The question of inequality: Stephen Williams reviews Thomas Piketty's game--changing analysis of the global financial system and the ideology underpinning it.

Author:Williams, Stephen
Position:Capital and Ideology - Book review


By Thomas Piketty

31 99[pounds sterling] Belknap Press

ISBN: 978-0-674-98082-2

Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2013, created a media storm and was hailed as a game-changer for its analysis of inequality and the global financial system.

Piketty has not rested on his laurels in the intervening seven years. Capital and Ideology, his new work, is in every sense a blockbuster; a 1,100 page tome that takes the theme of economic inequality further, examining the historical circumstances that gave rise to the phenomenon.

Piketty explores the material and ideological interactions of conflicting social groups that gave rise to slavery, serfdom, colonialism, communism, and hypercapitalism. He concludes that the great driver of human progress over the centuries has been the struggle for equality and education and not, as often argued, the assertion of property rights or the pursuit of stability.

"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, profits and wages, 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," Piketty writes.

Social justice

Piketty explores these ideas through trenchant historical critiques of slavery, colonialism and racialism. Yet he starts from the interesting hypothesis that "every ideology, no matter how extreme it may seem in its defence of inequality, expresses a certain idea of social justice".

Slavery is clearly the most extreme example of the concept of ownership. The sanctity of "possession" and "ownership" that was embedded in the West's inequality was illustrated when slavery was abolished by the British in 1833.

The British parliament decided to pay compensation, not to the enslaved, but to the slave owners, reimbursing them for their "losses".

"It is important to insist on the fact that the policy of indemnifying slave-owners seemed self evidently reasonable to the British elites at the time," writes Piketty.

He later comments: "If Britain's landowning and industrial elites agreed to support...

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