Capitalism: A Review


In the spirit of openness, please consider the following as you read this post. My name appears in Capitalism: A Love Story’s credits under the heading “Special Thanks”. I provided significant information to DogEatDog Productions regarding worker co-operatives, Mondragon, and the St. Mary’s University program, Masters of Management: Co-operative and Credit Union. I also assisted the production company in coordinating interviews and filming of my co-operative, Union Cab of Madison, which ultimately did not make the theatrical release (although I hope that it will be included in the dvd release).I attended a special screening provided at no cost to the membership of Isthmus Engineering and Union Cab on October 1, 2009.

The following comments are my own and should be read in light of the above disclaimer.


For a true “review” of capitalism, one should consult what remains the definitive work on the subject (regardless of your political views). That is the work Das Kapital by Karl Marx. In his expansive three volume treatise, one can find such poignant pearls as this comment from volume 1:

“Owners of capital will stimulate working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks which will have to be nationalized and State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism.”**

Capitalism: A Love Story provides the highest public profile for worker cooperatives in the United States that they have ever received. While it falls far short of the economic analysis of Marx, Moore correctly taps into the basic lack of fairness within the economic system and puts human faces on the statistical failure experienced during the last year.

The film is a great example of Michael Moore’s sense of humor and fair play. As with Sicko, Moore takes on the complexity of Capitalism and brings it down to earth with personal accounts of its effects, the disclosure that even the people who created derivatives can’t define them, and offers a real-life alternative to running a market economy based on the value democracy instead of greed.

One could probably write volumes on what Moore left out. As mentioned, Marx already has. However, in about 120 minutes, C:aLS tries to remove the social support that Capitalism receives from those that don’t benefit from it without making us feel too foolish for being suckers. Moore also correctly avoids the conspiracy theories of who runs the government by focusing on what Wall Street and our elected officials did in the light of day in front of the C-SPAN cameras.

For a large part, the movie preaches to the converted and for those of you who already identify as being “on the left” the movie is a fun, affirming event rather than the call for action with which it seems to end. For others, I am not sure that the film will resonate that much and may also be affirming to those who don’t really trust Moore or like his style. It was this latter group that seemed to be Moore’s primary focus and I think that may have hurt the overall ability of the film to get a coherent message out.

As with many reviewers, including The Economist, I was a bit shocked that Moore’s choice for economic advice was Wallace Shawn especially when I know that he spoke with people that had much more veritas in the area of economics, but the ones that I know about aren’t from the United States. Still, Moore has never shied away from foreign ideas and, one could argue, that Capitalism was an import for which our founding fathers saw as a threat to the republic. I think that the choice of Shawn suggests that the focus of the movie wasn’t to create a viable alternative as much details just how much capitalism sucks.

My biggest critique of C:aLS was the inclusion of the lengthy discussion about theology and WWJD. One that Moore continued on his blog the Sunday of the first weekend after the movie opened. This segment, to me, exposed a trait among the American Left that is almost as obnoxious as their unwillingness to understand market economics. The Republican Party may have risen to power on the basis of Gods, Gays, and Guns as Wisconsin lawmaker Mark Pocan has proclaimed; however, those social issues have absolutely nothing to do with capitalism. Too often, however, the Left assumes that religious people are reactionary because they elect republicans. However, the republicans have never run on deregulating the economy, closing plants and shipping jobs overseas–they win by getting social conservatives to the polls to vote against gay marriage, abortion, and immigration.

Attacking capitalism and what happened on Wall Street by pointing out the teachings of Jesus seems a meaningless gesture and assumes a lot about people who go to Church. In my travels, I find that the christian movement types tend to see Wall Street as much a den of iniquity as Las Vegas–with the same rules. They already see the sin of greed at work. In the more extreme cases, the conspiratorialists even see the combination of non-christian forces at work controlling the economy and the government. They already agree that Jesus would disapprove of the type of capitalism (cheating capitalism) at play with the Banks. Using this imagery might have the unintended consequences of reinforcing beliefs about the role that non-Christians play in the economy.

