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Thomas Piketty’s Leftward March


A Review of A Brief History of Equality

The defining political struggle of the past four centuries has been for greater equality. Every large-scale form of social organization from antiquity onwards has been defined by vast disparities; between classes, genders, sexes, religions, and races. And within each society, various ideological forms emerged which justified these inequalities – either by mythologizing them as embodying a transcendent divine social ordering or naturalizing inequalities by reading back into nature the inequalities that appeared within society, and which were upheld by power. Yet from the beginning there were always doctrines that resisted the most domineering forms of social stratification. These ranged from the Stoic philosophies of ancient Rome, the Buddhist emphasis on our shared human fragility and finitude, to the more fraternal elements of the Abrahamic faiths.

Whatever their origin, starting in the seventh-century vast political movements emerged which began to seriously question not just the forms of inequality within their own homelands, but everywhere. By the time of the great revolutions in America, France, and above all Haiti, the ideological veneer insulating aristocratic control had been irrevocably shattered. It became clear that there was nothing inevitable about the disparities in wealth and power that had so stratified the world before, and consequently that society could be remade. The past 250 years have seen fierce debates and even mass conflicts in the fight for equality, during which time progressive forces have made incalculable gains. And yet, as the past 40 years of neoliberal hegemony and right-wing populism have taught us, there is nothing inevitable -let alone teleological- about these victories. They are always hard-fought, often incomplete, and dangerously at risk of being rolled back when the forces of reaction rally.

This story is frequently told, but one of its better chroniclers is undoubtedly Thomas Piketty, the French economist turned social historian and now, it seems, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. Piketty is most famous for his 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which shocked many by becoming a worldwide blockbuster as well as Harvard University Press’ biggest seller ever. It was a well-written and profoundly empirical tome that, in rather measured and technical (if never off-putting) language, made the grim case that worldwide inequality had been shooting up since the 1980s and was approaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age of robber barons and imperialist plutocrats. It ended with a stirring call for an international effort to combat inequality, though in hindsight his calls for global wealth and progressive income taxes seem a little deflating.

By Piketty’s own admission, Capital in the Twenty-First Century was too politically ambitious for the policy wonks to whom it was partially addressed and not nearly ambitious enough for the radicals who were the book’s other audience. Despite these flaws, Piketty’s book provoked fierce pushback by conservatives angered by its influence, and not a few ultra-leftists and Marxists for whom the book was dangerously centrist and even naïve. Partially in response to these latter criticisms in 2020 Piketty released his massive Capital and Ideology, which was a sequel to the earlier book in the vein of Godfather II or Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Clocking in at 1150 pages, everything was bigger, louder, more magisterial, mostly better, sometimes tediously long, and, in sum, rich and messy. Capital and Ideology attempted the astronomical feat of analyzing all the different ways political and economic inequality have been justified, not simply in Europe but worldwide and from antiquity to the present day. The sheer sprawl made it a unique accomplishment, although it was once again short on details about how to fix the problem.

A Democratic, Ecological, and Multicultural Socialism

Enter A Brief History of Equality, which at a comparatively breezy 300ish pages manages to pack a lot into a short space. It is also unique in Piketty’s oeuvre. While there are some initial chapters covering and adding to material from the earlier book, much of it is taken up with defending what Piketty calls a “democratic, ecological, and multicultural socialism.” This is a big step to the left for him and has been acknowledged as such. In many ways, Piketty has come a very long way from the social democratic internationalism of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which was published less than ten years ago. The book is undoubtedly socialist, even going on to flirt with economic measures that could eliminate the need for private property if implemented.

Of course, a firm embrace of the socialist label doesn’t mean that Piketty has any more time for Marx than he did before. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he infamously explained that having come of age at the end of the Cold War, he had never seen much need to engage with a nineteenth-century Prussian economist whose name was now deeply tarnished by an association with totalitarianism, at worst, and not being able to produce workable toilet paper, at best. His two subsequent books have been more even-handed, and there are some polite references to Marx’s arguments about the importance of colonialism and imperialism in the early formation of modern capitalism. But Marx remains a haunting presence in the sense that Derrida aptly described in his Specters of Marx; a kind of ghostly specter whose necessity is made all the more transparent by its absence.

