‘Capitalism: A Love Story’: Is Michael Moore effectively changing minds, or is he simply preaching to the converted?

This essay was written for an course taught by Matthew Hays in April 2017.

Capitalism: A love story by Michael Moore came out in 2009, making $231,964 at the box office during the weekend it screened in US (IMDb, 2009). From the beginning. Moore succeeds at provoking his audience by critiquing how corporate greed  has taken control of the US government. He tells the story of how the American Dream was flushed down the toilet following Ronald Reagan’s ‘trickle-down’ economics in the 1980s, which justified “massive tax breaks that disproportionately favoured the rich” (Foster 2017, February 20), making nearly impossible for workers to enjoy the social benefits once available in US capitalism of post-World War II. As such, Moore shows how the dark side of capitalism took over the government, replacing the so called ‘democracy’ with a plutocracy. Moore evidences how this issue is out of control by incorporating audiovisual language, including that of US American television, a tone his target audience—working class US Americans—has learned to believe ever since television sets became staple electronics in US homes. Moore portrays himself as a preacher of justice for the working class. He emphasizes the injustice and harm corporate greed inflicts in the lives of US citizens, remarking the instance when the US housing bubble exploded in 2008.

Moore connects a generation that was groomed to become self-absorbed consumers. He does so by presenting gut-wrenching stories of relatable people, and idealizing a past in which capitalism was fair, at least for white US Americans—a nostalgic appeal Trump effectively reproduced in his campaign for US presidency. Nevertheless, the fact that he is known to be worth millions of dollars dwindles his moral  credibility and, ultimately, brands him as a Shakespearean fool rather than a political activist. Then, is Moore effectively changing minds, or is he simply preaching to the converted? Easy. Although Moore preaches to the converted with reactionary and radical rhetorics, he does so in a way whereby the end product is not only informative and entertaining for the common people of the United States of America, it is also a healthy discourse to have in pop-culture.

The documentary opens with the clip of a middle-aged white man in front of an orange background, advising the viewer to “leave the auditorium” if they are “easily impressionable” or if in company of an “easily impressionable child”. Music fades in as the image cuts to a sequence of clips from various security cameras showing men robbing stores or banks, mingled with the film credits. This is followed by a sequence composed by clips from a documentary about life in Ancient Rome (produced by William Deneen), which also features a miscellaneous of clips that include portrayals of US workers, missiles, a prisoners, and government officials from different decades. Moore then intercepts with a comment, “I wonder how future civilizations will view our society…”, and cuts to another sequence, this time of cats flushing the toilet. The sequence cuts to a black screen with Moore’s voice again, saying “…or this”. Another sequence fades in, this time showing homeowners from across the US getting evicted. An Illinois former farm owner cues the transition to his interview as says, “There’s no in-between no more. There’s the people who’s got it all, and the people who have nothing”. With this emotional interplay, the film starts.

It is no secret that since the peak years of the Cold War in the 1960s, the US working class began losing at an accelerating rate its privilege to unionize and was also stripped of its basic rights to social services such as public health care—as observed in the film. Moore brings this up, placing the blame on corporate greed. In the film, Moore includes clips from a Jesus Christ movie with his original lines edited. Instead of preaching for his radical Judeo-Christian morality that favours the common people, Jesus preaches for the privatization of social services and the deregulation of the banking industry. To make clear that the sequence is not over yet, we are led by the epic soundtrack back to reality. We see clips of politicians and news commentators claiming that capitalism has made a heaven on earth in the United States, “a god given victory” for the “American people.” Moore juxtaposes this sequence with his own commentary explaining how Jesus would not have wanted to be part of capitalism. With this sequence of satire, Moore conveys the amorality of capitalism. It is at this point that he further explains what a plutocracy is by exposing Citigroup’s Equity Strategy, a document that celebrates the successful rulling of the “1%” over the US lower-classes. It is also at this point that Moore provides the answer to the problem. He reads a section of the document that states, “the most potent and short-term treat will be societies demanding a more equitable share of the wealth” which he then summarizes as “the peasants might revolt” as they have “equal voting power with the rich… one person, one vote”. He underlines this idea by adding, “and that’s what really scares them, that we can vote”.

The film is loaded with sequences formulated similarly to include a joke, facts, and a case study. In other words, investigative journalism filled with satire and wrapped in Moore’s reactionary and radical rhetorics. For K.R. Phillips (2015), the film is a “moral critique”, a piece of “scattered narratives” charged with nostalgic overtones. According to him, “[t]he rhetoric of nostalgia serves as a principal motif in [the film]” (171). He further explains that “for many cultural critics, nostalgia’s at times dogmatic insistence on a utopian past gives license to reactionary and overtly conservative political impulses” (174). In other words, romanticising an idyllic time period can lead to strong resistance to change. During the first quarter of the film, Moore shares footage of his childhood as a means to recall the good old days in which capitalism was fair and indeed prosperous for white US Americans, completely omitting the fact that ‘Blacks’ were still second class citizens—even though the US economy was owing to their enslavement. With this choice, Moore makes it clear that his target audience is the white working class of US America that can relate to the nostalgia. A demographic that elected Donald Trump, the grandchild of a Ku Kux Klan leader, widely televised businessman, and heir of a millionaire fortune, as the new President of the US.

