“Piketty wants to re-orient the political left away from cultural and educational issues, which dominate the mindset of the elitist ‘Brahmin left’ in his telling, and back to the economic concerns that were once the Left’s bread and butter”
homas Piketty’s new book Capital and Ideology accomplishes the impressive task of making his earlier tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century look like a mere appetizer, despite his previous book clocking in at over 800 pages. The new book tops 1,100 pages, a truly door-stopping length, and it has generated reviews ranging from praise to more critical takes. Capital and Ideology is nothing less than a panoramic history of inequality across the globe—analyzing everything from ancient slave societies to the calcified hierarchies of the early 21st century. My own review will be releasing shorty (spoiler: it is largely positive), but in this short piece, I wanted to highlight what I think is the most important takeaway from Piketty’s text.
Political Economy and Inequality
One of Piketty’s major ambitions is to resuscitate the long dormant field of political economy. He insists that his peers make the mistake of interpreting economics as a purely technical discipline, which should be studied in isolation from political, cultural, and historical concerns. This is a major mistake, since it both attaches undue scientific prestige to what it ultimately an all too human discipline—and because it risks approaching social phenomena in a highly abstract way. The most obvious is the economic study of inequality, which, for many years, was considered a peripheral or moral concern that had little relevance for economists interested in maximizing economic growth. By contrast, Piketty claims that inequality is—along with climate change—the central challenge we face today, as disparities in wealth approach levels not seen since the 19th century. The book opens with the striking claims that—contra some who claim we must simply learn to live with inequality—there is no economic necessity to just accept the status quo:
“Inequality is neither economic nor technological: it is ideological and political. This is no doubt the most striking conclusion to emerge from the historical approach I take in this book. In other words the market and competition, capital and debt, skilled and unskilled workers, natives and aliens, tax havens and competitiveness-none of these things exist as such. All are social and historical constructs, which depend entirely on the legal, fiscal, educational, and political systems that people choose to adopt and the conceptual definitions they choose to work with. These choices are shaped by society’s conception of social justice and economic fairness and by the relative political and ideological power of contending groups and discourses. Importantly, this relative power is not exclusively material; it is also intellectual and ideological. In other words, ideas and ideologies count in history. They enable us to imagine new worlds and different types of society. Many paths are possible.”
Piketty makes the compelling argument that inequality is neither natural nor desirable beyond a certain threshold. Much of this is familiar to readers of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What is distinctive about Piketty’s new work is his examination of the ideological justifications for inequality. He points out that virtually every hierarchical regime in history, including the most brutal, has had its apologists. Slave societies were justified by thinkers from Aristotle to John Calhoun on paternalistic lines. Their arguments were so convincing that even when France and Britain eliminated the practice, they saw fit to compensate owners while being indifferent to the plight of freed slaves. Priests and lords wrote long tracts about how an orderly society must be one dominated by themselves, while resigning themselves to violently putting down the occasional peasant uprising.
Our time period is no different, with many assuming that the only way to ensure ongoing growth is to permit a handful of billionaires to own more wealth than countless people at the bottom. Piketty claims it is well within our power to get a grip on spiraling inequality; through the mid-20th century, “Great Society” governments enjoyed high levels of economic growth, while also engaging in concerted efforts to redistribute wealth and resources from the top to the bottom. Many of these achievements were rolled back in the 1980’s by conservative politicians. Now, we have reached the point where—in some countries—the top 10 percent owns most of the wealth and the bottom 50 percent has seen its incomes and relative standards of living stagnate or even decline. The culmination of this tendency is the emergence of President Donald Trump and other right-wing demagogues, who disparage the efforts of migrants traveling from poor countries, while signing off on unprecedented tax cuts for the wealthy. By contrast, Piketty wants to re-orient the political left away from cultural and educational issues, which dominate the mindset of the elitist “Brahmin left” in his telling, and back to the economic concerns that were once the Left’s bread and butter. Like his fellow cosmopolitan socialist Michael Brooks (whose excellent new book I reviewed here at Merion West), Piketty rightly doesn’t let out of touch progressives off the hook for letting things get as bad as they have.
Piketty’s story is—in many respects—nothing new; he is well aware that critics from Adam Smith, through to Karl Marx, and down to the social democratic movements of the present-day have always pointed out that there is nothing natural about inequality. While there are good reasons to permit some inequality to exist—based on individuals’ personal choices, the need to incentivize economic activity that ultimately benefits the least well off, and a respect for personal property and talents—we can make social choices about which inequities are helpful and which can be done away with politically. At its best, the discipline of political economy has served a vital demystifying function by denaturalizing apologetics for the status quo and forcing reactionaries to actually make a rational case for their positions. For this reason, we should be very grateful for Piketty’s new book, which accomplishes the remarkable task of shedding light on virtually the entire history of inequality, as well as making the case that a just society would look very different from what we have now.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof