“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is a flashy trip through economic history

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Justin Pemberton adapts Thomas Piketty’s book on economics into an accessible (if overly neat) primer on capitalism throughout history.

In making Capital in the Twenty-First Century, practiced documentarian Justin Pemberton was faced with the gargantuan task of distilling Thomas Piketty’s acclaimed economic tome of the same name into something palatable to viewing audiences. The result is a lot sexier than the title which leaves you wanting more…or maybe something else?

To summarize the “plot” entirely is to summarize the history of capitalism and that is literally Piketty’s job so I will let him and Pemberton do most of it. But in its taut 100-minute runtime, the film remarkably manages to cover the development of capitalism from its 18th-century beginnings through the fallout of the 2008 housing crisis without slogging. This is quite a remarkable task given that Piketty’s book uses mostly economic data and equations to make its case. For a documentary, this must be translated to sociocultural data.

Always with an eye on how economic ideas are expressed in popular culture, Capital in the Twenty-First Century collages interviews, archival footage, film & television clips, and beautiful tableau (read: B-roll) shots to emphasize the relevancy of its main argument. It’s a very aesthetically engaged film because it has to be. Our material conditions reflect in our art. This is why film is such a fantastic mirror: its reflection is active and conscious of itself.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Kino Lorber)

Though Piketty is the central talking head, Pemberton seeks out other voices and keeps an interesting mix of commenters circulating throughout. Historian Dr. Kate Williams and Economist Dr. Suresh Naidu are a wonderful “supporting cast.” Williams is a seasoned television intellectual who is an absolute natural at making cultural history a lively drama. Likewise, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, Naidu brings economic history into the sparkling fore of Piketty’s grande narrative. 

For Piketty, Pemberton, and others, these histories, filled with cycles of booms and busts, demonstrate that the periods of greater wealth distribution create less inequality, thus are socially progressive and thus happier. 

But the first tremors of Capital’s underlying problems come in a great big “yikes” when it uses poisonous human eel Margaret Thatcher as an example of how well this works. (Wasn’t she a #GirlBoss?) They hold that a strongly regulated capitalism would control wealth disparities and allow for more social mobility (particularly for women) and bring about greater overall well-being. 

As a thesis and a film narrative, this is a little too neat to fully buy into. Yes, history moves in circles, but to bring metaphors and rhetorics of “The 1%” back to 18th-century France seems more cinematic than factual. The labor struggles of the late 19th century and the 1930s share similar goals, but surely The Great Depression added a different political element that made the struggles unique. As with most historical overview documentaries, the specifics that make each context unique are often buffered out to make the narrative more cohesive.

As with most historical overview documentaries, the specifics that make each context unique are often buffered out to make the narrative more cohesive.

There is one large contextual problem, though, and it is not unique to Pemberton’s film. When talking about a history of Capitalism, there’s a tendency in documentaries to talk about Western European Capitalism up to about the middle of the 19th Century, then hop the Atlantic to talk about America’s industrialization before skipping to the American 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. 

Though America took over as the testing ground for Late Capitalism, there are some crucial developments in Europe that complicate Capital’s narrative — mainly that Europe has social safety nets and America, to date, does not. Pemberton forgets the ways in which European struggles for economic regulations in Europe and in America have resulted in different systems. Europe has been less shy about adopting socialist principles than America, which Piketty only allows to borrow from communism and socialism for The New Deal before sweeping other economic alternatives under the fair trade rug.

The rest of the world is also largely absent from this film. Nowhere does the film discuss how, even during periods of well-regulated Capital, countries in The Global South were/are being underdeveloped. Where is Africa, India, the Philippeans? The Revolutions in Russia, China, and Cuba are not discussed. Can we talk about their social mobility without realizing that the grand narrative of development these countries are placed into is just retooled social Darwinism? Here again Capital avoids getting messy by not looking at counterpoints or alternatives.  

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Kino Lorber)

Communism and socialism are treated as Red Nuisances rather than menacing, bothersome alternatives just short of getting it right. The trouble is, the solution to Capitalism put forth seems to be just Better Capitalism™. Capital spends its entire duration telling us there have been times of well-regulated Capitalism and they eventually fall to ruin. What is to say the history of cycles won’t continue after we move into this Capitalism+?

From the beginning, Pemberton and Piketty quake with worry that the lack of social mobility will insight revolution. But why be afraid? Today, when houses make more money than the people living in them, it seems less and less likely that the system is going to fix itself. Let’s push an alternative to the system and break the cycles of history. Ça ira, mes amis. Ça ira.

* I think at one point Pemberton uses footage from Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables and I’m worried he and others don’t know Les Mis is not about The French Revolution but a French revolution.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is currently available via virtual theaters with Kino Marquee.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century Trailer:

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