Das Kapital im 21. Jahrhundert / Capital in the 21st Century

Do you want the good or the bad news about this film, made in collaboration with Thomas Piketty? Well, given as in an optimistic mood, I’ll start with the good.

It starts very well, giving a potted description of early capitalism with the help of film clips. So, while we are being told that the French Revolution left the old class relations in place we see a snippet from Les Miserables. Then its on to Pride and Prejudice where we learn that Mr Darcy was the prototype capitalist. It really works a lot better than it sounds.

Second in the plus column is a very sober depiction on what is wrong with modern society. From a world where 2/3rds of people will be worse off than their parents to tax havens and speculation on empty homes, we see the impact of neo-liberal capitalism on real lives, with the gap between rich and poor increasing at exponential levels.

Also we are told very clearly what will happen if things carry in the same way. To a backdrop of neo-Nazis marches and films of dystopian futures, Paul Mason explains that extreme right wing solutions are becoming attractive to people who are not offered any alternative to the current road to destruction.

For all this and more, it is well worth catching this film (for some reason only running in Berlin at 2pm in its first – and possibly only – week). It even ends with Piketty himself explaining why he believes we need to overthrow capitalism (I’m not sure that’s the best translation. The German subtitles said “überwinden” and I didn’t catch Piketty’s French). What more can you hope for?

Well, to start with, one of the weaknesses of the film is anticipated by Mason’s comment about the lack of alternatives on offer. We are told what is wrong, and even what needs to be done on an abstract level (tax the rich in the countries where they make their profits and cut down on speculation) but it remains vague about how this is to be achieved concretely.

Also, once we leave early capitalism, where we are given a clear explanation how a few people profited from colonialism and slavery, as we get closer to the present, the sense of history starts to resemble Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire”. So a whole load of incidents are listed without any real explanation of why they happened and what they have to do with each other.

This can lead to some analyses that come a long way from the accusations that Pickety’s book is crude Marxism. So, up pops Francis Fukuyama (remember him) explaining how the post-war boom and the Civil Rights movement show that capitalism was regulating itself perfectly well before the Arabs messed things up with the 1973 oil crisis. As if the ability for people with different skin colours to use the same drinking fountains was granted willingly.

By the time we get to the 1980s and Reagan’s mass sacking of Air Traffic Controllers, ordinary people have no more agency and history is just one thing after another. So Margaret Thatcher’s attack on trade union rights is seen as inevitable and almost justified as “people” had grown sick of too much trade union power. Who these people were and where they were getting their information is left unsaid.

And here we come to my main problem with the film (which I repeat has enough good stuff to warrant a watch). Firstly, it assumes that “people” all behave in the same way – and that what really matters is how the middle class is affected. So, the problem with neoliberalism is that people are affected who previously could avoid the worse ravages of capitalism.

So Paul Mason pops up to explain that “the poor and the middle class” can no longer afford to buy their own homes. A little secret, Paul. One of the key aspects of being poor is that you can’t afford such luxuries as houses, even if you’re living in the past.

All this leads to a Keynsian nostalgia that implies that owning houses, and even a sensible level of buying shares are basically good, and its human nature to compete innit (this is fudged a little. A psychologist is brought on to explain tests which show that people who win at Monopoly become arseholes, even when they know that the game is rigged in their favour, but its unclear whether his conclusions apply to modern capitalism or all society).

Which means that possible measures that could make the world (and people) slightly better are really nor discussed. There are several reforms that could remove the inequalities that the film eloquently scandalizes – from a social housing programme to decent schools and hospitals. These don’t even require the overthrow of capitalism, but are not discussed in a film that prefers to concentrate on the rights and actions individuals.

Do try and see the film, and enjoy the good bits, of which there are plenty. But don’t leave your critical faculties at the door. The film opens a debate (as did Pickety’s book), and great that it does. But it shouldn’t be the last word.

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