Monday, October 05, 2009

Review: Capitalism: A Love Story & Nobel Prize Tips?

On Saturday, C and I went to see Michael Moore's new film, Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), just as we'd caught his last two major releases, the prescient Sicko (2007) and the Academy Award-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), right after they premiered. Like the two prior films, and very much in line with all of his cinematic and TV works, including his début film, Roger and Me (1989), this new film is a passionate, often upsetting and enraging, sometimes muddled, but ultimately very moving attack on the economic and political injustice that plagues this society. Whereas Sicko focused on the broken health care system, and Fahrenheit 911 assayed the Bush administration's misrule and warmongering in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, this film attempts and sometimes succeeds in taking stock of the economic calamity that has befallen us since the waning days of the Bush administration. But Moore expands the window in an attempt to show that last year's collapse, and 2007 initial moment of recession, actually date back to the Reagan years, when fundamental changes in regulation and the economic philosophies that had guided the country shifted, based on politics, to create the toxic brew that has caused a global disaster, and what was nearly the Great Depression 2.0. The film could easily be retitled Capitalism: A Horror Story, since Moore's relentless aim is to show the many depredations that capitalism in its untrammeled US form has wrought, and a series of horrors they are. But he does not, and cannot tie everything together, because he does not address the larger issue of global capitalism and capital flows, or go as far as he appears to want to in terms of the US's situation and propose a solution or alternative, and this, along with his understandably deep faith in Barack Obama's election as a real politically as opposed to symbolically transformational event, ultimately are the film's major weaknesses.

The strongest aspects of Capitalism: A Love Story are the many powerful, disturbing, though sometimes hilarious, set pieces. These include the jaw-droppingly macabre "Dead Peasants"--this is the actual name, not something either he or I thought up--insurance policies corporations take out on their workers; the workers at Chicago's Republic Doors and Windows who refused to accept the horrendous terms of their dismissal, staged a strike, and forced JP Morgan Chase's hand to ensure that they at least got the pittance they were owed before watching their jobs vanish before their eyes; the appalling imprisonment of teenagers with due process in a for-profit private Pennsylvania prison in which two judges overseeing the cases had a financial stake; the "shock doctrine" attempts by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, in collusion with the firm he formerly led, Goldman Sachs, to seize control of the entire Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, without any legal or legislative oversight, the popular outrage that temporarily stalled the bill, and the Democrats' capitulation and collaboration in making the theft possible only a little while later; and his designating a huge swathe of Wall Street as a crime scene, with police tape, a megaphone, and confrontations with the door people to boot. Other scenes, such as the ones of people being thrown out of their homes, were redolent of Roger and Me, and as Moore noted, many parts of the country were being transformed into versions of his hometown of Flint, Michigan. The set pieces do succeed in provoking your emotions: disgust, rage, awe, and revenge are among the responses, and validly so, since what becomes clear is that the unalloyed pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything else, which has become what American and global capitalism are, has left a trail of destruction in its wake, and our federal and many state and local governments (bought and paid for) and our mainstream corporate media (collaborators) have actively and passively colluded in making it all possible.

Moore interviewing Indiana Congressperson Baron Hill

Around and through these moments, Moore tries to construct a narrative that can offer a cogent account of how corporate and wealthy interests, in cooperation with both the Republican and Democratic parties, rewrote laws, pushed failed economic policies, robbed the country blind, and then, after devastating everything, managed to salvage as much money for themselves as possible. To his credit, he doesn't just slam the GOP nor does he omit the Clinton administration's participation in all of this. Though the country experienced an unprecedented period of economic growth and expansion from 1994-2000, Clinton's economic team also played a central role in gutting the economy's foundations by pushing for the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the imposition of NAFTA, championing outsourcing and the smoke-and-mirrors industrial-structural transformation to a service economy, and generally accepting the false logic of neoliberalism and conservative/supply-side macroeconomics. He only touches upon part of this, though, and he could easily have gone further back than Reagan; in fact, in the period after the US began large-scale industrialization, the fin-de-siècle battles around monopolization, the Gilded Age and go-go laissez-faire capitalism leading up to the 1929 Stock Market crash and Great Depression gave an instructive, unforgettable preview of what we would be facing if we followed the same terrible patterns of the past.

