Having seen almost all of Michael Moore’s films to date, I have no difficulty in applauding “Where to Invade Next” as his best film yet. I may have many disagreements with Moore, on his allegiance to the Democratic Party, his past support for Obama, his ties to MoveOn, and his occasional glossing over the pro-war and regime change records of some of his icons, among other things—but this is not meant to be the focus here. Instead, credit must be given when it is due, and this is a skilfully designed and carefully conceptualized work that does much in just two hours, and that inevitably leaves out much context as well. None of the media reviews, and not even the official trailers, do real justice to the film.
The film should not be judged as a “comedy” or even an attempt at one, like some reviewers have mistakenly suggested. It is a relatively subdued film, with Moore looking like a shabbily-dressed wounded veteran, limping out of a declining empire. The overall sense is of a representative of the US, reflecting on the grave degree to which his own society has been broken.
Briefly, and without spoiling the film for those who have yet to see it, “Where to Invade Next” is not a war film, and is not about current geopolitics (there is some of that, at the start). It is not a film about the next expected war overseas, in other words. The idea is for Moore to venture out and find ideas to “steal” so that he can take them back to the US with the hope of repairing his society. He thus undertakes friendly, mock “invasions” of Italy, France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Tunisia, and Iceland—in roughly that order. He meets with people working in police forces, in the fashion industry, in a motorcycle factory, in a pencil factory, in schools, in prisons, in kitchens, in health clinics and spas, in banks, and in government. He meets with students of all ages. He meets with CEOs in Italy, Germany, and Iceland. He meets with Italian trade unionists. He meets with a mayor and former president of Iceland, and a recent former president of Tunisia. He meets with the current president of Slovenia, and the Minister of Education in Finland. After each meeting, he declares which idea he is formally “stealing” and he symbolically plants a large US flag on the ground where he stands. He travels from airport to airport, tired looking, in a fleece jacket and with a large US flag draped over his shoulder, as if a refugee, or a pilgrim.
Without getting into details here, again to avoid spoiling the viewing experience, Michael Moore examines a range of social issues of pressing importance to his crumbling society, looking at how Europeans and Tunisians (including conservative Islamic politicians), deal with their own situations. The topics include legally mandatory paid vacation leave; mandated maternity leave; the length of working weeks; break time at work; worker representation on corporate boards; subsidized spa visits for stressed workers; model prisons that emphasize rehabilitation; forgiveness rather than revenge in justice systems; schools that do not assign homework, have short days of class, and produce the best students in the world; children served the meals of kings in ordinary public schools; nations without private schools, universities without tuition, and students without debt; women in the lead in the workplace and in politics; the prosecution of bankers; humane factory work; and, nations that have completely ceased any “war on drugs” such that use and possession of any drug is not criminalized. We are treated to policemen speaking on human dignity, and unarmed prison guards singing to inmates. This is juxtaposed to brutal scenes in the US, or images of bleakness and squalor. Many in the US will be in sheer disbelief at images of actually existing lifestyles achieved by their social counterparts overseas—ordinary workers, students, and prisoners—and will wonder at how badly they have been cheated in the “richest and most powerful nation on earth”.
“Where to Invade Next” is a powerful, touching film, filled with a humanizing vision of better possibilities, of real solutions and how the US shares their historical roots, that challenge the brutal and degrading reality of gross inequality fostered by the endless greed of the power elites. In the film, one gets a sense of Moore the person too, and he comes across as a genuinely good person, decent, humble, and kind—a wounded idealist who knows that much better is possible for the average US citizen and who has not been mutated by anger and disappointment into a bitter refugee from politics. There is no malice in Moore’s self-presentation, nor any lectures or polemics—it is mostly just questions, and wonder.
Regardless of what anyone might think of Moore, of him personally or his politics, this film should be seen, especially now, and especially if you are a US citizen who intends to vote. Watching this film serves as an urgent reminder of what is going wrong in the US, while opening a window onto real and practical alternatives, that could be implemented immediately. It also opens the possibility to much broader discussions about the nature of our way of living, how we relate to one another, and what we see as the basic purpose of life on this planet.
An Anthropological Eye
Of course like many other anthropologists writing online, I cannot help but be struck by examples of an anthropological approach articulated outside of the discipline, and outside of the academy. Just as I consider Woody Allen and Larry David as having a finely tuned ethnographic perspective, on a level of detail and in the same general perspective as an Erving Goffman, I see Michael Moore as an excellent interviewer who makes people feel naturally comfortable with him, and focuses closely on their faces like Jean Rouch did in “Chronicle of a Summer”. Watch the eyes of his Italian interlocutors as he explains to them that there is no legally mandated, paid vacation leave or maternity leave in the US. Watch the eyes, and facial expressions, of the Finnish Minister of Education as he tells her that poetry has been eliminated from the US school curriculum, because it is “useless”. And watch the face, and appreciate the long pause, as a female CEO in Iceland ponders what she would like to tell people in the US, about their country.
