Moore’s condemnation of capitalism falls flat

Review: Capitalism: A love story
Directed by Michael Moore, In cinemas now

Revolutionaries steeped in Marxist theory and the history of class struggle play an important part in fomenting revolution. But we are not the ones who are going to overthrow capitalism and create a new society based on solidarity and cooperation.
Cast in that role are the ordinary working grunts who make everything and do everything. It’s no mystery why “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.  Through our collective activity in the process of revolution we learn that we have the capacity to run our society ourselves, in our own interests. It’s also through this process that we acquire the skills that enable us to organise production and distribution.
Michael Moore manages to address an audience of tens of millions of the very people that revolutionaries dream of reaching in ones and twos.  I hoped his latest film, Capitalism: a love story, would expose the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, alerting workers that we have no future unless we uproot the system completely.
Moore is no revolutionary.  He wants to propel people onto the streets, but only to “get Obama’s back” so he can implement the “kinder and gentler society” Moore believes he really wants.  But that’s not a criticism of the movie.  If he can motivate millions onto the streets, it won’t be up to him what we demand
In Capitalism, Moore lets his interviewees speak for themselves without glossing over how inarticulate many of them are.
The foreclosees who earn US$1000 for a week’s work cleaning out their houses on behalf of the bank are poignant, but really don’t have a great deal to say.  I gather Moore dwells on them because they are iconic of his viewers—overweight, underpaid, and with no assets but the house they’ve lost to the “vultures”.
When it comes to the economists he interviews about derivatives and credit default swaps, their inability even to begin to explain what they do barely merits a snicker and leaves the viewer no better informed.  
I guess I have three principal complaints about Capitalism: a love story.
Moore focuses his attention on a couple of the most cynical, in your face abuses of unregulated finance capital. I think it would have been a more powerful condemnation of the capitalist system had it devoted some time to the quotidian depravities that pass below the radar.
He does condemn capitalism outright as a system, but this is couched almost wholly in religious terms.
He interviews two priests who readily concede that capitalism is entirely contrary to Christian values. In general I consider appeals to religion a counterproductive distraction.
But even if Moore is right to think it’s useful, in a country where over half the population is avowedly Protestant, and less than a quarter Catholic, I’m not convinced that this is the most persuasive strategy.
The second issue is some confusion about class. Moore is nostalgic for the household he grew up in. His father earned enough on his single wage to pay off the house before Mike started school, enjoyed comprehensive medical and dental cover for the whole family, and had a generous retirement plan—benefits later generations of American workers can’t even imagine. But the hard won gains organised workers achieved through decades of struggle do not elevate them into the middle class.
I surmise that this is a common misconception. But by eliding relative prosperity with the actual relations of production, Moore misses the central contradiction of capitalism —the relation of exploitation whereby the boss pays workers the market value of their ability to work and enjoys the much greater rewards of the value that their labour creates. Consequently, he can’t explain why it is workers, however well remunerated, who are uniquely positioned to wrest control of production from the exploiters.
Capitalism is virtually silent on the crucial question of how we get to a world of creation of social goods for social need.
He does hint at a way forward in the successful efforts of a small group of Miami residents who held nine squad cars full of sheriffs at bay when they came to foreclose on a member’s home. There are scenes from the Republic occupation, where workers secured all their demands, which left each of them some six grand ahead, but still without their jobs.
Beyond that, he visits a worker owned robotics manufacturer and bread factory. I gather he reckons this is the way forward. To all appearances Moore is unaware of the failure of other experiments in worker management. In isolation, such enterprises are doomed to fail.  If they refuse to exploit workers as ruthlessly as their competitors, they are almost certain to be forced out of business.
On the whole, I thought Capitalism: A love story was not nearly as moving or funny as Sicko. It fails to address crucial issues and is way off track on others. But that would all be much more than forgivable if it manages to connect with ordinary workers and mobilise them to start organising against the capitalist behemoth. But it’s been over a month since the US release, attendance is declining steadily, and we haven’t yet witnessed an upsurge.
By Harry Feldman


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  1. This review completely misses the chance to intersect with a very popular critique of modern capitalism.

    Instead of finishing what Moore starts and fleshing out an analysis of this barbaric system, it seems to look to pick out a few minor faults and use them, essentially, to write a long complaint about Moore not being a revolutionary socialist and not instigating an upsurge in class struggle. The result of setting the bar at such a point is a page of ultra leftism that fails to answer the substantive questions raised by Moore or to fill the gaps in his analysis. I think it’ll do little for those inspired by Moore’s call to rise up against capitalism and looking for some clues about how to make that happen.

