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Capital in the 21st Century

When economist Thomas Picketty released his book ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century,’ people clambered to get a copy. Filmmaker Justin Pemeberton has since made it into a documentary, in which he points to how rentier capitalism has disenfranchised the West.

Host Ross Ashcroft caught up with the Kiwi director to understand what needs to change if we want 21st century capital to serve us, not enslave us.

At the intersection of inequality & politics

When the economist Thomas Piketty released Capital in the 21st Century people clambered to get a copy. The filmmaker Justin Pemberton has since made a film version of the book. In it, he points hard to how Rentier capitalism has disenfranchised the West and illustrates that increasing concentrations of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands is having a disastrous affect on society.

Having previously worked on a documentary on inequality for New Zealand television, as well as a series about the Five Eyes intelligence alliance between America, Canada, New Zealand, UK and Australia in 2013, it was the intersection of inequality and politics indicative of those films that sparked Pemberton’s interest in the Capital in the 21st Century film project three years later.

But what really captured the filmmakers imagination was the opportunity to depict wealth across time embodied in Piketty’s contention that contemporary capitalism was set to return to 18th century levels of inequality. The unfolding of events three years on since the economists book was published, has shown how prescient his thoughts have become. The lack of social mobility and the increasing concentration of capital in the hands of arguably the most advanced US oligarchy in the world, is indicative of this historical parallel.


Pemberton’s depiction of Piketty’s ideas are timely. The film predicted contemporary events before they unfolded whilst highlighting the historical context that gave rise to them. Early on in the film, for example, the director references how the historical monopolistic control of land has consequences for today’s younger generation, many of whom are faced with the prospect of never being able to get a foothold on the property ladder.

The issue of monopoly land control sets the foundation for the film. It brings into sharp focus how related questions around the lack of social mobility, the increased consolidation of wealth and other forms of contemporary slow burning socioeconomic indicators have, in the past, led to full blown revolution.

The irony that underpins steep alienating hierarchies created by the ruling classes within empires is that former colonial subjects have themselves recreated the socioeconomic conditions that have also resulted in similar hierarchies. Examples are the neoliberal brave new worlds of New Zealand and Australia which have two of the hottest housing markets in the world.

The interaction between capital & labour

Some other themes Pemberton covers in the film include the psychology of the elite mindset and the historical interaction between labour and capital. What the director depicts in relation to the latter is the notion that capital has been liberated through the suppression of labour which the restructuring of economies and tax regimes has enabled.

Democracy and politics, which have often been associated with coming to the defence of labour have, over recent years, turned into its attack dog. This is because under neoliberalism both have become distorted by the lobbying power of corporations and are prone to the influence of capital which has come to dominate.

Moreover, the hegemony of capital has been augmented by the growth in surplus value resulting from rising levels of production which has increasingly been devoted to it.

The kind of social change required to shift the balance back towards labour is often an incremental process informed by culture rather than politics. Films like Capital in the 21st Century are leading the way in helping to get ideas spread throughout communities which eventually get filtered back to politicians prior to being enacted into policy.

The three key issues

There are three things that Pemberton says he would like the audience to think about after having seen his film. The first is Piketty’s notion that inheritance and ownership should not be eternal. Second, that money and politics don’t mix and they distort democracy. The third relates to tax havens and their consequences which Pemberton says there has been very little action on.

“There’s a point in the film where a news report talks about how the amount of money that Ireland has let Apple off from in terms of its tax bill is more than three years worth of austerity that they put on their own populations. It’s not ethical behaviour and it’s not right. It amounts to countries robbing the tax base of other countries, which is a race to the bottom in which no one wins”, says Pemberton.

A call to action

The filmmaker points out that it wasn’t his intention to provide the audience with an explicit step-by-step set of solutions. “Not everybody enjoys the same kind of story. And for me, I just became a bit cynical about a collection of films that always got to the end and say, don’t worry, here’s the solutions. And then you can walk out of the cinema with a big smile on your face and think, oh, all done”, says Pemberton.

What lies behind the directors thinking is to place the obligation for change firmly in the hands of viewers as opposed to the politicians. The director says that in the decades to come he would like his film to be remembered as having contributed towards a more equal world with equal opportunities.

Such a world appears far removed from the current one where the proclivities of the super-rich are celebrated:

“Today, I saw a story that celebrity rich kid, Kylie Jenner, spent over 200 million dollars last year buying herself a plane and throwing this birthday party. The new term I keep hearing is morbidly wealthy. And I think that’s a good term to start using because there is something sick in that, you know”, says Pemberton.

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