Producers: Matthew Metcalfe, Catherine Madigan, Yann le Prado and Johan de Faria Director: Justin Pemberton Screenplay: Justin Pemberton, Matthew Metcalfe and Thomas Piketty Cast: Thomas Piketty, Kate Williams, Rana Foroohar, Ian Bremmer, Francis Fukuyama, Surech Naidu, Joseph Stiglitz, Gilliam Tett and Gabriel Zucman Distributor: Kino Lorber
French economist Thomas Piketty’s 2013 book, a massive scholarly opus outlining the history of capitalism since Enlightenment times, became an unexpected best-seller, its message about the dangers posed by increasing income inequality striking a chord even with non-specialists. Justin Pemberton’s film of the same name offers a pithy paraphrase of the hefty volume’s fundamental thesis, voiced by Piketty himself along with other scholars, and illustrated with a cascade of visual data packaged with verve by Pemberton and editor Sandy Bompar and underlined by J.B. Dunckel’s nimble score.
Scripted by Piketty and Pemberton along with producer Matthew Metcalfe, the film begins with Piketty inoculating himself against charges of Communist sympathies by pointing out that as a young man he watched the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe, horrified by the economic devastation their economic system had wrought. Yet it’s undeniable that he shares with Marx an underlying assumption that history is essentially economic, and that capitalism, if unrestrained, is bound to become exploitative.
Piketty’s analysis actually reaches back to the eighteenth century, when wealth was calculated in terms of land and aristocracy prevailed—a system he characterizes as redolent of feudalism. The theory of laissez faire capitalism enunciated by Adam Smith (who, it’s pointed out, was thinking of small, household businesses) combined with the Industrial Revolution to create a new calculation, in which money—capital—rather than land was the determining factor, and profit-making investment became the means of increasing one’s monetary-based wealth. In the society that emerged in heavily industrialized nations, the exploitation of the lower classes was even harsher than it had been in earlier eras as more and more capital became concentrated in the hands of the few and increasing profit at any cost, so to speak, became the norm.
The twentieth century, Piketty argues, witnessed some mitigation in the disparity between economic classes, largely as a result of the two world wars. After 1919, the hold of aristocracy finally crumbled as the men who had actually fought the war and women who had taken jobs during the conflict demanded recognition and governments had to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to function. The period after World War II was even more significant, marked by progressive taxation and government programs to lift the middle class.
All that changed, Piketty says, in the seventies and eighties, when the economic policies associated with Reagan and Thatcher unleashed the power of unfettered global capitalism, through which the few came to possess more and more capital while the income of the middle class stagnated, then fell relative to national wealth. The result is a level of suffering and anger that is not far removed, Piketty says, from those of the nineteenth century. What’s required to rectify matters to some degrees, he suggests, are “wealth taxes” that would redistribute capital to some extent, and inheritance taxes that could reverse the growth of an ever more powerful aristocracy of wealth—as well as a return to governmental regulation of financial manipulation and methods of tax avoidance.
Piketty’s book marshaled an avalanche of statistics and graphs to buttress his argument. No film could possibly include so much data (though it offers some of it in passing). Instead the emphasis is on materials that serve as props to the points Piketty and his colleagues make in their interviews. Some of this consists of scenes from films like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Les Misérables,” clips from “The Simpsons” featuring Mr. Burns, and—inevitably—Gordon Gekko’s speech from “Wall Street” about greed being good. Cheeky animation is occasionally employed (as in the section on Adam Smith). And of course there is a good deal of archival footage, as well as stills and artwork.
Ultimately, however, it is the talk from Piketty and the other interviewees—shot in straight-on style by Darryl Ward—that is central here. The film is essentially an illustrated lecture, and though the accompanying visuals are well-chosen and smoothly presented, the important thing is that what’s said is compelling.
It must be added, however, that while Piketty’s critique of unfettered global capitalism and its ramifications remains a formidable intellectual construct, the world has changed in recent months: the Covid-19 pandemic is bound to disrupt the world economy in short and long terms in ways that cannot be foreseen. Still, Piketty’s book and Pemberton’s film offer a trenchant analysis of how the global economic reality became what it was in early 2020, and even though it may never be quite the same again, the argument remains well worth attending to.