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Michael Moore's 'Capitalism: A Love Story', Review-Part II

Ironically, the argument that the government could not do anything was proven time again by Republican mismanagement of the economy, the budget, national emergencies, etc. Indeed, it was to be expected, if you believe that government cannot do things right and you are in charge of government the result will be bad government. Thus, in their quest to reduce the size of government, the right and eventually the left increasingly privatized more and more of governments responsibilities leading to perverse incentives and bad outcomes; something that Moore showed effectively with the ‘PA Child Care’ example. Arguably, the Republican’s purposefully engaged in mass deficit spending so that the next government would have to cut spending, ergo, cut off the remaining remnants of the ‘New Deal’, which would then have the effect of further lowering taxes on the rich. The greatest effort was Bush’s effort to privatize social security, FDR’s greatest achievement, so that Wall St. could get trillions of dollars of new money to move around, unproductively. Since raising taxes in the United States was increasingly not an option for Republicans or Democrats, the only option--politically--was to cut spending. Herein lies the another defeat of the left in the United States. It occurred when the left, via Bill Clinton’s triangulation, accepted the meaning of the ‘government’ as defined by the right; as Slavoj Žižek argues: “The true victory...occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one's specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy” (Žižek 2007).

This is where Moore’s movie really makes a difference, it finally puts ‘capitalism’ into contention in the American political arena. This is crucially important, because it creates the conditions for real change. The right created those conditions in the 1970s and 1980s by making the term ‘government’ contentious, or what Ernesto Laclau calls a ‘floating signifier’; meaning that the content of the term is contested between different antagonistic camps in a hegemonic battle that structures the political. Throughout the movie Moore parodies and attacks the very idea that capitalism is a benevolent system that it is still somehow presented as being the same system, as imagined by Adam Smith of small firms that cannot influence prices, sentiments and are constrained by competition--premises effectively destroyed by Marx, Veblen, Sraffa, Harvey, Nitzan, etc. Moore then makes the case that capitalism proper is a system in which greed, avarice and anti-social behaviour ‘cannot be regulated’, because capitalism is what nurtures those sentiments in teh first place--it ‘retroactively’ creates its own presuppositions.

However, the weakness in Moore’s movie is that he is actually not asking for the destruction of the capitalist system, while at the same time seeking to destroy it--it reminds one of the eternal crisis of Social Democrats during the interwar period. In reality, Moore’s message is reformist, Moore wants to bring about a social democracy in the United States. Indeed, Moore used FDR’s rousing speech on the ‘Second Bill of Rights’, where FDR emphasized the importance of having positive rights along with negative rights, using FDR’s speech as a rallying point of his movement. FDR was a reformer that greatly improved the lives of millions of Americans, but he was still a capitalist--meaning he supported the essential social system of exploitation based on private property and private appropriation of the social surplus; the market system, as the superior means by which one allocates resources; and the existence of inequality and exploitation and domination of labour by the bourgeois, albeit certainly not to the same morally unacceptable extent that currently exists. Moore points to Italy, Germany and Japan’s constitutions where elements of FDR’s ideas were incorporated and uses them as examples of how society should look like, but they are still capitalist states themselves.

The thrust of Moore’s movie is, in reality, an argument against neoliberalism, against the concentration of society’s productive assets into fewer and fewer hands through the process of what David Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession’ and ‘spatio-temporal fixes’--best exemplified by Flint, Michigan. In addition, it is an argument against the justificatory discourse of neoliberalism that ‘greed is good’, there is no ‘we’ just ‘I’, and that profit motive--code for bourgeois income--is the be-all-end-all of our socio-economic existence; indeed, the best parody in the movie was Moore using Jesus Christ as a hack for the profit motive. Neoliberalism enabled this to occur by eroding the regulations, particularly financial regulations, and the social compact that enabled the stabilization of capitalism during the ‘golden era’. Moore’s compelling case is that capitalists depended on the exploitation of labour, land and capital in a certain place at a certain time to become rich and once that particular social arraignment no longer serves their interests they destroy that very socio-economic infrastructure, leaving those who created that wealth with nothing but misery, unemployment, debt and eventually abject poverty. Thus, what Moore is pointing to is that there is a unpaid ‘social debt’ that if left unpaid, could create a serious backlash against the system. Something even Citibank in its ‘plutonomy’ article noted:

Furthermore, the rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash. Whilst the rich are getting a greater share of the wealth, and the poor a lesser share, political enfrachisement remains as was – one person, one vote (in the plutonomies). At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich. This could be felt through higher taxation (on the rich or indirectly though higher corporate taxes/regulation) or through trying to protect indigenous laborers, in a push-back on globalization – either anti-immigration, or protectionism. We don’t see this happening yet, though there are signs of rising political tensions. However we are keeping a close eye on developments (10).

Implicit in this quote, one can sense an agitation and apprehension with “political enfranchisement”, a recognition of the incommensurability between democracy and neoliberalism. This does not bode well for the future of our democracy if the rich are unwilling to compromise as social antagonism will certainly increase and both sides of this social antagonism may harden their absolutist positions. Not only that, the advances made by the American working class during the New Deal era have eroded as inequality has gone back up to pre-depression levels through the gradual erosion of the welfare state. The left has failed because it has accepted the socially-constructed pressures of globalization as truth--the ‘Third Way’--, as inevitable conditions of capitalism. Materially, the destruction of the union movement through deindustrialization and regressive tax policies have eroded the institutional means that labour was able to defend its interests against capital.

However, Moore at the same time raises the important question about capitalism proper. The real question embedded in Moore’s polemic is, can this socio-economic crisis be avoided within capitalism? Certainly, the immutable laws of capitalism, accumulation, lead it endemic crises of overaccumulation and underconsumption. Thus, the economic part of the socio-economic equation leaves me with no doubt that, no we cannot avoid crisis within capitalism. However, that alone is not enough to create the sort of systemic crisis that could undermine capitalism as a system. A truly revolutionary and/or hegemonic moment occurs when capitalism is unable to absorb, or ‘transform’ demands within the political system. A well functioning liberal-democratic state was able to ward off the crisis of the Great Depression, because it was able to absorb the demands stemming form the population before those demands manifested into something entirely different. This is Gramscian notion of ‘transformism’ is termed as ‘democratic demands’ by Laclau. What Moore is advocating is for this sort of welfarist, liberal-democracy that can deal with particular demands within a capitalist system, with the added element of worker-democracy. Thus, Moore is ironically trying to save capital from it own avarice and greed and if capital had any vested interest in its long-term existence, it should listen to Moore instead of dismissing him.

If we want to be truly anti-capitalist, then we have to stop believing in it:

While capitalism is resolutely "materialistic" (what ultimately matters is wealth, real power, pleasures, all other things are just "noble lies," chimerae covering up this hard truth), this cynical wisdom itself has to rely on a vast network of belief: the whole capitalist system functions only insofar as one plays the game and "believes" in money, takes it seriously, and practices a fundamental trust in others who are also supposed to participate in the game. Capital markets, now valued at an estimated $83 trillion, exist within a system based purely on self-interest, in which herd behavior, often based on rumors, can inflate or destroy the value of companies —or whole economies —in a matter of hours. (Zizek 303)

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