Social Democracy Without the Struggle

Michael Moore’s new film idealizes progressive reforms abroad while ignoring the political struggles it took to win them.

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was a seminal cinematic event of my early adolescence. I still remember marshaling its talking points in online battles with Iraq War hawks and right-wing bloggers, and it seemed to be about as powerful an indictment of the American political establishment as there could be.

Taken together with 2002’s Bowling for Columbine it captured a political moment — for me and many others — in which the only relevant signifier of political radicalism was openly opposing George Bush.

Moore’s cinematic trajectory since has roughly approximated the path of American liberalism: from its post-9/11 anything-but-Bush nadir (Fahrenheit 9/11, Slacker Uprising), to its quest for universal health care (Sicko), to the populist ferment that accompanied the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the banking bailouts (Capitalism, a Love Story), to the 2008 Obama moment.

The title of Moore’s new film — Where to Invade Next? — implies a Fahrenheit 9/11 for 2016. But those expecting an antimilitarist movie will be disappointed — this is no critique of Obama’s drone program or the Libyan intervention. Instead, Moore takes on his country’s most pressing domestic problems: mass incarceration, the War on Drugs, poor working conditions, police brutality, and the like.

The film’s conceit is this: the joint chiefs of staff invite Moore to the Pentagon and recruit him to the first wave of future military enterprises abroad. But the filmmaker isn’t having it, or at least not on the terms set out by the military-industrial complex. Instead, he offers himself up as a one-man army who will “invade countries populated by Caucasians whose names I can mostly pronounce, take the things we need from them, and bring them back home to the United States of America.”

This announcement is followed by chaotic footage of police violence, Occupy protests, and Ferguson residents taking to the streets.

Moore then “invades” various countries and counterposes their idyllic societies with the American brutalism captured in the film’s dramatic opening montage. These peaceful invasions take the form of short encounters with locals, who are repeatedly subjected to Moore’s hyperbolic bemused-Midwesterner schtick.

His first outing, to Italy, consists of a series of conversations with contented workers and benign, compassionate factory managers, all of whom look healthy, relaxed, and productive (“everyone looks like they just had sex!”). Moore learns about the country’s paid vacation time and maternity leave before planting the American flag on the floor of an auto plant and annexing these ideas for the United States.

This simple and instantly tiresome gimmick makes up most of the rest of the film.

The institutions and ideas Moore explores throughout his travels are all good and progressive ones: shorter public school hours and the elimination of standardized testing (Finland); healthy meals for schoolchildren (France); a rehabilitative justice and carceral system (Norway); atonement for national sins (Germany); free public universities (Slovenia); drug liberalization (Portugal); gender equality (Iceland); reproductive rights (Tunisia).

And the contrasts Moore draws between America and the countries he visits do have a certain force: Norway’s prisons look like five-star hotels when compared to their American equivalents, and the French cooking the filmmaker samples makes the food served in US public school cafeterias look like Dickensian sludge.

But these contrasts are little more than rhetorical.

For one, Moore almost completely ignores the structural problems endemic to the countries he visits. Early on, we hear him declare “All countries have problems — but I’m here to pick the flowers, not the weeds.” His attention to anything not idealized to the point of absurdity dies then and there: Italy’s spiraling youth unemployment (which hit 44 percent last summer), Scandinavian nativism, the surging French far right, Portuguese austerity, German anti-Islamic sentiment — none are permitted to complicate Moore’s picture.

Even when background or historical context is necessary for narrative purposes — as in Norway, where Moore learns of the sentence given to mass murderer Anders Breivik and speaks to the father of one of his victims — the institutions he valorizes and their foundations are not seriously interrogated. Many of the countries he visits are represented as social-democratic Edens frozen in time. Even in Tunisia, just years removed from a revolution, the events are presented through a largely mythological lens.

In treating his subjects this way, Moore trades substantive analysis for shallow gimmickry. We learn little about how the institutions he wants his own country to adopt actually came about or what specific ideologies undergird them.

Fair labor laws? Conscientious corporate executives? Gender equality? Free higher education? In Moore’s filmic universe, such things are just common sense, not the product of any history of struggle. Even when Moore refers to important moments of struggle — like October 24, 1975 when 90 percent of Iceland’s women went on strike — the events are represented more like collective grand gestures than the products of sustained political mobilization.

How and why, we might ask, did European-style social democracy come about? What challenges does it face? What are its limitations? Who are its critics on the Left and the Right? Moore proves thoroughly uninterested in such questions, and his resulting portraits of each country and its particular institutions are ahistorical and arbitrary.

Just as he represents various successes abroad in reductive isolation, Moore renders the problems facing his own country in only the most parochial relief. America’s deep-seated social, economic, and political problems are presented totally unsystematically, shown for shock value and not much else.

These limitations have real consequences for the progressive message that Where to Invade Next? aspires to. Moore hopes to import the programs he examines as prepackaged ideas with no particular strategy for their realization aside from the rectitude and goodwill of those who favor them.

The film’s disappointing conclusion only makes things worse. Having spent well over an hour roaming the world in search of new and progressive ideas, Moore shows us an image of Judy Garland clicking her red heels to leave Oz and return home to Kansas. He then lists American precedents for virtually every institution explored throughout the film, complete with dates that prove his own country invented them first.

This final, jarring crescendo of Yankee exceptionalism not only undercuts what is supposed to be the film’s premise (that the United States might learn a thing or two from other countries) but confirms the limits of Moore’s political outlook.

While his ideals in Where to Invade Next? and many of his other films are laudable, his is a politics that stubbornly refuses the systematic, preferring instead to hide behind a combination of glib humor and emotional oversimplification. Like so much of the liberalism that has prevailed since the Bush era, it is hope detached from political content, and lacking in the structural critique that would make its admirable ideas robust.

To his credit, Moore recently endorsed Bernie Sanders — whose campaign undoubtedly represents a maturation of American progressive politics. For the first time in decades, a left-wing political coalition is successfully making the case that radical change requires mass mobilization and a program that breaks decisively with prevailing Democratic Party orthodoxy.

But if Moore has evolved alongside the streak of populist liberalism he’s been associated with since the Bush era, it is not evident in his latest cinematic venture.