Review: Capital in the 21st Century

An adaptation of Thomas Piketty’s 704-page tome on the distribution of resources over the course of history, Capital in the 21st Century isn’t exactly a reassuring chronicle of how the world’s current economic inequality came to be. With a break-neck pace, Piketty and friends—economists, journalist, professors and others in the know—cover the limitations of the aristocracy in pre-revolutionary France to the disappearance of the middle class today and everything in between. Archival footage, film clips and news reports fly by, visualizing the historical events, policy decisions and cultural traditions that have led us here as the experts talk us through it all.

Directed by documentarian Justin Pemberton (Chasing Great, The Golden Hour), the film isn’t the kind of feel-good salve we all need right now in our escapism entertainment. Instead, it’s a shot in the arm, a snap to attention that articulates—if you can keep up with it—just how we got to here, where “here” is a society with stagnant wages, debilitating inequality in wealth and less socio-economic mobility than we might care to admit. It certainly didn’t all happen on accident, and that’s what Piketty and his cohorts make clear: the deep historical roots of power through accumulating wealth and capital as a tool of oppression. In a culture that spins on a single tweet, it can be all too easy to forget nothing, really, is new; such is the case with timely topics like the fight to raise the minimum wage, corporations finding ever more clever ways to avoid taxes and on and on.

It’s the film’s historical context combined with the insights from a diverse group of experts that creates such a compelling narrative; among those featured are political scientist Ian Bremmer (founder of the Eurasia Group), Financial Times editor Gillian Tett, several professors of economics and of course, Piketty himself, who serves as a bit of an anchor to the chronology of it all. By shedding light on the economic realities of eras we might otherwise only know for their wars or art or other legacies, it becomes possible to better understand what an experiment a thing like money has been all along. Hundreds of years ago, currency was in goods and the state existed only so far as the monarch’s interests were concerned. There was no such thing as a social safety net, no free public school or nationalized health care or retirement funds. There was also no such thing as the middle class; you were either of the a landed, wealthy gentry…or you weren’t.

Similarly, Capital reminds us of the economic factors at play at pivotal points in history—like Hitler’s rise to power in 1930s Germany. Ravaged by the cost of reparations after World War I, the country was in shambles, a material poverty manifested as misplaced patriotism. Follow that historical thread a little further and before long you’re at the post-war boom of 1950s America, where the “American Dream” of creating a life better than previous generations really took hold. By the end of the 20th century, when everyone with a heartbeat could secure a line of credit that literally created money out of thin air, the great experiment of capitalism reached a pinnacle—an unsustainable façade of plenty.

Like any book adaptation, there’s no way a 103-minute film can possibly capture all the detail and particulars of Piketty’s 2013 book. But it does at least capture its essence, and quite well. By zooming far, far out from the present and exploring the origins of financial systems (some of which their creators wouldn’t even recognize today), it’s possible to see—if you squint—what they might’ve been going for back then. And while most of Capital in the 21st Century is very much about how awry it’s all gone since then, there’s a case to be made that, if we try—if we elect the right officials, if we invest (our money, our time, our energy) in the right ways, if we just put forth the will for it—we might yet get back on track.

Capital in the 21st Century is now streaming via Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema; a portion of your rental goes to support the theater.