Big Government: A Love Story

Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story “takes aim” at the capitalist system, as a few dozen supportive reviewers have mindlessly written. But that’s a tough metaphor to uphold. It’s easy to aim when you don’t care what you hit.

Moore is interested in Big-C Capitalism. So after a few stories of families having their homes foreclosed, Moore reveals his thesis.

“Capitalism is a sin”, he gets a series of priests to say darkly into the camera; it’s “obscene” and it’s “radically evil”. Capitalism is a secular “crime” and spiritually “immoral”.

Another priest reflects that he is “really in awe of (pro-capitalism) propaganda”, which is funny to hear from a minister of religion. And a bit rich: one sequence in Moore’s film describes the somewhat icky practice of firms taking out life insurance for their employees, which he tastefully illustrates with lingering shots of a grieving family, as if insurance policies cause cancer.

Moore has always been an awkwardly self-conscious working-class man. In this instalment, he is also God-fearing. And his NASCAR-chic populism is now littered with calls to “people power”, which, coming from a multimillionaire, are as authentic as the Spice Girls’ “girl power”. It’s all so laden that there’s a good chance he wants to run for office.

In a bizarrely misdirected appeal to authority, Moore quizzes the off-Broadway actor Wallace Shawn, who has “studied history and a bit of economics” about what he reckons is the problem with capitalism. (The audience Moore hopes will see his film know Shawn from The Princess Bride. But those who will actually see it know Shawn from My Dinner With Andre.) Shawn’s answer isn’t the point: what possible value could his view add?

But Moore’s argument is even more misdirected. He’s justifiably outraged at the bailouts and the way they were pushed through Congress. Who isn’t? He’s angry about the favour-trading relationship between Wall Street and Washington. Again, who isn’t?

But that’s not capitalism. It’s corporatism - a political system with a veneer of free enterprise but where a network of lobbyists, bureaucrats and politicians use the political system to achieve private goals. Moore would like to add a fourth movement to this symphony - the unions. But unless you think of unions as omniscient and beneficent guardians of the public good, doing so wouldn’t change the corporatist dynamic.

So when he describes a real outrage - like a corruption case in Pennsylvania where a corrupt judge funnelled innocent kids into a privately run juvenile detention centre - he doesn’t quite understand who the bad guy actually is: the politicians and administrators who let it happen. (After this case, two judges face charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery, and federal tax violations. Corruption is, after all, against the law.)

And who to blame for the bailouts? The firms that ask for them, or the politicians that grant them?

For Moore, Barack Obama’s election is a spiritual catharsis, an explosion of people power, and a sudden break with the capitalist nightmare. But the outrages he spent 90 minutes detailing have, if anything, gotten worse under the Obama administration. The employment pipeline between Goldman Sachs and Treasury has is even busier. And Obama has graduated from bailing out banks to bailing out car companies. For Moore, when Bush did this sort of thing, it was capitalism. When Obama does, it’s democracy.

In Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore can’t quite get himself to the problem. If he did, he’d have to admit that the big activist government of his dreams is actually the cause of his nightmares.