In a few days Michael Moore’s latest documentary film, Capitalism: A Love Story, will go global — targeting its desired demographic via tried and true marketing tools, courting new fans by tapping into the current cultural discontent, calculating future earning potential as it tracks opening-weekend ticket sales. Capitalism, indeed. What’s not to love?
Irony aside, I like Michael Moore. He’s a flawed man who makes flawed films — a polarizing figure who is a champion to those who love him and a detestable blasphemer of all things sacred (read: American) to those who love to hate him.
But he’s also a tireless advocate for the powerless and the poor. He has stayed true to his working-class roots and to the people who still struggle in places like Flint, Michigan, his hometown. He has spent his career speaking out on their behalf, giving them a voice and visibility in his widely-seen movies. He has fearlessly confronted the corporate suits, exposing their greed and hypocrisy, their cluelessness and cruelty. Twenty years ago this week his film Roger and Me debuted; it couldn’t be more timely.
It’s hard to say if Moore’s new documentary will spark much public debate. If it does, chances are slim that it will be the thoughtful, civil kind. The battle lines have long been drawn. His fans will see and likely appreciate the movie. His detractors will scorn him and his film, hurling the kind of hyperbolic vitriol we’ve come to expect when political disagreements are aired as public, for-profit spectacle.
I’ll reserve judgment on Capitalism: A Love Story until I see it. But I’ve been reading about the free market with some students this week (Bill Cavanaugh’s excellent little book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire) and I’m reminded of how our complete surrender to either/or interpretive stances — left or right, liberal or conservative, democrat or republican — makes it almost impossible to imagine any other way of organizing, understanding, criticizing, and living life in a polis.
Cavanaugh points out the futility of being either “for” or “against” the free market per se. The crucial question to ask, he says, is “when is a market free?” Classic economic theory tells us that as long as the transaction entered into is voluntary and informed, with all parties benefiting, then a free-market exchange has occured. But we know it’s not that simple.
Freedom, in a consumer-capitalist economy, means freedom from coercion, from interference — license to pursue one’s own limitless desires for one’s own self-determined ends. Sounds good to most of us. What else could it mean to be free? Indeed, we’re regularly told by well-meaning people, religious people included, that Americans die in wars so we can enjoy this kind of freedom.
But there are other ways — better, richer, deeper ways — of understanding and exercising human freedom. In opposition to the market’s freedom from approach, Wendell Berry has written about freedom for — the idea that freedom is not about the exercise of unconstrained individual autonomy in a capitalist economy but is about choosing which constraints we should live by and what communities we ought to be responsible to.
Freedom for, as Cavanaugh similarly puts it, is a capacity to achieve certain worthwhile ends. And thus “the key to true freedom,” he argues, “is not just following whatever desires we happen to have, but cultivating the right desires.”
In raising these matters with my students — that of “desire” especially, we watched the PBS documentary Merchants of Cool. They were immediately struck by how dated it is (it aired in early 2001 when most of them were pre-teens). But their observation — that what counted as “cool” at the turn of the millenium is so not cool now — underscores the film’s basic point: desire in a market economy is never about acquiring stuff, even cool stuff, but is about the endless pursuit of the next cool thing.
As Cavanaugh notes: “What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things . . . Pleasure is not so much in the possession of things but in their pursuit.”
When there’s no “end” to desire but more desire, it’s difficult to be free — free from the manipulation of advertisers, free from the influence of the fewer and fewer mega-corporation in whose hands tremendous power is now concentrated.
But “cultivating the right desires” means, at least in part, refusing to cede all power to the market for determining what we want and what counts as the good life. If what I want — cheap food, nice clothes, tasty coffee, for instance — can only be gotten at the expense of the land, of exploited sweat shop workers, and of third world subsistence farmers — then I may have “freely” purchased and consumed these products, but I (and my desires) are captive to a system that literally enslaves others.
In the Christian tradition we say that desire must be directed toward its true end: God. What this looks like in the day-to-day reality of eating and drinking, working and playing, is that my “consumer choices” ought to reflect my desire that the creation God loves — the earth and all who dwell in it — should flourish and thrive.
When corporate interests, in the name of the free market, seek profit at the expense of the earth and all who dwell in it — when they abuse the land and diminish the humanity of workers, their power must be named for the evil it is.
I suspect that it is corporate power and its abuses that Michael Moore is interested in exposing in his new film. If so, and if he reminds us of our responsibility to question, resist, thwart, and subvert such abuses, then more power to him.