I think that this time would have been better spent explaining why co-operatives are a better market economy. He could have made it a nice transition by asking the question, WWJD and then focusing on to incredible works to come out of the energy of Jesuit Priests: Moses Coady with Co-op Atlantic and Don José María Arrizmendiarietta with Mondragon. Instead of the discussion with the priest and bishop, he could have talked to Andrew McCleod a co-op developer and author of the book, Holy Co-operation which details how the teachings of the bible (Old and New testaments) promote the idea of a co-operative economy (had I known this was part of the focus, I would have let the production company know).

I argue this not just to see my co-op in the film, but to make the case that we can have a market economy based on democracy. Moore gives us the false choice between and economic model and a philosophical value (capitalism or democracy). This is the other short-coming of the film–it doesn’t seem to know what it wants or to understand the subject. We are taught that capitalism replaced feudalism. To me, capitalism did not replace feudalism it simply replaced the human at the top with currency. Instead of owing service to the lord for a piece of land and the ability to work, people now serve the dollar. As the barter/trade/service system became replaced by a market economy, we kept the basic anti-democratic structure of feudalist practice known as “The Golden Rule” (those who have the gold, make the rules). Capitalism, keep in mind, came of age when slavery was a constitutional right in the United States of America and the right of kings was only beginning to be successfully challenged. As our communities became more democratic, we started to resist the excesses of capitalism to make it fit to our collective world view. This led to government regulation and the constant push and pull between the masses and the wealthy elite.

So, Moore is correct. Capitalism is not something that we can fix. It isn’t evil, though, it is just an economic system using the market place for a society that no longer easily exists with the majority view of the governed populace. The idea of democratic capitalism is an oxymoron. Co-operation on the other hand, is a democratic method of market economy that has stood the test of time. I wish that Mondragon has allowed Moore to film (the rumor is that they were worried about the response by General Motors, one of the major customers). I would love to see Moore follow this movie with one about Co-operation. He could tour the co-operative societies and movements of the United Kingdom, Canada (Maritimes, BC), Spain, Italy, Argentina, Japan, and countless other countries. This is a market economy that began in earnest in 1844 with 24 pioneers in Rochdale, England and now numbers over 800 million people world-wide. Even in the United States, the co-operative movement provide wages of around 75 billion dollars a year, 2,143,256 jobs and revenue of 652 billion dollars (source: UW Center for Co-operatives)

In summary, go see the film. It is fun and will be worth your time and money (especially if you like hiss-the-villain movies). The version of The Internationale at the end is worth the price of admission. Moore does make us realize how basically unfair capitalism has become especially when the top 1% make the rules for the rest of the 99% to play by (and how willingly they will destroy each other proving that the is no honor among thieves).  In interviews, Moore uses the analogy of a pie served to ten children. If one child takes 9 of the pieces for himself, the other kids will immediately know that act is unfair, yet we accept it everyday in our economy. You will cheer for Marcy Kaptur*** and wish that we had more elected representatives like her. You will leave, I hope, feeling inspired to change the world.

If you also leave the theater completely unsure of how to change the world, I would suggest going down to join your local consumer co-operative, moving all of your banking to the credit union that serves your area, switching your insurance to a mutual insurance company such as Nationwide and, if you feel really into changing the world, discussing with co-workers the idea of collectively going into business as a worker co-op and putting your boss out of work.

As Ghandi and others have said: Be the change you want to see.

**I want to thank Rob Rowlands (University of Birmingham, UK) who presented this quote as part of his paper on a Mutual Neighborhood. Please watch Breathing Lessons for a future post on that intriguing subject.

***Having grown up in Toledo, OH, the movie made me feel proud of that my history (not only because of Kaptur, but the Cleveland: We Not Detroit video as well).

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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3 Responses to Capitalism: A Review

  1. Great Blog post. I am going to bookmark and read more often. I love the Blog template

  2. Yilda says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog. Let’s get you published!

  3. Thank you for the kind words!

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