Both as an anthropologist, as one focused on imperialism, and as a non-US citizen who observes the US, I really appreciated these gatherings where we could listen to other non-US observers commenting on the US. You have people of many different walks of life, in different professions and locations, from Tunisia to Iceland, speaking directly to people in the US, in the most genuine, personal, and incisive manner, but without any posturing or hectoring.
Then there is Moore’s own take on the anthropological reflex, of going out to study others in order to learn about himself, and his own society particularly. I must leave the conclusion of the film as a surprise to those who have not seen it—I will just say it is a refreshing bit of self-discovery, and an encounter with what is real and thus possible.
“Stand Down”: A Reflection on Empire and Capitalism
Michael Moore links US imperial adventurism, the state of permanent war and unending military occupations, with the devastating impacts these have generated at home. Moore is thus advancing the kind of deeper and more comprehensive concept of “blowback” which I have been advocating. He directly ties war, inflated military spending, and the dominance of corporate “defense” contractors, with not just cutbacks to social services and expenditures on health, education, and infrastructure, but also tying permanent war to the entrenchment of militarization in everyday social relations.
First Moore begins with a message that sounds like it would appeal to Donald Trump: a catalogue of the wars lost by the US. The message, for a moment, is similar: America, not so great today. But he goes further, with a series of fast-paced video clips accompanied by parts of speeches spoken by successive US presidents, from Nixon to Obama, thus spanning the neoliberal era at its longest. The commitment to security and “fighting terrorists” is accompanied by images of a small girl preposterously getting a pat down at a US airport. Obama boasting of US military might is accompanied by scenes of armoured police vehicles, acquired from the Pentagon, closing in on protesters in Ferguson. Obama also boasting of striking command and control targets, is accompanied by images of cars that crashed in a collapsed highway overpass in the US. Patriotic presidential bombast follows alongside a news report of veterans being foreclosed while away fighting. More heroic rhetoric precedes news reports of a veteran who froze to death in his home, after his gas was cut off.
Added to scenes of awful schools in the US, grotesque school lunches, prisoners subjected to torture by guards, and kids getting squashed by policemen—and we have a dense picture of nation-building in reverse. It looks like an incremental social genocide.
What is not mentioned in the film, but which it may raise for discussion, is whether Moore is implying that US empire is bad because it failed to deliver the goods to the American people. Personally, I doubt that was his intention, or that he harbours secret neocolonial desires–he has his blind spots, like any American. Likewise, Moore’s presentation of the good life in Europe, minimizes the neoliberal erosions constantly taking place, and the degree to which that good life was made materially possible by colonial plunder. Also, the European Union might come across as a safe refuge from neoliberalism, when it is instead one of its main international engines. However, one might see this another way: that neoliberalism in the US is so much worse than in similarly developed yet less wealthy nations, inflicting all sorts of unnecessary strife and hardship, as if sheer pain was somehow an achievement to be desired in the US. Perhaps the real lesson of neoliberalism is the one that teaches its basic ideological premise according to its founding thinkers: capitalism is not meant to be freedom from hardship. Few in the US might have been willing to believe that unrestrained capitalism would be so unforgiving in erasing any vestige of such freedom.
And what did happen to the obscene amount of profit that has passed through the US over recent decades? The impression I have is not that Moore is criticizing capitalism as such—his vignettes in Europe seem to portray more humane and fairer forms of capitalism, of profit that is not at the expense of welfare, and of capitalists there who do not see getting richer as an ultimate end in itself.
In the US what the power elites are doing to the society is precisely what they have done to endless domestic companies in distress they took over: asset stripping. Every drop of blood is being squeezed out of increasingly impoverished and overworked Americans, and concentrated at the top, in a gross heist that is historically unprecedented in its scale. Capital then flees like a bandit, and takes up secret residence in various offshore accounts. Even if we adopt conservative, nationalist terms, the elite is still revealed as treasonous, without even a stitch of patriotism, with not an ounce of concern for the collective wellbeing of their compatriots. It shows us how empty “citizenship” has become.
Moore’s discussion of prison labour in the US is sharp. He frames the “war on drugs” as a new mode of conquering black labour and disenfranchising black voters (convicts not being allowed to vote, with felons facing a lifetime ban in most states even after serving their time). In response to the civil rights movement, millions have been imprisoned and subjected to a new slavery.
Moore’s grasp is thus a fairly holistic one, tying the loop between capital, empire, class, and racism. He is not so much one of the “half-heads” that I complain about being.
