‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’

Based on the book of the same name by Thomas Piketty, the documentary film, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, takes a whistle stop tour of inequalities in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries in an attempt to figure out the implications for the 21st Century.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has allowed Capitalism to run amok, no longer needing to maintain any notion of moral supremacy, this has led to the rise of a new aristocracy or super rich class and the demise of the Middle Class. Society is returning to the old model of the Middle Classes being almost as poor as the Working Class.

The use of interesting film footage combined with cleverly chosen background music and interview soundbites keeps the argument moving. And while it might not really say anything partcularly new, it does combine a number of ideas into a single argument.

In the 18th Century, the average life expectancy was 17 years. The aristocracy maintained a system with the dice loaded in their favour. There was little social mobility. The rich married the rich. Pride and Prejudice was a romantic fantasy — in 1813, the chance of a wealthy man marrying a woman without money was extremely slim. Money married money. For a contemporary Western audience marrying for love seems entirely normal, but for a reader in 1813 it was as incredible as winning the lottery.

The post-World War Two West saw the idea of the benefits society in the UK and rise of Middle Class wealth in the US. This hit the rocks in the 1970s. Globalisation has seen business and industries taken offshore, new technologies often require less workers, and nation states are struggling to maintain their public services (because the large corporations have become so adept at tax evasion).

As living standards fall, people lash out against their nearest enemy, they return to identity, gender, and ethnicity politics. The result is a greater social divide — polarisation. The documentary notes that shared wealth depends on the wider control of capital, and urges the taxation of inheritance in order to avoid returning to the model of the old aristocracy. If this does not occur, it argues, we will end up with ‘unequally distributed abundance’. Without some form of a ‘new deal’, it will be impossible to maintain a harmonious society.

The documentary points out the psychology of power, as observed in social experiments. In these experiments (playing Monopoly) players who won by pure chance believed that they had earned their position through their own skill and strategy. The more power the ultra rich (the 1%) gain by inheritance, the more they feel that they they have done something to deserve it, and the less empathy they feel towards poor people.

These observations pose some big questions. How do Liberal democracies change if they lack the will, or the leadership? How, in a culture of individual freedoms do you build a sense of collective responsibility? The documentary argues that failure to crack these questions will lead to a revolution.

Failing systems are unable to reform themselves. Often, the things that make a system sucessful also end up making it fail. One thing that Capital in the Twenty-First Century omits when it comes to speculating about the future, is the unknown. Unknown variables create new and unexpected scenarios. They change the context and implications of existing variables in ways that we’re unable to comprehend from the present day.

Verdict: Interesting.