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What "Capitalism" Is Not

by Terrance Heath

If I were to summarize message Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism: A Love Story in one sentence, it would be this: Capitalism is not a form of government. That's the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the movie, via 1950s educational/propaganda films.

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Capitalism is not a form of government. It is a tool we've allowed to be used as a weapon. We threw out the instructions and rules for its usage, and it became a weapon -- much like a hammer can be used to build a house or smash a skull, depending on whether it's wielded by a carpenter or a psychopath.

Moore spends the rest of the movie showing us how we not only tossed out the rules, but junked every other tool in our collective toolbox, and left ourselves with the hammer. But everything is not a nail, and the hammer isn't suited to every aspect of the task in front of us. Moore gives us until the end of the movie to figure out what that seemingly abandoned task might be.

Capitalism is populated by people whose names we know and people whose names we don't -- all characters in what Michael Moore has subtitled "a love story." We know the speeches of the former, and the stories of the latter, because we've watched those same stories unfold in our own communities in the last couple of years. The speeches were intended to arouse our passions, by retelling part the most recent chapter in the story of how we got here -- the part that happened on Wall Street and in Washington.

For some of the audience, Moore is largely telling us a story that we mostly already know. And for others, Moore's film pulls back the curtain to reveal the reality only seen as faint shadows before, from the other side. Almost anyone who isn't a student of economics, history, business or government will come away with some bit of new bit of knowledge, or a better understanding of what we already know

We know because in a sense we're all in this movie; like players in a soap opera that's run so long nobody remembers the original players or plot. That's part of the paradoxical challenge Moore took on with this film. He must must tell us a story that's at once familiar and unfamiliar.

He reacquaints us with the players we already know: the homeowners facing foreclosure, the "condo vulture" profiting off others' misfortune, and Countrywide VIP loan officer who didn't see anything wrong with what he was doing -- though at one point he notes that "the bad loans" were being processed in the office next door, even as he process more desirable loans (waiving fees and paperwork) for special "Friends of Angelo." In the process he humanizes them, rather than lionizing or demonizing them. He neither excuses their decisions or forgives their choices

He goes into archives and digs up old scripts to storyboard the plot-line leading up to this moment -- our moment in the ongoing saga. He coaxes the old actors -- the staring players and anonymous extras -- to have them tell us about their role in the drama.

But then he hands us an incomplete script, with inevitable holes in the story, and no apparent ending. The holes in the story are inevitable. Moore's subject is so broad, with a timeline reaching impossibly far back into our shared history. Working inside the finite timeline of a movie, it's inevitable that Moore had to leave some parts of the story untold. Other parts he must paint with broad strokes, if wants to get in the rest of the story. (If Moore is looking for material for the DVD "extras," the debacles around mortgage reconciliation and credit card reform might be good places to start. Toss in the recent Senate Finance Committee vote on a public option in health care reform, and Moore would have the makings of another movie: on the influence of money in politics.)

Capitalism is not a form of government, nor is it a religion. As Moore points out, despite how often we've been told that it is at completely compatible with religion, it ain't (as the song goes) necessarily so. The prosperity gospel notwithstanding, Moore rather humorously points out what he turns to his own priest and other ministers to address more seriously. They say pretty the same thing that Rev. Howard Bess has written about the health care reform debate.

As a follower of Jesus from Nazareth, I ask all who have taken the name Christian to remember that 1) Jesus was committed to giving people healthy bodies, 2) that Jesus had a priority commitment to the poorest of the poor, and 3) that his warnings to the wealthy and the selfish were relentless.

This is called Bible 101.

I suspect many will balk at the repeated uttering of the words "capitalism" and "evil" at some points in the movie. In America that's bordering on blasphemy and has been for some time. I suspect, however, that at least some of the ministers will concede -- as did the bishop who was interviewed -- that at the very least capitalism is a tool which has been used for evil purposes, which I'll define as willfully and knowingly engaging in actions that will bring harm to others. The added twist is that using capitalism in such a way usually means doing so for one's own material gain.

While Phil Gramm may consider Wall Street a "holy place" it can hardly be disputed that many powerful people on Wall Street knowingly and willingly engaged in actions that would bring harm to many, and profited from it. They profited from it, and are still profiting from it even as the consequences reach into the live of people far less well off. As the opponents of health care reform have recently taken up the chant "What's wrong with profit?", my guess is that Moore and the ministers he interviews for his movie would agree that the love of profit, and the pursuit of profit above all other considerations is the real problem.

There is a simple answer to the far right's new favorite chant against health care reform - "What's Wrong With Profit?". Nothing. There is nothing inherently wrong with making a profit. But their question misses a point that I recall from my Baptist upbringing and my days as a Sunday school teacher.

It's not money that's "the root of all evil," as the most common misquoting of particular bit of scripture would suggest. It's the love of money that's the "root of all evil." Money itself is neither bad nor good. Money, or profit, is not the problem. It's what we do with it, and what we do for it, that makes the difference. If it becomes our only reason for doing anything we are, as a country, lost.

Capitalism is not a form of government, nor is it a religion. It's a tool, turned into a weapon by our abandoning rules and guidelines for it's use. But it's not the only tool at our disposal. The others actually have been lost so much as neglected, and towards the middle of his film onwards, Moore seeks out those who have picked up those tools and are re-learning how to use them.

Moore probably shows us this because the tool we've clung to, for which we've forsaken the others, is not suited to every aspect of the task in front of us, so long forgotten that we have to be reminded what it is. Here, Moore turns to a man whose name has been invoked over and over again during the current economic crisis -- for he defined the task more than a generation ago.


The rest of the article and presentations are a "must see" .

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This page contains a single entry by cul published on October 2, 2009 2:38 PM.

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