Socialist Alternative

Michael Moore Takes on Capitalism: What Is the Alternative?

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Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, opened in over 1,000 theaters across the U.S. on Friday, October 2 with a simple message: “Capitalism is evil,” and must be replaced with a system that puts the interests of ordinary people over profit.

The film puts the suffering of ordinary, hard-working Americans facing job losses, home foreclosures, skyrocketing tuition, and declining wages and benefits on full display. Capitalism is exposed as a system that is rotten to the core, subordinating every social concern to the limitless quest for profit.

Moore calls this movie “the culmination of all the films I’ve ever made.” In his previous films, he focused on specific industries like health insurance (Sicko) or corporations like General Motors (Roger & Me). But in Capitalism, Moore shows how the problems we face are systemic in nature, rather than the product of a few bad apples or a handful of evil corporations.

As he explained in a brilliant interview on Democracy Now (9/24/09): “I am tired of having to dance around this or deal with this symptom of the problem or that calamity caused by capitalism. I mean, I could keep doing this ’til the end of my life, and I don’t think anything is really going to change that much. And I’d like to see change in my lifetime… I guess I can keep making movies for another twenty years about the next General Motors or the next healthcare issue or whatever, but I thought I’d just kind of cut to the chase and propose that we deal with this economic system and try to restructure it in a way that benefits people and not the richest one percent.”

Capitalism: A Love Story will educate millions about the realities of a system which has only one goal: the short-term maximization of profit. The significance of this phenomenon – a major filmmaker denouncing capitalism in front of an audience of millions in the most powerful capitalist nation in the history of the world – should not be lost. While Moore does not provide a clear alternative, he is forcing open a popular debate on the need to transform the entire social system.

Victims of the system
The film relies on intimate portrayals of the human costs of capitalism. In one example, Moore shows a privatized juvenile detention facility in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The owners of this facility made tens of millions of dollars by bribing judges to unjustly convict over 6,500 kids and lock them up for months for offenses ranging from throwing a piece of steak at their parents to making a MySpace page about their assistant principal.

He interviews families facing foreclosures and layoffs, giving voice to working class anger at the bosses, bankers, and politicians responsible. Moore traces the devastation of Randy and Donna Hacker, as police force them from the home they built on their family farm. As Randy Hacker says, “There’s gotta be some kind of rebellion between the people that’s got nothing and the people who have it all… There’s no in between anymore.”

Perhaps most disgusting, Moore exposes the “Dead Peasant” insurance policy, through which giant corporations like Wal-Mart and Bank of America take out life insurance policies on their employees, usually unbeknownst to the workers or their families. If a worker dies, these companies collect tens of thousands – or even millions! – of dollars, while the family is left to foot the bills for medical and funeral expenses. This gives these companies an incentive for their employees to die young, when they can collect the most money.

Similarly, Wall Street investment banks, seeking a new arena to profit after the collapse in housing prices, are hatching a plan to buy up millions of life insurance policies from elderly Americans at less than half their value, then bundle them together to be sold to big investors as bonds. The investors will then collect the payouts when the people die (with the biggest profits coming from earlier deaths). Predictions are that this market could reach up to $500 billion (NY Times, 9/6/09).

This is the sick logic of the capitalist system, in which human life itself is reduced to a mere commodity. If there’s profit to be made off of something, the capitalists will find a way to do it, leading to the ever-growing commercialization and commodification of our society. Moore exposes Wall Street for what it is – an “insane casino” – and fittingly, covers it in crime scene tape.

The film does not even get into the crimes of capitalism on a global scale. This is a system that condemns 30,000 kids under the age of 5 to die every single day because of poverty (State of the World’s Children, 2008, UNICEF). This year, for the first time in world history, 1 billion people will go hungry, despite record harvests, because they are too poor to afford food. Meanwhile, the wealth of the world’s 200 richest individuals is greater than the combined wealth of the poorest 2.6 billion who struggle for survival on $2/day or less. Not to mention the record $1.47 trillion in military spending in 2009 (48% by the U.S.), or the environmental catastrophe being wrought by the endless quest for profits, no matter the long-term damage to the planet.

