Director – Justin Pemberton – 2019 – France, New Zealand – Cert. 12 – 103m
An adaptation of Thomas Piketty’s controversial economic treatise Capital In The 21st Century – in cinemas from Friday, September 25th
The content of French economist Thomas Piketty’s eponymous book couldn’t be more relevant. Far from being dry economics, Piketty’s thesis begins that there has always been a minority of wealthy people whose wealth derives from nothing more than being born into wealth. They have done nothing to merit wealth. They do not own it because of any sort of achievement.
The industrial revolution, he argues, gave those with capital (financial assets) the means to substantially increase the amount of capital they own.
Throughout history, the rich have not looked after the whole of society but rather have merely defended their own interests, i.e. maintaining and if possible increasing their position of wealth. They have shown a disdain for the other 99% of people. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, society was broken into those two groups, wealthy and poor.
The rise of the middle class after World War One changed everything, with middle class people wanting their say in how things were run. Changes since the 1970s however threaten the power of the middle class and we may be seeing a return to a majority of very poor people beholden to a wealthy minority – unless we take the action necessary to prevent it.
Director Pemberton employs vox pops of a number of experts, economists and others, including the French-speaking Piketty himself. There are a couple of other French speakers, but most speak English. The film is heavily US- and Euro-centric and seems almost embarrassed when it briefly discusses China as the probable leading world economy.
Where Piketty’s book referred to novels e.g. by Austen and Balzac to illustrate its points, Pemberton’s film refers to movies. Austen adaptation Pride And Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005) is a fantasy about the poor marrying into money: in reality, the rich tend not to marry the poor. Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) was intended as an indictment of unfettered free market capitalism but ended up inspiring a generation of financial industry types. SF dystopia Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013) shows a future Earth where everyone lives in servitude on rundown planet Earth while the rich live in luxury on a space station.
There are occasional animated sequences, one showing for example how factories beget more factories and thus more wealth for their owners from the industrial revolution onwards. Capital was repurposed for the greater good in the US under Roosevelt’s New Deal and in the UK with the provision of the National Health Service, the latter referenced in the COI short Your Very Good Health (John Halas, Joy Batchelor, 1948).
Piketty believes that such initiatives only come about if the rich are heavily taxed to pay for them: left to their own devices, they will simply hang on to their money and use it to amass more money rather than to benefit their fellow man. The so called ‘Trickle-down Theory’ is a myth.
He adds that starving the mass of people of money, as happened in Germany after World War One, provides the perfect breeding ground for fascism which is how Hitler rose to power. World War Two was the first industrialised war, used by the West to boost economic production. Similarly, the banking crisis was caused by institutions finding increasingly opaque ways to corral larger and larger amounts of money for themselves.
Ironically, Germany and its fellow Axis Power country Japan pursued a different model to much of the West, putting workers on company boards to ensure them a bigger say in corporate policy and a bigger share of the wealth generated.
The film is a call for action because if nothing is done, most people’s lives will revert to their former position of eighteenth or nineteenth century subservience.
Piketty’s thinking contains big ideas and the film is highly watchable. Put it on your need to see list.
Capital In The 21st Century is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 25th.