From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject “Capital In the 21st Century”: Finally, A Movie That Tells The Story of How We Got Into This Mess
Date May 13, 2020 12:00 AM
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[“Capital in the 21st Century” is based on the 2013 book by
Thomas Piketty, a French economist. The film, directed by Justin
Pemberton, undermines that core power of the world’s elites —
shaping how we think — in a particularly wise, sneaky way.]
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Jon Schwartz
May 5, 2020
The Intercept
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_ “Capital in the 21st Century” is based on the 2013 book by
Thomas Piketty, a French economist. The film, directed by Justin
Pemberton, undermines that core power of the world’s elites —
shaping how we think — in a particularly wise, sneaky way. _

A still from "Capital in the Twenty-First Century." Still: Courtesy
of Kino Lorber, Still: Courtesy of Kino Lorber


“THE WAY the elite stays in power, and passes on their privilege to
the next generation, is by shaping the way that we think.”

You may have heard this from a million rose emoji
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different coming from Gillian Tett at the beginning of a new
documentary, “Capital in the 21st Century
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online. Tett is the chair of the U.S. editorial board of the Financial
Times, the salmon-colored international business newspaper read by
Deutsche Bank vice presidents from London to Dubai to Singapore.
(Every month FT publishes a magazine called “How to Spend It.”)

“Capital in the 21st Century” is based on the bestselling 2013
book by Thomas Piketty, a French economist. The film, directed by
Justin Pemberton, undermines that core power of the world’s elites
— shaping how we think — in a particularly wise, sneaky way.

There are many other documentaries about the same subject as
“Capital in the 21st Century” — i.e., the rise of the 0.1
percent and the fall of everyone else. They’re mostly a barrage of
graphs and numbers that make you feel like you drank three Heinekens
at lunch and want to take a nap. “Capital” doesn’t do this.
Instead it just tells a story, the centurieslong story of capitalism.

That makes it unique in popular culture, particularly since it does so
not in a dry monotone but often via clips from movies. The story of
capitalism is the central reality of everyone’s life. But it isn’t
taught in high school. It’s not on TV. That’s truly bizarre if you
think about it, yet, as Tett has explained elsewhere
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it’s unlikely that you will. All societies maintain what
anthropologists call “social silence” about the society’s most
significant subjects. As Tett puts it, what matters most
“is _not _discussed because those topics are considered boring,
irrelevant, taboo, or just unthinkable.”

“Capital in the 21st Century” understands that the daily facts
about capitalism seem boring, irrelevant, etc., to most people because
they’re not part of a story. They’re like baseball scores when you
don’t know anything about baseball’s rules or teams or history.
But understanding the story of capitalism is like understanding all of
that about baseball, plus having a team to root for, and realizing
that, if your team loses, you’re going to die. This makes the
business section much more exciting.

The movie starts by going back to the period 250 years ago when
capitalism first gained momentum via the Industrial Revolution. Until
then Europe was feudal, with a swarm of kings, dukes, earls, and
marquessates holding most of the wealth in the form of land.

But factories generated new, insurgent wealth. Both the American and
French revolutions were in part fights between old feudal elites and a
new business elite struggling to be born. And while the old and new
elites disagreed on who should be in charge, they both agreed that
regular people shouldn’t be.

While no one remembers this, even the Communist Manifesto in 1848
acknowledged the accomplishments of the business class. “The
bourgeoisie,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote, “has been the
first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has
accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman
aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.”

The problem was that in the pursuit of profit, capitalism also
generated spectacular new forms of exploitation. “Capital in the
21st Century” spends time on examples such as the massive expansion
of slavery, the murderous rampages of European colonialism, and
“master and servant” laws in the United Kingdom that made it
illegal for workers to quit. The movie’s key point about this time
is that unbound capitalism made countries richer overall, but there
was nothing inherent in it that improved life for regular people. In
fact, it was in many ways worse for them than when they were governed
by lords and ladies.