Capitalism Vs. Democracy
At the end of the film, Moore concludes: “Capitalism is an evil, and you can’t regulate evil. You have to eliminate it, and replace it with something that is good for all people.” Yet while Moore is clear on the problems of capitalism, he avoids putting forward a coherent alternative. He says we need to replace capitalism with “democracy,” though what exactly he means by this is unclear.

Moore counterposes his call for real “democracy” to the anti-democratic character of capitalism, decimating the claims of the corporate media and political elite that the free market goes hand-in-hand with democracy.

As he told Democracy Now, “The wealthiest one percent [of Americans] have more financial wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined. When you have a situation like that, where the one percent essentially not only own all the wealth, but own Congress, call the shots, are we really telling the truth when we call this a democracy? I know we get to vote every two or four years. Is that it? Just because we get to vote every now and then, we can call this a democracy, when the economy is anything but? You and I have no say in it. The people watching this, listening to us today have no say in how this economy is run. There’s not democracy in the workplace. I mean, through most of our daily lives, the idea of democracy is fairly nonexistent. And I think things work better when the people who have to work with whatever it is we’re working with have a say in how it’s working.” (Democracy Now, 9/24/09)

Moore’s call for “democracy” means in part the building of social movements of workers and oppressed. The film cites some important examples, including community struggles to prevent evictions and, most notably, the successful factory occupation by workers at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago last December where workers forced their employers to give them the back pay and severance owed them. Moore also shows several factories that are owned and democratically operated by workers themselves, rather than corporate bosses. It is to be hoped that this film will help spur similar struggles across the country.

Yet while highlighting the need for struggle from below, and calling for an alternative to capitalism, Moore avoids calling himself a socialist. For example, when asked by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now if he was a socialist, he evaded the question, answering, “Uhh, I’m a heterosexual! Uhh, uhh, I’m overweight!” before they ran out of time (9/24/09).

Moore’s reticence to refer to himself a socialist may have something to do with the long anti-Communist history in the U.S., and the words association with the crimes of Stalinism. The film does highlight the growing interest in socialism among Americans, and points out the recent Rasmussen poll showing that among people under thirty, only 37% say they “prefer” capitalism to socialism, while 33% prefer socialism and 30% are unsure. This is thanks in part to the right-wing’s efforts to tar any efforts at reform as “socialism,” as well as the impact the crisis of capitalism is having on the legitimacy of the system.

Yet many of Moore’s descriptions of “democracy” could accurately describe genuine socialism! Democratic socialism does not mean the dictatorships that existed in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, or the sort of top-down system in which the government controls every aspect of life, as the right-wing likes to caricature it. Nor does it have anything to do with bailing out the biggest banks and corporations with trillions of taxpayer dollars. Neither is socialism is some conspiracy to be organized by a tiny minority acting in the interests of the “masses.”

Rather, as the socialist pioneers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels explained in The Communist Manifesto, socialism is “the movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.” They explained that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.”

A Socialist Alternative
A socialist society would put the economy and political system under the democratic control of working people, whose labor actually creates all the wealth. If we all got a democratic say in what got produced, the methods of production, and how products were distributed, the world would be a fundamentally different place. The resources of society could be used to benefit all of humanity and the environment, rather than just a few super-rich people.

For workers to control what is produced, that means the economy must be run on an entirely different basis than the current system of private ownership. Socialists call for taking the top 500 corporations, including the big banks, auto and oil industries, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, and more, out of the hands of their wealthy shareholders and placing them under public ownership and democratic working class control.

This doesn’t mean putting the resources of these corporations into the hands of government bureaucrats appointed by big money politicians, like the recent nationalization of General Motors. Instead, the current government, controlled by a two-party system thoroughly awash in corporate cash, must be replaced by a government made up of direct representatives of ordinary working people.

