Saturday 5 June 2010

Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, USA, 2009)

That Capitalism: A Love Story has been produced in the uber-capitalist nation-state par excellence is an achievement equalled only by its reception. It is being watched, and debated. The procedures of American capitalism are vividly dissected: kids in Pennsylvania sold to detention centres for profit… ‘dead peasant’ insurance taken out by corporations who can turn a tidy sum from the death of a worker… a coup d'état by the board of directors of Goldman Sachs at the US congress to bail out the banks in the wake of the economic crisis… home repossessions by the very banks the government has propped-up and the low-rent vulture-capitalists that sell on those homes for an instant return. The whole complex bloody machinery…

Yet nothing quite prepares you for the end of the film: ‘capitalism is an evil, and you can’t regulate evil. You have to eliminate it, and replace it with something that is good for all people.’ What needs to happen now for the United States of America, says director Michael Moore, is that capitalism needs to be replaced… with democracy.

On the one hand, a clear statement: capitalism is evil and must be replaced. On the other hand, what is to replace capitalism? Democracy? Wait a minute… hasn’t the USA always been democratic? That’s rather vague. Surely Moore wants to say – gulp – ‘socialism’? The alternatives explored in the film sound like socialism. The bit where he says ‘something that is good for all people’ sounds like socialism too. Yet Moore doesn’t come out and say it (and indeed, he is consistent in avoiding saying subsequently). Is this a failure of nerve? Many socialist reviewers, most of whom believe Moore to be one of the ‘good guys,’ think so. He is guilty of naïve tub thumping without clearly articulating the alternative; guilty of cowardice, of not being willing to speak out loud his socialist vision to the American people.

Perhaps, however, before jumping to these conclusions based upon what he has not said, we should explore what he does say? In order to do so, we can begin by thinking through the central problem of his concluding manifesto…

The central problem is this: capitalism is a political economic system while democracy is a political ideological system. Political ideology and political economy are linked, inextricably so in most cases, yet they remain different in kind. Thus the question arises… how can a political ideology replace a political economic model? Especially if the political system in question is already is in place and on the face of it the very condition of the existing economic model? Indeed, surely the economic system (capitalism) is one of the practical applications of the theoretical ideology (democracy)? Is Moore, in other words, guilty of ignoring the differences and interactions between political institutions (ideology and economics)… Let us first answer ‘yes’ and try and understand why this might be the strategy of the film.

Love stories, in American cinema, seem to require a series of assumptions. A man and woman meet, fall in love, pass through a series of trials and tribulations until the end of the film when the situation is resolved. This occurs through an invisible heterosexuality, the aspiration of a monogamous relationship, a bourgeois-esque setting and an overtly melodramatic realism. Most usually a happy ever after results… though, of course, that is the beauty of the end of the film, for while it resolves everything it does so by becoming timeless and unverifiable.

The crucial point about the love story of American cinema, however, is that it operates within a binary logic in order to describe the hopes and fears of the milieu. Gilles Deleuze, in his great cinematic taxonomy, offers us an insight into this kind of filmic organisation. He calls it the large form action-image and it obeys five laws. A general situation is established that will need to be resolved. The resolution of the situation can only occur through the actions of characters within the film. The action proceeds through a number of duels. These duels are a preparation, the limbering up of the characters to become equal to the situation they find themselves in. It is the final duel between the two main characters at the end of the film which resolves the situation.

In other words, this kind of action-image works through a formulaic simplification at the level of structure. Yet, it is this very procedure that gives the narrative its power. What is crucial is this: that while the focus is the great central duel between the lovers, there are lots of other duels ( with the rival, the mother-in-law, the job overseas, the play-station). However, all these duels are in the service of the great duel, which when it finally plays out resolves everything.

Is this not exactly what is happening in Capitalism: A Love Story? It is the 1980s. One of the lovers, the American people, is captivated by the promise of dosh by the delicious Regan (and – subsequently – the Bush double act). This rival will de defeated by Obama (as an embodiment of the constitution), who represents the true love of the American people… preceded by such figures as (a heavily revised) FDR.

