By Bryan Newbury
March 9, 2010
Many say that America is a Christian nation. Among those claimants, there is a burgeoning ideology, which seeks to reclaim the historical record – the same crew have been marginally successful with this approach towards pure science, so there is little reason to doubt that history would be any less malleable – and put an image of snake handling evangelicals in the place of pragmatic deists. Dubious as their claims are, the Christian nationalists, for want of a better moniker, do have one bit of fact on their side: nominally, at least, the majority of Americans do identify as Christians. In Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore poses the question, “So, are we?”
Not being a scholar in divinity or a professed member of any religious group, it isn’t for this reviewer to sit in judgment. Having a cursory knowledge of the Gospels as they are laid out in the King James Bible, it is tempting to come down with a thunderous No. The reader likely will refuse to take this verdict, or, for that matter, Mr. Moore’s. Luckily, Moore provides credentialed men of the cloth to posit that if we are a Christian nation, we are nonetheless governed by a profoundly unchristian economic system. (Should there be confusion as to whether we are governed by an economic system rather than a political one, there is an instructive dialogue with an editor at The Wall Street Journal to allay that head scratcher.)
As usual, Moore builds his case on whimsical educational films from more innocent times, cataloguing the avaricious transgressions of the ruling class and juxtaposing those iniquities with the inevitable inequities and how they play out in those locales that the populations of Washington and Wall Street couldn’t give a good goddam about. It is a bit of a departure, however, to see the Flint of twenty years ago becoming the template for contemporary Miami. Moore has documented the progression, and we should be thankful for it. At this point, we all know what we know to expect, but where does Capitalism fit in the Moore œuvre?
Peculiarly, though expectedly, as a sort of prequel.
While the chronology and scenery suggest the conclusion to a larger body of work archiving the devolution of our republic from free state to fiefdom, there is reason to consider viewing Capitalism as Part I. were one to introduce Michael Moore to an alien observer. (Begging pardon if the observation has been made here before on the last of Moore’s “last” films, but this installment supplants the whole order of things where a marathon Michael Moore viewing is concerned.) After all, the narrative arc from Roger & Me to Sicko, including as it does our propensity for gun violence and general distaste for actual democracy, to say nothing of our “medieval health care nonsystem,” in the words of Rachel Maddow, is informed by a devaluation of human life and functional liberty. What is the true exception in American exceptionalism? An ideology of individualism as manifested by callousness towards our fellow man seems to be at the root of it. How can we stand alone among industrialized countries in both violent crime and lack of health care access? Look no further than the fundamentally unchristian nature of our republic’s economic system.
It isn’t as though Moore hasn’t had his cannons trained on the queer entity of corporate capitalism. Every problem he’s illustrated over the last two decades stems from the basic drive of a man, a company, a country, to acquire resources at the expense of someone else, if not everyone else. In this way, Capitalism is more a summary than an independently standing essay on a problem. It isn’t Moore’s strongest film (humble opinion, Columbine still stands out as his best… we’ll call it Act III. in the Opus), but there is no way it could be, as it deals with the source of so many problems rather than a single outcome, such as the closing of a Payday plant or the extralegal invasion of a sovereign state. To say this isn’t to minimize the countless examples of unforgettable scenes, such as the overview of PA Child Care in Wilkes-Barre or the plight of pilots, American Hero Chelsey Sully “Sulls” Sullenberger, looking quite sullen indeed at a Congressional hearing on the abysmal pay and work conditions of people in this highly skilled profession. It also does not diminish the Moorian flourishes of “are you fucking kidding me?” moments, most notable of which is the exploration of Dead Peasant Insurance. (How the children in one particular scene will avoid the fate of firebombing a host of corporate entities is beyond comprehension.)
As today marks the release of Capitalism on DVD, it behooves the reviewer to mention the special features, three of which serve not as mere appendices to the work; rather, the film is more worthy because of them. The brief segment with Michael Pollan on big business and food is worthy its own full-length release, thankfully provided by Food Inc. There is more eschatology in another interview with Father Dick Preston. There is the prescient (and nationally ignored) address by Jimmy Carter from 15 July 1979, a must-watch jaw dropper where the somehow historically disserved last honest President lays out the last thirty years of snake oil, sinfulness and rapacity from his Oval Office time machine. Finally, there is an interview with Chris Hedges, whose 8 March 2010 essay “Calling All Rebels” is a more persuasive coda than what Moore himself provides at the film’s conclusion.
Hedges should’ve ended the film, though his outlook is admittedly more despairing than Moore’s. Moore starts Capitalism with an Encyclopædia Britannica film on the Fall of Rome. Point for point, of course, that empire’s failure is in synch with our own. It ends a few months before President Obama politely and O, so articulately told the commoners to fuck ourselves by continuing the failed economic and foreign policies handed down from the time of Reagan. Were it shot today, this would likely be included. It would naturally segue into the argument put forth by Hedges in Empire of Illusion, that we are assuredly doomed. To be fair, there is a hint of light in the finale of Empire, but there is quite enough realism and despair to balance it out. If, as this week’s Truthdig column seems to suggest, the only solution is open rebellion, then we have already entered the death throes of the republic.
Problematically, the ideology of capitalism is engrained in us. As we’ve seen in the last two years, the citizens willing to rebel in a meaningful – also, armed – way are those that have swallowed the sinker up to the reel in the Alger myth. They seem blissfully unaware of the nature of things, and many of them hold Reagan up as a model for effective governance. At the risk of repeating, which many of their rifles do, they happen to have a lot more firearms than the collected contributors of Counter Punch, Truthdig and the entire New York Times. In a situation of open rebellion, things might very well get worse. Sadly, this is the outcome in either contingency posed by the latest Hedges missive. Should the left organize itself in the way the right has, the finale will be right out of Soderbergh. The rub is that it is Ché Part II.
So, what is a citizen to do? How do we overcome the rampant criminality of Wall Street and their House Boys in Washington? We have little hope electorally, virtually none in direct action (were the Flint Sit Down Strike today, rest assured that the National Guard would not be aiming at the police and thugs) or rebellion and little reason to assume that Christ will return to smite the money lenders anew, this one being the most likely of positive scenarios.
It seems that there is no answer. Moore only hints at one, Hedges informs us of the unbelievable odds and Rahm Emanuel shows no sign of exiling himself to Pátmos. (The Euro might make it after all!) At this point, one must be thankful for a dearth of roving cannibal gangs wandering a postapocalyptic hellscape where the sun is forever obscured. Fortunately, documentarians will have no shortage of material in the next twenty years. Get ready, Plano, Michael’s got some foreclosure footage to shoot here in about ten years.
Capitalism: A Love Story
Written and Directed by Michael Moore
Color, 127 minutes, 2009