In this way, socialism would mean a massive expansion of democracy. In fact, direct democracy will be vital for socialism to succeed. Instead of simply voting for representatives every few years, while the real decisions are made behind the scenes in corporate boardrooms, socialist democracy would bring collective decision making into the day-to-day functioning of every workplace, every neighborhood, and every school and university. Elected workplace committees would replace existing bosses. They would control wage scales and methods of production, and have a say in what was produced.

Neighborhood and workplace councils, holding regular meetings open to all, would send representatives to expanded city and regional councils. In turn, such regional councils would elect national representatives. Elected representatives would be paid no more than the wage of the average worker, and be subject to immediate recall should they betray their promises (imagine if voters had been able to recall all the politicians in Congress who voted for the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, or the bank bailouts).

By taking the biggest corporations under public ownership, they would no longer be able to buy votes and lobby to exert what amounts to a corporate dictatorship over the political system. Just look at the current healthcare “reform” debate if you need convincing of this, where the head of the Senate Finance Committee, Democrat Max Baucus, receives 1 of every 4 dollars of his campaign contributions from for-profit health companies anxious to stymie real reform. A reduction in the workweek to 30 hours or less, which is entirely possible given the vast increases in productivity that Moore shows in the film, would also give people more time to engage in discussions and debate about the direction of society.

On the basis of bringing the economy into public ownership and democratic control, and by replacing the “insane casino” of the market with democratic economic planning, we could dramatically improve living standards for the majority, save the environment, and abolish poverty and war.

A socialist United States would guarantee the right to a living wage job, a home, adequate medical care, social security, and a good education. Under capitalism people are evicted from their homes and forced to live on the streets while millions of houses lie vacant. Workers are thrown out of their jobs despite the urgent need for more teachers, nurses, and public transportation. A democratically planned economy would not allow this cruel insanity, instead utilizing the resources of society to meet human needs, rather than profits for shareholders.

Many object that socialism is impossible, because people are too lazy and would cease to work without a boss. But Moore shows how such a society might be possible in the film, when he highlights several companies being run democratically by their workers. There are numerous examples throughout history that show that when workers have been able to democratically control their workplaces, productivity has actually increased, contrary to capitalist mythology.

However, while these co-ops and democratically run workplaces show workers’ ability to run their own factories – and society as a whole – alone and isolated they cannot form a viable alternative to capitalism, given their small scale. Real social change will require the most powerful sections of the economy to be brought under democratic control and public ownership, and the drawing up of a democratic plan of production.

Role of the Democratic Party
Moore’s film exposes the role of both the Democratic and Republican parties in implementing policies that have benefited the top 1% at the expense of ordinary workers. This film could have been a wake-up call, educating anyone interested in real change of the need for a political alternative to the two-party system. This would include running independent, pro-worker, anti-war candidates in the 2010 Congressional elections and preparing for a national challenge in 2012.

Unfortunately, Moore himself stops short of calling for this critical step, and at times, the film serves to mask the true role of the Democratic Party, both in the current crisis and historically. Recently, Moore has said he’s too old to help start a new party, and to him, reforming the Democratic Party from within is more realistic. But this is a complete misreading of recent history.

Moore does show a powerful clip of Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, Ohio, calling from the floor of Congress for Americans to “squat in their own homes” and refuse to leave. He also shows left-wing Democrat Dennis Kucinich, also of Ohio, asking, “Is this the U.S. Congress or the Board of Directors of Goldman Sachs?”

But figures like Kucinich are marginalized within the Democratic Party, often functioning, despite their intentions, to provide a left-wing face while the party continues to carry out pro-corporate, pro-war policies. The important positions go to people like Christopher Dodd and Max Baucus, who after raking in health industry donations are now busy making sure that health care reform does not even include a public option. The real party leaders make policy within the strict limits imposed by the Democrats’ corporate donors.

