Documentary Review: “Capital in the 21st Century” tells us how we got into this mess

The economist, social theorist and philosopher Karl Marx took a shot at describing “capital,” the relationship between worker and business owner in capitalism, in “Das Kapital,” a world-altering book first published in 1867.

It described the “exploitation of labor” as the root of a system that made a few wealthy and the many impoverished, downtrodden and trapped.

French economical historian Thomas Pinketty thought it worth revisiting that relationship, that system and that principle — “capital” — with “Capital in the 21st Century.” With a world roiled by a massive, sudden and recent redistribution of wealth upward, the destruction of the middle class in much of the industrialized world, a rise in nationalism and nativism among the increasingly hard-pressed and struggling working classes, his timing could not have been better.

“Capital in the 21st Century,” in documentary form, is an almost overwhelming alarm bell, a call to action and a fact, chart, animated illustration-and-quote-stuffed history of “how we got here” in the first place.

Pinketty, leading a battalion of economists, historians, TV economics presenters, academics and authors, begins his history with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, recalling his visits to Eastern Europe as a student where he witnessed “a complete state of failure.”

But winning that Cold War allowed those who declared victory to run amok, expressing “infinite faith in the deregulation of the market” and the culture to embrace “the worship of private property.”‘

While that might have benefited a tiny, oligarchical “aristocracy,” the aspirational lie being sold to the public at large was but a dream.

Filmmaker Justin Pemberton (“The Nuclear Comeback”) enlivens the many, many talking heads that begin with Pinketty and follow in the film with old educational cartoons, archival footage, old and recent, and clips from motion pictures such as “Les Miserables,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Wall Street” and TV shows such as “The Daily Show” and “The Simpsons.”

But the use of music to underscore the various experts’ points is what sticks with you. Looking at images highlighting the increasingly vain hopes of the multitudes to live like a Bush, Trump or Kardashian, we hear the synthesized finger snaps and plaintive, acquisitive lyrics of Lorde’s “Royals.”

“We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash…”

With Pinketty leading, and British economic historian and TV presenter Kate Williams, CNN economics commentator Rana Foroorhar and a legion of others telling parts of the story, we’re taken through the “feudalism” that survived, in economic form, until World War II.

We see the post WWI “irrational exuberance” of the Roaring ’20s, where developed countries realized that taxing the aristocracy was a good thing, inventing and exploiting “credit” not as good, Wall Street speculation worst of all all pointing to the Great Depression.

Professor Joseph Stiglitz and others remind us that criminal bankers (a major villain of the piece) actually went to jail for the Wall Street crash, that the Glass-Steagall Act designed to safeguard the economy against gambling bankers, was passed — only to be repealed in 1999.

What happened nine years after that?

We’re shown how much the wealth and living conditions of the vast majority of working people improved thanks to higher taxes on the wealthy and strong labor movements that spun out of World War II.

And we see how “democracy was captured by elites all across the world” by Francis Fukuyama, an after-effect of the Arab Oil embargo “shock” and the temporary rise of Japan in the 1970s.

Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union rise and Ronald Reagan’s coining of the phrase “Make America Great Again” came as a consequence of that, “Capital” explains — reactions to shifts in status and strains on households increasingly losing ground to an increasingly government-access empowered and favored elite.

University of California psychologist Paul Piff recounts his studies on human nature, greed and callousness, illustrating how “trickle down” economics never works because it is our nature NOT to share. The rich become the “idle rich” in a capital sense (their money neither works for anything or helps anyone other than themselves) by instinct.

Experts describe the current immigrant-phobia and “fear of the other” ginned up by politicians from Turkey and Russia to Hungary, Britain, Australia and the U.S., as temporary and pointless.

“Blaming your neighbor doesn’t make you any richer.”

The upshot of this is the “call to action” part of Pinketty’s “Capital.” With wealth gathering and maintained by a tiny minority, wages and living standards “stagnating” for the bottom 90%, life expectancy dropping for working people and the Baby Boomer Generation, the last one to really have it good, starting to die off and pass on their wealth to their strapped children, a pivotal moment has arrived.

Will we keep worshipping Reagan/Thatcher’s “war on the welfare state?” Will we ever get wise to the hoax of “trickle down economics?” Will we continue to buy into the lie of the “death tax,” promulgated by the wealthy to ensure they stay wealthy and you stay broke? Or will enough of us turn off the Murdoch media long enough to awaken from our daze and act and vote in our own best interests?

You mention any “Marx” that isn’t Groucho, Chico or Harpo and you lose some people’s attention. But Pinketty’s argument, that the feudalism and worker exploitation that Marx was decrying 150 years ago has returned, is worth hearing out in this lively, information-packed and damning documentary.


MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Thomas Pinketty, Rana Foroorhar, Kate Williams, Francis Fukuyama, Lucas Chancel, Ian Bremmer, Bryce Edwards, Suresh Naidu, Simon Johnson, Faiza Shaheen, Joseph Stiglitz

Credits: Directed by Justin Pemberton, based on the book by Thomas Pinketty, adapted by Pinketty, Pemberton and and Matthew Metcalf. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:43

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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1 Response to Documentary Review: “Capital in the 21st Century” tells us how we got into this mess

  1. Mo says:

    Great review, Roger. Subject matter of this documentary sounds timeless. Going to see if I can get my hands on the book before the film releases in Spring

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