In the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, when the majority of Americans wanted an explanation as to what had happened to their country, the famous film director, Michael Moore, made an attempt to give an account of all the events that lead to the nightmare America was in.
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The film, Capitalism: a Love Story, set itself goals of going beyond the ideology and propaganda of the modern American society, exploring the truth behind the crisis and giving an answer to the question of what had gone wrong.
Michael Moore narrates the film though a series of personal stories of a large number of people who were severely affected by the crisis. This movie is a quite successful attempt at exposing the failures of the neoliberal capitalism covered up by the propaganda machinery run by big corporations and financial institutions.
The beginning of the film is basically a reminder about what American society used to be like before the instatement of neoliberal ideology. Michael Moore narrates his personal story that from today’s perspective, sounds like a fairy-tale. During the golden era of American capitalism, his father worked as an assembly-line worker and his mother was a housewife. Their family was able to sustain a middle-class lifestyle on that one assembly-line worker’s wage.
One memorable sentence from this part of the movie is when Michael Moore says, ”if this was capitalism, I loved it and everyone loved it”. He also mentions an astonishing fact that during this era of economic boom, the richest people paid taxes of 90% of their income.
These facts combined clearly suggest that the ideology behind neoliberal capitalism that claims that unfettered capitalism leaves everyone better off is simply false. It also shows that, contrary to what contemporary news commentators claim, higher tax rates do not turn the society into Stalin’s Soviet Union.
In his short historical account, Moore dates the beginning of the end for American economy on the day Ronald Reagan was elected president. Ronald Reagan was a brand personality who stood for neoliberalism and deregulation. He promised that the enormous tax cuts across the board would spur the economy, which would result in more profit for everyone.
However, as it is obvious from the everyday life of all Americans and from the film itself, this theory has been proven false on all fronts. McBride & Whiteside (2011, p. 44) write, “considered either as an accumulation strategy or as a policy paradigm, neoliberalism’s objectives were drastic.
Its primary objective was not to contain labour, but to roll back the gains it had made in the post‐war period”. Of course, Capitalism: A Love Story shows just that, and the workers’ standards of living did, in fact, roll back dramatically.
The main culprits for the instatement of the neoliberal agenda, according to the film, are major corporations. The firm grasp that the corporations took over the US government is symbolically portrayed in the film when a major corporation owner tells the former president Reagan that he will have to hurry up with his speech and the president submissively complies.
That moment is the moment when the American government, American democracy and American people lost their power in face of the huge corporate interests. Corporations have effectively turned America into a totalitarian country. This thesis from the film is supported by a huge number of analysts.
Nace (2003, p. 20) writes, “When threatened by an unwanted regulation or a pesky piece of legislation, corporations have plenty of tools to draw on: lobbyists, publicity campaigns, threats to transfer factories overseas, and so forth”. Corporations are also able to eliminate the pieces of legislation after they are enacted by challenging the law in the court of law.
If that happens, the court almost always declares that the law is in conflict with the constitution, and revokes it (Nace, 2003, p. 20). Therefore, the moment when America embraced neoliberal capitalism is the moment when democracy died.
Nace also gives one important historical moment that set the conditions for the rise of neoliberalism, when he discusses the way in which corporation received their rights. The rights that the corporations now have originated in a court case from the 19th century, when the judges declared that the corporations were persons, thus, awarding them the personal rights (Nace, 2003, p. 22).
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The fact that neoliberalism has failed to fulfill the promise that its proponents were giving in the late 1970s and early 1980s is supported by a lot of evidence in the film. Capitalism: A Love Story lists all the cities that turned into criminal zones as a result of the factory foreclosures. General Motors, for example, shut down the entire factory laying off more than 20 thousand workers.
Furthermore, there is a lot of statistical data indicating that the American society has entered a period of decay. The wages for the working-class people have been stagnant. The debt in the same social group has increased by 111%.
