Algae Bloom

Capitalism: A Love Story, written and directed by Michael Moore (2009): Didactic, skewed to the left, factually dubious at points, and absolutely essential: these are the qualities of Michael Moore’s documentary movies and television programs since he first exploded into America’s consciousness in 1989 with Roger & Me like a working-class, ballcap-wearing Kool-Aid Man. Capitalism: A Love Story offers something more than a depressing look at the impact of decades of business-first policies on ordinary Americans, though, as it also longs for some sort of rebirth of American social consciousness.

At points we might as well be watching a horror movie. Or we are watching a horror movie. By the time you watch a family who’s been forced out of their home by endlessly escalating mortgage payments rehired by the bank that kicked them out to clean out their old house, you may feel a bit sick. Or maybe not. It’s an awful narrative.

So is watching the various Goldman Sachs employees who helped create the financial “crisis” get jobs with the U.S. government to help fix it. Blaugh.

Or discovering the long list of American companies and banks that take out life-insurance policies on their own employees, secretly, so as to benefit if the employee dies. As one insurance investigator points out, it’s illegal to take out fire insurance on someone else’s property because of the obvious benefits attached to then burning down that person’s home. But no such illegality attaches in the U.S. to insuring one’s employees without their knowledge. Un-fucking-believeable.

Tim Robbins’s striking, albeit one-note, 1990 political satire Bob Roberts had the eponymous neo-con sing a song called “Times are Changin’ Back.” Yes, yes they are. Or are they? The deep-seated nostalgia among a large swath of the American and Canadian population for a Golden Age that never really existed is strikingly sinister, as is the targeting of those least responsible for our current economic woes for the lion’s share of the blame.

Meanwhile, Wall Street continues its esoteric economic fiddling while America burns. A small group of shareholders matters more than a large group of workers: it’s simple numbers, big numbers. Capitalism, as Kurt Vonnegut once noted, is simply what all the rich people, drunk or sober, are doing today. And one of the smart things Capitalism: A Love Story does is show how utterly disconnected the people at the top are from the consequences of their actions. Failure, whether you’re a Goldman Sachs trader or the Treasury Secretary, has no downside: you’ll still be an expert, you’ll still get your bonus, you’ll still be able to book speaking tours and gigs on TV.

But God help you if you screw up at your minimum-wage job.

The ostensive efficient Social Darwinism of capitalism only functions at the bottom: there is no real selection at the top. And Social Darwinism was always a crock. Actual Darwinism places life forms within the context of an entire ecosystem which can be destroyed if something goes wrong with even one of its constituent parts. The ecosystem is the economy; Wall Street and its siblings have become the mutated algae that kills everything in the pond. But at least the algae lacks agency, and it doesn’t blame the carp. Highly recommended.

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