Capitalism: A Love Story
Directed, produced and
written by Michael Moore.
Rated R for some language. Running time: 127 min.

After brandishing his populist barbs at the firearm industry, the Bush administration and health insurance providers, Moore swings for the fences at the biggest target of them all: American’s unhealthy and absurd love affair with capitalism. The ironically titled Capitalism: A Love Story   is much more than a documentary; it’s the Michael Moore manifesto — a visceral call to arms to save a disintegrating American democracy from the clutches of an evil, predatory system.

If all this seems shocking, uncomfortable and more than a little subversive, well — it is. Americans aren’t used to viewing extended diatribes against their way of life. And despite Moore’s best efforts to recondition his audience during the documentary’s two-hour runtime, it’s impossible not to have some instinctive, negative reaction sometime during the film. Give him credit, though — he is relentless in pursuing one goal: to pry apart the notion that America, at its best, is synonymous with capitalism.

While in the past Moore’s tactics were often off-putting, in Capitalism he’s visibly less manipulative, assuming the role of persistent gadfly with glee. But before he tackles the villains of our current economic crisis, Moore splices together and narrates a sequence of random YouTube clips, ’50s comedy shows, Vietnam and WWII-era war reels and ’40s noir-crime dramas to piece together the history of America in the 20th century, the way he sees it.

Michael Moore’s vision looks something like this:

In the 1930s the Great Depression inspired America to make huge changes in a social contract called the New Deal. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, copious amounts of government money was spent to put people back to work.

Roosevelt envisioned a second Bill of Rights, which was to include, among other things, a worker’s right to a liveable wage, good health care coverage and a decent home and education. Unfortunately Roosevelt died before the proposal became legislation, but his legacy lived on in the newly created constitutions of war-torn European states.

The 1950s brought about American superiority in nearly every part of the manufacturing sector — largely because our competitors infrastructures were flattened during WWII. Americans amassed a huge fortune and paid a large share of taxes to provide the best possible hospitals, schools, freeways and social programs.

Jimmy Carter then fumbled away the success of this fortune by insisting that Americans become morally obliged to pay more taxes and accept a less superior tone to fellow nations. The inevitable backlash against Carter paved way for the ultimate corporate front man, Ronald Reagan, to be elected. Reagan and his corporate cronies slashed taxes for the wealthy, cut social programs and deregulated the financial sector for short-term profits that weakened long-term infrastructure and paved the way for a series of layoffs. He also instilled corporate culture into Washington, and the keys of the democracy were handed over inextricably to the big businesses that bought the branches of government. Reagan’s legacy lived through the Clinton and Bush presidencies but was eventually, and only partially, stymied by the ascension of Obama.

But even Obama couldn’t stop the massive government bailout of the nation’s venerable financial institutions after all hell broke loose on Sept. 15, 2008 — the result of years of deregulation and rampant corporate corruption.

Got that?

Moore’s moral of the story is this: No matter which politicians are in office (and, absent Obama, he skews both Republicans and Democrats equally), Wall Street can always count on two things — fear and money — to buy politicians and deflect the momentary outrage of average citizens. America isn’t a democracy anymore, it’s a plutocracy headed by rich power brokers that pull the strings of the necessary politicians. Only an unflinching faith in the power of democracy, and a little open rebellion, will rope in the evildoers, heavily regulate the nation’s biggest corporations and set America on the course for sustainable socialism.

Powerful stuff. But also completely disorienting. Moore is essentially proposing a populist workers rebellion against a powerful bourgeoisie while draping his vitriol in appeals to American democratic ideals. In many ways he does the same thing that the “evil” corporations do when they sell the lure of becoming rich as a panacea to the working poor: he deftly distorts the truth.

What’s next — heaving our pitchforks up and down and bum-rushing the corporate offices of Goldman Sachs? 

erik@vcreporter.com