In an interview with The Guardian’s journalist, Chris McGreal, published on January 30, 2010, Moore articulates the following: “One movie maybe can’t make a difference […] I’ll say, what’s the point of this? What do I want [my audiences] to do? Obviously I want them to be engaged in their democracy. I want them to get off the bench and become active”. Interestingly, Moore’s polemic character does not work in favour of his mission statement. In fact, he has been criticized for being a hypocrite. Presumably, Moore’s net worth is $50 million(Celebrity Net Worth 2017). So, he profits from ‘trashing’ capitalism. Indeed, Moore is criticised for villainizing capitalism while cashing out benefits. On The Sean Hannity Show in October 6th, 2009, Hannity brings up Moore’s worth, which according to him is “millions of dollars.” Hannity proceeded to accuse Moore of being ungrateful to capitalism, pointing out that Moore would not have been able to be ‘this’ successful had he been in a socialist country such as Cuba under Fidel Castro’s regime. Indeed, Hannity raises an entertaining point. Moore’s ability to making profitable documentaries has granted him the right to exercise his freedom of speech in plutocratic US America.

The Shakespearean fool is described as a clever peasant or commoner that uses its “wits to outdo people of higher social standing” (Art and Popular Culture, 2013). The Fool in King Lear is a good example:  “The Fool does not desert his ridiculous, degraded king, and accompanies him on his way to madness. The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognize this world as rational” (as cited in Grellet & Valentin, 2013). Although Moore speaks the truth, he does it from a privileged platform. Regardless of the nobility of his intent, he works for the 1% he claims to disapprove of. Like The Fool, Moore serves as a conscience with no further engagement. After all, in this economy working for Hollywood is embraced as a blessing in the career of filmmaking. Despite Moore’s privileged position, however,  his call to action is daring: “You know, I can’t really do this anymore, unless those of you who are watching in the theatre want to join me, I hope you will. And, please, speed it up”. As the credits roll, L’Internationale, performed in English by Tony Babino, plays in a celebratory tune that, once more, brings back the nostalgia of an ideology that mobilized the West in the 20th century. The utopia of a fair world where workers enjoy the fruits of their labour in harmony, free from the will of a narcissistic boss blind with greed.

In conclusion, Moore’s approach is controversial. Not only does he profit from creating anti-capitalist propaganda, he is fully aware of it. Nonetheless, Moore’s voice is needed. He makes socialism appealing for the US audience by framing it as the patriotic thing to do for the sake of the reappropriation of the American Dream by the common US worker. He mixes satire, investigative journalism methods, and his own personal bias to entertain millions of people with a truth that is oftentimes ignored.

 

Bibliography

Art and Popular Culture. (2013). Shakespearean fool. Retrieved from <http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Shakespearian_fool>

Celebrity Net Worth. (2017). Michael Moore Net Worth. Retrieved from <http://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-celebrities/directors/michael-moore-net-worth/>

Foster, G. (2017, February 20). Explainer: trickle-down economics. Retrieved from  <http://theconversation.com/explainer-trickle-down-economics-73062>

Grellet, F & Valentin, M. (2013). The Elizabethan Age. In An introduction to english literature – From Philip Sidney to Graham Swift (pp. 35-74). Paris: Hachette Éducation.

IMDb.com Inc. (2009). Capitalism: A Love Story. Retrieved from <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1232207/>

McGreal, C. (2010, January 30). Michael Moore Saturday interview: ‘Capitalism is evil … you have to eliminate it’. Retrieved from <https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2010/jan/30/michael-moore-capitalism-a-love-story>

[mmflint]. (2017, January 21). A Message from Michael Moore in Final Hours Before Trump Inauguration. [Video File]. Retrieved from <https://youtu.be/Heqgnf-3YMc>

[mmflint]. (2009, October 7). Michael Moore on The Sean Hannity Show, Tuesday, October 6th, 2009 (Part I).  [Video File]. Retrieved from <https://youtu.be/gv9OiCv0v2Q>

Phillips, K.R. (2015). “I’m Sorry to See It Go”: Nostalgic Rhetoric in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. In Benson, T. W. & Snee, B. J. & Borda, J. L. & Harold, C. & Ott, B. L. & Sci, S. A. (Eds.), Michael Moore and the Rhetoric of Documentary (pp. 170-189). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Rampell, E. (2016). A Working-Class Filmmaker Is Something to Be An Interview with Michael Moore. Progressive, 80(3), 37-39.

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