Same as it ever was: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2020)

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“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, Minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.”

― from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

And thus spoke “Arthur Jensen”, CEO of fictional media conglomerate “CCA” in what is for me the most defining scene in director Sidney Lumet’s prescient 1976 satire. Jensen (wonderfully played by Ned Beatty) is calling “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale (Peter Finch) on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest monologue.

Recently, we’ve witnessed a President of the United States who is Tweeting and making public statements in TV interviews and press conferences (in a very “mad prophet of the airwaves” manner) that suggest he feels it’s more important right now in the midst of a still-raging pandemic to get everyone back to work than to save their lives. Because the economy. And per usual, Wall Street watches, waits and yawns while it gets a manicure.

You would almost think “someone” has handed the President a set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (akin to the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). Or, at the very least-he opines from the perspective of someone borne of privilege and inherited wealth?

So how did the world become “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

It’s not like “the people” haven’t tried through history to level the playing field between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Take, for example the French Revolution, which ultimately did not change the status quo, despite the initial “victory” of the citizenry over the power-hoarding aristocracy. As pointed out in Justin Pemberton’s documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century, while there was initial optimism in the wake of the revolution that French society would default to an egalitarian model, it never really took.

Why? Because the architects of the revolution overlooked what is really needed to establish and maintain true equality: strong political institutions, an education system, health care (*sigh*), a transport system, and a tax system that targets the highest incomes.

Same as it ever was.

That, and financial inequality in general are the central themes in Pemberton’s ever-so-timely film, which is based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty.

Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. Focusing mostly on the last 200 years or so, it connects the dots between significant events like the aforementioned French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution (which greatly expanded the boundaries of “capital” while driving an even deeper wedge between workers and factory owners), New World expansion (which spawned the slave trade), and the labor movements of the late 19th-to-early 20th Centuries.

While a lot of the historical review is disheartening, it is not all gloom and doom and “the system is rigged”. The film reminds us that there have been periods where egalitarian ideals have taken hold (the Roaring Twenties, FDR’s New Deal, the post-war rise of the middle-class). That said-1% of the world’s population still owns 70% of the land in 2020.

Will there ever come a time when economic equality “takes” for good? Maybe when an asteroid strikes the Earth and puts us all back on equal footing? My personal cynicism aside, Piketty and his fellow commentators do toss out possible scenarios that give you some hope; but frankly they all seem to be predicated on a wee bit of magical thinking.

Naturally, I was being facetious in the previous paragraph when I mentioned an asteroid striking the Earth. But history does indicate it takes some form of Great Equalizer to precipitate a shakeup in the status quo. As pointed out in the film, war is one example (WW 1 begat the Roaring Twenties, WW 2 begat the rise of the middle class, etc.). What about this pandemic? A killer virus doesn’t care whether you’re wearing a Bud-stained T-shirt or a Brioni suit; it’s just looking for the nearest warm body to attach itself to.

As the film was produced before Covid-19 shut down much of the world’s economy, it does not delve into the possibilities of a post-pandemic restructuring. As luck would have it though, a fitting postscript for my review presented itself the day after I screened the film when Thomas Piketty popped up as a guest on The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah. Curiously, he was not there to promote the documentary, but did share some interesting thoughts on possible post-pandemic shifts in current economic models:

[Piketty] I think this is one of these crises we see that can really change people’s views about the world and how we should organize the economy. What we see at this stage is a big increase in inequality. […]

With this crisis right now, I think people are going to be asking for proof that we can also use this power of money creation and the Federal Reserve in order to invest in people; investing in hospitals, in public infrastructure, increasing wages for unskilled workers…all the low-wage and middle-wage people which we see today are necessary for our existence and our society.

In the longer run, of course we cannot just pay for everything with public debt and money creation…so we have to re-balance our tax system. […]

In the past three decades in America, we’ve seen a lot more billionaires; but we’ve seen a lot less growth. So in the end, the idea that you get prosperity out of inequality just didn’t work out. […]

[Noah] What do you think about the “worst case scenario”, then…if you live in a world where the inequality just keeps growing; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, what do we inevitably get to?

[Piketty] Well to me the worst scenario is that some skilled politicians like Donald Trump, or [President of the National Front Party] Marie Le Pen in my country in France will use the frustration coming from wage and income stagnation and rising inequality in order to point out some foreign workers or “some people” [are] to blame. […] And this is what really worries me-that if we don’t change our discourses, if we don’t come up with another economic model that is more equitable, more sustainable…then, in effect we re-open the door for all this nationalist discourse.

Trevor had to go there with the “worst case scenario”. But that does not mean that is where we must end up. I am not an economic expert, nor pretend to have the answers to such questions. However, one quote from the film stuck with me: “This logic of one dollar, one vote is completely opposed to the democratic logic of one person, one vote.” I am not taking that one to the bank; I’ll be taking that one to the polls with me on November 3rd-with fingers crossed.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is streaming through May 14 via Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema website . Proceeds are split to help support the theater during its current closure.

 

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