More, Please

by zunguzungu

While I think through the utopianism of Mr. Greif, enjoy some half-baked responses to Capitalism, a Love Story. In short, it seems to be both what’s best and what’s worst about the Moore shtick, both one of his best movies and as flawed as the others, and for mostly the usual reasons. As Taibbi points out, the problem is Moore himself: the less he’s on-screen the better, and when he tells stories about other people, he can be very good, but when he injects himself into it, the whole thing falls apart.

I go back and forth on his often ridiculous Capra-ism, for example. He’s more subtle than he seems with the “aw-shucks” persona, but his winking/patronizing/ironizing of the whole Jimmy-Stewart-as-American-ego-ideal still isn’t so much an argument as it is a pose that just seems to mediate what is most problematic about the space he wants to occupy. He always seems caught between a desire to imagine the post-war era as a true golden age of the middle class and the realization that it wasn’t, but it makes him, at worst, a bad faith propagandist and at best somewhat confused. He wants us to think of the post-war boom as a thing to aspire towards, mourn for the loss of, and to take as our political point of reference, for example, yet he also quite rightly reminds us that it only happened because the United States was the only part of the developed world that hadn’t just had the shit bombed out of it. And while he wants to shine an aura of racial justice from the Obama moment onto Franklin Roosevelt’s “second bill of rights” — note all the black faces and the oddly dissonant notion that FDR was trying to create racial justice for all (this is the man who ordered the Japanese internment camps, btw) — his effort to elide the difference between the Democratic party and Democracy falls apart at the slightest touch, especially when he‘s the one doing it. There’s no better illustration of that than the narrative problem Obama creates for him: Moore is at his strongest tearing Bush a new one, but the fact that Obama has put the same Goldman Sachs flacks in control of the treasury department is both acknowledged by the film and then overlooked when convenient.

The best you can say about Moore’s intervention of the political moment is that his emphasis on working people as driving progressive change is deeply, deeply important. Occasionally the first personism of his narrative style actually helps him make this point; Flint, MI is, after all, a pretty good vantage point from which to regard what the Reagan years did to the American working class (and it’s why Roger and Me is still his best movie). Making his narrative about organization from below (and how finance corporatism organizes from above) is also salutary; the “throw the bums out!” thing that Fahrenheit 9-11 did was far too easy (and wrong) as a solution, which Obama forces him, more or less, to revise. His point about Obama, after all, is that he represents precisely not a savior, but has happened as a phenomenon at least partially because of mass popular disenchantment with capitalism, and that such disenchantment has the potential to truly empower people who currently lack any sense of it. But only the potential; the movie does mostly make clear that getting rid of Bush was far from a solution, and while I wish he would make this point in a more careful way, the strongest moments in the film are when he simply shows how alternate modes of organizing the process of labor and value creation already exist and are possible. Things like the Isthmus engineering worker-owned co-op in Wisconsin need to be taken seriously and that the workers at Republic Window and Doors actually managed to organize and force concessions from the banks that had destroyed their livelihood. Just telling those stories is something.

What’s interesting about Moore, though, is that he wants to tell an another world is possible kind of narrative about Capitalism without ever taking Marxism seriously. That’s not a knock on him, necessarily, but it’s the task he’s et himself: to argue that the value system represented by “capitalism” runs basically contrary to other value systems Americans tend to hold quite highly, things like the ethic of democracy and the humanism of organized religion. In other words, he wants to make an argument about capitalism starting from within the American civic and religious mainstream tradition (which is why Capra is the point of reference); his observation that we talk about political democracy but accept despotism in the workplace is, for example, not a Marxist formulation but a critique that starts from an assumption of America hell yeah, only oriented on the democratic version of it. And  when the law treats a corporation like a person, and profit as the “common good,” the fact that our justice system will sometimes/often/always favor corporate profit over human life really is a position you can attack from within organized religion, which he does. There’s a powerful civic claim to be made from very deep within the American tradition, and Moore is trying very hard to make it without recourse to anything that seems unamerican, which may or may not be tactically wise.

Anyway he gets himself all tangled up when he lets his focus drift from exploring the dark logic of the figure of corporations profiting from the deaths of their employees (while the funeral costs are paid by impoverished survivors) towards the implication, bereft of real substance, that another mode of economic organization is possible in America. The “dead peasants” section of the film, in this sense, is a wonderful bit of modern day Gogol but it’s oddly disconnected from the brief excurses into Isthmus and Republic. And if I’m going to fault him for there not being enough of this — and I am — the fact that he never quite connects the dots and can only vaguely sketch out a connection between what is wrong and gesture towards what is possible is the sort of problem that can also only very partially be blamed on Moore. Certain idiosyncrasies of him as a filmmaker make the problem worse, but I think the real problem is how thoroughgoing the lack of a coherent “American” vocabulary for describing the amorality of what the film calls “capitalism” actually is, and how poorly the word “democracy” truly describes an alternative. A lot of people vote for capitalism, after all, and not because they’re deluded (Moore‘s odd respect for propaganda allows him to pretend they are), while there are a lot of aspects of what gets unbrella-ed into “capitalism” that are not necessarily as evil as ascribing a negative value to human life, or don‘t have to be. We need, in short, a far better description of the problem if we‘re to have better solutions than Revolution!, which is more often a pose than a program. The ending of the film is emblematic of that problem; Moore’s attempt to criminalize Goldman Sachs is sort of right on until you try to imagine what the charges would be.

The point, after all, is precisely that what Goldman Sachs does is not at all the same as what a worker owned co-op does, and yet that manifest and profoundly important difference (moral? civic?) between the two is inexplicable when we acknowledge that both are “capitalist.” Which is why the real problem, I think, is that Moore sets out to criticize the entire thing from scratch and all by himself. Karl Marx wrote three enormous books about capitalism and died before he finished a fraction of what he had set out to accomplish; you can disagree with every word he said, but you can’t deny that he took the problem very, very seriously. Michael Moore sets out to do it in 127 minutes, failing, in part, because he really does set his sights that high. And while he does all sorts of interesting things in that time (many of which need to be done quite badly and some of which need to be done so badly that his doing of them badly is still, arguably, a positive good), the movie as a whole makes such a deadly combination of over-ambitious goals with a tactical underestimation of the problem’s complexity and the difficulty of real alternatives (even an obfuscatory insistence on how simple the problem of moving forward is) that it leaves me wanting much, much more. Just not from him.