April 24, 2012

Eliminate Capitalism–Really? (A Question for Michael Moore)

chinese capitalist“Capitalism is an evil; and you cannot regulate evil. You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that is good for all people. And that ‘something’ is called ‘democracy’.”—Michael Moore, “Capitalism: A Love Story”

I love Michael Moore’s stinging, sardonic critiques and always have, ever since his “Roger and Me” debuted in 1989, but have to confess to confusion and the need to ask him, “What exactly is the ultimate target of all of your noble efforts?”

Is it corrupt, greedy corporate capitalism, or is it all capitalism, including privately owned and operated mom-and-pop grocery stores (on the assumption capitalism is always or eventually corrupt and greedy?)

CNN Clues

In an October 31, 2011 CNN “Occupy Oakland” interview with Anderson Cooper, Moore offered clues: He said that just as the meaning of “marriage” has changed, so has the meaning of “capitalism”, which, accordingly, “has to be defined in its present form”. The capitalism he advocated eliminating during the CNN interview is what he consistently characterizes as 21st-century greed-driven, top-down mega-corporate and crony-controlled capitalism, and not private enterprise that should be truly free, “democratic” and just.

Lashing out at the modern corrupted version of capitalism, Moore said, “2011 capitalism is an evil system set up to benefit the few at the expense of the many”, while allowing that “a lot of people, perhaps in this crowd [of his supporters and activists], used to support the old style of capitalism.”

As for the system he wants, Moore said, “There is no system right now that exists,” adding, however, “This movement, in the next year or two or few years is going to create a democratic economic system. That’s the most important thing. Whatever we come up with, it has to have at its core—the American people are going to be the ones controlling this economy. We’re going to have a say, a big say, the say, in how this economy is run. That say cannot happen by the people in the penthouse offices on Wall Street. That is over. That is over. We’ve declared it over. Now it’s just a matter of time until we actually make this happen, when we bring democracy—true democracy—to this country.”

How My Confusion Set In

Unfortunately, in the closing scene of his blockbuster 2009 film, “Capitalism: A Love Story”, he urges the elimination of capitalism, period—with no nuancing of what that means.

Since the 2011 interview is the more recent of the two, I shall assume he currently has no beef with mom-and-pop shops or the entrepreneurship of self-employed Chinese street vendors who own and sell stuff for reasonable profit. However, his popular anti-capitalist film has the potential to convey a much less focused and more, perhaps provocatively radical message than that delivered in the CNN interview.

A Second Question: Elimination, or Reform and Regulation?

That leads to a second, very important question I want to ask Michael—after having again viewed “Capitalism: A Love Story”:  “Do you really want, as you declare at the end of the film, to completely eliminate capitalism, or just reform, monitor and regulate it?” In the closing scene, quoted above, he explicitly urges that we “eliminate” capitalism (rather than regulate or reform it) and advocates its replacement by “democracy”.

Not only am I not sure I know what this “replacement” of capitalism means (an uncertainty that Anderson Cooper seemed to share when he asked, “So what system do you want?”), but also am confused for another reason, since so much of what Moore has done to date has been to successfully get corporations to modify or abandon some of their worst practices, rather than to abandon contemporary capitalism altogether.

For example, when Moore, in the film, rightfully decried so-called “dead peasant” life insurance policies (which are lawfully, yet secretly held policies taken out by and designating the company as sole beneficiary upon the death of insured employees), Walmart ended its involvement with such death-wish insurance, as was noted in the closing credits of the film.  (How many of the other Fortune 500 companies identified in the film as holding such dead-peasant policies will follow suit remains to be seen.)

That’s progress, but it contributes to and supports elimination of various evils of capitalism, rather than elimination of (modern) capitalism itself as an allegedly incorrigible total evil.

On April 19, 2012, on the Michael Moore homepage, there was a prominently posted link to an eye-opening article by Sarah Anderson and Scott Klinger that originally appeared in The Nation: “6 Rigged Rules Corporations Use to Dodge Taxes”. In marshalling evidence that many tax credits, exemptions and loopholes have been exploited or created to allow gross inequity and egregious advantages to corporations in the distribution of tax loads, it makes a strong case for tax reform or better regulation, as Moore himself does, rather than for elimination of capitalism or of all taxes. Again, does Michael want reform and regulation, or complete elimination of capitalism (or, much less likely, taxes)?

Dismayed by the callousness of dead-peasant policies,  morally numb and emotionally numbing home foreclosures, savage job cuts, obliterated industries, pitiful wages, swelling ranks of the poor, dismal health care, ravaged retirement savings and pensions, and countless shredded hopes and lives, Moore pins the blame on one seemingly intractable, wild donkey: capitalism. But, to switch metaphors, is he whacking the right piñata?

In the CNN interview, Moore declared, as noted above, that only contemporary predatory capitalism, e.g., Wall Street capitalism, must be eliminated—and, by implication, not Adam Smith’s older, ostensibly nobler ideal of the pursuit of profits as earned rewards for risks taken and benefits “fairly”, i.e., rationally distributed.

Presumably that kind of capitalism would be OK, assuming that in practice it resulted in the creation of real wealth in the form of valued and tangible goods and services distributed (equitably) through the freely operating forces of supply and demand (hopefully subject to watchful critiques and persuasions of conscience and societal prudence, like Moore’s).

What does he propose to replace it with? “Democracy,” he says. But wait—isn’t capitalism an economic system, while democracy is a political system?  So, is he proposing that corporations (and mom-and-pop shops) replace their capitalist economic framework, activities and goals with a democratic political framework, activities and goals? If so, then private ownership of the means of production will no longer be utilized to allocate resources to create wealth and rewards for effort, which is the essence of capitalism. Instead, the focus will shift primarily to making decisions reached by universal-suffrage-based voting.

