ISBN 0 330 41915 3. “Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American” by Michael Moore was published by Pan Books in 2002 (originally from Crown Publishers in 1996). We reviewed Moore’s “Dude Where’s My Country?” (2003) and “Stupid White Men” (2001) both in 2008 and have an immense soft spot for the big guy from Flint, Michigan. Indeed, is Flint famous for anything other than Michael Moore internationally? Wouldn’t the world just love the USA if everybody there was just a little bit like Michael? Where did a country go so wrong when guys such as this are in the minority? We have to wonder. This was his first book and in it he is as angry as hell. You’ll love this, we did!
Somehow it seems appropriate that we picked this up from a charity shop for £1.50. The “Buy 1 get 1 1/2 price” sticker comes off (I only tried to peel it off after I scanned the cover). When I wrote about “Dude, Where’s my Country” I concluded that it was
“Moore at his best, angry, sarcastic, loud. This is Gore Vidal through a megaphone set to the beat of Public Enemy. Makes you want to throw a chair at something. Buy it, read it, love it.”
So what of this: his very first book? Well it is all bite-sized chunks of random thought (“random threats”) well researched by his full time interns. He is, by American terms, a lefty. But this book is scathing about the Union movement in the USA. Indeed it is scathing about more-or-less everything about the USA in 1996. This is a bit like stepping back with a time machine to the days when Clinton was in the Whitehouse and 9/11 was an event still 5 years away. We were told that 9/11 changed everything, indeed it was “Fahrenheit 9/11” that propelled Michael to world-wide fame. It must remain one of the only documentaries I have ever seen in the cinema. It was a masterpiece. I have not seen much of his work but his more recent film about the failures of the American healthcare system was utterly inspiring. It gives us all hope when an American (of all people) can squarely put his finger on the problem and rub everyone’s noses in it. He is a national treasure.
My impression is that his work has got better and better over the years. Today we can rank him alongside Chomsky and Vidal as the angry popular voice of the American left. Of course his approach is very populist – he enjoys the street fighting aspect. He likes to mess with the heads of his victims. When we say “victims” we mean the sort of every-day low-lifes in America who really deserve it. Most of them are politicians and the heads of large corporations. And you will love every second of this thrill ride.
Michael’s style appears to be one of picking a controversial topic out of the headlines and jamming with the idea. He spins out his sarcastic-take to its inevitable and glorious conclusion to expose the absurdity of society, corporations & politicians. Against the pro-life lobby he campaigns to make the life of every sperm sacred, in essence, making masturbation a crime. Then there is the plea to Nelson Mandela to end Apartheid in the USA. He suggests that we all stop bothering voting for the politicians and, instead, vote for the lobbyists who payroll them. Whilst US politicians (of every flavour) are turning people on welfare into hate figures, Michael Moore is showing who the real welfare queens are: the mega-corporations. If you likes George Monbiot’s “The Captive State” (written in 1999) then this will have resonance. Moore has no intellectual pretensions. His books are well researched and packed full of killer facts but he is playing this for laughs: his mission is to take the piss out of the morons who run America. He wants to expose the lies behind NAFTA, the incompetence of the anti-Castro Cubans, the greed and corruption behind private prisons, the ineffectual nature of Union leaders, the racism of the political-right, the homophobia in society – even then he has barely started.
It only leaves for us to pluck a few quotes out to give you a feel for what you are dealing with here. This on the welfare state supporting corporations in the USA:
“Each year, freeloading coporations grab nearly $170 billion in tax-funded federal handouts to help them do the things they should be paying for themselves (and that doesn’t count all the coporate welfare they’re getting from state and local governments). That’s $1,388 from each of us going to provide welfare for the rich! By contrast, all of our social programs combined, from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to school lunches to housing assistance, amount to just $50 billion a year. That breaks down to only $1.14 a day from each of us.”
That’s about $416 a year. Michael goes on to write that he would be happy to pay this (and far more) to help people in need. So why do politicians demonise people on welfare? Why such venom against the single mother or the disabled when they really are not the problem? Well, for that answer you need to fast forward and read “Chavs” by our very own Owen Jones (published many years later in the UK context). It also reminds me about the anecdote from Joseph Stiglitz about Clinton’s attempts to cut corporate welfare. It was was characterised by one of his opponents as “class warfare”. Writes Moore:
“…when I find out that $1,388 a year of my hard earned money is going to a bunch of tax-cheating, job-exporting, environment-destroying corporations that are already posting record profits – then I want to track these welfare kings down and tell them it’s a new damn day in America. Get off your lazy corporate ass and find new ways to employ Americans, clean up our air and water, and pay your fair share in taxes – or we’re going to run your CEO and his cronies off to jail.”
