Rally in solidarity with Wisconsin workers, February 26th, Springfield IL. My favorite part starts around 8:19, with Dave Burns. All of us IBEW folk in the back were just waiting for him to come out with a quotable quote, and he finally delivered: “Without organized labor, we’d all be pickin’ shit in the dirt!!” Right on!
We went to see Capitalism: A Love Story Thursday night. As far as I’m concerned, Michael Moore is a national treasure. This particular film wasn’t his best effort (I especially loved Sicko, even as it enraged me by triggering memories of bill collectors and hoop jumping for services), but I’m glad he’s still using his bully pulpit to represent the rest of us. People who groan about “polemic” and “oversentimentality” and such aren’t getting it. This is straight-up preaching to the choir. Like a rousing speech at the union hall or a picket-line chant, this is all about getting asses off the seats and into gear.
The film opens with bank robbery—a visual play on the theme of who’s committing the real grand theft. And then…three foreclosures. Three families being kicked to the curb. I notice the expression on my daughter’s face changing as she realizes this is a documentary. We’re watching a woman appeal to the carpenter boarding up Anthony King’s home in Detroit: “You’re a working-class person! I’m just sayin’….couldn’t you make a different choice?!”
“Mama? Is this real?”
“Yeah hon, it’s real. This is going on all over the nation. People are losing their jobs and their homes. Everything they’ve worked for.”
By the time we’re watching the Hacker family lose their Peoria farmstead that goes back four generations due to the perfect storm of ballooning mortgage payments and Randy Hacker’s jobsite injury on the railroad (eventually landing him on permanent disability)….
my daughter is really blanching. She notices this is fairly close to home. Her godmother lives not too far from Peoria.
“Is this going to happen to us?”
“I sure the hell hope not, kid.”
Mixing cuts of schlocky educational films on capitalism produced for high school students in the 50s with home movies and other documentary footage, the tagline of the film (“A Love Story”) is brought to light. But this isn’t just any love story. No, it’s a made-for-Lifetime television saga: a tale of epic dysfunction, enabling, excuses, and let’s just go ahead and say it….abuse. “This is Capitalism, a system of taking and giving. Mostly taking.” Moore traces the “courtship” period of his childhood, pointing out the steady benefits of the boom-time of no competition on the world stage (the competition having been bombed into oblivion in WWII), and frankly, no competition for white people in the good jobs (Moore phrases it, “as long as we were willing to put up with a little of this (shots of civil rights activists being beaten by the police and/or having firehoses and dogs turned on them), and a little of that (war footage).” Home movies from Moore’s childhood show his father as the happy, robust patriarch in the swimming pool; Life is Good. Later, Moore takes his father on a walk through the Flint of today—desolate, boarded up houses, factories reduced to rubble, looking much like the remnants of war footage interspersed throughout the film. His father is slender in his old age, stooped posture, eyes searching, trying to conjure the image of the building where he worked while he and his son gaze through a chain-link fence at the empty, weed-strewn lot that once housed a factory that provided thousands with paychecks. Flint isn’t alone; it’s what most of the rust belt looks like.
We meet Peter Zalewski of Condo Vultures, a brokerage company that dives into the wreckage of the Florida housing market, the debris of what once were people’s lives. He frankly describes what his company does and how the name was derived—what vultures do in the ecosphere, swooping in after the carcass that others have conveniently already killed…even down to the properties of vulture vomit. Moore asks him what are the differences between him and actual vultures. “Well,” says Zalewski, “I don’t vomit on myself.” Condo Vultures threw a party for themselves on opening night of the film as a promotional opportunity.
Moore interviews some priests for their opinions on whether capitalism is compatible with Christianity. Seems as if these priests take liberation theology seriously; Father Dick Preston bluntly states, “Capitalism is evil, immoral, and contrary to the teachings of Jesus.” Father Peter Dougherty puts it in stronger terms, “Capitalism is radically evil.” Bishop James Alan Wilkowski showed up to support and offer communion to the workers conducting a sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors, talking about growing up the son of a steelworker on Chicago’s southeast side. Moore wickedly overdubbed an old movie on Jesus; when the sick man was brought for a healing, Jesus refused to help, blithely saying something about a “pre-existing condition”.
