“The way the elite stays in power, and passes on their privilege to the next generation, is by shaping the way that we think.”
You may have heard this from a million rose emoji Twitter accounts. But it sounds different coming from Gillian Tett at the beginning of a new documentary, “Capital in the 21st Century,” just released online. Tett is the chair of the U.S. editorial board of the Financial Times, the salmon-colored international business newspaper read by Deutsche Bank vice presidents from London to Dubai to Singapore. (Every month FT publishes a magazine called “How to Spend It.”)
“Capital in the 21st Century” is based on the bestselling 2013 book by Thomas Piketty, a French economist. The film, directed by Justin Pemberton, undermines that core power of the world’s elites — shaping how we think — in a particularly wise, sneaky way.
There are many other documentaries about the same subject as “Capital in the 21st Century” — i.e., the rise of the 0.1 percent and the fall of everyone else. They’re mostly a barrage of graphs and numbers that make you feel like you drank three Heinekens at lunch and want to take a nap. “Capital” doesn’t do this. Instead it just tells a story, the centurieslong story of capitalism.
That makes it unique in popular culture, particularly since it does so not in a dry monotone but often via clips from movies. The story of capitalism is the central reality of everyone’s life. But it isn’t taught in high school. It’s not on TV. That’s truly bizarre if you think about it, yet, as Tett has explained elsewhere, it’s unlikely that you will. All societies maintain what anthropologists call “social silence” about the society’s most significant subjects. As Tett puts it, what matters most “is not discussed because those topics are considered boring, irrelevant, taboo, or just unthinkable.”
“Capital in the 21st Century” understands that the daily facts about capitalism seem boring, irrelevant, etc., to most people because they’re not part of a story. They’re like baseball scores when you don’t know anything about baseball’s rules or teams or history. But understanding the story of capitalism is like understanding all of that about baseball, plus having a team to root for, and realizing that, if your team loses, you’re going to die. This makes the business section much more exciting.
The movie starts by going back to the period 250 years ago when capitalism first gained momentum via the Industrial Revolution. Until then Europe was feudal, with a swarm of kings, dukes, earls, and marquessates holding most of the wealth in the form of land.
But factories generated new, insurgent wealth. Both the American and French revolutions were in part fights between old feudal elites and a new business elite struggling to be born. And while the old and new elites disagreed on who should be in charge, they both agreed that regular people shouldn’t be.
While no one remembers this, even the Communist Manifesto in 1848 acknowledged the accomplishments of the business class. “The bourgeoisie,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote, “has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.”
The problem was that in the pursuit of profit, capitalism also generated spectacular new forms of exploitation. “Capital in the 21st Century” spends time on examples such as the massive expansion of slavery, the murderous rampages of European colonialism, and “master and servant” laws in the United Kingdom that made it illegal for workers to quit. The movie’s key point about this time is that unbound capitalism made countries richer overall, but there was nothing inherent in it that improved life for regular people. In fact, it was in many ways worse for them than when they were governed by lords and ladies.
Piketty explains that by 1914 in Paris, the top 1 percent owned 70 percent of all wealth, and two-thirds of the population died with nothing. In the face of this raw brutality, all kinds of alternatives, from communism to socialism to Georgism, gained adherents across Europe. Capitalists were petrified. What could they do that wouldn’t require them to share any wealth or power?
“You have this rise in nationalism and competition between European countries,” Piketty says. “Nationalism is often used by elites to make people forget class conflict and instead focus on national identity.”
It can be debated the degree to which berserk nationalism was consciously stoked by Europe’s rulers to distract from their failures. If present-day politics are anything to go by, they likely knew exactly what they were doing. A recent GOP memo for Republican officeholders on how to deal with their coronavirus faceplant told them “don’t defend Trump” — since he’s indefensible — but “attack China.”
In any case, when World War I came, Europe’s leaders thought it was exactly what they needed. A British politician declared England was “at war quite irrespective of party or class.” Germany’s Kaiser was just as happy, proclaiming, “I see no parties anymore, I see only Germans.”
The war was such a catastrophe that it generated exactly what Europe’s elites feared most: a communist revolution. Germany’s cunning plan to send Vladimir Lenin back to Russia in 1917 was history’s greatest own goal, leading directly to the Soviet army occupying Berlin 28 years later.
As “Capital” explains, it was only with the worldwide slaughter of the Second World War that capitalism was willing to make some changes. First of all, the upper class had literally blown up much of its capital, and its power was at a low ebb. Moreover, as Stanford political science professor Francis Fukuyama points out, they were genuinely concerned about losing everything: “The existence of the communist alternative scared the capitalist world into thinking if it didn’t at least address some of the basic inequality issues that they would lose the battle of ideas. … Unless the state tried to do something about jobs, and do enough redistribution to keep people from starving, you wouldn’t have basic social stability.”
This worked. For about 30 years, the film says, societies realized that “capitalism must be harnessed like some wild horse.” This period saw huge increases in wealth for regular workers, and the first widespread middle class in history.
This lasted long enough that many people began to believe this was capitalism’s natural state, and earlier times had been an aberration. But as World War II receded into the distance, capitalism mounted a counterattack with the elections of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. Their message was that the problem of the 20th century hadn’t been the refusal of capitalism to compromise with human beings, but instead the problem was the few compromises capitalism did make.
The wholesale collapse of communism emboldened capitalism further. With hindsight, it now appears that the decades of middle-class capitalism after World War II was the aberration, and since at least the 1990s we’ve been returning to capitalism’s norm.
This is what frightens Piketty: that we’re poised to rerun the 20th century in some hideously mutated form. “There are always politicians tempted to exploit the rising inequality,” he says. “You could see this very clearly in the world before 1914. And I’m very afraid at the beginning of the 21st century, that because we feel we cannot regulate international capitalism, we cannot properly tax billionaires and multinationals, instead we vent our anger” at other targets. The danger of misdirected rage is now even clearer than when the movie was filmed, as Congress and the Trump administration use the novel coronavirus as an excuse for “just shoveling money to rich people” via complicated but extremely lucrative tax breaks.
That’s where the story of “Capital in the 21st Century” ends. “People on the streets are starting to say, enough. Enough of the inequality, and enough of not having a story about how this ever gets better,” says journalist Paul Mason. The movie and Piketty have real but limited suggestions for this kind of story about the future. But they’ve done a huge service to everyone by helping us see how we got to where we are today, which is the first step to figuring out where we want to go next.
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