Jesusland: Corporate Globalisation, Michael Moore and the Rise of the Religious Right
Issue #72, February 2005
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was produced as an intervention into George W. Bush’s presidency and his desire for re-election. It failed. In the US and Australia, conservative governments were returned to power. Both governments have been marked by a distinct shift towards the religious right in response to the Islamic fundamentalism that violently inserted itself into the public consciousness in 2001.
Michael Moore’s film attempts to make sense of the intersecting political, economic and personal spheres that circulate via the ‘war on terror’. It visualises the fissures in a masked and mobile US Empire that at its edges is fraying in the push to extend and control markets. In this unstable and unclear space, safe knowledges, practices and meanings become the refuge of individuals struggling to make sense of the self in response to overarching and uncontrollable political and economic conditions. Michael Moore threads a path through these complicated events.
This essay aims to make sense of the national and international trajectories that has lead to the rise of the religious right. From the crises of corporate globalisation through to its devastating consequences articulated on September 11, 2001, and the political and intimate struggles to make sense of terror, we will use Fahrenheit 9/11 to track the narratives intersecting at the everyday. Michael Moore’s intervention provides a way to map the interests and ideologies influencing public debate. Fahrenheit 9/11 is working in the spaces of silence, providing a language to speak about the deep and difficult consequences of capitalism, underemployment, war and terror.
September 11, 2001 marked a cataclysmic intersection of old and new empires and ideologies. These events crystallised and cauterised the build-up of social, financial and political disaffiliation originating in the 1990s. Global economic engagements have been experiencing a deepening crisis in confidence and cash-inflow. The origins of this crisis have been germinating since World War Two and out of the United States’ role in securing a new wave of capitalism based on the extension of manufacturing and consumption markets.
The US rebuilt this economy in its own image and interests. The flaws and fallibility of this financial strategy remained concealed by the postwar boom and the social infrastructures attending to social welfare. These ensure a balance between economic expansion and social justice. However, as this broadening system met its limits, new markets and modalities were needed to sustain development at scintillating rates. A process of transformation was needed to stimulate economic growth.
However, the fundamental inability for capitalism to handle transformation resulted in crisis and this created the need for urgent political intervention in order to curb social, political and economic insecurity and instability. In the 1970s the response was to export Fordism to less wealthy economies where the low wage levels could be exploited by corporate interests –- a trend that continues with the extension of sweatshops to South-East Asia, Mexico and India. However, when this process failed to adequately boost profits, capitalists moved their focus from the control of raw resources to financial speculation and trade. Globalisation crystallized. The nation-state was problematised -– its autonomy was fundamental as a stabilizing launch-pad for corporate meddling in finance and securities – but its instability was perpetuated in those regions where exploitation was activated. An empire dominated by US assets and interests, monetary manipulation and the mobilisation of multiple markets grew out of these conditions.
Within this structure of financial speculation and trade, transnational relations were favoured. Those nations able to move into and through this de-territorialised sphere were able to transcend and transform the nation-state as a space where the market rather than government cared for and crafted social, economic and political processes. For these capitalists, the wealth of a global economic order would trickle down to benefit all social strata, thereby reducing the influence and intervention of government in social growth and well-being. Capitalists did and continue to work toward ensuring the corrosion of national interests in what they see as the periphery, while maintaining the sovereignty of their own nation-state.
The establishment of the IMF, WTO and World Bank demonstrates the power of corporate globalisation to exploit markets and harm the well-being of individuals in less affluent national contexts. Through these institutions a new form of imperialism was clarified. It was one that relied less on the invasion of territory and more on the colonisation of markets. However, the multilateral cooperation promoted by these organisations quickly gave way to unilateralism with the US asserting their interests. This further compounded the instability and insecurity of the capitalist system with communities and social groups condemning the thinly veiled US (and European) attempts to maintain power through dispossession of decision-making and market shares. The consequences of this restructuring became apparent. There was a growing list of economies allowed to flounder and fail because it suited US interests. China, Japan and Argentina have all incurred crippling recessions because of the deregulation of their markets and the power of the US-backed WTO to exploit their natural and financial resources.
As a result of this negligence, there is a growing awareness in this new form of Empire that is exploiting the wealth and well-being of less corporate literate and financially secure nations. The discomfort and disaffiliation has been vocalised by those straining under the weight of their fiscal debt and growing social crises. Yet from within those empowered nations benefiting from exploitation and those market forces selling globalization on a world stage, the expansion of these unfair processes was being claimed fiercely by wealthy speculators. Now even within affluent nation-states the divisions between wealthy and poor are being advanced and advocated. The investment population, the market speculators that rely on the uneven technologies of globalisation are not only big corporations, but middle class investors.
The growth of financial markets within these empowered contexts relies on the continued perpetuation of uneven and unfair practices both at home and abroad. This has resulted in growing disaffection and demonstration of the unrestrained power of these interests at the expense of the dispossessed. When George W. Bush affirmed the centrality of the “haves and the have mores,” he was verbalising a growing reality for many US citizens -– that they were insignificant and uninfluential to the workings of economic policy, the nation-state and what defined social well-being.
Both inwardly and outwardly, growing instability infected national and transnational politics. It was crystallized most clearly in the Battle for Seattle and similar protests involving anti-globalisation sentiment. These protestors were not a small marginal fringe of hippy-hemp-wearing anti-capitalists. They were an increasing majority of workers, students, journalists, trade unionists and intellectuals concerned with the proliferation of US and European interests under the guise of globalising forces. They were seeing the effects of corporate globalisation in their home towns and factories where mass layoffs and deregulation were destroying communities. The violence with which their disagreement was met with demonstrates the heavy hand of finance protecting its right to exploitation.
