“SiCKO,” Are We Sick, Or What?

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

Nick Hillendime

YEARS AGO, WHEN I worked the sports unit of a commercial TV station, I spent many hours in a van traveling to various games with a lot of folks who were all smarter than I (pilots in their spare time, people who repaired and operated sophisticated video equipment), which didn’t keep me from getting into political arguments because I was younger, dumber, angrier and relatively new to the finer points of Marxism.

The one plank in my argument that usually got folks to stop and think was the labor theory of value: labor creates all wealth. I thought aha! Here could be the spark for the revolution.

Before that, growing up in the sixties and early seventies, I like many of my generation thought socialism made so much sense it seemed inevitable. As you may have noticed, this was not the case.

Having seen Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” I have somewhat renewed hope that a mainstream movement to at least radicalize one crucial aspect of U.S. consciousness might be possible. Or to put it another way, if this doesn’t turn significant numbers of people toward a more humane and rational system I don’t know what will. (Of course, people have to see it but that’s another story.)

The turning point may not be the inherent political/economic theft of capitalism so much as the denial of medical care for profit that steals life and limb.

“Sicko” is hands down Moore’s best film. He has reined in his tendencies towards bombast and mostly allows the story to tell itself.  His appearances are low-key, and mostly only as needed such as when he takes ailing 9-11 rescue workers to Cuba for medical care, or when he interviews a group of U.S. ex-pats about the European welfare state.

Where he does draw conclusions via his narration, the points are but steps from the reality of what we see on the screen. He is not rummaging around the edge of conspiracy theories, as he did in “Fahrenheit 9-11” (wherein he implied sinister forces that allowed members of the Saudi royal family to fly out of the country when all planes were grounded).

There are funny moments in the film: Moore marching up the Capitol steps with his laundry to see if the U.S. government will do for him what France does for its new parents; the looks on the faces of people in Europe when Moore asks how much their health care cost. But much of the film is gut-wrenching and infuriating: stories from relatives of those who died because their loved ones were denied care and industry insiders confessing their roles in denial of care for profit.

Human Sacrifice for Profit

“Sicko” does what socialists in the United States have been trying to do since the 1930s, make the case in plain and undeniable terms that we need a system based on the needs of the many rather than a inhumane and degrading system that can and will sacrifice all but the capitalists in the name of profit.

But the direct attack on capitalism is more implied. In fact, for all of the right’s claims that Moore is a commie, “Sicko” puts the U.S. system in context as being at the bottom rung of the capitalist ladder for failing to provide what other industrial societies take for granted.

Those nations, with historically stronger parties of the left, have made commitments that the ill and injured, the elderly and children will be cared for and the cost will be shared by all just because they are all human. For the right wing and especially the U.S. insurance industry, of course, that spells “Communism,” although it isn’t anywhere close.

The contrast with the results of the “let the devil take the hindmost” attitude in the U.S. system is devastating. France sends doctors to help people in the middle of the night.  Britain hands out money at the end of the hospital stay to make sure patients can get back home. In Canada, even conservatives who’d like to destroy national health care have to deny their intentions.

But in the United States, HMOs dump disoriented indigent patients on skid row and physician HMO employees get promotions and raises for denial of care even if it results in death.

Moreover, Britain began its National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, in the devastating wake of World War II. Given the fact that Britain did decide to spend its meager resources on the NHS it doesn’t matter that Moore undoubtedly cherry-picked some of the film’s horror stories.

There is simply no excuse for spending trillions on war while millions go without, when a country that was all but destroyed by war decided national health was a priority. This even kills the argument about the U.S. defense budget (with which other industrialized nations don’t saddle themselves) sucking up the money for health care.

Belly of a Sick Beast

While I began this review conflating the movie’s ethos with socialism, and in the end “Sicko” is clearly about more than the U.S. health care system alone, it is not a socialist tract. It is a frontal assault on “for profit health care.” He even shows Hillary Clinton, once the nemesis of the HMOs, to now be on their payroll along with Bush et al.

But the film’s points of unfavorable comparison, except for Cuba, are all capitalist countries. Moore is clearly a radical liberal or left social democrat, who believes the system could be reformed.  Seen through the lens of “Sicko,” Europe offers some great models for that reform which would be a drastic improvement.  Indeed if people were healthier and educated, many more could be more involved in civic/political life and decisions to the dismay of the ruling class.

But this ain’t Europe. We are in the belly of the beast. The official, though probably unpaid, tax bill ($57 million in back taxes owed by California HMOs alone) of the various for-profit HMOs would go a long way toward funding national health care.

In short, they have got billions to hold us back.  These companies — as much as the military-industrial corporate monsters — would have to be eliminated entirely, and there is the rub. In the absence of some grand, unforeseen and probably tragic event, the sort of movement it would take to move these most heinous of actors from the stage will, I believe, dwarf all that have come before. But “Sicko” may be the first step.

from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)