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Capitalism and its Discontents: American Casino & Capitalism: A Love Story

Capitalism has Big Problems these days. Even the most loyal Milton Friedman fanatic must feel the sting from having been bitch-slapped by the “invisible hand” of the Market. Looking back, it’s shameful that the many critiques of those who spoke of a flawed system and cataclysm before the economy collapsed were hardly noticed. But it’s certainly not surprising.

The repeal of financial regulation amid decades of free market ideological rule, the creation of financial instruments that basically relied on debt and subterfuge, the complexity of the scam, as well as money-induced blindness and the greedy self-interest that trumped any inkling of the greater good—all are being dealt with (sort of) out in the open. They are also parts of Michael Moore’s new (and widely distributed) film Capitalism: A Love Story and Leslie Cockburn’s (alas, barely distributed) American Casino, both of which necessarily have a wide focus given that they take on a subject as colossal as the shenanigans of the financial world and our current economic system. While American Casino has its sights largely on dissecting the complexities of the recent financial crisis, Moore’s film ambitiously goes after the larger moral issues of an unfettered capitalist system, critiquing it in terms that are most refreshing to hear.

Michael Mooreââ?¬â?¢s Capitalism: A Love Story. © The Weinstein Company.
Michael Mooreââ?¬â?¢s Capitalism: A Love Story. © The Weinstein Company.

Capitalism: A Love Story comes out at an interesting time, not only because America gets a big multiplex political documentary release (as seemingly only Moore can do) but because the subject is relevant and ripe for more than an art-house audience. But it’s also a timely release given that right-wing demagogues have dipped back into their lockbox and are waging a campaign against health care based on an antiquated Cold War ideology, throwing the words “Socialism” and “Communism” around as recklessly as a drunk throwing plates at a Greek restaurant. In fact, a Red-baiting moment even took place during the Q&A at the high society premiere of Capitalism: A Love Story at Lincoln Center. A man tried to frame Moore with a question accusing him of using the “Soviet national anthem” in the film and asked if he “liked communism better than capitalism.” After schooling the questioner on the origin of “L’Internationale,” Moore went on to point out that posing such a dichotomy is no longer relevant and, to put it nicely, counterproductive. It’s democracy that is in obvious danger from capitalism, Moore said, even though the Right has often—though not exclusively—seen capitalism and democracy as one.

Houses for auction
from American Casino. © Table Rock Films.
Houses for auction from American Casino. © Table Rock Films.

And that is essentially the thesis of Capitalism: A Love Story: unfettered capitalism is morally unjust and inherently undemocratic and the recent collapse is another example of the result. Moore shows this via his usual pastiche of outrageous revelations, ironic archival footage, verite scenes, and signature shticks, creating enough laughs to carry a large audience along. But he also makes the narrative more personal than in his other films by talking about his dalliance with becoming a Catholic priest, interviewing priests about the lack of morality in Capitalism, and by introducing his father as they visit the site of the now-departed manufacturing plant he worked in most of his life. It’s his most wide-ranging broadside and, in many ways, it is a potent, damning, and timely critique. Moore’s talent is largely in delivering a clear and presently undeniable thesis that might finally make your Average Joe see and realize who is actually screwing them.

Veteran journalist Leslie Cockburn (along with husband and producer Andrew Cockburn) began American Casino many months before the collapse in September 2008. This result is a prescient dissection of the lead-up to the collapse, as the film largely concentrates on the subprime mortgage crisis. Cockburn shows how financial instruments like collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps fed what was essentially a massive Ponzi scheme enabled by a willful lack of oversight. It is doubly frustrating to see footage of Alan Greenspan admitting before a Congressional hearing that there was a “flaw” in his ideology of deregulation, given that for so many years criticism of it was shooed away as naïve at best. While Moore’s film doesn’t really try to explain the complexities of the financial instruments created (but does make the point that they were created to be completely impenetrable on purpose), American Casino does its best through interviews with people who worked on creating CDOs and the like to present a timeline and explanation of how subprime mortgages were flipped and repackaged into a number of dividends (which also roped in the insurance industry, via AIG). The analysis is persuasive and further fortifies the notion that economics is an inexact science, to say the least.

While Moore’s film includes a white working-class family that was victimized by a subprime mortgage (but then quickly moves on to worker-led factory takeovers and low-income communities that takeover foreclosed houses), American Casino concentrates largely on minority communities and the “reverse redlining” that took place. In some of its most insidious manifestations, the subprime crisis was the Trojan Horse for the American Dream as brokers went out and convinced low-income people that they could finally own a home but then often exaggerated the income and other information on the loan documents so they could walk away with a commission, basically setting up the loan for failure. The film alleges that some banks went out of their way to market subprime loans in these neighborhoods because of the statistical likelihood that low-income people would be more likely to take “toxic” loans—loans that often didn’t require income verification or down payments but whose interest would balloon at rates unsustainable in the long-term.

In fact, the inability of an unregulated free-market system to create something sustainable—and, more important, equitable—in the long term is an argument central to both Capitalism: A Love Story and American Casino. If profit is the overall driving force and philosophy of the system, then profit will be created in the short-term at the expense of any long-term stability—even if it means endangering house and home. If the kids are left to dig in the backyard without any supervision they will come in happy and healthy and you will save babysitting money until one you realize your foundation is about to fall in. No matter what ignorant demagogues have to say, we already have skeletal aspects of a socialist system in place—the military industrial complex, Social Security and other safety net programs, the highway system, etc. Given that we have experienced the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, the question now should be not how to restore capitalism but, instead, how to create a more egalitarian economic system.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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