what i'm watching: two movie reflections, part two: capitalism, a love story

I recently heard a Canadian friend remark, "You'd think after a movie like 'Sicko' Americans would wake up and demand change."

What I should have said: "You'd think after a movie like 'Capitalism: A Love Story', Canadians would understand that Americans are powerless to demand anything."

Unfortunately, I hadn't yet seen Michael Moore's latest movie, so I wasn't able to make this clever juxtaposition. Instead, I said, "Millions of Americans have woken up, but they are powerless. Their representatives are controlled by industry, and don't listen to them."

I liked the movie a lot. It's not a perfect film, but it doesn't have to be. I felt, as I usually do about Moore's films, that it might be many people's first exposure to making connections between disparate events and the conditions of their lives, and to thinking about the alternatives.

The pieces Moore chooses to illustrate the evils of unchecked capitalism are excellent. Corporate-government fraud scams like the one that sent innocent Pennsylvania children to prison for other people's profit - corporate insurance schemes where companies' benefit from employees' deaths (while the families of those deceased employees are left with medical bills that can bankrupt them) - commercial airline pilots who can't make ends meet - the unconscionable sin of exchanging higher education for a lifetime of debt - all were excellent, concrete examples of how the system benefits the few at the expense of the rest of us.

The icing on the cake, of course, is the back-room deal cut for the banks, the eye-popping "financial coup d'etat" that forced the impoverished American people to fund the compulsive gambling debts of the super-rich. I can't use the word "bailout". That glib moniker doesn't come close to describing the magnitude of this crime. Moore's depiction of this organized crime syndicate illustrates - beautifully and tragically - how fully corporatized the US government is.

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I was unconvinced there would be an election in 2008. I thought it distinctly possible that certain war- and financial- related powers would find it more useful to cause an incident that would give them an excuse to "postpone" the election. "Capitalism: A Love Story" shows why such a move isn't necessary. They can accomplish everything they want without breaking down the stage set of US democracy.

On the other hand, it was brilliant to see the battle at Republic Windows and Doors (although those workers lost their jobs anyway) and a few worker-owned businesses. There is another way.

Some years ago, I read a book called It Didn't Happen Here - Why Socialism Failed in the United States, by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks. There was a time when working-class radicalism was strong in the US, when socialism might have reached a tipping point of public demand. Yet the US is alone among developed nations in not having a viable socialist party.

Lipset and Marks identify several trends in US history and sociology that cumulatively prevented socialism from taking root: the two-party system that enabled strong parties to co-opt the ideas of weaker ones (i.e. people could vote for FDR and get "socialism light" plus clout, instead of voting for a socialist party and getting socialism) and made it virtually impossible for alternative parties to succeed; American individualism and anti-statism, so much a part of the American psyche; the decision of socialist organizers not to work with the labour movement; the diversity of the American working class, and the ease in which that diversity can be exploited into divide-and-conquer; even the US's lack of feudal history figures in.

Looking at this frustrating snapshot of US history, we can also take Howard Zinn's approach. We can view a "reverse negative" image of the US, and look at all the working people who have organized on behalf of themselves, and the changes that work has forced. Capitalism wasn't pre-ordained to become The American Way. It didn't happen here. Yet.

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