Michael Moore: Q+A

The documentary-maker on capitalism, Obama and why Britain is about to get punished

This weekend, I've been watching films at Sheffield's Doc/Fest. One of the highlights so far has been Michael Moore's Capitalism: a Love Story, which Jonathan has already blogged about here. After the screening, Moore answered questions from the audience (via Skype, no less). Below are a few choice excerpts.

Your film outlines the human impact of last year's financial crash. Do you have much hope that Obama can fix these problems?

You can't expect things to change overnight and there's not time in nine months to fix catastrophes left by the Bush administration. But I don't believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, and he might not be able to fix the problems left by Bush and Cheney.

In the UK there seemed to be more protection against the banking collapse. Why do you think the US doesn't have that protection?

For some reason as Americans we want you to be punished if you lose your job or get an illness. If you hit hard times it's at that moment that we want to be exceptionally cruel. People in America are good on an individual basis, but collectively we get angry at the world. Why do we want to punish people when they get ill? I've never really understood it.

Perhaps it's also because Americans don't know what's happening in the rest of the world. Why don't Americans travel more?

Why should we care about the rest of the world? People here aren't given a reason to care. And it's this attitude that kills creativity, kills curiosity. We don't want to know what's going on in France, Ireland, Finland; that's not surprising, really, seeing as we don't even care about ourselves.

I believe there is a basic goodness in people, but they've been made stupid. There are 44 million illiterate adults in the US. The media reinforces the stupidity and ignorance, which makes it very easy to manipulate people with fear. That's my country, anyway, I don't know how it is in the UK when you have a prime minister who tells you that Iraq could fire a missile on you within 45 minutes [laughs].

What is capitalism?

Well, I can only define it as it exists today -- the same as these days you wouldn't answer the question "What is marriage?" by saying: "Well, it's something that happens when the groom visits the bride's father to ask permission . . ." In 2009 capitalism is a system of legalised greed, organised to protect the 1 per cent who own most of the wealth.

Is the "American Dream" -- the idea that anyone can become rich if they work hard enough -- a good thing?

I think that's what it is: a dream, not a reality for most people. These days it's more of a nightmare. In the old days you could work hard and if your boss prospered, then you would prosper. Now you work hard, your boss prospers, then you get sick and you lose your job.

But there are a lot of reasons people all around the world like America. There is something about our get-up-and-go. Sometimes we're full of ideas -- sometimes they're not very good ideas, sometimes they're great. My frustration is our capacity to do so much good for the world, the fact we don't do it is criminal.

You were midway through making the film when Obama was elected president. How did that impact on the project?

Well, I can tell you how it impacted on us as a team: 4 November 2008 was one of the happiest days we've had in decades. We could not believe our fellow citizens came through and did this. There is a lot of racism around, so just the fact that people pushed through that and chose the better person, the smarter person.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in the 1930s, suddenly you had John Steinbeck, all this art, cinema, all these books -- we felt we were one of the first films of a new era, out of the darkness of the last 30 years. Kind of an enlightenment, that's how it feels.

I would like Roosevelt's dream of a second Bill of Rights [which would guarantee the right to a job, to education and to health care] to live on. When I say [in the film] that Europe has all these things, I don't mean you shouldn't have them. No system is perfect -- not even the NHS is perfect -- but you have at your core a belief that if someone gets sick they should be able to go to a doctor. So Obama gave us the feeling that maybe he will be the Roosevelt of the 21st century. We still have that hope, even after a year.

What practical advice would you give to everyday people who want to act on what they've seen in your film?

What you in the UK can do is stop being like us. All the consumption, the way we eat, the way we treat each other. What you've done in the UK, first during the Thatcher years, then during the Thatcher-lite years -- and especially your last prime minister -- you have copied the US and made it easier for the rich to get away with murder. You once had a system based on social democracy and you need to make sure that people still have a say.

Now you're going to have a Conservative prime minister, because people who supported Labour didn't rise up and say "enough". The UK provided a cover for Bush. Now you're going to get punished for it with a Conservative prime minister and I'm so sorry about that.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.