Many of us would like Piketty to cease deferring an engagement with his most important predecessor and think his writing would be given a level of philosophical sophistication through such a dialogue. There is a sense in which Piketty, like Chomsky, tends to think that simply presenting the facts of a situation in as plain and irrefutable a manner as possible will account for the complex dynamics through which societies and ideologies -not to mention the contradictions of capitalism- are pacified or enter antagonistic conflict. And undoubtedly there will be plenty on the left who will mechanically wheel out the stock accusations that have dogged Piketty from the beginning and say A Brief History of Equality is too petit-bourgeois, too empiricist, too idealist, too reformist, and so on. But several books into an auspicious career and having done far more than most progressives to legitimize an emphasis on equality and to make the socialist label intellectually vital, this seems to me rather beside the point. Piketty has more than earned the right to have his form of socialism taken very seriously by even the radical left.

One of the reasons that Piketty’s democratic socialism is far more radical than even the ambitious plans for an international wealth task force put forward in his earlier work is that his empirical and historical sensitivity means he is well aware that any general program will have to vary in its implementation across the globe. But his democratic socialism includes, in short order: an argument for considerable reparations being paid to former colonies and racialized peoples to improve their standard of living, the establishment of far more progressive forms of taxation, the creation of a minimal inheritance ranging into the hundreds of thousands of euros for all, the implementation of co-management (or co-determination) models where workers have equal representation and power as shareholders on company boards, the construction of global institutions and laws to both redistribute wealth and eliminate tax havens, affirmative action programs to ensure marginalized groups enjoy greater equality of opportunity and more. Piketty also endorses experimentation with the Meidner Plan to transfer ownership of firms completely to workers over time and muses that “nothing forbids us” from going even further after these transformations and theorizing on systems that “reject any form of private property” such as Bernard Friot’s salarial socialism.

Taken individually any one of these proposals would be ambitious. Taken as a complete program they would constitute a qualitative shift in the relations between capital and labor. This is important since one of the objections to the tax proposals put forward in Capital in the Twenty-First Century would be similar to those Marx (somewhat inaccurately) leveled against a liberal socialist like J.S. Mill: by focusing exclusively on redistributing income, he doesn’t address the fundamental disparities in power that enable domination. Piketty has internalized these concerns effectively. Throughout A Brief History of Equality, he highlights his universal minimal inheritance would allow the working class opportunities to pursue educational and small-scale entrepreneurial ambitions in ways that are precluded now, or how co-management and other efforts to secure workplace democracy need to accompany the provision of robust social services. He is also acutely sensitive to the fragility of socialist achievements and the need for mass mobilization to support them, stressing the need for the left to think not only about how to achieve domestic but international cooperation and harmony. This is coupled with a realist streak which is refreshing. One of the boons of Piketty’s program is it avoids accusations of utopianism by mostly foregrounding policies which have been successfully implemented before or which have, at least, been in the air for a long time. This puts the left in the rare position of being able to argue for radical change from a standpoint of experiential strength while undercutting reactionary arguments about the dangers of trying something unknown and untested.

Aspirational and Achievable

Overall, much of Piketty’s analysis is excellent – hopeful without being unrealistically optimistic, and savvy without becoming cynical. The biggest problem, as hinted at, is for all his bona fides there still is a sense in which Piketty’s program remains very much a work of ideal theory. He puts forward ambitious proposals, acknowledges and stresses some of the difficulties that would follow from achieving them, and then argues that we should nonetheless do so. This would be tremendously complemented and enriched by deeper engagement with (or even the independent development of) a theory of power. I discussed earlier how Marx haunts his analysis, and there is undoubtedly a sense in which the intricacies of the Marxist theory of the state and imperialism would enrich Piketty’s analysis. This could be further supplemented with an account of why progressive movements, despite offering egalitarian political programs that promise to materially benefit the working and middle classes, are so often outflanked by the nationalism and revanchism of the political right. He does accomplish some of this in the earlier Capital and Ideology with his distinction between the out-of-touch “Brahmin left” confronted by a populist right allied to business interests. But it is highly underdeveloped. If one wanted to be brutally unfair, we could say Piketty needs to become more Marxist in taking power seriously, but less of an orthodox materialist in foregrounding economic policies and shifts as the basis of successful left politics.

However, I say all this merely to highlight the book’s limitations and not to point out fundamental weaknesses. No one can possibly do everything, at least not well, and as an economist first and foremost Piketty has made a marvelous contribution to the socialist left which should be widely read and admired. While there is no doubt that features of his program will be unworkable in some contexts, Piketty’s democratic, ecological, and multicultural socialism is remarkable as an ideal that is at once both aspirational and achievable. For all these reasons A Brief History of Equality deserves all our attention.