Democracy and inequality are two of the most contentious political issues of our era. Across the globe there is growing discontent about political systems not working well, while the rich are getting richer and the poor get poorer.
Declining democracy and increasing economic inequality are usually seen as linked, with the popular notion taking hold in many countries that the super-rich elite have hijacked the political system and are using it to entrench their wealth and power. Here in New Zealand, for example, a 2017 survey showed 64 per cent of the public believed that “the economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful”.
And it’s a global phenomenon, with politicians, political movements, populists, and elections centring around concerns about political elites and “the 1 percent”.
An important film has just come out that contributes to debates about the state of democracy and inequality – and it’s been made by New Zealanders Justin Pemberton (directing) and Matthew Metcalfe (producing). The film is an adaptation of French economist Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book “Capital in the 21st Century”.
Currently screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, it’s already had showings in Auckland, and it’s about to open in Wellington and then the rest of the country. You can watch the film’s trailer: Capital in the 21st Century – Official Trailer.Inequality researcher Max Rashbrooke provides an overview of the film for the festival programme: “Pemberton relays this story in saturated, pop art-style colours. He also blends archival footage with film sequences, both old and new, into an almost hallucinatory cocktail, as if the bizarre excesses of wealth defied realistic description.”
The film adaption is very different from the economics text book: “Piketty’s thesis is crisply and engagingly presented in a documentary purposefully light on graphs and numbers, and heavy on top-notch talking heads (Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, the Financial Times’ Gillian Tett, et al.), visuals of the rich and famous, and stylised historical recreations.”
The reviews for the documentary so far have been full of praise. TVNZ’s Miriama Kamo wrote on Facebook this week that “It’s an incredible achievement to turn economist Thomas Piketty’s 800-page book into a visual feast and provocative thought piece about capitalism and the perils of inequity, in 90 minutes”.
Similarly, another view of the film says that director Pemberton succeeds in translating Piketty’s book into film: “it is a brilliantly accessible, panoramic introduction to his ideas. Pithy and sensual, it is essential viewing: Pemberton’s magnificent achievement” – see John Hurrell’s A Thin slice of NZIFF 2019 so far. The review states that it’s a film that “despite its extremely alarming content, you don’t want to end.”
And documentary film-maker Bryan Bruce declared that Capital needed to be watched by those in and around the New Zealand political system: “I would really like to see a screening of this film in our parliament – or perhaps have it projected onto the walls of it this summer” – see: Capitalism in the 21st Century.
Bruce sums up the film, saying it “delivers an excellent overview of 400 years of Capitalism and reveals why, if we don’t close the widening gap between the rich and the poor, history tells us there will be violence and revolution.”
Although the film is about the past, present and future of capitalism and democracy in global terms, it has plenty of relevance for the New Zealand situation. This is made especially clear in Danyl Mclauchlan’s excellent review of the film, which thoughtfully considers the themes of both the film and Piketty’s original book, and how it applies to this country – see: Piketty’s Capital comes to the big screen, urging us to make the world less terrible.
Mclauchlan explains how global capitalism appears to be reverting back to something akin to its earlier period of the 18th and 19th centuries, in which wealth dominates, and there’s very little capacity for the system to deal with inequalities.
In terms of New Zealand, he’s somewhat pessimistic: “The capital gains tax and KiwiBuild were supposed to attenuate this wealth transfer [of recent years] but failed, so it’s still ongoing; locked in no matter who is in government. That’s what real transformative political change looks like. Given its nature and who it benefits, how hard it is to overturn – we can’t even put a price on carbon – it’s difficult to feel optimistic about Piketty’s invitation to recapture our democracy and fix the system from within.”
But Mclauchlan’s conclusion is the same as Piketty’s – that it’s important to keep on struggling against the power of business: “we know the problems, we know the solutions; we have no other credible options. And we have an obligation to the generations who’ll be born into capitalist systems of the 21st century to try and make their world less terrible than it was in the 19th, or most of the 20th.”
