A Marxist Review
by Aman Singh
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 829, 9 July 2004.
Michael Moore's powerful new documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, offers a rare commodity in this era of stage-directed "reality"—a dose of truth, conveyed in human terms. Its images of mangled Iraqi limbs and mutilated babies are rare glimpses of what happens on the receiving end of America's bombs. Where much of America sees either a faceless "enemy" or faceless beneficiaries of American "liberation," Moore gives voice to human victims, as in the Baghdad woman in agonized rage over the American military's murder of her family, or the family terrorized by U.S. troops on Christmas Eve. A black man in Flint, Michigan, sees images of war-torn Baghdad and remarks, "There's parts of Flint that look like that, and we ain't even been in a war." Wrenching stories like that of Lila Lipscomb, whose son's death in Iraq convinced her of the depravity of the Iraq war, go untold by the mass media.
The film's resonance across the country has been intense. It set the record for the highest-grossing opening weekend in documentary film history. It has caught the attention of Bush's right-wing keepers, and for good reason: Moore's raw talent as a propagandist perhaps best comes through in his portrait of the dim and banally monstrous George W. Bush, who plays golf and vacations while thousands of Iraqi people and hundreds of American troops die at his command. Fearing this, the Republican-beholden Disney corporation refused to distribute the film, which was subsequently given an R rating to deter most teenagers from seeing it. (Moore points out that this prevents those who could soon be drafted from seeing exactly what they might be doing in the armed forces.) A small group of prominent Republicans calling themselves Move America Forward has campaigned to intimidate theaters from showing the film; a parallel group called Citizens United filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission to ban advertising for it.
But there's a problem. From the point of view of changing the reality that Moore powerfully depicts, Fahrenheit 9/11 is fundamentally defective. It is a sad comment on the state of American leftist political consciousness to witness the spectacle of audiences rightfully agitated by Bush's deadly war, inflamed by the sinister Patriot Act, disgusted by the Democrats' pathetic one-ness with the White House, who then come out of the theater all pumped up and ready to...register voters. But that has indeed been all the rage. And that was exactly Moore's intent: he has stated that "It's my personal aim that Bush is removed from the White House" (New York Times, 24 June), adding that he hoped the film would "inspire people to get up and vote in November" because "We cannot leave this to the Democrats this time to f--k it up and lose" (London Guardian, 17 May). Moore's perspective is one shared by many, particularly those who have been out on the streets demonstrating against the "war on terror," that Kerry and the Democrats are nothing to get excited about, but that they nevertheless deserve support, however critical, because Bush is so damn intolerable. Behind this "anybody but Bush" enthusiasm is a fundamentally liberal—and dangerous—view of American democracy.
Moore's vignette on the chicanery around the 2000 elections is compelling. He casts a spotlight on black oppression in the footage of black Congressional representatives rising in the Senate to protest the disenfranchisement of black voters and the fraudulence of Bush's "victory," only to be ruled out of order by an Al Gore unwilling to fight for his election victory because to do so would highlight capitalist America's disregard for black people and undermine the legitimacy of the imperial presidency. That nothing changed shows exactly why the black Democrats are kept around—to head off outrage and revolt against this racist, capitalist order, particularly among black Americans, whenever it breaks out.
Moore believes that the American people have been betrayed by a small clique of reactionary thieves (the Bush administration and its corporate network) and a few spineless Democrats. In other words, he thinks it's Bush & Co. who have violated a national unity that must be restored based on the sensibilities of the common people. In his words, a Democratic victory brings us a step closer to getting "this country back in the hands of the majority" (New York Times, 24 June). But there is and can be no national unity because this society is divided into social classes with mutually hostile interests. The whole of society is organized to extract profit for the minuscule class of capitalists, who own the factories, banks, transportation, etc., from the labor of those who produce the wealth, the working class.
Moore's worldview explains some of the glaring omissions in the film. For example, his populist outlook leads him to ignore the Bush administration's close ties to the Christian right, to take notice of which would mean acknowledging that Bush really has a popular base. The box office figures of The Passion of the Christ, remember, are real. The neocons come in for personal ridicule, but not for braintrusting the Iraq invasion policy. They are closely aligned with the religious right, particularly in support of Zionist Israel. To mention this fact would get in the way of his Democratic bandwagon-building, as the Democrats are, if anything, more wedded to support of the Zionists than the Republicans. In fact, Moore himself declared in a Los Angeles Times (22 June) interview that "Israel is a democracy."
Where Moore (and lots of other people) see the need to hold your nose and vote Democrat in November, we argue that a vote to the Democrats is a vote in favor of chaining the working masses to their oppressors and that the need is to fight to lay the basis for a conscious class break from the Democrats in the direction of political independence for the workers. The hoopla surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11 and its "anybody but Bush" popularity is a perfect illustration of why the Russian revolutionary Lenin argued in his work State and Revolution that "a democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism." As he put it, "To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament—this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics."