Along the way, the film identifies a few heroes in this horror story, chief among them Ohio Democratic Congressperson Marcy Kaptur, who clearly and defiantly lays out the stakes and makes clear who is really running the country. There are also some liberal-minded clergy people, including a veritable hippy priest, who condemn capitalism as contravening the Gospels. I really wish he'd gone further on this score, and pointed out not only the Christianist hypocrisy of the contemporary right-wing, but the silence of so many people of faith in the face of the growing economic inequalities we witnessed, the rampant unfairness, unethical and immoral behavior, the amorality of destroying others' lives to enrich one's own, and so forth. Where were the bishops, the rabbis, the imams, as W Bush was bleeding us all dry? Not only was the Iraq War a festering debacle, but also those tax cuts and the attendant spending binges and, even worse, insane borrowing, the refinancing and buybacks, the incessant building, and the shell games and Ponzi schemes that have left us trillions of dollars in the hole, and 7 million jobs poorer. The silence of these clergy people also was as "evil," if you accept the term Moore bandies about, as the hazy "capitalism" that he indicts. I take his point, but find the term, and those uttering it, too simplistic, since it shorts out any real discussion about the nature of economic systems and what they can and cannot provide. Yet Moore also suggests that we might have "capitalism" that isn't so out-of-control when he speaks with Socialist-turned-Independent Bernie Sanders of the "gay state" as he cheekily calls it, of Vermont. In fact Sanders calls himself a Democratic Socialist, and Moore points to European models that might offer a better, or at least more economically and socially equitable way. To get it, we may need a revolution, but in reverse from the one we've endured in unbroken form since the Reagan era. Moore however cannot bring himself to go that far--and doesn't much cite our own national history of early 20th century Progressives, American Socialism and Communism, as well as a much more empowered and radical Democratic Party, particularly during the 4-term tenure of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Instead he suggests that "Democracy" is the answer. But that simply doesn't make sense, and I gathered throughout that Moore knows this. But to call for a socialist revolt beyond the ballot box would, unfortunately, be beyond the pale even for a man so vilified by those on the right. He wants--and I think we need--lots of Americans to see this movie. Badly.

Michael Moore callling out the robber barons on Wall Street

Perhaps his most misplaced hope in the film is on Barack Obama's election. On the one hand, it was a remarkable event, and if one were to have vaguely followed Obama's rhetoric during the campaign, he seemed to promise real change. But closer listening showed him to be a pragmatist at best (even if a progressive on some issues at heart), and he has followed his Democratic predecessor in doing little to dismantle many of the worst aspects of the right-wing apparatus he's walked into. In fact, he basically hired the people who helped initiate the economic collapse! Moore does point out that the financial industries showered Obama with cash once he became the nominee and later won the election, but doesn't delve deeply enough into this. We can see the effects with the health care debate; the administration, along with Democrats like Max Baucus, appear to want nothing more than a symbolic bill that would primarily reward their corporate funders. They pay lip service to their constituents, who are overwhelmingly in favor of a more progressive bill, but have done everything they could, as Reagan, HW Bush and W would, to appease the wealthiest and thus most powerful interests. Not even doctors or nurses have had as much input as the insurance, pharmaceutical, hospital, and nursing home industries and their lobbyists, and that input--influence--takes the form of money. I understand Moore's idealism, which is a powerful undertow here, as in all of his films, but more clearsightedness, on Obama as a politician like every other one, would have strengthened the film's overall argument.

Nevertheless, as I said, Capitalism: A Love Story, is a film I hope millions of Americans, especially middle, working-class and poor ones, do get an opportunity to see. I fear not enough of us will see this film; even with its problems, it provokes a great deal of thought and soul-searching, and its revelations, even though many of them are well known, are worth seeing set forth as only Michael Moore can do. As he might say, Thank God for him.


I must add a link to three New York Times stories on the private equity industry shell game that has now ensnared institutions like Harvard, Yale and Stanford Universities. Moore did not touch this at all, except tangentially, but as each piece shows, the people who engineer these disasters rarely if ever lose.