In one interview about the film, Pemberton illustrates the power of business in contemporary democracy with reference to when film industry bosses got the John Key-led National Government to change some important laws to suit them: “One of the clearest examples for me was when one of the world’s wealthiest film companies, Warner Bros, lobbied the NZ government to change our labour laws and provide them with generous tax breaks in exchange for making the Hobbit movies here. It really showed the power of capital and its desire to weaken the position of labour—along with the inability of governments to resist such pressure” – see Steve Newall’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century director explains his NZIFF doco.
In this interview, Pemberton also discusses the role he wants the film to play in encouraging people to fight back against the lack of democracy: “The goal is to stimulate composed and clear conversations around capital, to illuminate the forces of capital and to show how it moves, acts and reacts. In many democracies, capital has become the tail that’s wagging the dog, which is creating outcomes that are worst for most of us—as two-thirds of people in developed economies are now on track to be poorer than their parents. But the future is not written. One of the reasons Capital In The Twenty-First Century takes such a long-view of capital is to highlight how our relationship with capital can and has changed over time. I’m also sure it will again.”
But like Piketty, in many ways the filmmaker seems very pessimistic about the uneven relationship between capitalism and democracy, saying “I think capital is damaging democracy… And this is why we can’t address issues virtually all of us are concerned about – like climate change, like housing costs, like tax havens.”
Pemberton is still optimistic about the power of politics and democracy to fix big problems in the world. He told RNZ’s Kim Hill: “There’s no reason why tax havens can’t be solved. I mean, that’s just so simple. The only thing that stopping us solving the issue of tax havens is capital and the way that capital is dominating politics. It is really that basic; rich people, wealthy people, like them and they put pressure on governments to maintain them.” And “Fixing democracy and wrenching it back from the wealthy is the only way to rein in capital, Pemberton says.”
You can listen to his very interesting 26-minute interview with Hill here: Justin Pemberton – Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And in this he also talks about other intractable problems, such as climate change: “when you’re thinking about climate change, the reason it’s not being sorted is because of capital, is because of capital and politics. It’s not because most people don’t believe this is an urgent thing that needs to be dealt with. It’s the capital that’s getting in the way.”
The film has just screened in Australia and the Australian Financial Review, not normally known for its sympathy for the plight of the poor and exploited, gave the film a strong review, saying the “doco is essential viewing for anyone who sees the cinema not as an escape from the workaday world on a rainy day, but as a tool that helps us understand the strange days in which we live”.
The Australian Financial Review’s New Zealand counterpart, the National Business Review has also published an in-depth video interview with Pemberton about the making of the film and it’s subject matter – see: Nathan Smith’s Kiwi director breathes new life into Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ (paywalled).
The NBR reports that the Piketty analysis and film “was a ‘warning call’ that if the conditions of today’s global economy, funnelling the world’s capital into fewer and fewer hands (particularly to the owners of the giant tech companies), then a return to the inequalities of previous centuries is ‘inevitable’.”
In the interview, Pemberton singles out tech companies for special mention: “Global capital is now one big beast, represented in its purest form by the big tech companies. They create far fewer jobs than did the companies of the past and make vastly more amounts of money but pay no tax… This is breaking the social contract we all signed up to as democratic countries. I know Facebook, Google and Apple want their workers to enjoy roads or the justice system and reasonable education but they’re not going to pay for it”.
He concludes: “I think 99.99% of the planet would be better off if we looked at renegotiating our relationship with capital”.
So, how did the film come to be made by New Zealanders? For an explanation of this and other aspects of the film, see Metro Magazine’s Q+A: Auckland-based director Justin Pemberton on doco Capital in the 21st Century.
Finally, the movie is next screening in Wellington as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. And as part of the screenings on Sunday and Monday, I’ll be holding post-screening question-and-answer sessions with director Justin Pemberton – for details see: Capital film screenings in Wellington and elsewhere.