Piketty explains that by 1914 in Paris, the top 1 percent owned 70
percent of all wealth, and two-thirds of the population died with
nothing. In the face of this raw brutality, all kinds of alternatives,
from communism to socialism to Georgism
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gained adherents across Europe. Capitalists were petrified. What could
they do that wouldn’t require them to share any wealth or power?

“You have this rise in nationalism and competition between European
countries,” Piketty says. “Nationalism is often used by elites to
make people forget class conflict and instead focus on national

It can be debated the degree to which berserk nationalism was
consciously stoked by Europe’s rulers to distract from their
failures. If present-day politics are anything to go by, they likely
knew exactly what they were doing. A recent GOP memo
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Republican officeholders on how to deal with their coronavirus
faceplant told them “don’t defend Trump” — since he’s
indefensible — but “attack China.”

In any case, when World War I came, Europe’s leaders thought it was
exactly what they needed. A British politician declared England was
“at war quite irrespective of party or class.” Germany’s Kaiser
was just as happy, proclaiming, “I see no parties anymore, I see
only Germans.”

The war was such a catastrophe that it generated exactly what
Europe’s elites feared most: a communist revolution.
Germany’s cunning plan
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Vladimir Lenin back to Russia
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1917 was history’s greatest own goal, leading directly to the Soviet
army occupying Berlin 28 years later.

As “Capital” explains, it was only with the worldwide slaughter of
the Second World War that capitalism was willing to make some changes.
First of all, the upper class had literally blown up much of its
capital, and its power was at a low ebb. Moreover, as Stanford
political science professor Francis Fukuyama points out, they were
genuinely concerned about losing everything: “The existence of the
communist alternative scared the capitalist world into thinking if it
didn’t at least address some of the basic inequality issues that
they would lose the battle of ideas. … Unless the state tried to do
something about jobs, and do enough redistribution to keep people from
starving, you wouldn’t have basic social stability.”

This worked. For about 30 years, the film says, societies realized
that “capitalism must be harnessed like some wild horse.” This
period saw huge increases in wealth for regular workers, and the first
widespread middle class in history.

This lasted long enough that many people began to believe this was
capitalism’s natural state, and earlier times had been an
aberration. But as World War II receded into the distance, capitalism
mounted a counterattack with the elections of Ronald Reagan in the
U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. Their message was that the
problem of the 20th century hadn’t been the refusal of capitalism to
compromise with human beings, but instead the problem was the few
compromises capitalism did make.

The wholesale collapse of communism emboldened capitalism further.
With hindsight, it now appears that the decades of middle-class
capitalism after World War II was the aberration, and since at least
the 1990s we’ve been returning to capitalism’s norm.

This is what frightens Piketty: that we’re poised to rerun the
20th century in some hideously mutated form. “There are always
politicians tempted to exploit the rising inequality,” he says.
“You could see this very clearly in the world before 1914. And I’m
very afraid at the beginning of the 21st century, that because we
feel we cannot regulate international capitalism, we cannot properly
tax billionaires and multinationals, instead we vent our anger” at
other targets. The danger of misdirected rage is now even clearer
than when the movie was filmed, as Congress and the Trump
administration use the novel coronavirus as an excuse for “just
shoveling money to rich people
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via complicated but extremely lucrative tax breaks.

That’s where the story of “Capital in the 21st Century” ends.
“People on the streets are starting to say, enough. Enough of the
inequality, and enough of not having a story about how this ever gets
better,” says journalist Paul Mason. The movie and Piketty have real
but limited suggestions for this kind of story about the future. But
they’ve done a huge service to everyone by helping us see how we got
to where we are today, which is the first step to figuring out where
we want to go next.


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_JON SCHWARTZ  - Before joining First Look Media, Jon Schwarz worked
for Michael Moore’s Dog Eat Dog Films and was a research producer
for Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story.”He’s contributed to
many publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times,
The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and Slate, as
well as NPR and “Saturday Night Live.”In 2003, he collected on a
$1,000 bet that Iraq would have no weapons of mass destruction._

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