Capital in the 21st Century – the movie
If you got a lot of money (by chance, not effort) would you consider giving any of it to someone who was not so lucky? Or would you start thinking of reasons why you ‘deserve’ your literal good fortune, while the poorer person does not ‘deserve’ it? You would hope not – but this is exactly how the subjects in social psychologist Paul Piff’s ‘Monopoly experiment’ behaved.
You can watch him describe rigged games of Monopoly in which the ‘rich’ players behave meanly towards the ‘poor’ players, and come up with a variety of justifications as to why they did so, in the just-released film Capital in the 21st Century.
The movie follows the book of the same name by French economist Thomas Piketty in its historical and geographical coverage of the rise and development of capitalist societies, from 18th century Europe to the world today.
It provides fast-paced, gripping accounts of why and how capital concentrates itself, to produce increasingly unequal societies, and how (sadly) only huge disasters like global wars or depressions have so far provided opportunities for some democratic gains for the non-wealthy. I had read the book before I saw the movie, so most of the story being told was not new to me. However, I really enjoyed the ways in which director Justin Pemberton skillfully wove the story together from filmed dramas and documentaries, and interviews with experts. The imagination, research and skill involved are all impressive.
What was new (and not in the book) was the psychology of the rich as explained by the Monopoly experiment. This has been backed up by similar experiments since then, with the latest (a rigged card game) being written up in Science Advances as It’s not just how the game is played, it’s whether you win or lose. Paul Piff also provides more examples in his 2013 TEDx talk Does money make you mean? of which my favourite is the observational study which showed that the more expensive the car being driven, the less likely its driver was to obey the law in California and stop to allow a pedestrian about to step on to a pedestrian crossing to continue. All of the least expensive cars stopped, while nearly 50% of the most expensive cars were driven by lawbreakers.
Piff’s talk is very interesting, but spoiled by its conclusion, in which he talks up philanthro-capitalists like Bill Gates and other members of the 1% elite (0.01% in Gates’ case) who are giving some of their unprecedented profits (and the interest accruing on them) towards addressing the problems caused by rising global inequality (such as lack of research into and action against malaria). The makers of the film Capital in the 21st Century see more democracy, not more philanthropy, as the answer. They advance three key points, as follows:
Limit capital’s influence on democracy (as it’s managed to rig the system);
Control capital’s ability to become eternal – and hence its ability to concentrate and increase itself;
Make capital pay the taxes that the democracy feels is fair.
These measures are certainly necessary – but would they be enough? It may be that the increasing global catastrophe which is global heating will be the next crisis which brings about a democratic reform of capitalism; or then again it may be that environmental as well as social destruction has gone too far, and in the words of philosopher Rupert Read, in his excellent little book of the same name, this civilisation is finished. (Read was interviewed by Samuel Alexander, who introduces an excerpt from the book at This Civilisation is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond.)
While global heating, appalling levels of global land, freshwater and sea pollution by solid and chemical waste, and the sixth mass planetary extinction of plant and animal life are undoubtedly artefacts of the capitalist model of unbridled extraction and exploitation of human and other natures (and hence could theoretically be reversed by a total reform of said capitalism) what Read and others (most notably Bruno Latour in Facing Gaia) are saying is that the ecological overshoot is now so great that it is extremely unlikely that recovery is possible, and hence it is equally unlikely that a more humane, democratic and ecologically benign form of capitalism can ever or will ever be constructed.
Read (in This Civilisation is Finished, p. 4) posits “… three broad possible futures that lie ahead:
(1) This civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally, as a result of climatic instability (leading for instance to catastrophic food shortages as a probable mechanism of collapse), or possibly sooner than that, through nuclear war, pandemic, or financial collapse leading to mass civil breakdown … Or
(2) This civilisation (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation(s), as this one collapses. Or
(3) This civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself deliberately, radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.”
He believes that the third option, while most desirable, is also least likely. He wants to believe that the second option is most likely and will happen, but concedes it will require a major re-orientation of all political forces, including the environmental movement, which is currently acting as though Option 3 is a realistic prospect. Read, Latour and other eco-philosophers take a much longer view of human societies than Piketty and Pemberton. To use a film metaphor, they are taking the widest possible wide shot of human (and planetary) history, while Piketty and Pemberton are employing an extreme close up. What we can and do see does depend on the lens we use – metaphorical or not. Both views are ‘true’; and they should be used to complement each other.
The super-yachts of the super-rich shown in Capital in the 21st Century (and satirised so brilliantly by Andrew London – along with the behaviour of capitalists in general and philanthro-capitalists in particular – in his song I Think I’ll Buy A Yacht ) are moored in harbours where the sea level is rising, and are sailing on seas increasingly prone to extreme storms. Their private jets are flying skies where global heating is producing greater amounts of clear air turbulence as well as other dangerous atmospheric conditions. Money can’t buy you love – or a safe world with flourishing species. I share the scepticism of Read and others as to whether capitalism can be reformed to make the necessary changes in time. But see the movie (and read the books) and see what you think.