‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’: Film popularizes Thomas Piketty’s work

Starting on Friday, May Day 2020, you will not be able to run, run, run to your local cineplex to see Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the new documentary based eponymously on the book by bestselling author Thomas Piketty, whom The Times of London calls “the rock star economist of our time.”

But you will be able to view this 103-minute film in the comfort of your own home, where you’ll likely be sheltering in place for the weekend anyway, and you should, should, should. Invite the whole family!

There are those of us who were aware of the French economist’s tome and its runaway commercial success, and some who even purchased a copy, but who have not gotten around to actually holding it in their hands and reading it. Full disclosure: I am one of those people.

Author Thomas Piketty in São Paulo, 2017 / Fronteiras do Pensamento / Greg Salibian (Creative Commons)

In recognition of the need for a wider exposure to Piketty’s ideas, the film more than adequately serves to open up the conversation about wealth, accumulation, and equality in the world today. It is visually a total stunner, with exceptionally artistic cinematography by Jacob Bryant and Darryl Ward, directed by Justin Pemberton, who shares writing credit with Piketty himself and Matthew Metcalfe.

Piketty’s title did not drop from the sky. It is a conscious 21st-century homage to Karl Marx’s three-volume Das Kapital, a spectacularly insightful analysis of the evolution and present-day (for its time) workings of the capitalist idea in practice. In keeping with the Marxist principle of looking at the world through the lens of historical materialism (though at one point, confronting the many who claimed to be working the same vein, he declared, “I am not a Marxist”), the grizzly philosopher and a co-founder of what came to be known as “scientific socialism” restricted himself to the analysis of the world he knew, and stopped short of prescribing or predicting what the future would hold, or how humans could bring socialism into being. That kind of proactive thinking he, and many of his followers in the various strains of Marxist thought, left to more polemical works. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 is, of course, one such treatment, and there have been many others since.

Piketty likewise does not spend much of his time prognosticating, but mostly contextualizing and contemporizing the concepts of wealth and poverty, the difference between productive investment and financialization, social mobility and the rise and fall of the middle class. The film takes considerable pains to distinguish among different forms and epochs of capitalist accumulation. It cites the current example of China where, although there are billionaires and extreme disparities in wealth among its citizens, there is a parallel investment in the collective future of the nation that we simply do not see in the United States, for example, and even less so under the current administration. Children of the now hollowed-out post-WWII middle class in America will not do as well economically as their parents, whereas the opposite is true in China. One clear sign of American failure is unmistakable and readily identified: the falling life expectancy in the U.S. for the first time ever in our history.

The filmmakers have recruited a highly articulate and photogenically expressive team of commentators that include scholars, economists, journalists and historians Gillian Tett, Ian Bremer, Paul Piff, Kate Williams, Rana Foroohar, Francis Fukuyama, Bryce Edwards, Suresh Naidu, Joseph Stiglitz, Gabriel Zucman, Paul Mason, Faisa Stehen, and Simon Johnson, in addition to Piketty himself. Their remarks are pithy, and no one outstays their welcome.

This is film, of course, not the printed page. How to bring such weighty ideas to the screen? Not only via talking heads, but newsreels, well chosen film clips from old movies about events such as the French Revolution and the failed rebellion of Les Misérables, as well as the novels of Jane Austen which were in essence about money—how to acquire it, keep it, grow it, and pass it on to your children (hint: try moneylending and landowning). In many ways the contradictions of society at this critical time in human history are as sharp and volatile as any in the past. The images of contrasting exhibitionistic excess and tragic waste of human life are heightened on film, but of course they tell the same story any sentient person can learn from a stroll through America’s Skid Row.

If you appreciated the point made by the Occupy movement, you will certainly be edified by this film. The documentary was obviously made before COVID-19 struck the world, but if anything the virus has only intensified what we already knew about the impact that social policy has on everyday life and the people who live it. The Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal “roll back the frontiers of the state” prescription has been as fatal to the human commonwealth as the bleach infection injection recommended by our Not-Epidemiologist-in-Chief. You really do have to wonder, Are they just trying to thin out the population so they don’t have so many mouths to feed? So they don’t have to pay out so much in retirement benefits?

Today’s financial wizards have discovered magical ways to make their taxes disappear. Poof! Just open a few shell company accounts in some lovely hospitable place like Bermuda, or Panama, or the Cayman Islands, or Jersey or the Isle of Man, where you can park your profits without nosy government detectives wanting to grab a piece of your action for things like, oh, I don’t know, public schools, hospitals, universities, critical infrastructure, scientific research, environmental protection, fighting wildfires, senior care, fixing potholes.

There is so much captivating imagery here. Your eye and your mind will be equally stimulated as you learn about history, fashion, Christmas consumerism, armies of strikebreakers, monopolies (and Monopoly), immigration, economic bubbles, war and economic recovery. How and when do nations learn that capital exists to, like, help people? And what happens when they unlearn that lesson?

The concept of socialism is not up for discussion as such. Viewers will have to draw their own conclusions. The thrust is mostly to show incontestably how the system is rigged against you, how they get you to think, “You’re not poor, you’re a millionaire in waiting.” The “good government” answers Piketty provides mostly have to do with bringing capitalism to heel with stronger regulation, taxes and control to provide for a more inclusive democracy. He’s the kind of economist a President Sanders or Warren would want to have on their team. He sees this more egalitarian future as technically possible—we certainly have the material means for it—but do we have the political will for it?

Capital in the Twenty-First Century opens on May Day in “virtual cinemas” at Laemmle Theatres and Arena Cinelounge. The trailer can be viewed here.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic.

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