For example, as Kaptur explains, after the $700 billion bank bailout was initially voted down by the House of Representatives in September 2008, there was massive pressure exerted on anyone who wanted to advance in Congress to vote yes. Party leaders promised Senate seats, committee chairmanships, and more. The bailout sailed through shortly thereafter, with both major presidential candidates, McCain and Obama, playing a key role in lobbying their parties for its passage.

All efforts at reforming or “capturing” the Democratic Party by the left have only resulted in the left being captured by the Democrats, pushing movements to water down their programs and methods of struggle to what is acceptable to the big business leaders of the party. Instead of relying on the Democrats or holding out false illusions that the party can be transformed (even as it drifts further to the right), we need a party of, by, and for working people. Such a party would refuse all corporate contributions, and would provide a vehicle to unite our social movements into a common struggle against big business.

The Myth of Roosevelt
Another weakness is Moore’s presentation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at times comes across as the hero of the film. FDR appears as the champion of working people, supporting their struggles to unionize and fight for a decent living in the 1930s. Moore claims that had FDR lived a few more years, history would have been different, with the enactment of a Second Bill of Rights guaranteeing the right to living wage jobs, health care, housing, education, and more, as FDR outlined in a 1944 speech.

Yet reality is far different from the popular mythology of the New Deal and this “great man theory of history.” It was not thanks to FDR’s leadership that workers achieved all the gains they made in the 1930s, from stronger unions to Social Security and unemployment relief. It was because they broke the law and defied court injunctions, local police, “citizens’” militias, and National Guard troops with sit-down strikes, mass pickets, general strikes, demonstrations of the unemployed for relief, and more.

One would never know from Moore’s film that, as labor historian Art Preis writes, under FDR “more company unions had been organized, more workers killed, wounded and jailed, more troops called out against strikers … than under any president in memory” (Labor’s Giant Step, 47). It was only under massive pressure from below, and the fear that workers would go even farther and threaten the entire capitalist system, that FDR and the political establishment made concessions.

These struggles were most often led by anti-capitalists – including socialists, communists, and anarchists – who refused to accept the logic of capitalism during the Great Depression and instead based on themselves on the needs of the working class. This powerful labor movement was key in securing the gains of the postwar period as well, with the biggest strike wave in U.S. history coming in the years immediately following World War II.

Moore also shows how after World War II the Japanese, Germans, and Italians, to name a few, achieved social provisions in their constitutions such as were outlined in FDR’s Second Bill of Rights speech. According to Moore, the U.S. should know this since we helped them write their constitutions. But contrary to Moore’s portrayal, these social provisions were only granted following massive struggles by workers in these countries, and the fear that workers would move to the left and challenge capitalism itself. The film neglects to mention that U.S. occupying forces actually banned workers’ strikes and demonstrations in Japan and Germany after the war.

Social democratic reforms were granted in Europe in particular because mass workers’ parties rose to power to challenge the establishment parties and this, combined with the threat of the Soviet Union and Easter Europe, threatened the very foundations of European capitalism.

Obama’s Role
Moore also treats Obama with kid gloves, despite criticisms of his economic team and some of his policies. In the film, he presents Obama as if he were initially a threat to Wall Street and Corporate America, who they sought to rein in by throwing tons of money at him – with Goldman Sachs his top contributor. Yet Obama never would have been able to make his meteoric rise to power had he not, from the start, been thoroughly vetted by key power brokers among the U.S. corporate elite, who he impressed with his ability to employ a soaring message of “hope” and “change” at the same time as faithfully serving the same interests who have run the show for many years.

Further, despite the impression that he created of his campaign’s reliance on an army of small donors, nearly half his campaign money came from donors who gave $1,000 or more – in other words, the wealthy. Obama himself was more than willing to play by these rules.

