United States

The Disappeared

A Movie Review by Bonnie Weinstein

Capitalism: A Love Story, By Michael Moore

I saw Michael Moore’s movie, Capitalism: A Love Story on October 3, on the occasion of my father, Nat Weinstein’s 85th birthday. Being long-time socialists, our family was anxious to see the film. It promised to be a unique experience to go to a movie that is actually critical of capitalism and sympathetic to working people.

While there are many things to criticize about the film, it does advance some very important ideas like the undemocratic character of the profit motive; the lack of economic democracy; and the need for working people to organize on a mass scale to demand economic democracy along with political and social democracy and justice.

Flint, Michigan, is not only Moore’s hometown, but hometown to the 1936-37 United Automobile Workers historic sit-down strike. Its plight today is indicative of the beating U.S. workers have taken over the past 35 years in industries across the country.

But I decided to write a review of the movie after reading an article entitled, “Amid Ruin of Flint, Seeing Hope in a Garden,” by Dan Barry that appeared in the New York Times on October 19, 2009, and described the new Flint, Michigan.

The news story is about the people left in Flint after the automobile industry’s collapse. It focuses on some neighbors, now living in a community pockmarked by abandoned and foreclosed-on homes and empty lots full of trash, who start a vegetable garden and begin to clear the empty lots and plant fruit trees. They turn their once overcrowded community into a new urban paradise—a supposed new beginning for Flint:

“East Piper Avenue now has its sidewalk back, along with a vegetable garden, a grassy expanse where
a children’s playground will be built, and, close to one of those abutting abandoned houses, a mix-and-match orchard of 18 young fruit trees.

“‘This is a Golden Delicious tree,’ Mr. Ryan says, reading the tags on the saplings. ‘This is a Warren pear. That’s a McIntosh. This is a Mongolian cherry tree. . . .’

“In many ways, this garden on East Piper Avenue reflects all of Flint, a city working hard to reinvent itself, a city so weary of serving as the country’s default example of post-industrial decline.”

This, claims the author, is a sign of hope contrasted to the stark reality. The article goes on:

“But Dayne Walling, the recently elected mayor, says these developments, while exciting, tell but one side of the city’s story. The other side: a steep decline in the tax base, an unemployment rate hovering around 25 percent, rising healthcare and pension costs, drastic cutbacks in municipal services, a legacy of fiscal mismanagement—and, of course, the loss of some 70,000 jobs at General Motors, the industry that defined Flint for nearly a century.

“The job loss, compounded by the recession, has led to an astonishing plunge in the city’s population—to about 110,000, and falling, from roughly 200,000 in 1960. Thousands of abandoned houses now haunt the 34-square-mile city; one in four houses is said to be vacant.

“As a result, Flint finds itself the centerpiece of a national debate about so-called shrinking cities, in which mostly abandoned neighborhoods might become green space, and their residents would be encouraged to live closer to a downtown core.”

Not a thought is given to those who have been laid off and displaced—who have disappeared from neighborhoods and communities—and what has become of them. In fact, according to the article, Flint’s Mayor Walling, “prefers to talk about sustainable cities, rather than shrinking cities. He imagines the Flint of 2020 as a city of 100,000, with a vibrant downtown surrounded by greener neighborhoods, in which residents have doubled their lot sizes by acquiring adjacent land where houses once stood. ... ‘We’re down, but we’re not out,’ he says. ‘And that’s a classic American story.’”

The only thing classic about this story is the similarity to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, except that today’s economic collapse was not caused by the weather but by criminal banking and corporate profit-taking. And there is no burgeoning California farm industry looking for slave labor; it’s giant agribusiness now. Increasingly, U.S. agribusinesses are contracting out their labor needs to local prisons—it’s even cheaper than slave labor and they don’t have to feed, clothe, or even house the prisoners.

The problem

Today’s youth between the ages of 17 and 35 have grown up watching their parents’ economic situation steadily decline. They’ve watched millions of workers displaced by other workers in foreign lands who earn a penny on the dollar that workers earn here. Instead of organized labor demanding that employers pay the same pay-scale to all workers doing equal work no matter who or where they are—a demand, if won, that would have saved millions of well-paying union jobs and raised the standard of living of workers around the world—the unions advocated a futile “boycott” of foreign-made products.

The motto “Buy American” became a huge advertising campaign paid for by the workers’ own labor organizations. The boycott was futile because, with the dollar not going as far as it did before, workers were forced to purchase the cheapest products, and those were the foreign-made ones. To make matters worse for the U.S. labor force, the foreign products such as cars and electronic equipment were actually better than their American-made counterparts.

Moore points out that strategies like this, that are the result of the union bureaucracy having climbed in bed with the bosses, has resulted in the least combative labor leadership in the country’s history and marks the collapse of organized labor “as we knew it” from representing at its height 35 percent of the workforce in the 1950s to less than 12 percent today. And now workers are faced with a brand-new reality. There are no jobs for newly displaced workers or workers just entering the workforce—let alone union jobs.

According to an October 10, 2009, Wall Street Journal article by Darrell A. Hughes and Conor Dougherty entitled, “Employers Have Fewer Jobs to Offer,”

“There were 2.4 million job openings in August, down from 2.41 million in July and the lowest level since the Labor Department started tracking the data in December 2000. In August 2008, there were 4.65 million job openings.