Pharmaceutical companies are making huge profits by selling antidepressants and exploiting the weaknesses of the health insurance programs, etc. These effects of neoliberalism mentioned in the film have been reported by many other authors. McBride and Whiteside (2011, p. 50) write,
“The statistical data accumulated over the neoliberal period in Canada clearly indicates that income disparities are on the rise (with both market and after‐tax incomes); and gains from economic growth are being disproportionately captured by those most well off (and to an increasing degree)”.
All of this makes it clear that neoliberalism causes complete destruction of every society in which it is implemented.
In the next stage of the film, Moore turns to the issue of how capitalism treats people like commodities. The first case that is described is an outrageous plot made by an entrepreneur who decided to open a facility in which to keep young offenders and a judge who agreed to send as many children as he could to that facility. The reason why they agreed on such an act is that the government paid for each child kept in the facility.
Those children were kept there for slightest offenses such as a small fight with a friend at the mall. One boy shares his traumatizing experience and says, “it makes me feel like an item that they just used to profit and then tossed aside”. Another example of the moral devastation caused by the capitalist system is the story about the corporations who are able to insure their employees and then collect the policies in case of their death.
These companies literally bet on how many of their employees will die that year and then profit on the misfortune of their families. The fact that the government lets them get away with that kind of behavior is clearly a sign that the legal system is completely in the hands of these powerful interest groups.
This chapter closes with the commentary from priests who examine the moral nature of the capitalist society, and they conclude that a system that works for the benefit of some and destroys others is sinful in its very nature.
The next section of the film tries to look at the possible alternatives to the profit-driven, individualist and above all exploitative capitalist system. In this section, Moore visits factories that are run by the workers and examines how they are managed and how well they function.
In a factory of high-tech equipment run by the workers alone, he hears that greed is eradicated there as the common sense of morality among the workers does not allow that kind of attitude. The other factory that he visits is a bread factory in which every worker collects the share of the profit proportionate to the number of hours he or she spent working in the factory.
The company’s CEO, therefore, receives the same amount of money as the rest of the workers. This dimension of the film is a powerful way of undermining the phrase that “socialism simply does not work”, which has been branded into our minds like a mantra. Contrary to that claim, the employees of this bread factory make 64 000 dollars a year on average.
The exploitation of science is another major topic in the film. The viewers are informed how neoliberal capitalism has seized control of the most promising scientists in America by placing a burden of huge student loans on the backs of young college graduates who in order to pay off those enormous loans go to work for Wall Street companies instead of devoting their lives to making the world a better place.
One of the interviewees says that the most gifted young men and women, who could be enormously productive, are sent to these companies to devote their energy and intellect to making the lives of others miserable.
Deregulation as one of the integral components of the neoliberal ideology is also addressed in the movie. Deregulation is essential to neoliberalism as it represents the measures undertaken to remove all the constraints on the workings of market that prevented the big business and financial institutions from abusing their position of power.
Deregulation was particularly destructive in the financial sector, where all the mechanisms that held the financial capital in check were removed so bankers began gambling with other people’s money to make profit. Therefore, deregulation as performed within the neoliberal framework essentially boils down to the legalization of stealing form the poorest.
The Hackers are a family interviewed in the movie that exemplifies thousands of families in America that were destroyed by the process of deregulation and legalized criminal activities of the banks. A really memorable moment is when they are filmed cleaning up their house, from which they have been evicted, because the bank hired them to do so in an act of complete humiliation.
In conclusion, Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story is an incredibly valuable film for understanding the crisis in the American society. Firstly, it presents the effects that the crisis had on the ordinary people. Secondly, it uncovers the truth behind the workings of corporations and financial institutions by explaining in great detail the kinds of activities that they use to make profit without paying attention to the suffering they cause.
Finally, it gives a thorough explanation as to how the society got where it is, and together with that explanation reveals the truth behind the cherished ideological concepts such as free-enterprise, free market and search for profit. All in all, this film is an indispensible source of information for everyone who cares for the truth, justice and other people.
McBride, S., & Whiteside, H. (2011). Austerity for Whom?. Socialist Studies, 7(1), 42-64.
Nace, T. (2003). Gangs of America: the rise of corporate power and the disabling of democracy. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.