Well, what precisely does that mean in terms of practical consequences, company organization and economic goals and activity?

The Profit Motive vs. the Voting Motive

Is Michael Moore suggesting that businesses abandon the “profit motive” for the “voting motive”, i.e., that the company maximize the number of organizationally valid and binding votes by, for example, giving every employee a vote on every company policy or goal, rather than maximize company profits? (If “maximize” sounds too extreme, make it “emphasize”.)

Note that if the votes the employees get are (also) in the form of company stock (which represent a “say” as well as a vote), the paradigm shifts from “democracy” back to capitalism, specifically, to “employee capitalism”, which is a donkey of a very different color—but still a capitalist donkey that, nonetheless, Moore presumably should not want eliminated and may want to ride himself.

That he believes that the voting motive should at least supplement, if not altogether displace the profit motive should not be at all surprising. That’s because his commitment to and faith in informed consensual voting is a cornerstone of his bedrock principles, as every segment of “Slacker Uprising”, his free-download feature-length 2007 documentary about mobilizing the youth vote in the 2004 U.S. presidential election, vividly attests.

But, if a company switches from creating profits to creating votes, how can such a political system be a replacement for an economic system—as opposed to voting’s being tasked with making decisions related to facilitating, regulating, guiding, inspiring, overseeing or replacing capitalism with something else?

Replacement By vs. Replacement With

The point here is that it seems that the idea of “replacing” capitalism with democracy is really two very different ideas: 1. replacing capitalism by democratic means; 2. replacing capitalism with democracy as the alternative to it.  Which does Michael have in mind?

Being as aware as he is, Moore is unlikely to have had a switch in mind, especially because of the organizational vacuum it would create in any economy. Nonetheless, in the Cooper interview, he seems to have used the phrase “democratic economic system” as a sharp contrast and alternative to “capitalist economic system”, rather than as a variant or positive and useful tool of it.

The former idea—democratically deciding to replace the current capitalist economic system with something else that is itself an economic system is the easier of the two concepts to grasp and the more feasible. For example, imagine everybody votes on whether to have a capitalist, socialist, anarchist, agrarian, fascist, communist, industrial, service, feudal or other kind of economy—or maybe no economy at all (ultra-anarchist).

On this first interpretation, democracy is the political process by which the economic system, is replaced—but replaced with what remaining an open question, allowing that, in the extreme, the majority might vote to reinstate slavery (for some or all in the minority, or, as in ancient Sparta, for all in the Helot slave majority) as an economic system.

Accordingly, “replacing” or merely modifying/reforming capitalism by democracy might be a good thing—or not, depending on what the majority then proceeds to democratically vote for. (The snappy up-tempo rendition of the world-socialist worker anthem, “The Internationale”, at the end of the movie suggests voting for a “democracy of the proletariat”, which would, as history since 1917 has shown, could, if misinterpreted, create its own horrible problems—until they, it or all of those in opposition are eliminated.)

The second idea is, as suggested above, harder to comprehend: Replace capitalism with (rather than by) democracy. Frankly, I don’t know what that means. I imagine a manufacturing, farming or financial community that decides to bail on capitalism and to replace it—not with socialism, communism or any other ism, but with majoritarian democracy and lots of voting about, for or against all sorts of things, but not about, for or against an alternative economic system, since, in this instance, democracy is somehow to be the chosen, binding, non-negotiable alternative.

This concept of the supremacy of the voting motive reminds me of the classic 1955 film “Marty”, with Ernest Borgnine, who won an academy award for his portrayal of the vacillating title character, a hard-working, kindhearted Bronx butcher: Recasting the best-remembered dialogue of that film, about what to do on a Saturday night, it’s dithering ideological equivalent and replacement for capitalism becomes, “What do you want to vote on tonight, Marty?”….”I don’t know. What do you want to vote on?”

To Control, or Eliminate Evil?

If modern capitalism is “evil”, is it also true, as Moore seems to believe, that it cannot be regulated or reformed by government policy and law? Such a view is unlikely to convince the many, who, like Thomas Hobbes, believe that man is basically evil, but can be controlled through law, religion, education, morality, policing, peer pressure, custom and/or spanking.  It is also unlikely to convince supporters of the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.

That act, until its repeal in 1999, kept commercial banks and securities firms separate. It has been argued that Glass-Steagall, with continued enforcement within a capitalist framework, would have made the machinations underlying the subprime mortgage collapse far less likely, had the act not been repealed in a period of heavily-lobbied deregulation (since commercial banks would not have been allowed to gamble with depositors’ holdings).

Moreover, the NRA, of which Moore has been a member, would insist that even if evil intentions cannot be eliminated, they can be offset and inhibited by gun ownership.

In attempting to disentangle the contrasting libertarian (e.g., Moore’s vigorous defense of civil liberties, such as free speech and calls for the end of corporate-government collusion and favoritism) and socialist (e.g., prima facie approving mention of State expropriation and “The Internationale” soundtrack in “Capitalism: A Love Story”) threads in the moral mosaic of his efforts and calls to conscience, I do see an admirable and consistent motif: Michael Moore clearly wants to make the world a better, more just place.

The confusion I am experiencing is mostly about whether the “love story” of capitalism is supposed to end in a bitter ugly and maybe violent divorce, or survive and thrive, through mending and monitoring of capitalism’s ways. To address this confusion, there is one thing, above all, that you, Michael, can do.

Film a sequel.


Photo: CHINESE CAPITALIST (Qingdao, China) / Michael Moffa



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Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).