Thus in suggesting the replacement of capitalism with democracy Moore is simplifying, obeying the tenants of the action-image. This kind of simplification is not a problem for Deleuze: ‘it is easy to make fun of Hollywood’s historical conceptions. It seems to us, on the contrary, that they bring together the most serious aspects of history as seen by the nineteenth century’ (C1:149). Don’t be fooled that this is a backhand compliment. It is not. Deleuze explores this claim through Nietzsche’s analysis of history. For Nietzsche there are three co-ordinates of what he calls universal history: the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical. The monumental looks at parallels between the present and the past, between civilisations, between great men (we see this in Moore’s comparisons of America with the USSR, Japan and Europe, as well as looking back to FDR). The antiquarian takes a past as hermetically sealed, creates origins which constitute the true traditions (here, for example, we return to the constitution). With the ethical conception of universal history, the monumental and antiquarian dovetail. As Deleuze puts it ‘the monumental and antiquarian conceptions of history would not come together so well without the ethical image which measures and organises them both’ (C1:150).

Quoting Cecil B. DeMille, Deleuze sees this as ‘a matter of Good and Evil’ (C1:151). Here ‘the… past must submit to trial, go to court, in order to disclose what it is that produces decadence and what it is that produces new life; what the ferments of decadence and the germ of new life are, the orgy and the sign of the cross, the omnipotence of the rich and the misery of the poor. A strong ethical judgement must condemn the injustice of ‘things,’ bring compassion, herald the new civilisation on the march, in short, constantly rediscover America…’ (C1:151). The battle must reduced to a binary of good and evil. Yet, in the final analysis, for Deleuze ‘the marvel is that, with all these limits… [the American cinema] has succeeded in putting forward a strong and coherent conception of universal history’ (C1:151).

However, while this analysis plays out, the central problem still remains. Moore is simplifying the situation and is ignoring the differences between a political ideology and a political economy. What then, if we approach Moore’s manifesto head-on, and ask the question, ‘what does he actually mean by replacing capitalism with democracy?’ What if he is not ignoring the differences between ideology and economics? Once again, we can turn to Deleuze. As well as describing the organisation of the large form action-image, he goes on to explore how it can extends itself, transforms itself. How it goes towards its limit and becomes a discourse-image, the very limit of the large form action-image. Here it is not simply that a situation is inexorably resolved by pre-determined actions. Rather, the situation is explored as ‘the givens of a question which is hidden in the situation, wrapped up in the situation’ (C1:189). In this way ‘the “response” therefore is not merely that of the action to the situation, but, more profoundly, a response to the question, or to the problem that the situation was not sufficient to disclose’ (C1:189). It is a ‘secret question’ that must be discovered, and once discovered it will change the obvious conclusions that were originally to be drawn (C1:189). The response would thus be a ‘considered response’ and only arrived at through the process of the exploration, ‘the dogged search for the question and its givens through the situations’ (C1:190).

In other words, rather than cowardice or simplifying the argument, Moore is doing something far more strategic. In arguing democracy needs to replace capitalism, he is claiming capitalism is undemocratic. What Moore has attempted to do, then, is this. First, break the ‘natural’ link between the ideology of democracy and economics of capitalism. Second, instead, link the economics of capitalism with an ideology of authoritarianism (or at least semiauthoritarianism, or quasi-democracy: democracy as a façade). Third and finally, reveal the economic system that true democracy inherently delivers: socialism. It seems that just as the ideology sustaining capitalism is left unspoken but illustrated on screen, so is the economic system behind democracy. The strategic silences of a mass-media realpolitik… Or in terms of the cineosis, the limit of the large form action-image which while going beyond the action-image, extending it, serves at the same time as a mask. As Deleuze writes in another context, on the face of it there is a ‘fairly mundane humanist message,’ but really there is ‘something quite different… putting something into circulation, as much as possible, however little it may be…’ (C1:192).

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