Roads not travelled: Piketty's history of inequality.

AuthorCowan, David

Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press 2020

Thomas Piketty's new book is a historical study of the politics of inequality. Although there is much to commend in it, some audiences will probably find reading it difficult--not so much because of its content, or even its length, but because of the challenging implications of some of his analysis for the left's strategy, including in Britain. If Piketty makes a persuasive case for the contingency of economic inequality in the past, he raises more awkward--but not necessarily insuperable--questions about the possibility of significantly reducing it.

Inequality regimes

Capital and Ideology sets out to provide an account of the shifting justifications for, and to a lesser extent critiques of, inequality over the last thousand years or so, although Piketty's analysis is slanted towards the period since about 1880. Each of these 'inequality regimes', Piketty contends, makes an argument about 'borders'--who belongs to the political community and who has authority within it--and 'property'--crudely, ownership rights. Piketty begins with the three-part divisions of society in 'premodern' Europe between nobles, clergy and the masses, and argues that elites (predominantly clerics) justified this model on the grounds of complementarity. In the corporeal images of society that circulated at the time, each group mattered, in different ways, but not equally.

But whilst in these societies 'borders' and 'property' were closely connected--with feudal lords having a central role in local politics and the law, and profiting from those who tilled their fields--in the 'proprietarian' regimes that subsequently emerged, political and economic powers were intended to be split between, respectively, the state and citizens. Piketty suggests that, above all, 'proprietarian' regimes promised freedom and 'social stability'. This is why a more significant redistribution of wealth did not follow the French Revolution--for fear of unknowable consequences. The result was a 'quasi-sacralisation' of property rights, with property partly taking the political place that religion had once held.

Looking beyond the European experience, Piketty explores the racialised justifications for slavery, the 'inequality regime' with the strongest connection between ownership and political rights. In his account of colonialism, predominantly using a study of India, Piketty argues that the British imperative to rule concretised a relatively fluid social structure into a caste system, a variation on a complementary model. Communist Russia took a different path, eschewing 'private property' altogether, but entrenching other forms of inequality. What was sacred in this 'inequality regime' was a rigid form of nationalisation.

Piketty treats the emergence of social-democratic societies in the twentieth century as in part an ideological response to the failures of 'proprietarian' regimes, which could no longer reasonably claim to offer stability after world war and economic depression. As much as order and harmony, social democracies promised social welfare, delivered through progressive taxation. But, like every preceding 'inequality regime', social democracy was fragile. Since the 1980s, Piketty argues, a 'hyper-capitalist', 'neo-proprietarian' regime has taken hold...

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