 90s my parents heard about a movie floating around the Rust Belt called Roger and Me. We were a true blue (or red, I guess) Reagan household, yet there was something about this simple guy harassing the executives at GM that our family found satisfying, and even vindicating.
My dad had worked in the auto industry, and, like me, he had a complicated relationship with big business. He wore an anti-UAW button when the factory he worked at tried to unionize, but he was also willing to expose the evils caused by the greed of the corporatists at the top of the ladder — eventually leading to his early retirement. For as long as I can remember, I have looked critically at systems of authority — including economic systems.
Rand and Me
Ayn Rand’s works have been the prime literary influences on my life, yet I look at what has happened in the alleged free market system that we have in America now, and I know it would have my beloved Objectivist turning in her grave. Rand was the defender of unfettered creativity and innovation, not an advocate for the federal rescue of financial charlatans who create nothing yet rush to the teat of the state when their castles crumble into their sand foundations.
Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story is a biting polemic that bounces back and forth between storytelling and bloviating, but it forces the viewer to take an honest look at the system that we have come to call capitalism. Moore points out that the way the free market is supposed to work, local merchants (think butcher, baker, candlestick maker) offer their goods and services, allowing the public to vote with their dollars to choose the best businessperson.
This is a system that can work swimmingly, and people like me of an anarcho-capitalist bent advocate for such a system. The real problem, though, is when transactions like derivatives on financial markets somehow become tied to the term “capitalism.” There is a strong distinction between an innovator who comes up with a new way of refrigerating produce or a new way of generating electricity and someone whose only addition to society (if you could call it that) is the ability to create a financial instrument so complicated that no lawyer or regulator could ever figure out exactly what it is.
No thanks, I’ll keep living here
As expected in a Moore film, there were a couple of tear-jerking moments. The moment in which I wanted to stand up and cheer in the theater was when a group of community activists in Florida staged a sort of sit-in at a foreclosed home, peacefully moving the family’s possessions back inside and remaining on the lawn en masse until the authorities left the property, allowing the family to stay. This kind of direct action against a filthy system is precisely what we need. If more people refused to collaborate with the fraud of the banks, the banks would have to change the way they do things.
Moore highlights two heroes in this respect: Marcy Kaptur, a Congresswoman from Ohio who openly advocated on the floor of the House that people refuse to leave their homes when they were foreclosed on. Similarly, Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans is shown placing a moratorium on foreclosure sales in his jurisdiction.
Who’s running things?
I appreciate Moore’s highlighting of the Citibank memo that described the new system of government in America as a “plutonomy” led by a management elite. I, too, have become disgusted with what constitutes the wealthy class these days. Most of the top 1% of income earners are not creators, not people who started an innovative business in their garage, but instead a bunch of overpriced, bloated managers who just hung on longer than everyone else to become a C-something in a company. They add nothing of value; instead they just hope that inertia will keep them and their multi-million-dollar paychecks safe.
And, speaking of the brilliant people in our society, Moore points out that our nation’s universities, who once cranked out the best mathematicians in the world, are now producing math whizzes who, hampered with six-figure student loan debt, go to work on Wall Street, where instead of producing the next advances in science, physics or engineering, they create complicated financial products that actually make the country worse off.
What hedge fund would Jesus invest in?
I grew up in a community where capitalism, patriotism and Christianity were so closely intertwined as to become indistinguishable from one another. I have grown up and thought a lot about what it really means to be a Christian, if that is what one chooses to call oneself. Today, Christians tend to place Jesus on a white horse fighting for the free market, when in fact he said that the rich are going to have the most trouble entering the Kingdom of Heaven. He told people to give others the clothes off their own back if someone asks. These divine admonitions don’t sound anything like the near-religious fervor with which Christians discuss the wonder of the profit motive in the free market.
Flummoxed by this contradiction, Moore interviews a number of Catholic priests and a bishop who agree that Christianity isn’t compatible with the system known as capitalism. Sure, you could find just as many televangelists who would disagree with their conclusions, but it is refreshing to hear people who claim to be on the side of Jess actually talking like he did for once.
Was there grandstanding? Absolutely. Did Moore bend the truth a bit? Of course. Do I like his solution (democratic socialism)? Not at all. But, did he force me to think about the consequences of living in a system that explicitly depends on taking advantage of others? You bet your Flint, Michigan ass.