Capital in the Twenty-First Century
2020, NR, 102 min. Directed by Justin Pemberton.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 1, 2020
History doesn't repeat itself, as the saying goes, but it certainly does rhyme. That's the underlying theme of socioeconomic documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and we may be heading for a particularly dark verse.
That's the theory embedded in this adaptation of French academic Thomas Piketty's international smash book of the same name. The 700-page tome is modern economic theory's A Brief History of Time: A massive and complicated work of stunning complexity that avoids just enough equations to not be off-putting to lay readers, but still stand up to academic scrutiny. He's revised some of his calculations, but the final sum remains the same: That the growth of runaway capitalism began in the late 19th century with the transition from land to investment as the ultimate sign of wealth, and that its promise of free markets as the path to liberty were a lie. Put simply, the French Revolution didn't replace Louis XVI and his aristocracy with a lasting, free, and open government. It instead created Napoleon and his new aristocracy.
Adapted by Piketty, director Pemberton (The Nuclear Comeback), and producer Matthew Metcalfe, this cinematic guide to the rise and rise of untrammeled capitalism as the dangerous and dominating global force is never less than enthralling - and mercifully free of equations. Instead, this expository documentary leans into the collage technique of talking heads and carefully collated archive footage à la Eugene Jarecki or Alex Gibney. It's a massive achievement, turning this weighty volume into enthralling cinema. It's arguably the most significant work of European socioeconomic history since E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, and up there with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as a point of ingress to a massive project. Somehow they manage to create a logical narrative that connects the first pangs of industrialization to the modern unstable system – via Reagan and Thatcher, Amazon's tax-dodging, ultra-nationalism, the gig economy, the welfare state, the housing crisis, the birth of trade unions, and the behavioral psychology of wealth.
Of course, as with any primer to the development of a global cultural phenomenon, there's some conflation and contraction that lops off details. Western Europe in the 19th century becomes one homogeneous whole, while the fight for dominance between the ailing landed gentry and the rising industrial aristocracy is glossed over completely. However, by taking a wider view there are also details that are often missed – especially because this is not an Americentric perspective.
Piketty's prime argument remains that we're seeing what some people describe as unprecedented accumulation of wealth. They're wrong – not about the ever-filling vaults of the wealthy, but in the lack of a precedent. We are, as he presents, painfully close to the disparity that lead to the French Revolution, but we also seem to be in a re-run of the era of ultra-nationalism that accompanied it. Even the new wave of discount Maoists clogging up Twitter have their antecedents in the painfully naive idealists of the French Revolution who thought that that liberté, égalité, and fraternité would suddenly materialize, rather than the need for perpetual vigilance and functioning government structures.
If there's a depressing note to Piketty's circular view of history, it's his belief that egalitarianism often springs from catastrophic disaster ("everyone is equal in death" becomes a refrain), and that it's the slow grind of extreme wealth and extreme poverty that breeds those disasters. Inequality, he posits, is the real enemy, and has been for centuries longer than just the modern American disparity disaster. Unless we work out how to fix that, the next chorus will be the loudest.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is currently available through Kino Lorber's initiative whereby streaming rentals can be bought through virtual ticket booths for local art house cinemas. Choose from:
• Violet Crown Cinema (tickets here)