…but it doesn’t happen does it? [Those new ways do exist as we saw in our last book reviewed here “The Way Out” by L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen.] …but when since have we heard a politician seriously threaten such “class warfare”? The class war is over. The rich won. This is all so very clear from events some 12 years after Moore wrote his words. In 2008 the rich got the biggest slice of welfare ever doled out by any Government to any Corporation ever. It broke the bank, to save the bank. Now we all have to pay. More than that we are all trapped inside a system that refuses to reform. Indeed it refuses to recognise that anything is fundamentally wrong. What this all proves to us is that nothing has fundamentally changed in all those years. It has been 18 years since this book was written and nothing has got better. Not a thing. The downward spiral never ending: this road to serfdom continues without conclusion. No one ever says “enough”, the experiment is over, it failed, let’s try something new. Moore even correctly identifies to problem of debt in our society:
“We live in an economic system that not only encourages debt, but demands it. If we weren’t willing to take out loans and pay huge financing charges to banks, those institutions would go under. [..] Without us living our lives in perpetual debt, the system would collapse. Want a house? Take out a loan, go into debt!”
Remember it was the sub-prime crash that started the second great depression. Moore doesn’t bore his audience with the technical details of the banking system and money supply. But his analysis is correct and seemingly aimed at the average working Joe in Flint. It is pitched at a level anyone can understand and know to be intuitively true – even when it is “true” at a much more systematic level too. All in all you do get the feel that Michael is such a nice guy who simply will not sell his soul. He tells of his chance to talk to the then Governor Clinton in ’92 which he turned down, despite having voted for him. The book opens with a dedication to his wife and daughter and ends with him telling everybody where he lives with his wife and daughter, ooohh… And his email address to-boot. It is all so chummy.
In Chapter 33 Moore really nails it when he asks “Why Doesn’t GM Sell Crack?” This, in essence, is the core of the problem with our society’s belief system. It is a fundamental misrepresentation of the truth to suggest that Business needs to be un-regulated to succeed. In truth we take it for granted that we regulate all kinds of things such as child pornography. How can the damage being caused from Climate Change (for example) be classified as being any different? It is our culture that decides what is and is not acceptable. These rules are not ordained by the god of free markets. It is a decision that we make together in a democracy. We are free to choose. That is what makes the undemocratic decision to enforce NAFTA, TTIP, GATT and other, more recent, investor rights agreements (that give priority and power to private profit over public goods) so terribly wrong. These are not subject to some inevitable law of physics like gravity. These are the results of decisions made by politicians serving the needs of money. Writes Moore:
“I think it’s time we applied the same attitudes we have about crack to corporate downsizing. It’s simple: if it hurts our citizens, it should be illegal. We live in a democracy. We enact laws based on what we believe is right and wrong.”
Precisely. All we need to do is end hypocrisy. Just look at how the actions of our armed services are sanctified as the actions of “heroes” whilst the poor are somehow “discouraged” from being poor by making their lives hell. By that logic we could prevent all future wars by making the lives our soldiers as awful as possible. No victory parades. No returning to rescue fallen comrades. No support when you return from the combat zone. You want to fight in some foreign country for their oil? Then you should suffer the consequences. That is only right. In a neoliberal system the soldiers would pay the consequences of war, they would pay the price, and when that price is high enough then no more wars happen.
..but, of course they don’t pay in our right-wing system. In this system the armed forces our indulged as if they have a status that puts them somehow above Nurses, Doctors and Teachers. The army, air-force and navy are deified, worshipped all as heroes by a system that simply is not interested in free markets. The system is there to perpetuate the wealth and privilege of a tiny minority. Democracy just gets in the way. War is profitable. Hence the population must be socially conditioned to accept the armed forces as a “good thing” beyond all criticism. This is a double standard. This is the hypocrisy that ruins our lives. Nobody can tell the truth any more. Life is a lie. We live a nonsense and pretend it is real.
Well Michael and I have had enough and we ain’t taking it any more. We want our democracy back. We want a real choice on election day. We want public services paid for out of the public purse when it is cheaper to do it that way. We need our corporations to be good citizens with no more rights that the average person. Their costs must be internalised and not borne by society. They must pay the true cost of the damages they cause. They must not avoid tax. They cannot be above the law. We can no longer tolerate a system that punishes the victims and celebrates the victories of the elite over all of us. In short: we want the world we made, not the world that has been forced upon us. We have the right to choose. Where is the free market of ideas?
You’ll love Michael Moore. He is the Yank it is OK to like. He is loud, proud and as sharp as a whip. To be honest we have no idea what he is on about half the time but we like the drift of his ideas. It is OK to be sarcastic about so many absurdities in life. We should not, and must not take this shit lying down. Moore almost defies definition. He ends the book being best buds with those crazy folk in the Michigan Militia. He listens to them, they listen to him. He finds they have more in common that any Union leader would have. This is the voice of the frustrated working man. These aren’t liberals. These are the “real” people who get airbrushed out of history. Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” who make the world go round yet somehow seem set adrift from it entirely.
Our society is a machine to alienate the surplus population. We put them out of sight and out of mind: in a prison, in a war, in a grave, anywhere where they are not visible from our gated communities. Michael flies the flag for them. He may well be the only sane voice they have. God bless him, and all who read him. A genuine nice guy in a field of manure. Singing his very own National Anthem to a tune that is just down-right funky, bitter, twisted and angry as hell. A one-man black helicopter of sanity to the beat of a corking AC:DC rock track. Shake your head till it hurts people! The finest America can offer. And that ain’t saying a lot. Buy this book, read it, love it. It makes you want to kick an ATM. Turn everything inside out and fight the power.