“Job separations outpaced new hires in August. The report showed that roughly 4.27 million people quit, retired or were laid off in August. . . . Hiring activity remains at historic lows, with steep declines across most sectors, including mining and logging, construction and retail trade, according to Friday’s report [October 9, 2009]. Overall, hiring is down 28 percent since its July 2006 peak, with employers hiring 4.01 million workers in August.”

According to the Census Bureau, projections show the rate of increase in the labor force slowing after 2012 to about 1.8 million per year. But if you look at the graph titled “Long Road Back” for 1980 to 2007, which appears with another WSJ article entitled, “Scarred Job Market Expected to Weigh on Economy” by Phil Izzo that appeared October 8, 2009, you will see that the number of jobs first drops by eight million and then slowly recovers by 2017. But over those eight years, the civilian labor force will have increased by about 16 million persons! That is, even though the number of jobs has returned to the precrash level, the number of people looking for jobs will have increased by 16 million. Today, we have 15 to 20 million unemployed. So, by the time we “recover” by the end of 2016, we’ll have 35 million unemployed (give or take a few million here or there).

The fix

Capitalism: A Love Story movingly depicts this dismal reality faced by working people today. Confrontations between sheriffs and the evicted; film footage of once burgeoning factory-cities lying in ruins; blocks of foreclosed-on homes; and ridiculously long lines for applying for a few meager-paying jobs. All this is contrasted to the criminality of Wall Street and its accomplice, the U.S. government.

At one point Moore, armed with canvas moneybags, tries to enter the corporate headquarters of AIG to collect the money stolen from taxpayers by their unscrupulous business practices. When he is denied entry he pulls out yellow crime-scene tape, designates the building a crime scene, and tries to make a citizen’s arrest of the Board of Directors.

The plight of workers who have lost everything because of the trillion-dollar-bailout swindle is contrasted to the fantastic wealth of the corporate bosses and banksters—their multiple mansions, private jets, jewels, furs, and vacation homes.

Despite Moore’s na├»ve portrayal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as labor’s saint, and his apologies for President Obama’s not carrying out any of his campaign promises for single-payer healthcare, the Employee Free Choice Act, or stopping the wars, among other things (and even with a Democratic majority in Congress), the film made three very important pro-labor points, and made them clearly and forcefully.

First, the capitalist profit motive is fundamentally unjust because it leads to decisions based upon increasing the rate of profit at the expense of working people.

Second, you can’t have political or social democracy without economic democracy.

The third and most important, the power of the majority can be multiplied through unity and solidarity for a common cause!

In the film we follow the Republic Windows and Doors workers bravely sitting-in at their cold Chicago factory in early December 2008. They would not leave the factory even though company officials had announced the factory was closing and they had all been laid off. The workers, members of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, said they were owed vacation and severance pay and were not given the 60 days’ notice generally required by federal law when companies make layoffs. They would not leave the jobsite until they got what they were owed.

The film shows they gained tremendous popular support. People brought food and warm blankets. Demonstrations in support of the workers spread to cities across the country. Tremendous pressure was put on politicians. Ordinary workers everywhere were outraged by the bank bailouts in contrast to the wholesale abandonment of these hard-working people just trying to survive.

The support and expression of solidarity with the Republic workers who were sitting-in led to a great victory for them and for all workers.

Michael Moore went even further in his film, to illustrate how workers’ solidarity and unity has traditionally led to workers’ victory.

The film shows clips of the great Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 that, because of the massive support from workers across industries, changed the United Auto Workers from a collection of isolated locals to a major, united union encompassing the entire U.S. auto industry. And it set the precedent for many labor struggles to come.

His point in showing this was to underscore the message that labor, united, has the power to win and that this is the kind of struggle we need today.

Throughout the film, in spite of its flaws, the theme of labor organizing and fighting back is repeated, and depicted as true democracy—decision-making by the majority.

This is a profound idea and a real expansion of democracy, as we know it under capitalism. It is a revolutionary idea that capitalism does not allow this right. Workers can only claim this right if they are organized into a massive, unified, and independent force to win it for themselves by the sheer power of their numbers.

Unfortunately, Michael Moore implies that this kind of democracy can exist in a kinder and gentler capitalism. He says he’s not a socialist and that he has faith in Obama. He’s dead wrong about those things but right about what real democracy is: majority rule.

He encourages workers not to be among the “disappeared”—defeated, silent, and evicted from their homes, their former lives, and even the unemployment lists because their benefits have long run out and they still don’t have a job—like all the former workers and homeowners who have vanished from sight from Flint, Detroit, Cleveland, and cities across the country.

The movie is a plea for workers to come together and organize a real fight for what they are entitled to: economic, political, and social democracy where the majority really rules and profits are shared by all.

But of course I take exception to Moore’s faith in a kinder and gentler capitalism. While many gains can be won through a unified worker’s struggle—and every effort must be made to strengthen and broaden this struggle—economic, social, and human equality and democracy can only be realized when workers adopt a worldwide strategy to abolish the profit system altogether and take democratic control of the means of production into their own hands. And that will take a socialist revolution. It is impossible to accomplish under capitalism.