Capitalists make millions of out filthy commerce, while their left-wing critics starve, right? Wrong. We are witnessing a new phenomenon, the rise of left-wing capitalism. The prize example of this is Michael Moore’s latest film Fahrenheit 9/11.
A famous American leftist, Moore has lampooned corporations and right-wing politicians for over a decade. But he is no starving artiste.
Fahrenheit 9/11 has already grossed close to $150 million, and may ultimately earn over $300 million taking into account DVD sales and TV broadcast rights.
Since the film, a documentary, cost very little to make, it may end up as one of the most profitable films in history, beating Disney and MGM extravaganzas hollow. Left-wing capitalism has become a money-spinner.
Moore started his film career with Roger and Me in 1989. The film was about his attempts to talk to General Motors’ chief Roger Smith about the closure of a car factory.
It was immediately hailed as a classic left-wing critique, of not merely General Motors but the whole heartless capitalist system. Viewers queued up to watch the agonies of a city where the main employer had closed down.
The film made Moore not just famous but rich. Moore intended the film to be anti-capitalist. Yet, the capitalist system immediately embraced it, and made anti-capitalism part of itself. This revealed a startling truth: attacking big business is big business.
Now, many leftists claim that capitalists conspire to shut out critics and cover up corporate crimes. This is often the case.
Yet Moore’s success shows that the very opposite can also happen. Capitalists are so amoral that they will happily make money out of criticism of themselves.
Ultimately, capitalism is driven not by capitalists but by consumers. Some cozy cartels can indeed milk consumers for a time. But in competitive conditions, capitalists can make money only by giving consumers what they want.
And since consumers want anti-capitalist themes, anti-capitalist films and books have become a money-spinning part of capitalism itself.
Moore’s anti-capitalist millions are hardly unique. With the end of the Cold War, authors and film-makers no longer have communist arch-villains against whom heroes can do battle.
And so they have begun replacing the Soviet Union by corporations.
Consider John le Carre’s book, The Constant Gardener. For decades, le Carre made millions from tales of the dirty tricks of Soviet spies.
But with the end of the Cold War, he replaced Soviet spies with drug multinationals as the villains of The Constant Gardener.
Even more striking is the recent Hollywood hit, The Manchurian Candidate. This is based on the 1958 book of the same name, which was converted into a film in 1962.
The book and the 1962 film were about American soldiers in the Korean war who were captured, brainwashed, and converted into mind-controlled agents of the Soviet Union to kill an American presidential candidate.
However, in the latest 2004 remake of the film, the brainwashing and mind-controlling is no longer done by the Soviet Union but by a multinational corporation called Man-churian Global!
Making money out of anti-capitalist themes is standard practice in Hollywood. Erin Brokovich, the 2000 hit that won Julia Roberts an Oscar, was about two lawyers exposing how an energy company, PG&E, had covered up its contamination of water that caused sickness and cancer in thousands of people.
Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his role as speculator Gordon Gecko in the 1987 film Wall Street. His famous one-liner in the film was: “Greed is good”.
The Insider (2000) was about the attempt of a big tobacco company to abort a TV programme revealing that the company had misled the public about the hazards of smoking. All these left-wing films made millions.
What lessons flow from the rise of left-wing capitalism? First, that capitalists can indeed be a dubious lot, and the public knows it. That is why authors and film-makers can make millions out of capitalist-bashing.
Second, those who expose evil capitalists are in fact serving capitalism, not overthrowing it. Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, remarked that businessmen rarely gather anywhere without trying to find some way of milking consumers.
Yet, Adam Smith demonstrated, although capitalists are a lousy lot, capitalism is a good system.
When capitalists are obliged to compete, they end up serving the public good, something that they never intended to. But this in turn requires a vigilant public and effective state that checks corporate collusion and wrong-doing.
Michael Moore thinks he is opposing capitalism. In fact he is doing an excellent job of policing, and hence of strengthening capitalism. Though ostensibly a critic, he is an intrinsic, valuable part of capitalism.
That is why capitalist America has made him a multi-millionaire. May I invite Indian leftists to join the party?