Capital in the Twenty-First Century: The Thomas Piketty inspired documentary helps to explain the COVID-19 economic crisis


Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a documentary inspired by the unlikely 2013 best seller of the same name by French economist Thomas Piketty. Capital was a dense volume of academic research clocking in at over 500 pages that became an overnight sensation as it meticulously investigated the causes of the inequality gap that has plagued nations. Piketty's elevator pitch is that there are two types of income sources: capital and labor and those that hold the capital assets ultimately win out in the end. Piketty demonstrated through extensive research that the historical returns on capital outpaced economic growth. It's the stark theme highlighted in countless books, articles and documentaries as we've grown familiar of the charts contrasting the stagnant wages of the working class and the exponential accumulation of wealth by the elite.

Inequality has only accelerated since 2013 and much has changed both geopolitically and in the global economy. Rising levels of inequality have birthed waves of populism and resentment among the working class. In Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas wrote about how elites continue to hoard wealth while using the guise of philanthropy to game the system and ensure that their profits are not disrupted by favoring foundations over governmental programs (that would be funded by the tax dollars they use great efforts to avoid payment on). Giridharadas, Bernie Sanders and others have questioned the moral and ethical dilemma of the mere existence of billionaires.

Two Piketty colleagues, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, released The Triumph of Injustice last year that investigated how the wealthy elites and big corporations dodge taxes with creative accounting, offshoring, shell companies, etc. This leads to underfunded governments because companies such as Amazon and Apple are paying zero taxes and frames the famous example of Warren Buffett paying less taxes than his secretary. The book serves as a actionable blueprint on how to improve the regressive tax system and the authors were even advisors to the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Like Saez and Zucman, Piketty also recommends a taxation on wealth and his latest book, Capital and Ideology, examines the societal fallout of inequality through the ages.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Capital documentary has been released at a time when our regressive system of global capitalism is being questioned as this crisis underscores capitalism's greatest hits (inequality, ineffective government, corporate welfare, medical industrial complex, etc).

Last Sunday, the Financial Times hosted a Zoom panel discussion with Piketty and other commentators from the documentary in which COVID-19 was the dominant topic. One of the prevailing takeaways from the film was during the eras of the great world wars societies began to realize that in the face of death, everyone is equal. This sentiment was discussed during the Zoom panel as the current crisis has created slogans such as "we are all in this together." The optimists see a silver lining in hopes that the exodus of this crisis will usher in a more egalitarian society. Yet a more sobering view of the documentary is contrarian and haunting.

Capital glosses over Piketty's most profound point in his book and the breadth of research he performed to prove it: capital outperforms labor. As Capital follows the timeline of the twentieth century into the present, it documents how vast inequality leads to civil unrest and fascism (the rise of Nazi Germany in the past and the fascist world leaders of today).  It hints at how big tech companies and gig economies are fueling dangerous new levels of inequality, but a few crucial points are absent.

Piketty's work focuses on the previous iteration of capitalism in the form of the industrial age, yet we are currently living in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which is the title of scholar Shoshana Zuboff's book where she defines this new era of surveillance capitalism and offers insights into its future - which appears to be accelerating under the seismic event of the COVID-19 crisis as the invisible hand seems to have pushed the reset button. Not only has the crisis of COVID-19 highlighted how those with the resources are better equipped to shelter in place, work from home and weather the economic storm it will also allow the technologies of machine learning and artificial intelligence (prediction, automation) to redefine essential labor and market behaviors on the other side of this crisis. Surveillance capitalism will be much harder to wrangle and restrict in the twenty-first century than our previous industrial age because of its ubiquitous stranglehold on our lives and encroachment on democracy.

Favoring clips from Jane Austen adaptions and Wall Street over charts and graphs, director Justin Pemberton packages Capital into a digestible form akin to Inside Job, Generation Wealth and Capitalism: A Love Story. Injecting humor and panache into a dark topic is welcome, but one wonders if the style he occasionally hints at with brooding shots of buildings, time-lapse edits and photographic kaleidoscopes could've been more embraced and made for a more effective documentary in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi and HyperNormalisation.

Piketty's book was often dry and he isn't the most captivating lecturer and interviewee either. Those seeking riveting talks on inequality and economics should seek out Richard Wolff.  Thankfully there are more animated voices (Ian Bremmer, Gillian Tet, Kate Williams) in Pemberton's documentary to drive home points with more vigor and flair while Piketty distills his data. Capital isn't revelatory and it serves best as a supplement for Piketty's book. Yet it is a rather concise and occasionally captivating screed with an effective array of archival footage to give a compelling overview of capitalism's toxic history.




Capital in the Twenty-First Century is available now for virtual screening

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