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Capital in the Twenty-First Century

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

It’s a two-hour doc about post-Marxist economic theory. Form a queue, people!

The French economist Thomas Piketty achieved a rare feat with the 2013 publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century: a properly academic 700-page tome that made it onto bestseller lists and received think pieces in The Guardian. This doc is a belated visual riff on it, perhaps aimed at people like Ed Milliband who ‘didn’t make it past the first chapter’ of the paper version.

Piketty’s thesis is that the capital in capitalism is now increasingly separate from the economy, jealously guarded by a few ‘haves’ among billions of ‘have nots’. This in turn creates ever-greater social and economic inequalities. Basically, almost everyone is getting poorer, despite there being a vast amount of wealth out there. That wealth essentially just reproduces itself, meaning those who own it don’t need to do anything risky like create jobs or start companies or find tenants for their new building. They can just sit on it. 

It’s a bleak message, but director Justin Pemberton enlivens it with an entertaining mish-mash of kaleidoscopic cityscapes, belching chimneys and clips from Pride and Prejudice (the Keira Knightley one). Oh yes, because, you see, part of the argument here is that in some ways, as the property-owning middle classes disappear, social conditions are heading back to the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries: fabulous blingy aristocrats hiding away in chateaux from grubby embittered peasants (that’s us, btw). A scenario that historically begets revolution.

This idea – supported by luminaries such as Joseph Stiglitz and Francis Fukuyama – inevitably chimes with our darkest fears, especially post-Covid: the inaccessibility of the housing market, the proliferation of self-employment and zero-hours contracts, the tax avoidance of global corporations. Equally troubling is the case for these circumstances leading to extremism and hate: it’s easier to blame immigrants than Amazon for your lack of cash or prospects. 

Piketty wants progressive taxation of capital and to break the cycle of wealth inheritance so that the same people (and their political cronies) don’t always own all the pie. Which sounds great, and all, but if this year’s taught us anything, it’s that we’re all expected to be absurdly grateful for a job, or even to be part of a furlough scheme, so don’t go getting any fancy ideas about the future.

You should watch this doc, though: it’s very watchable. It won’t change anything – if you agree with its argument you are by definition not in a position to change anything. If you don’t, you almost certainly don’t want to change anything. 

Chris Waywell
Written by
Chris Waywell

Cast and crew

  • Director:Justin Pemberton
  • Screenwriter:Justin Pemberton, Matthew Metcalfe, Thomas Piketty
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