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Capitalism: a Horror Movie

As part of its special series celebrating the 200thbirthday of Karl Marx between May 18-22, the Anthology Film Archives will be screening “Capitalism”, a 320-minute, six-part documentary that is both supremely intelligent and briskly entertaining, on May 20th at 3:45. Directed by Ilan Ziv, the founder of Icarus Films, it is like no other film I have ever seen about the horror we face in our daily lives that is much more frightening than slasher movies like Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth. After all, the idea of nuclear holocaust or global warming—just two of the threats we face from an economic system gone mad—are not something a plucky hero or heroine in a John Carpenter movie can stave off.

The film operates on two levels. It is both a history of how this system came into existence as well as a profile of the men who have put themselves at its service ideologically (Hayek) and those who either fought against its worst abuses (Keynes) or hoped to abolish it altogether (Marx).

“Capitalism” is a virtual who’s who of academics and journalists who have devoted their lives to understanding and transcending it: Thomas Piketty, David Graeber, Yanis Varoufakis, and David Harvey among others. CounterPunch’s long-time contributor Michael Hudson is also heard from and to the best advantage, at one point cutting David Ricardo down to size as an 19thcentury bank lobbyist. Although we don’t hear the questions posed to the interviewees from director Ilan Ziv, he clearly thought long and hard about avoiding those questions that would prompt pat and obvious answers. For example, Noam Chomsky, who is not particularly well-known as an Adam Smith authority, is surprisingly informed about “The Wealth of Nations”. Referring to the famous “invisible hand”, he explains that the term is referred to only once in Smith’s classic and not in the way that most libertarians understand. It was only a reference to how British investors would prefer to keep their money at home rather than risk it abroad.

We also hear from some of their antagonists who are creepier than any monster you will run into in a science fiction movie, including any version of “The Thing”. Pascal Lamy, the former head of the WTO, can’t keep a smirk off his face as he defends globalization. Every country that has opened itself up to foreign investors according to neoliberal (a word he does not use for obvious reasons) principles, the benefits are overflowing. His models are as what you’d expect, China and the Asian tigers. Countering this huckster’s spiel, Ziv interviews a Korean economist who points out that in its initial bid to industrialize, it was the military government that started the country’s first steel mill, not private investors. POSTCO is now the third largest steel producer in the world.

Descending into a lower level of hell, we get plenty of Milton Friedman (make sure to bring along Imodium if he gets to be too much). When asked by Phil Donohue how he can defend a system that keeps so many people in miserable conditions, Friedman answers him with another question. Could Donohue name any society that was not built on greed—as if that justified inequality and suffering?

Some of the interviewees are real finds. We meet Abraham Rotstein, an economist who died in 2015, just a year after “Capitalism” was made. In the 1950s, Rotstein attended the University of Chicago’s graduate economics department but was so appalled by the “greed is good” dogma being spooned out there, he transferred to Columbia University to preserve his sanity and his soul. There he enrolled in a general introduction to economics course given by Karl Polanyi, the author of “The Great Transformation” that is the focus of the sixth and final part of this stellar documentary. We learn of Polanyi’s commitment to the Socialist Party in Vienna that was powerful enough to have pushed through legislation that funded the working class housing complex that was the city’s pride. In 1934, there was a civil war that sought to destroy the Socialist Party and all of its accomplishments, including these houses. While we see images of the holes in the buildings left by artillery shells, we hear the voice of his daughter Kati Polanyi Levitt who said that the destruction reminded her which side of the barricade she belonged on. Like Abraham Rotstein, Levitt was a Canadian economist and is still alive at 95.

The first part of “Capitalism” deals with the system’s origins and comes down emphatically on the side of those scholars who argue that its genesis was in slavery and forced labor, just as Karl Marx pointed out in the chapter titled “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” in Volume One of Capital. Among the interviewees is Eric Mielants, the author of “The Origins of Capitalism and the ‘Rise of the West’” that must be read by anybody interested in the “origins” debate. In my 2007 review of Mielants’s book, I stated that his title was carefully chosen since he understands that the questions of capitalist origins and world domination are interrelated. That is at the heart of Ziv’s film as his crew roams the planet to survey the social and environmental wreckage left by capitalism. We hear from a peasant woman in Haiti who was forced to abandon her rice farm when cheap rice from the USA flooded into her country destroyed her livelihood just as a Mexican farmer explains how corn farming was destroyed in his country. Even Bill Clinton is heard saying that globalization helped to destroy such countries, even if his intervention in Haiti opened the doors.

While the entire film operates on a very high but easily absorbable plane, my favorite part is a profile of David Ricardo who is probably the father of neoliberalism in the same way that Karl Marx was the father of the revolutionary socialism, the silver dagger that will destroy this vampire before very long. Ricardo was a stockbroker who became wealthy by the time he was 19 years old. Like his good friend Malthus, he was horrified by the French Revolution and sought to develop a theory that would rally the bourgeoisie across Europe against the democratic aspirations of the poor. This theory had to be based on science since the hope was to do for economics what Newton had done for physics and Linnaeus had done for the natural world. In seeking to justify the existing inequality between colonizing nations like Britain and the colonized like Jamaica or Ghana, Ricardo pointed to “competitive advantage”. This would allow countries that were superior in making cloth to trade with countries that were superior in providing the cotton that could be spun into cloth. It did not matter to Ricardo that this neutral transaction was based on slavery.

With respect to government regulations, a Chinese-American economist debunks the entire notion of “keeping the government” out of the economy by pointing out that if this was a sacrosanct principle, this would permit child labor to have continued to this day in the developed world (of course, it continues in countries that supplies cacao to Godiva et al.) In the final analysis, it is society and politics that dictates economic choices—or should, in the eyes of Karl Polanyi.

A word about Ilan Ziv, who is an extraordinary figure beyond the singular accomplishment of this film. He was born in Israel in 1950 and came to the United States after fighting in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Since then, he has made a number of films about Israel and the Palestinians that are consistent with the radical vision incorporated in this must-see documentary.

For those not able to make it to Anthology Film Archives, I urge you to go to the Icarus website and learn about other ways to watch “Capitalism”.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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