Think about it. Through the last few years a growing number of activists have participated in struggle against the capitalist system's madness. But then bring up the question of elections. All of a sudden, many of those who had become increasingly open to getting rid of the capitalist system as a whole now get all emotional about how much we need to fire the capitalist oppressor Bush, even if it means supporting the capitalist oppressor Kerry. Add in a few left-sounding voices to the chorus (like Moore's) and you end up with a pretty solid array of forces working to convince everyone that there is a real alternative within the capitalist framework.
In discussing some of these ideas with audiences following showings of Fahrenheit 9/11, we occasionally encountered something like the following argument: "There's not a huge difference between the Democrats and Republicans, but things would have been better if Gore were president." From Moore's film you'd think that no American capitalist did anything about Iraq until George W. Bush met September 11. Not nearly true. While a Gore administration might not have invaded Iraq and established a colonial occupation—an optional aggression from the standpoint of the ruling class—he likely would have "merely" continued the Democratic Clinton Iraq policy, a regime of sanctions punctuated regularly by bombings that completely ravaged Iraq and killed hundreds of thousands more Iraqis than Bush's war. All this was accomplished under a humanitarian guise (along with his adventures in Somalia, Haiti and Serbia) and with minimal protest.
So why do the capitalists wage all these wars? As much as Moore brilliantly evokes the hypocrisies of the Bush administration's war propaganda, his explanation of the underlying motives is shallow. In line with the latest in anti-globalization ideology he offers as an explanation the incestuous web linking the Saudi royal family to the Bush family, who are in turn in bed with Cheney and a handful of similar rich white corporate profiteers. But it's ridiculous to think that the personal profit interests of a handful alone motivated either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars.
The government represents the executive committee of the ruling capitalist class, which means more than obtaining tax breaks for a bunch of robber barons. The White House and Congress must defend the strategic interests that serve the capitalist social system. So while you might see capitalist politicians bickering over tactics ("We need the UN!"—Democrats; "Screw those pansies!"—Bush & Co.), there is mutual commitment that, with the Soviet Union gone, U.S. imperialism must use its overwhelming military might to expand and solidify its grip on world resources and markets in the interest of raw profit for U.S. capitalists at the expense of their European and Japanese rivals. Controlling the world's oil faucet helps in doing this. So does dictating to your imperialist competitors what wars (or trade agreements, spheres of influence, etc.) will take place and what role they'll have in the world arena. International capitalist competition drives the ruling class of each dominant industrialized country to expand and extend its profit-making reach. In other words, imperialism is not a policy that a particular government can take or leave, but nothing other than modern capitalism itself.
If an American ruler launches a war effort proclaiming that, for example, it will "make the world safe for democracy" or "liberate the oppressed Kosovars," then 1) he is lying and 2) these lies, necessary to get working people to fight and die for the profits of their own exploiters, are not simply the product of individual moral depravity (as Moore portrays it with Bush) but are a result of the way capitalists and their representatives see their class interests, which they must pass off as the national interest.
At the end of Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore says of U.S. troops: "They offer to give up their lives so that we can be free. It is remarkable their gift to us. And all they ask for in return is that we never send them into harm's way unless it's absolutely necessary." And then, referring to Bush's lies about Iraq, Moore intones of the troops, "Will they ever trust us again?" Hmmm. Have American presidents lied for war before? Well, if history is good for anything, it's to answer questions like this.
•The Spanish-American War: The sinking of the American battleship USS Maine in 1898 was blamed on Spain, and "Remember the Maine" became the war cry for America's first imperialist war to defeat Spain and seize its colonies in Cuba and the Philippines. It is now well established that the explosion that sank the ship was caused by faulty construction design.
•World War I: Democrat Wilson justified U.S. intervention vowing that "the world must be made safe for democracy." In fact, the war, which saw unprecedented bloodletting on all sides, served only to redivide the world among the capitalist powers, with up-and-coming U.S. imperialism coming out on top.
•World War II: This supposed "war against fascism" was, except for the Soviet Union, in reality another war to redivide the world, this time touched off by Germany's drive to reverse the results of its defeat in the First World War and Japan's competition with the U.S. over who would dominate the Pacific and East Asia. For over a year prior to Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt sought to provoke a Japanese attack to justify an American declaration of war. He got it.
•Vietnam: The Democratic Johnson administration fabricated stories of an unprovoked attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin to get Congress to pass an effective declaration of war, enabling a massive escalation of the U.S.'s dirty colonial war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants.
