Capitalism – A Love Story and the Business of Life

With our collective public attention focused on the ongoing economic meltdown, it’s worth examining whether the reasons for this situation are the result of relatively short-term regulatory failure or more deeply embedded structures and institutions society has built over time. In that vein, Capitalism – A Love Story is Michael Moore’s latest effort to inspire large-scale political change.

In his signature style, evidence and reason take a back seat to copious gotcha scenes and stunts. The evidence to back up Moore’s case is there, but it’s obfuscated by his own film-making and, like usual, doesn’t tell the whole story. The film attacks President Bush, but ends without a much-needed analysis of how things have changed during the Obama presidency.

As the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency begins to wind down, the
new boss looks increasingly similar to the old boss, at least where
business interests are concerned. The tough campaign talk of reining in
the gross excess of this new Gilded Age has faded. Perhaps the
president never truly believed that was possible, or perhaps he now
sees that he must contend with legislative and judicial branches that
were long ago purchased by corporations.

Moore is clearly
looking for some sort of political redress, but Capitalism never
identifies exactly what should happen. Some scenes are suggestive – an
entire neighborhood “liberating” a recently-foreclosed-upon home back
to the family evicted, factory workers staging a sit-in in Chicago –
but Moore seems unsure of how to accomplish the type of large-scale
revolution he clearly yearns for.

So how can we struggle to
the surface when corporations are drowning our personal and national
interest?  Recent history suggests that the top-down approach is
inadequate to address the challenge. That’s not to say that strong
political leadership isn’t necessary, but we should acknowledge that
it’s not enough. President Obama cannot save us from ourselves if we
don’t help.

If Moore’s argument leaves you wanting, try a more
comprehensive view – Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc., a well-researched
history of the legal concept of the corporation, how it gained so much
influence, and how it slowly and quite naturally subverted our
democratic agency. Rushkoff, an accomplished documentarian and author,
is the steak to Michael Moore’s sizzle, and presents a cogent argument
on how society can use the current financial crisis to refine
capitalism so it works better for more people.

Where Moore
sees corporate villains, Rushkoff documents a centuries-long hegemonic
creep toward the near-total corporate rule of today. Corporations
control our identities and our sense of self, leaving individuals
without vital connections to their neighbors and their community;
people still connect, but they connect under the aegis of corporate
affinity, often unable to step outside that box to develop more natural
connections. Corporate interests sap us of our political agency
(whether intentionally or not, depending on who you ask) and then fill
that void with lobbyists and public relations campaigns in order to
stack the deck for themselves.

So how do we get from here to
there? I, as is clear of both Moore and Rushkoff, don’t have the
answers, and while we can’t lose sight of the problem, we’re at a point
where we need to start focusing on solutions. Go out and see
Capitalism, but don’t merely blame the banks and the Reagan and Bush
administrations when we’re living through just a blip (though perhaps
the high point) in the slow creep of corporate power. Rushkoff comes
closer than Moore defining the scope of a possible solution:

by disconnecting from corporatism and its dehumanizing, delocalizing,
depersonalizing, and devaluing biases can we muster the strength and
find the tools through which a people-scaled society might be
constructed – or reconstructed. Blaming corporations for this mess or
trying to unseat their leaders only provides temporary relief for the
most superficial symptoms… It adds to corporate entrenchment by
continuing to credit these institutions with running and ruining our
world, rather than taking responsibility ourselves for ceding to them
the landscape on which they operate… The ‘enemy,’ if we must accept
that terminology, is almost never a particular corporation, anyway, but
the way commerce, government, and culture have been reconfigured to the
corporatist purpose. (208)

The far tougher question comes in
Life Inc’s subtitle – “How the world became a corporation – and how to
take it back.” Rushkoff argues that it is incumbent upon each of us as
individuals to separate ourselves and the people around us from the
grip of corporations and brands. But in doing so, one has to wonder
what is there to replace it; the deeply ingrained values of corporatism
are the result of centuries of incremental erosion of individuality.

if our individuality is so frighteningly eroded, how do we get it back?
I’ll veer away from the easy generalizations and instead focus on three
key things that can shift American culture back toward the advantage of
the individual. They’re certainly not the only three things we need,
but they’re a good start.

First, we need to fix our political
representation. It’s clear that the majority of Americans don’t hear
truly alternative points of view, and instead only the
corporately-financed policy positions of both major political parties.
At a federal level, this is a direct result of a horribly broken
campaign finance system and the political redistricting process of the
majority of states. Publicly financed elections work well in state
legislatures, and I’ve yet to hear a coherent argument as to why we
shouldn’t finance federal elections. Imagine if every two years, 3-4
viable candidates were running for every seat in the House of
Representatives, all with adequate budgets to make their case for why
we should send them to Congress.

That’s a start, but it’s not
enough, because state legislatures around the country redraw the
boundaries of political districts to favor their preferred candidates.
Usually this means one of the two major parties has a clear advantage
in any given election, regardless of how an election is financed. This
problem, too, has been solved; several states use a non-partisan public
commission to draw fair districts and keep the politicians out of the
process. Every state needs this non-political process.

leads directly into the second point – finding new ways to exert
political agency outside of the influence of both political parties and
corporate interests. By seeing everything through the prism of
institutions and corporations, we limit ourselves to a very small
spectrum of debate and lack a fundamental understanding of how to
otherwise debate in the public sphere. Re-learning how to be good
citizens necessarily may need to occur at a hyper-local level, so the
challenge is to reconnect with our neighbors.

I’m lucky to
live in a building where some of the apartments are rent stabilized
and/or controlled (though not mine). It means that some of my neighbors
are young 20-somethings like myself, some are older middle-class
workers, and others are retirees who otherwise wouldn’t be able to
afford to live in this neighborhood. Just appreciating that diversity
has strengthened my views on rent control, and I pay close attention to
attempts to weaken that program here in New York. But the problem is,
my neighbors don’t know that, and I don’t know about the things they
care about; we probably have more in common than we think.

third piece of the puzzle is to engage in the long, hard struggle
toward enacting FDR’s second bill of rights. One of my favorite parts
of Capitalism was viewing Roosevelt’s State of the Union where he calls
for expanding the bill of rights. This is, at least among the non-wonk
class, a revelation that I’m thankful Moore brought to light. Most
people don’t know that FDR decisively called for the right to a job,
the right to healthcare, the right to a home, and more. In the
wealthiest democratic society in the history of the world, we should
expect no less from each other.

It’s heartening to see a
discussion questioning seemingly-natural principles of our society, but
unfortunately Moore doesn’t go that far. He focuses on demonizing
presidents Reagan, Bush, and Bush. Fortunately, Rushkoff provides a
credible and well-written resource to identify the source and possible
solutions to our current malaise.

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