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Moore Capitalism: It's Time to Have the Conversation

By       Message Timothy Cavanaugh     Permalink
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Later this week the new Michael Moore film 'Capitalism: a Love Store' comes to theaters nationwide. As of the writing of this piece I have not yet seen the move, I am just a lowly citizen-journalist and don't have the connections to get invited to an advanced screening. That said I have seen and read much about this highly anticipated documentary from the basely hilarious and artistically fearless political gadfly that is Michael Moore.

The premise of the film is that capitalism is evil and that through unchecked greed and the engineered advantage of the ultra-wealthy over all others the wealth of this nation is grossly unbalanced and that that is inherently undemocratic. As much of a fan as I am of Michael Moore films I don't accept the conclusion fully, specifically the evil part. I don't go in for absolutes like good and evil for obvious reasons. But I do agree with the insight in to the inconsistency between capitalism and democracy that Mr. Moore points out, a position I've held myself for many years.

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The warm and fuzzy description of capitalism would typically be: an economic and social system in which the means of production (also known as capital) are privately controlled; labor, goods and capital are traded in a free market; profits are distributed to owners or invested in new technologies and industries; and wages are paid to labor. Now that sounds great! Unfortunately, this textbook definition fails to factor in the real-world realities.

In actuality privately controlled also means privately amassed and privately wielded not for the public good but for the private owners profits, often in contravention to the general welfare. Public financing of private ventures through political corruption is always the preferred mode to private wealth accumulation with the public i.e. taxpayers getting stuck with the bill in the end. The markets in capitalism are rarely free, they may start off that way but they quickly become sullied and iniquitous due to the inherent corruption in a system founded on greed. And finally profits paid to owners are in direct conflict with wages paid to labor i.e. the less you pay labor and the harder you work them for their already low wages the more profits there are for the people making all the decisions. Further, with our system of publicly owned companies being at the core of our economy and with their inherent obsession with the bottom line and with labor often being the greatest of their expenses, the trimming back of labor equals increased stock prices and subsequently greater value in the company. The newly unemployed must now go without, the remaining employees must pick up the slack for no increased wages or benefits and the tiny fraction of people at the top of this unholy pyramid, the elitist owners, simply sit back and reap the greater profits.

As you can see in respects to capitalism I am in full agreement with Mr. Moore (except for that evil thing). The problem is that he and I and all others that agree with us are up against a well-established but completely false American axiom; Capitalism equals democracy. For just under a century now all of us have been taught from day one in our churches, schools, social-networks and from the media that communism is bad. Further and as a result of it being at odds with communism, capitalism is good. More importantly we've been taught that communists are inherently un-free and subsequently capitalists, being the antithesis of communists are free. With 'free' being a political synonym for democracy one must conclude that capitalism must have and therefore equals democracy. The problem is that none of this is true.

Capitalism by its very nature amasses wealth in small quarters. As a result a very limited few will have and control great wealthy while the vast majority will get by on modest means. With the political reality of money equaling access; to politicians, industry leaders, the media, etc., capitalism confines true influence and subsequently power over our political and economic futures to a very few. Further, in respects to the law our legal system is set up in such a way that the more you have the better representation you can afford. Therefore in addition to political and economic advantage capitalism also provides legal benefits to the wealthy that the masses are not afforded.

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Democracy on the other hand is a system of government in which either the actual governing is carried out by the people directly or the power to govern is granted to their elected representatives by them. The word 'democracy' actually means 'popular government.' Democracy is founded on the principle that all are equal and therefore all should have an equal say in how their government is run. Even though there is no universally accepted definition of 'democracy', there are two principles that any definition will include; equality and freedom. These principles are embodied in the fact that in all true democracies all citizens are seen as being equal before the law, and having equal access to power.

As we've seen capitalism does not provide and even discourages both legal equality and more importantly equitable distribution of power. In fact it could be and has been argued many times that the act of wealth accumulation is less about the amassing economic potential and more about the accretion of political power. How then can an economic system that is founded on the inequitable distribution of legal protections and economic, social and political power be equal to a political philosophy whose fundamentals are the exact opposite? The answer is they can't. Therefore capitalism is not equal to democracy.

But try telling that to the millions of Americans who blindly chant in favor of all things capitalist even as that same system is stealing from them daily through inflation, political corruption and decreased political influence as more and more of their political representatives are bought and paid for by the wealthy.

To make matters worse it would seem that capitalists are the worst offenders of their own stated principles. Capitalism preaches a sort of survival of the fittest mantra; in the dog-eat-dog world of the marketplace only the best companies will survive. But when things go bad economically and you think these Reaganite Freidman loyalists are going to stands up and sing the praises of the unencumbered marketplace -- see how the invisible hand selected against the weaker of the fold and the market is stronger for it -- these capitalists surprise us all and do a 180 by asking for public assistance. We've seen this over and over again with the most recent example of the four trillion dollar bank bailout being the undisputed worst. It would seem that the capitalists are okay with government intervention as long as it's the government handing out welfare checks to Fortune 500 companies.

Further irony can be found in the fact that mega-multinational-corporations -- the new base of operations for the ultra-wealthy as they provide a convenient cover for these people to trade their money for influence -- are constantly crying to their political front-men about unfair competition from foreign competitors less encumbered with state regulations and labor costs. As a result our government has a multi-layered web of tariffs, import restrictions and trade agreements so thick that it's almost impossible to sell a piece of imported rock candy much less an automobile without first quadrupling cost. So what ever happened to 'only the strong survive'?

And finely, consistently the people (politicians and industry leaders) that scream the loudest for a hands-off government, i.e. no regulation, are the ones that again violate their own principles of fair competition by completely eliminating it via colluding with existing competitors and restricting entry into the marketplace of new competitors through adversarial legislation. Again it seems that government intervention is fine with the capitalists as long as it is helping them break their own stated rules.

The conclusion: it's all a bunch of lies. Capitalism does not equal democracy; in fact it is down right hurt by it and so actively pursues its demise. Capitalist are not in favor of competition or unregulated markets, they just want to be able to preach those things while they pay their political cronies to break down barriers for them and build up others for their rivals.

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I hope Mr. Moore's new film is a raving success and further I hope it begins the process of this nation taking an honest and critical look at its economic framework and the system of abject poverty and injustice for the majority that has grown up around it. With the taste of the economic events of the last eighteen months still on our lips this might be the perfect time to broach the subject of a different way and a Michael Moore film with its hard-hitting analysis wrapped in comical overtones might be just what we need to open the conversation; but let's leave the discussions of good and evil to the theologians.


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My name is Timothy Cavanaugh and I am an independent writer specializing in political, environmental and social justice issues. I regularly submit op-eds to various newspapers and blogs and I enjoy debating my positions with others when I get the (more...)

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