In fact, most of American imperialism's wars were launched under Democratic administrations (in addition to the above, the Democrat Truman initiated the Korean War under United Nations auspices, and Democrat Clinton directed General Wesley Clark, whom Moore supported during the primaries, to bomb much of the life out of Serbia). So, why have the Democrats led most of America's wars? Fahrenheit 9/11 eloquently shows why, though Moore didn't mean to do so. In one scene Bush addresses his rich corporate friends, quipping, "This is an impressive crowd, the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base." Who would want to fight and die for these people? Moore chronicles perfectly how Bush's Iraq lies were transparent and stupid—not like the Democrats, who provide much nicer-sounding, humanitarian war lies and pose as "friends of labor."
It is this kinder, gentler, friendlier-to-the-people image relative to the other big party of capitalism that makes the Democrats more pernicious, more deceptive, and more effective than the Republicans. Look at what Moore recently had to say about Kerry, a man who wants to substantially increase the American troop presence in Iraq: "He is a person of integrity whose heart is in a good place. He will never send kids off to war unless he absolutely has to. Because he's been there himself" (San Francisco Chronicle, 30 June). It is precisely for the same reason that the Democrats are able to masquerade as a lesser evil that they are American imperialism's preferred party for racism and war.
Perhaps the most glaring omission in the film comes when Moore treats the "war on terror" simply as a mechanism used to instill fear of terrorists in the populace, but ignores its central use—as a racist witchhunt of immigrants, the first target of a wider war on blacks, workers and all the oppressed. Why would Moore leave out this central component of the capitalists' cynical use of September 11? Moore in his own way echoes the Democratic politicians who argue that Bush is not prosecuting the "war on terror" effectively. In an interview in the July issue of Playboy, Moore advises that the U.S. should "Hire the Israelis to find Osama and kill him."
Moore ridicules Bush for going after the wrong people—harmless peaceniks and a guy in a gym who was critical of Bush—and demonstrates that Bush doesn't even take his own terrorist warnings seriously by showing the comically sub-skeletal police force assigned to keep Oregon's serene coastline "safe." But in doing so, Moore implicitly gives credence to the capitalists' xenophobic framework of national security. Take his intimations that the Saudis control some 7 percent of the American economy and were therefore able to escape scrutiny following September 11. To begin with, it's a joke to think that American imperialism answers to the Saudi royal family. More importantly, by saying nothing about the witchhunt against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., Moore plays into the still rampant government-led chauvinism that all Arabs are potential terrorists who need to be watched.
While we're on the topic of state repression, we can't let pass Moore's disgusting statement in his book Dude, Where's My Country? that black journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal "did indeed kill that cop." Moore willfully ignored the overwhelming evidence proving the innocence of this fighter against black oppression, put on death row in a transparent frame-up targeting him for his political views. This is the type of repression that the government wants to seriously escalate. On a case that touches America's racist core, this statement is like a pledge of loyalty to the racist capitalist order.
Fahrenheit 9/11 features a number of scenes focusing on the impact of war on black people in America: Lila Lipscomb's story, the Marine recruiters prowling a mall parking lot looking for young black recruits, and the group of young black men who all raise hands when asked who has a friend or relative fighting in Iraq. These sequences powerfully evoke the economic draft, where it is those who are most ground down by the structural poverty and racial oppression of this profit-driven society who end up on the front lines of their oppressor's wars. Moore evokes sympathy for the plight of these working and oppressed youth sent off to do imperialism's dirty work. Many, including Moore, take this to argue that those who oppose the war should "support the troops." But Iraq is a clear case where it is necessary to take a side, and not the side of the U.S. or those doing its fighting—every blow struck against the American occupation forces is a blow struck against the enemy of workers and the oppressed all over the world, including in the U.S.
The capitalists' timeless lie that there is a "national unity" must be smashed. It is essential to drive home the point that a vote for the Democrats is a vote for a democratic facade to the "war on terror" and the occupation of Iraq, which they will continue not because they're spineless, but because the Democrats are devoted to the capitalist system. Moore's proposed solution cannot change this reality, and more to the point, his populism, his identification with the American on the street, his awareness of racism make him especially effective in mobilizing support for the Democratic Party in a way that the Democrats cannot do for themselves. This counteracts exactly what is most pressing—a political break with the capitalist framework, and therefore the Democratic Party.
There is a force that can change things—the multiracial working class, the collective producers who have both the power and the need to remake society based on production for need rather than profit, and thereby lay the basis for obliterating class and therefore inequality from history. The fight to unleash that power is the fight for a workers party that is independent of the capitalist parties and based on a policy of class struggle—the mobilization of its power through strikes and other work actions—in defense of itself, blacks, immigrants and all the oppressed toward ultimately smashing the existing state power. While powerful in many ways, Fahrenheit 9/11 expresses a worldview all too common among workers and leftist youth today—that workers are good people who form a potentially powerful voting bloc as victims of a corporate-dominated system. The key to human liberation is to understand the working class as a class with power, the force for change. The working class and oppressed can't elect capitalism out of office. We need a workers revolution.