“Dead Peasant” insurance (the name given in the industry) is the practice of taking out a life insurance policy on a worker with the hope of benefiting from his or her death—like a lottery ticket on the life of an employee. Irma Johnson learned about this practice when her husband died of brain cancer. Her husband’s employer was the beneficiary of the policy that she knew nothing about. A widower who worked for Wal-Mart was devastated to learn his wife—a part-time cake decorator—was insured by the company for their own benefit. While he was left with nothing to pay the hundreds of thousands in medical bills from his wife’s asthma attack, coma, and death, Wal-Mart pocketed the change.
We never did get a concise definition of what a derivative is, although we did find out that if we could accurately explain one, we would probably be offered jobs on Wall Street. (from what I could gather, a derivative sounds like a combination of playing the horses and the shell game, but hey, whadd’a I know?)
Moore didn’t pull punches on either political party—both corrupt Dems and corrupt Rethugs got the ax swung at ‘em. Senator Chris Dodd was especially noted for being a “Friend of Angelo” (Mozilo, head of Countrywide Financial, who offered sweetheart deals for his “friends”). Legal-to-the-letter or no, the concept “appearance of impropriety” didn’t seem to mean much to this crowd.
There were heroics, too. The workers at Republic Windows and Doors won. Sheriff Warren Evans halted the sales of foreclosed homes in light of bank bailouts until relief came through for homeowners, too. Community organizers in Florida re-occupy houses for displaced families living in vehicles or on the street.
There’s a lot to unpack with a subject this large. Capitalism is a Leviathan, and I excuse Moore for the disconnected flow of the film. That leaping from subject to subject, story to story, and method of telling speaks to the difficulty of trying to escape the Titanic, rather than rearrange the deck chairs. I imagine this was a rushed project—an attempt to get the word out, to motivate, strike while the iron is hot. Yeah, he isn’t above cheap stunts like the crime scene tape around Wall Street….
“That’s a crime scene? That’s where they stole the money?”
“You fuckin’ A, kid. That’s the crime scene, baby.“
….but dammit, other media outlets are too afraid, too mealymouthed to take sides. Whatever else may be said about our era (Moore describes it at the start of the film by juxtaposing old movies about ancient Rome with scenes from the present), this is definitely a time for declaring where we stand.
To be real: the commentary that my daughter and I raised back-and-forth with one another throughout the film? That’s how I was raised, too. Old-school labor union democratic socialism, the kind referenced in the film as FDR’s Second Bill of Rights. As is pointed out in the film, other nations enjoy this “second bill of rights” while people in the United States did and do not. While I was raised with an ethic of solidarity, the outside world, the world that feared unionism treading in its space, taught that capitalism is “human nature”. That looking out for “number one” was the way of the world. That people were fundamentally selfish and lazy, and that given any opportunity to cut corners or abandon others, they would. The philosophy of the gabbillotu, the overseer. Another legacy of the U.S. history of slavery; the recognition that oppressed people would resist in any way possible, no matter how limited their means to do so—but this time, extended to reference the entire character of people at large.
Unreferenced in this capitalistic worldview is the call to Craftsmanship. Creativity. The will toward artistry, imagination, virtuosity as a province of the common people. Capitalism holds that these qualities are rare. I disagree. Seeking craftsmanship, taking pride and ownership in one’s work, is as human as language…and as widespread. And that’ll be the subject of the next post—mastery, without masters. Assabenedica.
Crystal Lee Sutton, originally of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, died of cancer September 12 at the age of 68. She was instrumental in the 10-year fight to unionize the J.P. Stevens mill, where she once worked for $2.65/hr. You may remember her as “Norma Rae”, as portrayed by actor Sally Field in the Oscar-winning film of 1979.
Crystal moved on from the J.P. Stevens mill after becoming an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union; she eventually returned to school and graduated from Alamance Community College, who maintains her records of the organizing battle and a website about her life. She was initially denied coverage by her insurance company for treatment for her cancer; her husband worked two jobs to help pay for her medical care. The North Carolina State AFL-CIO is also accepting donations for her medical bills.
“It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world.” –Crystal Lee Sutton
Rest in peace, Sister.
Lu Lutta Continua.