Moore supported Obama’s campaign in 2008 and even helped create false illusions in his policies. This was despite Obama’s support for the bank bailouts, opposition to single-payer, and call to send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. Moore justified his support by saying: “I’m hoping that Senator Obama is like all politicians: they don’t always keep their campaign promises, right? Somehow I’ve told myself that those campaign promises that he will not keep are expanding the war in Afghanistan [and] pushing a healthcare plan that leaves the profit-making health insurance companies in charge of the plan” (Democracy Now!, 10/31/08).

Of course, these are exactly the promises that Obama has kept, sending over 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year (and now debating whether to send tens of thousands more), and allowing the for-profit health insurance industry to dictate the terms of the healthcare debate.

Today, as millions grow increasingly frustrated with Obama and the Congressional Democrats’ policies, Moore continues to create illusions in them. In late September, he told the AFL-CIO convention, “Instead of us piling on [Obama], he needs our support… I see him out there [at the town halls] on his own. Who’s got his back?” (Washington Post, 9/16/09)

Clearly the racist attacks on Obama put forward by the right-wing should be sharply opposed by all. But Obama’s sell-out on health care reform, his bailouts for the banks, and his refusal to create the kinds of jobs programs needed to reverse rising unemployment, are rapidly creating the conditions for a right populist movement to develop. The half-measures of Obama and the Democrats have managed to antagonize the right while demoralizing the millions of workers and youth who had hoped for real change.

Instead of “having Obama’s back,” the key is to mobilize, independently of the Democrats and Republicans, around the needs of working people, rather than from the standpoint of what is acceptable to the corporations and their two-party system. Imagine if the AFL-CIO had mobilized its millions of members to demand single-payer healthcare (a guaranteed, universal health care plan in which the government insures everyone, cutting out the insurance companies, and allowing free choice of doctor and hospital)? Or if the unions had spent the $450 million they spent electing Democrats in 2008 on building a new party that stood unabashedly for a moratorium on foreclosures, a mass jobs program, and single-payer healthcare?

Unfortunately, the right-wing has mobilized its base and dominated the debate, despite the massive public support that exists for a single-payer system (as well as the public option). The left, meanwhile, not wanting to embarrass its “friend” in the White House, has remained largely silent. This is why Moore’s position is so problematic.

In the film, Moore includes clips of quotes from former president George W. Bush defending capitalism during the financial crisis last year. Bush intones, “Capitalism is the best system ever devised.” Yet Bush is not alone in this position. Despite the right wing’s claims that Obama is a socialist, he wrote in his autobiography, “Our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources…our free market system.”

So Obama defends the very system that Moore is indicting with this film. Far from being a socialist, his policies thus far have been aimed at saving the capitalist system from a devastating crash like the Great Depression and, like FDR, preventing social upheaval that could threaten corporate rule. Thus, it is no coincidence that his top economic advisers have ties to Goldman Sachs and other big Wall Street firms. Instead of providing relief to homeowners or guaranteeing jobs to workers, he has prioritized the interests of the banks, and the profit system.

Ultimately, as Moore shows, we need to build movements from below – for jobs, homes, health care, education, and more – to challenge the corporate stranglehold over our political system. But that will also mean breaking from the Democrats, and linking those movements together into a new political party to represent ordinary workers and youth – a party of the millions, not the millionaires.

Moore himself was once a proud champion of the need to break from the Democrats and build a political alternative that represents working people. He was a supporter of the Labor Party in the 1990s, founded by a number of the country’s most progressive unions, and also a major backer of Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign. For those who want to see real change, it’s necessary to return to this spirit.

End of the American Dream
Capitalism: A Love Story provides striking proof that U.S. capitalism cannot guarantee a decent living for working people in the 21st century.

Moore charts the changes in the U.S. economy in recent years, and what he terms the end of the U.S. “love affair” with capitalism following the end of the post-World War II economic boom in the early 1970s. This boom allowed U.S. capitalism the space to grant millions of workers a decent living, though this was only in order to secure class peace to more securely make profits, following the massive postwar strike wave and growth in the power of the labor movement.