In stark contrast—and this comes from a banker interviewed by Moore in Iceland—is a message that economic “growth,” or always having “more” and “bigger” is a dead end. Italian capitalists insist to Moore that enjoying sex and cultivating warm human relationships matter the most to them. Finnish educators explain to Moore that they see the purpose of studies as being the discovery of what makes one happy. What a revolutionary concept: happiness.
I am so focused on what makes people unhappy, that I forget the other side this implies. In universities we study social “problems,” not social “joys”. I am not talking about making education “fun” by employing gimmicks designed to turn the university into a vacation experience—nor do I advocate horsehair shirts. I mean that we do not take happiness seriously. Even the question, “Are you happy?” asked by the roving sociology student in Rouch and Morin’s “Chronicle of a Summer,” provokes the laughter of students in my classes, as if it is such an odd question to ask people. The point is that Moore’s film helps to deliver much more than it promises, including the possibility of rethinking our basic goals as a society, beyond issues of redistribution of wealth. Is there a limit to how much there should be available to distribute equitably? Is “more” good when it is spread out fairly?
In other areas, the film might fall flat. Yes, the film does enter at one point into biological, sexual reductionism, the determinism of hormones, and various penis analogies that made me think the film had strayed too far, like it was doing somersaults to appease the most banal forms of Western bourgeois feminism and its stereotypes of men. Some viewers may be disappointed with a narrative that at one point borders on what some will see as misandry. The portrayal of male stockbrokers may be seen by some as outright sexist—they are driven purely by testosterone, and not by the culturally indoctrinated profit motive and the mythology of adventurous risk. Clumsy material, it could invite clumsy minds to read the script as an endorsement of an unmentioned Hillary Clinton—simply because she is a woman, and women always do good and think of the welfare of others, according to the film. When celebrating the fact of many female political leaders elected to office around the world, Moore’s collage omits Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel.
Just to be clear, Moore does not even vaguely refer to the current US elections. You will not hear any mentions of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or even Bernie Sanders—even though Moore is a Sanders supporter. One can only make inferences. I would resist treating this film as if it were mere electoral propaganda, and not something bigger. As for Moore’s political positioning in making this film, his own words to the New York Times offer some insight (even if his class terminology is already behind the times):
“What are my political positions in my films? That GM shouldn’t be moving jobs to third-world countries and exploiting them while destroying the middle class of this country? If that’s inflammatory, we’re in deep trouble, yet for so long I was considered a radical. Things are getting better. I love this country, I can’t stand what I see, and I ain’t going anywhere. I believe that I’m in the majority now. I believe that the majority of Americans, with few exceptions, believe the things I believe”.
Bitter Grounds: The Reviews are In
Is it strange that what is arguably Michael Moore’s finest film yet, should be quickly described by The Guardian as “his biggest flop yet” based solely on some snapshots of ticket sales? Or does the statement fit in with a pack of “critical” reviews, most of them quite obviously snide and smug, that read as if prepared years ago and kept in reserve for Moore’s next release? On the matter of ticket sales, Moore’s own narration in the film speaks of those watching a pirated copy of the movie—and this number of viewers is not grasped by reviewers using the counting methods of the 1950s.
Some went over the top—not surprisingly, The Wall Street Journal—accusing the film of boosting public “idiocy” along with other unsubstantiated accusations and uptight insults (a “churlish polemic”). The Economist for its part found it convenient, this time, to run and hide behind the Trumpian nationalism it otherwise so deplores, feigning concern for the film potentially annoying American viewers: “It’s certainly true that Americans don’t hear enough about the good sides of European life. But if dour Nordic finger-wagging is the kind of thing Mr Moore thinks will convert an American voter, he understands his own country even less than he does Europe”. Notice their first concern: the voter. Suddenly the neoliberal globalists worry for the success of a message they oppose, while pretending as if American viewers are a contented lot, without any sense of grief and resentment toward the system which strips them to the bone. It’s as if The Economist had not heard of the wave of angry voters assailing the neoliberal elites of both the Democratic and Republican parties—which obviously they have, since they address the “American voter”. So The Economist seeks refuge behind the illusion that people in the US are all happy nationalists without a critical bone in their bodies.
Stack up a half dozen negative reviews of the “Where to Invade Next,” and you will not find more than a couple of quibbles with the factual content of the film—maybe one minor point about the percentage of pupils in for-profit schools in the US, and another obscure point about GDP and productivity, intended for the empiricist data-crunching drones who cannot process meaning and on whom this film would be wasted. Examine where the negative reviews remain silent: it is an admission of inescapable weakness on the part of defenders of the current order, and knee-jerk critics of Moore’s work. Hopefully this review offers some balance.