In politics and advertising, there’s an old saying: Whoever controls the story, wins. Campaign advisors speak of “framing” a story, of “getting ahead of” stories, “firing the first shot” against their opponent. This appropriation of Story to sell things—whether face cream or a financial bailout or a candidate—is a debasement of the magic and power of storytelling. One favored tactic is to reduce individuals to cartoonish generalizations, as some Presidential candidates are currently doing with immigration.
Michael Moore’s 2009 film about the financial crisis uses just the opposite technique, weaving a story from honest conversations with real people. “Capitalism: a Love Story,” is told in his signature quirky, gloves-off style. In the opening sequence, he intercuts an old classroom film about the Roman Empire with contemporary images of poverty, homelessness, backbreaking labor, and entertainments used to divert the people’s attention from the true state of things. It’s a brilliant commentary not only on how far we have fallen, but on where we might be headed if we don’t take an honest look at the stories we live by.
Along with archival footage and newsreels, Moore speaks with banking experts, people being forced out of their homes, politicians, journalists, professors, priests, protesting workers, airline pilots, young people and even his father, who worked for 36 years at a GM plant. What emerges is a fresh—and disturbing—look at real lives being throttled by the fallout from decades of corrupt policy and lax oversight.
Towards the end, Moore plods around Wall Street draping banks—and even the famed bull statue—with yellow crime scene tape, calling out his intention to make a citizen’s arrest of the perpetrators. It’s a satisfying moment, if only for the humor and absurdity in the face of the hubris that created the mortgage crisis.
Definitions of and comparisons between capitalism and socialism are handled deftly. Moore lets experts give their take on the theory and history. He circles back a couple of times to something that is deeply ingrained in Americans’ psyches. As captured succinctly by Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress:
“John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
This self-concept, by and large, is what keeps us from protesting. It’s a story we have been fed since at least the 1950s—that if you work hard, get a good education, stay loyal to your employer, buy a house, and pay your taxes, you will “get ahead.” Your children will be better off than you, and so on in an endless chain of progress. Everyone plays their roles, including the media, in keeping this story of the “American Dream” front and center. Meanwhile, in the background, Wall Street insiders have been infiltrating the highest offices of our government to ensure that the rich grow richer, usually on the backs of everyone else.
Moore’s films always have this affect on me. He manages to shatter the crust of propaganda and force me to look at the real story, but when I try to process and talk about it, the words come out sounding like cheap conspiracy theory. The main question on my mind is this: where do we go from here?
Fortunately, he also provides a few glimpses into alternatives—real, working examples of people living different stories. There’s the bakery in L.A. that’s a worker-owned co-op, where line workers make upwards of $60,000 a year and the CEO wonders how much is enough and how many cars can one person own. There’s also a poignant moment of history, a speech by FDR in January 1944, outlining a “Second Bill of Rights:”
“It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
“This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
“As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”
In the speech, FDR equates happiness with economic security and independence: “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” He then outlines eight points of this Second Bill of Rights:
- Employment (right to work), with a living wage
- Earn enough to provide food, clothing and leisure
- Farmers’ rights to a fair income
- Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, at home or abroad
- Every family’s right to a decent home
- Adequate medical care and opportunity to enjoy good health
- Protection from economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment
- A good education
Interestingly, according to this Wikipedia entry, Moore himself found the lost footage in South Carolina when researching his film. If nothing else, he has done a great service to this country by reminding us what leadership with integrity and compassion looks like.
I find it fascinating that both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders make appearances in this film. And now, as the 2016 Presidential campaign starts spinning its stories left and right, the two of them may have more to say on this subject. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Second Bill of Rights became part of a campaign platform? And, meanwhile, more and more worker-owned co-ops get started and people have sit-ins in their foreclosed homes and everyone resists capitulating with the stories of domination, exploitation and greed. Now that’s a story I can live by.