Elevate Difference

The End of Poverty?

I haven’t seen Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, or any of his films, but I rejoice that he made these films, especially this last one, which dares to challenge “our” economic system. Now, quickly following Moore’s film is another full-length feature challenging capitalism, The End of Poverty? directed by Philippe Diaz.

The documentary opens soon in New York, at a commercial theater, but also at the radical Bluestockings bookstore on the gentrifying Lower East Side, where the seats are less posh but most of the audience will already be aware of many elements of the critique.

The financial meltdown has triggered anticapitalist scorn that could soon evaporate, or this moment may be viewed by future generations as the turning point in the end of capitalism. The more films saying “enough already,” the better. Diaz takes note of Moore’s film: “It is great that Michael Moore is attacking the bankers and the financial establishment in his new film, but the end of greed on Wall Street will not end poverty in the world.” He argues that people are poor because their community wealth has been stolen to make other people rich.

The thesis of The End of Poverty? is that from the conquest of the Americas, capitalism is linked to colonialism and drives postcolonial imperialism and neoliberalism—and creates poverty. Aerial shots of cities interweave with talking heads (in comfortable settings), including Nobel prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen and the head of the Venezuelan Women’s Bank Nora Castaneda, and with visits to the homes and desolate landscapes where the poor live. The experts explain “primitive accumulation,” the “Washington consensus,” and “hegemony,” decry export economics, and flog the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

I liked the forthright cataloging of U.S. foreign interventions (violent coups, assassinations) to install compliant regimes and win access to natural resources and markets in the global South. John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, explains how the stick of veiled threats is delivered with the carrot of megabucks so that violence is only occasionally needed.

The target audience of The End of Poverty? seems to include the nonprofit antipoverty establishment. The film would be “preaching” to the already converted anti-imperialist Left, as the ideas in the film have been percolating in the antiglobalization movement for years. (The film does pull the argument together well, however.) Perhaps it is aimed at the policymakers; the filmmakers abstain from skewering the hypocrisy of contemporary ones. For the wider audience, whose education does not include the readings of academic Marxism, the exposition is a bit too laden with jargon.

Unwisely, I think, The End of Poverty? does explicitly limit itself to the extreme poverty (living on less than one dollar a day) of the developing world. There is no mention of foreclosed homes in the United States, and only a passing mention of the enclosure of the commons in England and to the poverty of New Orleans. The dispossession of farmers in Africa is not connected with the deindustrialization of cities in the United States. Debt that impoverishes the developing world and its people has a correlation in consumer debt. Yet, a job in a windowless cubicle is a homeopathic dose of oppression compared to la mita, being forced to work and live underground for six months at a time as silver miners were. The homeless of New York may live in a rich country, but they are not getting much of the wealth. Perhaps yet another anticapitalist film will take up these connections.

Do films—especially documentaries—that chronicle the devastation caused by capitalism have the power to break the stranglehold centrist ideology has on political debate in the United States? Perhaps. This film unveils the sham that is capitalist development, but suggests few steps ordinary citizens can take to change policies. Unanswered is an older question: What is to be done?

Written by: Frances Chapman, November 12th 2009

thanks for your great review. This is a huge film and we just couldn't cover everything and make a film that would be watchable for the general public.

We chose the level of poverty we did following compelling stories, our contacts and a through line of the argument that could make the large points clearly.

True, we don't go into deindustrialised cities in the US but the point is briefly made in the film that the reason that poverty is much more intense in the South is because of these combined forces of debt, trade imbalance and lack of access to resources. The poverty in New York happens for the same reasons that poverty happens in Nairobi - the same forces are playing out...taxes fall on the poor and middle class in the form of wage and consumption taxes while land speculation plus tax incentives drives industry out of cities causing sprawl and disconnecting people from the land in city and country.

While the film certainly uses some Marxist terms I wouldn't call the film Marxist, or even socialist - not that you did.

But capitalism is such a good idea that we should try it some time. The system that we have now that we call "capitalism" is a plutocracy. When I wrote the first treatment for the film (which happily Philippe made better and expanded it into the amazing film you saw) I wrote it from a Georgist perspective and I still see that spirit there. Enlightened Capitalism I think is possible.

thanks again for your review!