Capitalism: A Love Story
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Tue Feb 23 2010Michael Moore still has a good eye for a stunt. Toward the end of ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’, his latest documentary polemic about the iniquities of contemporary American culture, he strides through Lower Manhattan’s Financial District, enclosing the headquarters of various banks and financial institutions within yards and yards of black-and-yellow police tape marked ‘Crime Scene – Do Not Cross’.
It’s as satisfying an emblem of the rottenness at the heart of the system as you could hope for. It’s also one of several neat touches in a picture that adheres to Moore form: a thesis to which many liberals would be instinctively favourable (in this case that untrammelled capitalism is socially harmful) is illustrated with engaging and impactful stunts (turning up at the headquarters of Goldman Sachs in an armoured van to ask for the bail-out money back), moving personal testimony (footage of victims of mortgage foreclosures and lay-offs) and an argument that wobbles between locally convincing detail, dubious extrapolation and preposterously unfounded assertion.
‘Capitalism’ is at its strongest when considered in its domestic context. Die-hard Economist readers aside, few Europeans subscribe to the market-capitalist purism that is perceived in many parts of the US, including some of the poorest, as not just an economic good but a moral and patriotic duty. Moore does a good rhetorical job of questioning the compatibility of capitalism with democracy and Christianity – one priest calls the system a ‘radical evil’ – in a way that is not controversial here but will shock some Americans.
There’s a persuasive if simplified momentum to his potted history of post-war US economics that moves from the prosperity of the ’50s through the growing inequality of the ’80s to the current catastrophe, illustrated with archive material that ranges from the telling (Reagan’s numerous spokesmodel gigs) to sub-Adam Curtis glibness. Moore’s own family home movies and the history of his home town of Flint, Michigan, are put to nice use too. And he presents some outrageous contemporary instances of capitalism gone wild, such as judges locking kids up in exchange for bungs from private borstals and companies taking out profiteering life insurance – actually called ‘dead peasant’ policies – on their staff.
But when it comes to what should be the smoking gun – the subprime meltdown and the financial crisis and global slump it catalysed – ‘Capitalism’ fires blanks. Moore offers no cohesive argument about how the mortgage crisis happened, why the ramifications were so grave and certainly not why, as he alleges, the US government bail-out amounted to ‘a financial coup d’état’.
The thesis that rapacious capitalism has horrific social consequences is credible and well illustrated, if hardly eye-opening to European viewers (or, frankly, to Moore’s likely audience at home); the suggestions that that same capitalism is undemocratic and currently vulnerable to more equitable alternatives require stronger arguments than Moore can rally here.
Author: Ben Walters