The incursions across social, geographic, political and economic frontiers have been a feature of this style of global diplomacy. Protest is met with power to contain and curtail any interruption to the corporate forces gathering finances and market shares. The despair has continued to grow and has lead to the rise of neo-fascist frameworks. The growth in this type of fundamentalism was of course witnessed most graphically on September 11, 2001. The systemic and deeply ingrained disagreement with US imperialist energies was embodied in the hijackers of American flights 11 and 77 and United flights 93 and 175. Yet, the response by the US perpetuated the crisis of international relations that had both fuelled and framed these attacks.
Social commentators warned of the potential infection of extremist and violent social interest groups that advocate hyper-conservative consciousness in response to the increasing instability in their lives. The binarised rhetoric of good and evil has articulated and promoted a dislocation in the consciousness of citizens where the solution to the crippling consequences of globalization, and to soothe the guilt of accumulation in middle-class money-clips, is to validate the clarity of faith.
Within the structures of globalization, the personal and the public become unclear. The practices and products bought and engaged locally have far reaching affects in a global market place and unfair trade transnationalisation. The intersection of economies and interests makes everyday life choices confused and incoherent –- loaded with consequences not immediately conceptualised and also dislodged from local languages and political intervention.
Michael Moore used Fahrenheit 9/11 to track these consequences. He maps a continuum of concerns beginning within the nation-state, arching out over transnational contexts to lead back into the personal stories of individuals like Lila Lipscomb whose experiences reify the anxiety and confusion of our contemporary era. At the edges of Empire –- in Iraq –- the meanings become simultaneously clear and unstable. These manifest in Flint, Michigan where another war is being waged on the poor, unemployed and unimportant. It is in this space that Michael Moore discovers a language to recontextualise the everyday through a global narrative.
Fahrenheit 9/11 translates between popular and collective memory. The cohesive narrative that US governmental forces, with the assistance of the media, have validated to contextualise the war in Iraq and against terror, is contested by this film. It not only presents evidence to reveal the spin-doctoring of the campaign coaches, but opens the wounds of the personal to fill out the spaces left silent by this rhetoric. The desire to mask the consequences of the ‘war on terror’ is stripped away by not only by our connection and confrontation with Lila Lipscomb and her family but with the soldiers in the field, and the mothers burying their children in Iraq.
Moore takes the forgotten and ignored voices of individuals and links them to and through the official discourses of government, military and the media imaginary. He peels open the spaces George W. Bush has sought to silence. He shows how the crippling crises of corporate globalisation fed through a conservative nation-state, has produced unstable and insecure personal politics. Moore takes viewers from the centres to the margins of Empire and tracks a path leading from national power brokers to international oil interests. He then weaves a parallel path into the heart of Empire from the rights of voters denied their say in the 2000 election to the corrosion of civil rights and the class concerns activated in the highly suspect recruiting strategies of the US military.
Lila Lipscomb’s story punctuates this narrative by providing the crux –- the intersection of these competing interests – and demonstrating the profound consequences of corporate globalisation and its imperialist ideologies. Lila’s journey is so striking because we witness her struggle to make sense of shifting meanings and memories. What she believed to be true is corroded by the experience of losing her son. This then activates a questioning of the integrity of US foreign and domestic policy. She reveals the spaces where the edges of Empire begin to crumble. When imperialism can only provide sound-bite explanations and political spin in place of compassionate and considered dialogue, the cracks in Empire begin to split apart.
The absence of a critical language to understand the events on September 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq, reveals the energies of Empire. The consequences of this absence within the public and private spheres, has left a gap in social sense-making. With few options for vocalising and validating alternatives, individuals turn to secure systems in a time of instability. To make sense of 9/11 and not contextualise the United States’ place in this attack required a retreat to the safe religious right. This movement was validated by the rhetoric of George W. Bush when he called for alliances with us or with the terrorists. Such positioning allows clarity and purpose for those assaulted by grief and disbelief.
Fahrenheit 9/11 shows us the widening gap between the interests of corporate globalization and its imperialist scaffold and the concerns of citizens struggling with everyday energies. The US government was unable to fill the space required of it during the 9/11 crisis –- the only terrain it could occupy was to validate a belligerent binary based on good and evil. In shutting down any other form of discussion or debate, a gap in the social psyche appeared.
Michael Moore tried to fill this gap by creating a language to translate between the transnationalisation of the US Empire and the experience of everyday Americans. He provided a narrative through the events of 9/11 that connected the experience of grief to a wider socio-political context. However, the difficulty and the ultimate failure of Moore’s project was the strength and attractiveness of the clarity in the binarised belligerence. Michael Moore’s argument takes work to assimilate and understand. It requires you to get uncomfortable. Retreating to the religious right is clear and uncomplicated.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is an important film –- not because it tried to intervene in a political process -– but because it provided a narrative that sought to understand the wide-sweeping forces that impact on individual lives. This film visualises consequences of corporate globalisation. The people who must handle these difficulties are visible and vocal. It presents the sharp edges of Empire at its most devastating -– and in an era that squeezes out social, political and economic alternatives, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a crucial intervention into the public consciousness.
Leanne McRae teaches at the School of Media, Communication and Culture, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia.