Top Scoops

Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | Scoop News | Wellington Scoop | Community Scoop | Search


Is Capitalism Too Close To See?

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 defence, 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.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director of and campaign coordinator for Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at and He is a 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Help support,, and by clicking here:

© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


Eric Zuesse: U.S. Empire: Biden And Kerry Gave Orders To Ukraine’s President

Eric Zuesse, originally posted at Strategic Culture On May 19th, an implicit international political warning was issued, but it wasn’t issued between countries; it was issued between allied versus opposed factions within each of two countries: U.S. and Ukraine. ... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: Budget Cockups In The Time Of Coronavirus: Reporting Errors And Australia’s JobKeeper Scheme

Hell has, in its raging fires, ringside seats for those who like their spreadsheets. The seating, already peopled by those from human resources, white collar criminals and accountants, becomes toastier for those who make errors with those spreadsheets. ... More>>

The Dig - COVID-19: Just Recovery

The COVID-19 crisis is compelling us to kick-start investment in a regenerative and zero-carbon future. We were bold enough to act quickly to stop the virus - can we now chart a course for a just recovery? More>>

The Conversation: Are New Zealand's New COVID-19 Laws And Powers Really A Step Towards A Police State?

Reaction to the New Zealand government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown has ranged from high praise to criticism that its actions were illegal and its management chaotic. More>>

Keith Rankin: Universal Versus Targeted Assistance, A Muddled Dichotomy

The Commentariat There is a regular commentariat who appear on places such as 'The Panel' on Radio New Zealand (4pm on weekdays), and on panels on television shows such as Newshub Nation (TV3, weekends) and Q+A (TV1, Mondays). Generally, these panellists ... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: Welcome Deaths: Coronavirus And The Open Plan Office

For anybody familiar with that gruesome manifestation of the modern work place, namely the open plan office, the advent of coronavirus might be something of a relief. The prospects for infection in such spaces is simply too great. You are at risk from ... More>>

Caitlin Johnstone: Do You Consent To The New Cold War?

The world's worst Putin puppet is escalating tensions with Russia even further, with the Trump administration looking at withdrawal from more nuclear treaties in the near future. In addition to planning on withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty ... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: Why Thinking Makes It So: Donald Trump’s Obamagate Fixation

The “gate” suffix has been wearing thin since the break-in scandal that gave it its birth. Since Watergate, virtually anything dubious and suggestive, and much more besides, is suffixed. Which brings us to the issue of President Donald Trump’s ... More>>

Gordon Campbell: On The Ethics (and Some Of The Economics) Of Lifting The Lockdown

As New Zealand passes the half-way mark towards moving out of Level Four lockdown, the trade-offs involved in life-after-lockdown are starting to come into view. All very well for National’s finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith to claim that “The number one priority we have is to get out of the lockdown as soon as we can”…Yet as PM Jacinda Ardern pointed out a few days ago, any crude trade-off between public health and economic well-being would be a false choice... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: Brutal Choices: Anders Tegnell And Sweden’s Herd Immunity Goal

If the title of epidemiological czar were to be created, its first occupant would have to be Sweden’s Anders Tegnell. He has held sway in the face of sceptics and concern that his “herd immunity” approach to COVID-19 is a dangerous, and breathtakingly ... More>>


  • PublicAddress
  • Pundit
  • Kiwiblog