Is Capitalism Too Close to See?

By David Swanson

I’m not quite as big a fan of the new film “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” as Jon Schwarz is but think he makes some great points about it, as he usually does. The film doesn’t tell a story with characters and drama. It’s a documentary that tries to recount the economic history of the past few centuries from a European/American perspective in a little over an hour, which means it’s rushed, much of it is familiar already, and the facts and statistics it throws out lack clarity and documentation, as is usually the case in films. (In its defense, the film is based on a book that is widely available.)

But the film does present people with topics that are rarely if ever talked about, things not normally noticed because they are taken to be inevitable or because they are taboo. For example:

The United States tells itself it was created by Europeans who fled religious persecution for a land of liberty. But the biggest flood of immigrants from Europe to the United States, Canada, and Australia was made up of people fleeing the capitalism of the industrial revolution. And those who succeeded best economically were typically those who became the owners of enslaved human beings on stolen land. Land of the Enslaved — Home of Capitalism’s Refugees — doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Western history books tell us that European nations colonized the world because they were more advanced. Advanced toward what? Well, toward slavery, colonialism, and militarism, among other things. (A couple of those other things are environmental and technological apocalypse, neither of which is ever mentioned in the film, but more on those later.)

Big economic growth areas for capitalism in the nineteenth century were fashion and Christmas, or — in other words — creating the need to buy crap you didn’t want because the crap you have is out of style, and creating the need to buy crap you don’t even like because it’s December or some month prior thereto.

The U.S. military, according to this film, during some (frustratingly unspecified) period of time, primarily served the purpose of strike breaking. Whether this is strictly true, and how the use of the U.S. military abroad and domestically are quantified, I do not know. But few enough people have any idea that the United States has waged wars against and even bombed its own people for nonviolently demanding basic human rights, that the point is worth making.

Of course, there are a great many things we aren’t supposed to question, so that even a film about economic taboos itself operates within other common limits. For example, I spend a lot of time trying to get people to question the acceptance of organized mass murder, also known as war.

As the film rushes through history with a few minutes devoted to each war, much like a traditional text book, it inevitably tells us that World War II ended the Great Depression, but never hints at how much better a nonviolent project could have done the same. In fact, it seems to claim that only something as devastating to humanity, the earth, and society as total war could have worked, because the war destroyed capital through bombing, as well as through inflation, and new regulations — regulations that came out of the sense of solidarity, equality, and humanity that only the mass slaughter of innocents can bring.

But does a better economy follow from mass-murder as a general rule? Is that the only thing it can follow from? These are questions that should have been addressed. A bit later in the film, Francis Fukuyama, a guy who declared history to be over about 30 years ago but whose invitations to appear in films somehow failed to end, credits World War II with creating a good harmonious world, and blames the Civil Rights movement and other activist riffraff for wrecking it. One reason that such toxic nonsense shouldn’t be presented without commentary is that if we don’t learn the superiority of nonviolence to violence in changing the world, we’ll all die.

This brings me back to the missing apocalypses. One can’t fault a film for failing to mention that humanity is moving ever closer to nuclear catastrophe, since nobody else mentions it either, or for failing to mention disease pandemics since the current one no doubt arose after the film was made, or for failing to mention the wars of the past 75 years since the film’s focus is on nations that wage their wars far away. But it’s almost strange to see a film discuss the raw deal young people have gotten economically without ever touching on the raw deal they’ve gotten environmentally, especially since a very different notion of economy and well-being and consumption may be required for survival, and even more so because so many young people are aware of climate collapse — perhaps more than are aware of the evils of capitalism.

On the other hand, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” offers a broad perspective that is badly needed in many ways. In the United States, many are used to comparisons of today’s inequality of wealth with that of the 19th century, but the European perspective of this movie draws comparisons with the 18th and 17th centuries — starker and more frightening comparisons to times and places in which most people lacked most everything, and in which inheritance and the ownership of property controlled wealth.

It often seems that similarities between one unequal and unfair time period can be found in just about any other. So, when were things more equal? According to the story told here, after World War I and after World War II (plus right up through the 1970s despite the absence of WWIII). Of course, after World War I there was more prosperity in only some parts of the world. The film shows us Adolf Hitler saying (in German) and later Ronald Reagan (in English) that they want to make their countries “great again.”

This movie lays the blame for the turn toward inequality in the 1970s on the price of oil and inflation, plus attacks on unions, but what about the choice to depend on oil? What about the choice to militarize the Middle East, overthrow governments, build up a giant cold (but hot) war, and wage an enormous oil-fueled mass-murder operation in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia? What about the opposite of warm-fuzzy feelings of solidarity that grew out of that operation?

Part of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is a review of sociological experiments that seem to find that virtually anyone given wealth advantages will both assume they deserved them (even if possessing indisputable evidence that nothing but luck was involved) and develop bigotry toward those less well-off. But, of course, virtually anyone means virtually anyone within a particular culture — a culture that created, for example, the Monopoly game that’s involved in some of the experiments but which everyone already knows how to play, or at least the pro-monopoly version of the game which originally had an anti-monopoly, pro-cooperation version as well.

To its great credit, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” proposes several concrete steps. These include progressively taxing wealth, and taxing multi-national corporations’ profits based on the percentage of their sales in each country, rather than based on what islands they hide their shell companies and secret bank accounts in. Recommended steps also include opposing the anti-immigrant xenophobia and fascism rising around us.

1 thought on “Is Capitalism Too Close to See?”

  1. American Military could easily stop those island nations that host the loot to stop doing so but it is a feature not a bug of our democracy. We choose to keep it that way because it benefits the poor in America more than it hurts the rest of the world. Even the Chicago School says that w/o borders the world’s GDP will double. Free trade (not free labor crossing yet) was an attempt but it got usurped by multinationals to avoid organized labor mostly. This article reflects what trade supremacy did to India, the richest country until the 17 Century ( . Also, check this: “Loot: in search of the East India Company, the world’s first transnational corporation” by Nick Robins

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