    First, I disagree that Moore’s particular examples of capitalism’s excesses has the effect of making the everyday violence seem any less bad. The tragic opening scene of a family being evicted from their home is used as an example of what the very logic of competition for profit produces—inequality, despair and destruction. It shows that economics is politics; every example shows how the needs of the free market are opposed to social needs. The class conciousness is clear: we’re shown a Citibank memo that gloats of Wall Street’s unbridled profiteering and the “plutonomy” of America were 1% of the population owns 99% of the wealth. The ever-intensifying squeezing of workers is illustrated by a few graphs that show drastic increases in worker’s productivity, coupled by stagnating wages and rising debt. Moore reminds us that the workplace is a “dictatorship” where the bosses take what we make for their profit. He is something of a Christian social democrat, and his critique of capitalism sometimes rests on a moralism—he doesn’t piece together a very coherent explanation of exactly why competition for profit makes this happen. Bosses need their dictatorship not because of individual greed (though that is not to say they’re usually nice characters) but because of the necessity of competition between rival companies. Competition compels the capitalist class to seek, constantly, to step up the rate of exploitation and to devise ever new methods of keeping control over workers. Competition drives capitalists to accumulate, to exploit.

    Replacing production for profit with production aimed directly at satisfying human need means breaking down the hierarchy in the workplace and substituting direct democratic control over society’s means of production. How this could happen brings us to Moore’s second confusion. The real muddle is less the semantic issue of “working class” and “middle class” but about how the working class can go about building an alternative system—and what that system is. It is a confusion between socialism from below and social democracy.

    Moore seems to equate the glory days of Keynesian social policy—the high wages, social security and redistributive tax policies of the 1950s and 1960s—to a kinder capitalism (though he does admit these days were too characterised by racial segregation and war). I unreservedly agree with Moore when he argues that we should fight for those rights stolen from us by the ravages of neo-liberalism. However, neo-liberalism is not an aberration, but the result of the inherent contradictions within capitalism I described earlier. It is precisely this logic which brought neo-liberalism—an attempt to restore falling profits and as Moore recognises, to “smash the unions” to do so—when the rate of profit began to decline. Capitalism’s cyclic “boom and bust” brought on this current economic crisis, not some particular failure of market deregulation. That cycle cannot be reformed away. While we can fight for social democratic reforms and a capitalism that pays higher wages and provides social services, these can only be temporary ameliorations. The fights can build our strength but they are not an end in themselves.

    Moore seems to think the way towards a different system is by mobilising to get Obama to act ‘for us’: the revolt between “those who have nothing and those who have everything” will bring leaders over from the side of the bosses to the side of the workers. Of course the power of the working class can help to keep the bosses “in check”—but if we want to get rid of exploitation for good, we’re going to need to go further than that. Socialism will only be possible when millions upon millions of ordinary working people—women and men, black and white, gay and straight—organise themselves democratically “from below” and set out to take all forms of decision-making power away from the minorities who rule us today, and to impose their own collective power over every aspect of social and productive life. The founding principle of a socialist society is the most extensive democracy, going far beyond the limited principles of “parliamentary democracy” today.

    Moore’s call to bring workers into confrontation with their greedy bosses and to start demanding better of Obama is actually the kind of thing we need to expose the weaknesses of parliamentary democracy; to draw more people into fighting for a transformation of the system.

    The class conflict that animates capitalism also animates Moore’s film. Certainly there are deficiencies in his analysis about how exactly this works and how it operates. Nevertheless, it is likely to draw an audience a million times bigger than a magazine like Solidarity could anticipate at this point in history. We should be celebrating the fact that millions will walk out of Moore’s film seeing the way to change society as fighting to make the rich, not workers, pay for the mess we’re in.

    Amy Thomas, Sydney branch

  2. I had a really interesting conversation – almost a monologuue really (and not from me) – with a workmate, about 60, who’s just seen Capitalism. It certainly worked for her, as if the scales have fallen from her eyes; chiefly a recognition that the system can’t be reformed because it’s designed/controlled to exploit. She just really wanted to talk about its content. I promised to get to see the film so we can continue to talk about it

  3. This is a film direct from “Hollywood” from a multi award winning multi million $ director!

    Who only a couple of years ago was apart of the ABB (anyone but bush) campaign in the US.

    The more films like this can break into the usual dribble the better.

    Yes Moore is not a Socialist and does not outline a clear alternative to the horrors of capitalism what he does do is make a plea for people to change it.

    What people remember most from a film/play/song/speech is the start and end.

    Moore finished by saying that Capitalism is evil and evil cant be changed it must be destroyed.

    As the credits role we hear the song “The Internationale” the most recognisable of working class song.

    Let’s use these left ventures into pop culture to further our movement and build on the ideas raised in films and left wing music.

    “I can stop these cops from killin’,
    I can feed these hungry children,
    I can stop racism, a product of cap-it-a-lism.
    We need a revolution,
    We need a revolution,
    The system ain’t gonna change unless we make it change.” Dead Prez “We need a revolution”


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