Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Marx and Moore

I saw "Capitalism: A Love Story" a few days ago, and found myself having mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it was, as my brother said, "dumb," at least in the sense of being intellectually unsophisticated. (David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, was more charitable, calling it "a sad movie--funny in spots, but wounded and bewildered.") But on the other hand, I thought the essence of Moore's message--that in today's society the banks have far too much political influence; that our government, as it functions now, routinely fails to express the will of its people; that last year's bailout was criminal; that we should be pissed off; that we shouldn't take it anymore; and so on--is right, and therefore should not be dismissed as simply shoddy, far left propaganda. Moore may not be a prophet, as he claims to be at one point in the film, but his hindsight is more or less twenty twenty.

Then, today, reading an article by Curtis White in the new issue of Tin House, called "A Good Without Light," it dawned on me that part of the reason why the movie resonated was that for the first time in recent memory, a piece of pop culture was confronting capitalism (and its manifold failings) by calling it what it was. We just assume, "liberals" and "conservatives" both, that ours is the best system. The assumption is so deeply embedded into our collective psyche we can barely bring ourselves to speak the word.

"What no one is allowed to consider," White writes, "is the distressing possibility that no amount of tinkering and changing and greening and teaching the kindergartners to plant trees and recycle Dad's beer cans will ever really matter if our assumptions about what it means to be prosperous, what it means to be 'developed,' what it means to live in 'progress,' and what it means to be 'free' remain what they have been for the last four hundred years under the ever-growing weight of capitalist markets and capitalist social relations. As Marx put it, under capitalism we carry our relation to others in our pockets. Marx would now have to add, sadly, that those 'others' must now include the animals of the field and the birds of the sky as well as the fields and sky themselves. But such a line of thought is not tolerated because the very word 'capitalism' (not to mention 'Marx') is a fighting word. (Or worse it is a sort of faux pas to speak of 'capitalism' at all; you'd be better off saying 'the economy,' just as if you were a slave asked to refer to your master as your employment counselor.) Unfortunately, in banishing this word we eliminate from the conversation the very thing we came together to discuss. We can talk about our plans to save the world, but we can't talk about the economic system that put it in jeopardy in the first place. That's off the table."

If Moore's film has value, then, it is that it has put the word back on the table. That's my hope anyway.

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