Millions of working class families were able to survive on one income, and those with a good union job often secured 4 weeks paid vacation, free dental and health care for their entire family, and guaranteed pensions. Many Americans came to take these living standards for granted, along with the idea that their children would be better off than they were (although at the same time, millions were left out, in particular African-Americans and Latinos).

All of these gains are under sharp attack today, just like the advances made by workers around the world, as the capitalists attempt to restore and maintain their profits in the wake of growing competition. This shows how the reforms won under capitalism will never be secure or permanent, because they will be undermined by the relentless competition to maximize profits unless the fundamental structure of society is changed.

In reality, the conditions that existed during the postwar boom were an exception to the rule, not a normal part of capitalism. As Moore briefly shows, this boom in large part owed to the decimation of any competition during the carnage of World War II, when the industrial bases of Western Europe and Japan were reduced to rubble. In addition, there was the U.S. corporate and military domination of the formerly colonized countries, ensured by U.S.-backed coups (Iran 1954, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, etc.) and violent military interventions (Vietnam, etc.).

The post-war boom came to an end in the early 1970s, with the oil price shocks and the restoration of German and Japanese competition. In order to restore profits, big business around the world resorted to attacks on workers and the welfare state. The more recent period has seen a return to some of the more “normal” features of capitalism, with a global race-to-the-bottom, massive attacks on unions, corporate globalization, financial deregulation, and more. Despite huge increases in productivity, workers have seen their wages stagnate, and their pensions, health care coverage, and job security under attack.

These trends have only deepened recently. According to one measure, 3.5 million good jobs, defined as “one with health insurance, a pension plan and earnings of at least $17 per hour” were lost in the U.S. between 2000 and 2006 – before the current recession even began (McClatchy, 3/23/08). Inequality in the U.S. today has reached its highest point in 80 years. To give one example, in just two weeks in 2004, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott earned as much as the average American Wal-Mart worker would earn in a lifetime.

In order to stay afloat, workers have been forced into record levels of debt. Meanwhile, the prison population has skyrocketed, with 2.3 million people now locked up, disproportionately people of color. The U.S., which capitalist ideologues love to refer to as “the freest country in world history”, now has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country in the history of the world.

Even when there is a recovery from the current recession, it will not mean a return to the living standards of the past. As radical journalist Naomi Klein writes, “Without huge popular pressure for structural reform, the crisis will prove to have been nothing more than a very wrenching adjustment. The result will be even greater inequality than before the crisis. Because the millions of people losing their jobs and their homes aren’t all going to be getting them back, not by a long shot.” (The Progressive, 8/09). Achieving any gains will require massive movements from below.

Movement Against Capitalism Needed
Moore ends the film with an appeal for people to get active in building movements against the corporate domination of our society. It is an appeal that could certainly catch on, given the anger bubbling up beneath the surface in U.S. society.

We cannot sit around and wait for capitalism to fall on its own accord. No matter how deep the economic crisis goes, capitalism will always recover at the cost of much pain to working people, unless we build a movement powerful enough to change the system.

The need to struggle to fundamentally transform this system is posed more urgently now than ever before. If this system is allowed to continue, in addition to the usual exploitation, wars, and general rottenness, the question of the very future of the planet itself is posed.

Building such a movement will clearly be a difficult task. We are faced with reorganizing the socialist movement from humble foundations, given the throwback in socialist consciousness and all types of struggle in the last two decades. But imagine if just a tiny fraction of the 33% of young people ages 18 to 30 who said told a Rasmussen poll they preferred socialism over capitalism got active in the socialist movement?

Every single worker and young person who gets active can make a massive contribution to fighting for a just world. Let Capitalism: A Love Story be a wake-up call for a new generation of activists to rebuild our build movements and link these to the struggle to fundamentally transform the system.

To anyone interested in building a fight back against capitalism, we urge you to consider getting involved in Socialist Alternative. Join us in the fight for a world free of poverty, exploitation, war, and the tyranny of the super-rich. Join us in the struggle for a democratic socialist future.

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