‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’: Film Review

Do you know what the average life expectancy was in the 18th century? It was 17. (You read that right.) No, this wasn’t just about the fact that human beings back then tended to live less long. It was about the staggering inequality that society was built on. In Europe, the majority of people were hand-to-mouth laborers who drifted from place to place, lacking the benefits of being landed servants. (Not that being a landed servant was any picnic.) They existed in poverty, without health care or schooling or much of anything else. Their lives, in effect, were a death sentence.

That stark reality is the taking-off point for “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a nimble and eye-opening documentary that puts you in the revelatory position of looking back over the last 300 years — where we’ve been and where we’re going — from a God’s-eye economic view. That may sound dry as dust, but trust me this is a movie that provokes a consistent sense of “Whoa!” By the end, you’ll know with greater clarity than you did before why we’re in the mess we’re in.

But to invoke James Brown: Please, please, please don’t be put off by the title of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” It is taken, of course, from the title of the best-selling book by Thomas Piketty, the French economist who became the new rock star of wonks after the book was published in France in 2013 (it arrived in the U.S. one year later). Piketty, born in 1971, looks at everything that has led to the current moment through one defining lens: capital. Material wealth and value (money, land, property). Who has it, who doesn’t. How it waxes and wanes and shifts around over time. As surely as “follow the money” became a mantra, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” turns “follow the capital” into a cultural-financial detective story about the evolution of the contemporary world.

You might say that Piketty comes, almost literally, from a progressive point-of-view — the word “progress,” in this case, meaning not that things always get better, but that they move forward in ways that can be read as concretely as geological formations. There’s a hidden design to history; the great historians and economists are those who tease it out.

And Piketty isn’t some austere French theoretician with a Marxist chip on his shoulder. On camera, he’s a highly personable ordinary-guy humanist, like Paul Krugman with a touch of Malcolm Gladwell ­— an economic seer who is also an artful communicator. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” adapted by the New Zealand director Justin Pemberton and Piketty himself, turns the book into a fleetly entertaining lecture-meditation that takes the full measure of our economic peril yet isn’t above spicing its message with brain-candy montages set to “Royals” and “Kids in America.” It zooms by in a little over 90 minutes, and by the end it will spin your head around.

It’s a much-bandied-about fact that the wealth disparity in the United States, the concentration of money at the top tier of the citizenry (the one percent), is now at its most unequal point since the Gilded Age. But how did it get that way? To answer that, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” goes back to the first mass equalizing impulses that came into the Western world. It was all in response to the top-heavy aristocracies of the 18th century, with their land ownership and inherited wealth, as typified by a character like Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice.” As the British historian Kate Williams notes, “Jane Austen created a fantasy that you could get your hands on this wealth, if you were just a bit fun and a bit witty. But the reality is, there’s no way Mr. Darcy would marry girls like Lizzy Bennett, who actually haven’t got a penny to their names.”

The movie talks about how the French Revolution corrected this syndrome more in theory than fact. And though the dawn of the Industrial Revolution would make capital into less of a “fixed thing” like land (it was now liquid, and could be invested), America and Europe, built on the economic engines of slavery and colonialism, were in many ways still feudal societies. There’s a good bit about how the cult of fashion, at least as an opiate of the masses, arose in the 19th century, when the colonial powers were strip-mining the globe and needed to sell what they were reaping. Thus the idea was born that “You can’t wear that, it’s from last season!” The commercial version of Christmas came about in the same way. For the first time, people were buying products because someone else needed to sell them (and therefore made us believe that we needed to buy them).

It wasn’t until World War I that a seismic blow was dealt to the aristocracy, and the parallels between then and now — notably the rise of teeth-baring nationalism — are disquieting. But Piketty also tells the paradigm-busting story of how a powerful middle class was built, for the first time in human history, after WWII. It was no joke and no illusion; it was about how a great many ordinary people now possessed capital.

The pin prick to that dream, and the air leaking out of it, began in the ’70s, when stagflation and the oil crisis combined with what would become the slow-motion crushing of organized labor. Piketty never oversimplifies this; he understands that globalization exerted an energy all its own. But what he also sees is how these forces allowed capital to be siphoned, through the reinvention of the financial sector, back to the elite. And how the raw power of that capital has now become a self-perpetuating system. It buys political influence. It buys media and advertising. It dodges taxes (through offshore shell-company rackets). It gets passed on to the next generation.

And in the view of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” it is now taking us back to the 18th century. Over the next 20 years, as the boomers pass on, they will leave to their heirs the greatest concentration of inherited wealth the United States has ever seen. And that will result in an increased centralization of power. What’s the solution? Piketty is very concrete: We need to raise tax rates, and to institute a broader system of inheritance tax. Which sounds like a familiar argument, one that has been offered up by more or less every Democratic presidential candidate of the last half century. So why do you need to see “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” to hear it again? Because this film is about something different. It’s about what’s going to happen — what is already happening — if we fail to change course. Ordinary people are going to lose their capital (it will be sucked out of them), along with the most precious thing it buys: their freedom.

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