I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
French economist Thomas Piketty had a surprise bestseller a few years ago with his massive 2013 tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Perhaps because this academic treatise on capitalism in the United States and Europe since the 18th century posited that huge and increasing wealth and income inequality is not a bug but a feature of capitalism… a message that arrived just as so many of us were coming to that same conclusion in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Well, attention, social justice warriors. Because now, just in time for another, even more dramatic crisis that might actually prompt some real change in the big System, documentarian Justin Pemberton has transformed Piketty’s book into a film: a hugely engaging one, eye-opening and entertaining, even, if in a brutal way.
Yes, it’s still about economics. This is a terrific — and terrifying — primer on a lot of complex money-riffic concepts, illustrated by a ton of amazing vintage footage smartly and beautifully edited together to become a howl of rage, a call for change, and a warning that when inequality gets too extreme, it will right itself violently if it isn’t addressed more reasonably. (To avoid a French Revolution, for instance, try a New Deal.)
So many delicious and angry-making tidbits here! Like, did you know that the aristocracy of pre-Enlightenment Europe made up about — yup — 1 percent of the population? (Coincidence? Or does rich bastardry just naturally accumulate at this level?) Did you know that the United States, France, and Britain built their enormous wealth on slave economies and rampant colonialism that stripped the natural world of its resources? (If you’ve been paying attention, you probably did. And also you know that this means that that kind of capitalism is wholly unsustainable in any sense of the word.) Have you heard that studies have shown that human psychology, or at least the way we have trained our brains via a society organized to enable unfettered capitalism, fosters sociopathy?
Even if you’re already aware of many of the ideas presented here, this is a stunning synthesis that comes to uneasy conclusions about where the world is headed, and soon. Piketty himself — who is, of course, among the many fascinating historians and other experts who speak here — says that he’s afraid for the 21st century. Because we look to be on course for another massive cultural correction on a par with the Great Depression and World War II… not least because among the propaganda that has kept today’s 1 percent safe (so far!) from the rest of us hauling out the guillotines again is a virulent nationalism the likes of which brought Hitler to power. Those same dark forces are the ones we’re seeing at work right now in the US and the UK, in their scariest iterations. The sorry catalogue of the postwar West Piketty and Pemberton lay out here — from brief postwar boom to stagflation to Reagan and Thatcher’s attack on organized labor, and beyond — has lead us to a dreadful crossroads, and the regular cycles of capitalism suggest that we may not choose a pleasant road to take from here.
On the other hand, Piketty’s book and this film were produced before the current coronavirus pandemic, and things that seemed impossible mere weeks ago suddenly are being talked about seriously; see “universal basic income,” for one. Collective cultural action has rapidly been harnessed; the weaknesses and stresses in the way we’ve been working and getting by — or not — have been instantly exposed to everyone all at the same time. That crossroads is suddenly a wide borderland, beyond which could be a world that is infinitely fairer and more equal than anything any of us have ever experienced. Could we make that happen?
I am left with two big takeaways after Capital in the Twenty-First Century. One that is, very obviously, we fix things for the better only after a lot of trauma and tragedy, such as WWII, and that we might have hit that rockbottom again right now, from which the only way out is up. The other is that if this movie does not get you on the barricades to push for that better world, you probably benefitted from the last crisis rather than got kicked in the ass by it. Which side are you on?