Michael Moore may have a big mouth, but is it large enough to chew off capitalism? In his new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, he remarks about how difficult the concept is to define; but if we can’t even define the problem, how can we solve it? I think Moore is ambivalent not about the term’s meaning, but rather about how broadly he’s willing to extend it. Like the Democrats now in power, who are criticized for making compromises even before bartering has begun, Moore probably wants a revolution, but doesn’t want to stake his credibility with moderates on what he may see as a true love story: the romance of Marx and Engels. Moore flails about like a shark in a fishing net; he’s trapped inside the system he detests, and he knows it. He follows an impossible logic: to take down capitalism, he must sell an alternative.
I say this with all due sympathy to Moore. His methods can be specious, but I don’t want to follow the line of thought that unfairly discredits him as a hypocrite. Capitalism should dispel the myth of Moore’s “liberal élitism,” which is typically leveled at him by those whose own senses of superiority are hidden safely away in gated communities. This movie attacks élitism head-on, in the guise of Wall Street players who treat their billions like heavenly ambrosia—a divine right that they can gobble up without leaving leftovers for the peasants. In fact, one of Moore’s most salient proofs includes a “dead peasant” insurance clause that corporate employers take out on their employees in a legally dubious manner; the other is a memo from a prominent bank, which anoints its highest-tier shareholders members of the plutonomy—the supreme stratum of wealth, with a political dominance that can only be threatened by those pesky masses, who, for some reason, were vested with voting power.
One should not come to conclusions merely by following the dots, as so often happens in the formulation of conspiracy theories, but Moore can pave a path of ellipses that’s as solid as a paper trail that didn’t make it to the shredder. Can we really doubt charges of foul play, for example, when we see so many Goldman Sachs alumni chomp down on their firm’s competitors under the aegis of the federal government? Can we doubt that there’s something wrongly impersonal in the fact that airline pilots need to supplement their wages by moonlighting as waiters, or that some plane crashes may be due not to bad pilots, but overburdened ones—corners being cut that were already too tight? These certainly have something to do with someone’s definition of capitalism, and Moore effectively riles the viewer up. But, at points, Moore just can’t help himself, and he reverts to that old carnival huckster, shouting so loudly and eccentrically that you can’t quite tell what you’re buying from him.
For instance, the movie opens with home-video footage of a North Carolina family barricading itself against invasion by the sheriff’s office. Why? I suppose their home is being foreclosed, but we’re never told for sure. And even if it was foreclosed, was it because of corporate malfeasance or perhaps because the homeowner was a renegade for reasons other than empty pockets? We don’t know. When Moore says that America’s best and brightest don’t go into science anymore (where, he assumes, they’ll work exclusively for the commonweal), but rather are recruited by the financial institutions that college loans have indebted them to, he may be right, but we aren’t given anything like statistics. And Moore loves to make abstract concepts like “America” his punching bags; hasn’t he learned that this is what pisses skeptics off? At times, I found myself taking no stock in Capitalism’s sophistry, just as I had felt ready to knock down a few of Moore’s pins after his Americans-have-been-cowards-throughout-history bit in Bowling for Columbine. This rhetoric certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.