A Quick Overview of Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, based on French economist Thomas Piketty’s book of the same name, is a documentary dedicated to exploring wealth and income inequality in Europe and the United States. The documentary argues against the dangers of unbridled capitalism by delving into the state of capital throughout history, and the journey it’s taken since the days of its inception from the rubble of feudalism to now, the 21st century.

The film begins with an exposition of how things were in the centuries preceding capitalism, detailing the immense gulf of wealth between aristocrats and peasants that came with feudalism — capital (in the form of wealth, property, and material goods) was concentrated in the hands of the 1%, and hard work did not enable those of lower classes to climb the social hierarchy; in those days, poverty was the death penalty. Even the redistribution of wealth through the taxation of the rich was opposed, as aristocrats sought to preserve their tradition of passing down inheritance to their heirs, thereby keeping power — political power especially — out of the hands of commoners.

As we now know, however, a system this biased was doomed to eventually fail; reforms were put into place to quell the peasants’ outrage, and revolutions sprung up in attempts to eradicate the feudal system entirely, with French revolutionaries famously espousing values of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity among all men — a noble and optimistic dream, but nonetheless, a dream gone unfulfilled. Though the aristocracy fell, bankers were quick to recreate the elite in the capitalistic socioeconomic system that rose from the ashes of feudalism.

The Dawn of the Industrial Revolution

With the Industrial Revolution, capital moved from being a fixed concept to one that could undergo constant expansions. The rule of the wealthy had an even firmer grip on society, especially since remnant feudal laws were still in effect. Britain and France spread their colonial influence, becoming imperialists by actively enabling and partaking in the slave trade. Ravenous in their pursuit for greater wealth, the European elite opened up further revenue streams through the commercialization of fashion and holidays; slowly but surely, monopolies began recreating a wealth divide reminiscent of feudal days.

To maintain their hold on the populace, the elite fostered and encouraged nationalistic sentiments among the common people in order to keep them divided. These sentiments brewed and festered, eventually culminating in the outbreak of World War I — a war waged over capital and domination. The devastation that The Great War wrought did not come without consequence; the economic collapse that followed marked the decline of aristocratic powers, and the eventual birth and rise of the middle class.

The Great Depression and the resulting fallout led to even stronger legislation and state participation in the economy and its regulation, so as to increase economic stability. Post-World War II, inheritance and property taxes, compensation, pensions, and even leaves of absence were introduced to the common American worker. For the first time in history, the people of the West could actually work their way to wealth. These precious halcyon days, however, did not last.

Ronald Reagan addressing a crowd at a rally

Stagflation took root. The wealth of the middle class shrunk. And the new “welfare state” model was blamed for it. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, two prominent then-world leaders, yearned to revisit the mythical 19th century capitalism that saw economies prosper. In the US, trade unions were dismantled by government opposition, and the amount of capital that company owners received grew, and continues to do so to date – inequality is worsening. With globalization initiatives, capitalism spread worldwide; capitalists line their pockets with money, all while the real wages of the middle class remain stagnant.

Today, oligarchs reign supreme and they cement their superiority in society as companies too big to fail by hijacking democracy, escaping taxation, and creating fewer jobs while raking in more and more cash. Unbridled capitalism has destroyed the state of the modern middle class, and we’re seeing a return to the divide we had in the 19th century — a divide where inheritance can make or break a person’s prospects. Capital in the Twenty-First Century ends on a dire and urgent note — if the progressive taxation of capital is not enforced soon, the consequences may very well be catastrophic.

The documentary itself cites numerous case studies and statistics to exemplify the downtrodden state of the middle-class today, as well as the ruthlessness of the elite — wealth, it seems, makes people colder and more apathetic to the plight of common people. The film also shuts down any possible narratives of anti-immigration and xenophobia by rightly deeming them deflections of the problem at hand — it isn’t the immigrants who are “stealing jobs”, but the billionaires who are withholding them from us.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s journey through recent history helps hammer in the fact that — no way around it — the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few is pretty much always a bad thing. This common-sense view is then put into perspective when the documentary discusses the present state of the middle class, describing the growing problems (stagnancy of real wages, shortening life expectancies) that we face, and contrasting them with the wealth of the oligarchs, and the methods they use to circumvent redistributing that wealth fairly. Coupled with its manufactured issues of scarcity, poverty, and unemployment (among others), it is quickly made clear that the ethics behind the world’s most prominent socioeconomic system are dubious at best. Even capitalism’s positive aspects are temporary — people’s lives and material conditions are always “subject to change”; one generation may thrive, while the next few may be doomed to suffer. A lottery under the guise of meritocracy, capitalism’s allegiances lie with no one but those that stand at the top.

Perhaps capitalism’s greatest failure is its most ironic one — its inability to live up to the motto of the events that serve as its most concrete foundations: liberty, equality, and fraternity; our lives are subject to the trappings of the system, as we spend our time as wage slaves to corporatists locked in fierce competition and rivalry with each other.

Capitalism attempts to present an illusion of fairness, but in truth, we are trapped in its cage, unable to survive if we refuse to comply with its terms. One could thus argue that viewing capitalism as a broken system that simply happens to fail repeatedly is a flawed stance to take; indeed, it would be apt to name it as it is — an incredibly efficient system designed to eventually fail all but those that stand at the upper echelons of society.

The documentary’s overall narrative presents us with some hard-hitting facts — the cost of merely living is getting larger, and telling a person working two jobs to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” to prosper, really isn’t the solution people think it is.

“Now if things have been awful for this long”, you might ask, “how have we been able to stay afloat?”. The answer to that is simple — they may exert their power to keep us dependent on them, to make us live by their terms by reducing the individual to an easily replaceable cog in the system, but the underlying, undeniable truth is that the “elite” need us more than we need them. They give us juuuust enough to keep us alive and satiated, to prevent change and avoid accountability, and make off with the profits. But complacency is no longer an option — we cannot simply ask officials for change; not when true democracy has been overthrown, and the system of “one person one vote” been practically uprooted and functionally changed to “vote by the dollar”. The only way for us to progress, is to fight — Fight for progressive taxation, fight for equality, fight to end the murderous imperialist practices that powerful countries utilize to rob and exploit the developing countries of the Global South; fight for reform now, and fight for revolution when the time is right.

The path forward can only be paved by the people’s struggle — the people’s fight.