Private Equity Industry: Another Horror Story
Profits for Buyout Firms as Company Debt Soars
An Executive Who Ruled from Afar and Walked Away Rich
Videos on private equity industry


Congratulations to this year's Nobel Laureates in physiology or medicine, Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco; Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins University Medical School; and Jack W. Szostak of the Harvard University Medical School and Howard Hughes Medical Institute for their "discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase." According to several reports I've read, their work is central to understanding the biological mechanisms involved in aging, as well as in cancer research. I also saw that their award marks the first time that two women have jointly received the Nobel Prize in this category.

Today's announcement of this year's first Nobel Prizes means that at some point later this week or early next, the Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded. Every year (or almost) that I've posted this blog, I've offered my speculations about the winners. Usually it's been a miss, though I did include Harold Pinter among my predictions--he was one of a vast cast--the year he won. Like most prognosticators and littérateurs, however, I was caught off guard by last year's award, J. G. M. LeClézio, who, from all that I can tell, remains in obscurity--not that fame or notoriety should ever be qualifications for this award. Still, his selection was surprising (especially over better known, influential French writers including Yves Bonnefoy, Michel Tournier, Anne-Marie Albiach, and Jacques Roubaud), and made me wonder what the committee, whose machinations have involved public uproars during the last decade, was thinking, and what the LeClézio pick might in terms of subsequent years.

Duong Thu HuongIn recent years the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in literature, has neglected poetry in favor of fiction; no author primarily writing poetry has received the award since Wyslawa Szymborska in 1996. Only two women have received the award over the last 10 years (Elfriede Jelinek in 2004 and Doris Lessing, two years ago). I'd thought these imbalances would be righted last year, but they were not, and so I believe they will this year. Also, despite Lessing's award in 2007, there have been very few winners from Africa; there has also been very few laureates named from Asia (only two from Japan and one from China), and in recent years almost none from the Middle East, Central America, South America, or the Caribbean. There are many reasons why, not the least being the Academy's European location and slant, another being the ways the global literary system works. Nevertheless, I think this year will be different, and am tipping a woman poet or playwright from South America or the Caribbean, Asia, or Africa, though at theOr another country in North America other than the US. One possibly and great choice, I think, would be Margaret Atwood. I'm not sure if Alice Munro's US links disqualify her, but I she ought to be a top candidate.

Other leading candidates include poets such as Claribel Alegria, Adélia Prado, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, and Shu Ting. Other leading candidates include fiction writers (some of whom write poetry and plays) like Assia Djebar, Hélène Cixous, Luisa Valenzuela, Patricia Grace (who received the 2007 Neustadt International Prize), Duong Thu Huong (above right, Mahasveta Devi, and Andrée Chedid. Despite the heavy Eurocentric cast of recent years, I wonder if it would not have gone to Danish poet Inger Christensen had she not passed away earlier. I also keep in mind that no writer from India, Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, New Zealand, Argentina, Thailand, or many other countries, has ever received the award.

Considering male writers, Adonis/Adunis, who would be the first male poet writing in Arabic to win, remains a contender. Other less likely choices that I could foresee include: Wilson Harris, Haruki Murakami, Ko Un, Bei Dao, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Kamau Brathwaite, Jay Wright, Javier Marías, Homero Aridjis, David Malouf, Nuruddin Farah, Philip Roth, Édouard Glissant, and John Ashbery. Most are international known and renowned, some more so than others. Whether they're registering--well, Roth is--on the Swedish Academy's radar is another matter. There are former teachers, colleagues, and even some friends whom I think ought to at least be nominated, but you have to be on the Swedish Academy's hotlist to make that occur.

Reggie sends a link saying that British bookies have tipped Amos Oz, Assia Djebar, Joyce Carol Oates, Roth, and Adonis as their top 5. Oates? Really? (Among Israel writers, I think Aharon Shabtai, David Grossman, Yoel Hoffman, and even Aharon Appelfeld would be stronger candidates.) Among their other picks: Antonio Tabucchi, Claudio Magris, Murakami, Herta Müller, Luis Goytisolo (not Juan?), Pynchon (very unlikely), Ismail Kadare, Un, and Tomas Tranströmer. They put William Gass at 100/1...

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