Thomas Piketty is a great dreamer, but his social struggle is nowhere to be found ★★★☆☆


Statue Martyn f. overwhelm

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, a 20-year-old French student wandered the streets of Moscow, marveling at Red Square, Lenin’s mausoleum and, above all, the endless queues outside the nearly empty shops of the Russian capital. … How is it possible, thought economics student Thomas Piketty, that these people were so afraid of the inequality of capitalism that they could create such a monstrosity? And how can we limit inequality without repeating the communist disaster?

This key question is at the heart of the books that Piketty grew from 2014 to one of the exports that France, besides brie and cabernet sauvignon, still specialized in in the last century: intellectual superstars. Not that The capital of the 21st century, the brick-and-mortar book with which the economist stormed the bestseller lists that year also had much in common with the dark shamanistic prose of Foucault, Derrida and many other French icons. In more than 800 pages of line charts, mathematical formulas and the ‘fundamental laws of capitalism’, Piketty explained how the gap between rich and poor had widened in the West since 1980, without Jan Modaal and the lower middle class having significantly improved. .

That the book was such a blockbuster – Piketty sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide – had not only to do with the quality, but also with the zeitgeist. Capital in the 21st century fell into a fertile ground of resentment over bank bailouts, bonuses and austerity and laid an empirical concrete foundation underneath. Like a long-nosed elephant, Piketty spouted the fairy tale of the ‘trickle down theory’, the idea invented by Reagan and Thatcher – and recently dusted off by UK Prime Minister Truss – that the benefits of tax cuts for the wealthy trickle down to the less fortunate. Instead, the money appeared to have mostly flowed up in recent decades, Piketty showed.

His latest book, A brief history of equalitywith 328 pages is a freeze-dried version of his two best-known works, Capital in the 21st century and Capital and ideology (2019), together good for almost two thousand pages. “It’s all very interesting what you write, but maybe you could shorten it a bit so I can get my friends and family to read it too,” Piketty jokes in the opening sentence of the many readers who asked him for a summary .

The result may be succinct in Piketty’s terms, but reading it is still no pony camp. The 51-year-old economist’s books are like vitamin pills: packed with healthy information, even if taste is not their forte.

null Statue Martyn f. overwhelm

Statue Martyn f. overwhelm

Many critics praise Piketty for his clear style, which is not unjustified given the hard material of his work. At the same time, you can use sentences like ‘It can be valuable to compare incomes to get a picture of inequality in a particular society (to the extent that the different social groups maintain economic relations), or between countries over a certain period of time (to what extent contacts exist between those societies…’ – and it goes on like this – it’s hard to call it a miracle of elegance.

All the playfulness of his earlier work – references to Jane Austen novels, for example – Piketty has spared in his latest book. Nor can his sense of humor escape the urge to tighten. And it’s a shame for a man who once took devilish delight in being a journalist for… Financial Times, the newspaper, which had frantically tried to undermine its investigation, to treat its posh interview column ‘Lunch with the FT’ to a midday meal of microwaved bolognese pasta and chunks of pineapple soldiered on with plastic forks.

A brief history of equality presents the reader with a reform agenda so ambitious it almost seems as if Piketty would jump into the electoral gap between Bernie Sanders and Joseph Stalin. A ‘decentralised, democratic and self-governing socialism’, Piketty calls his programme.

The ‘billionaire’ phenomenon is dying out if Piketty has his way, thanks to an annual wealth tax of up to 90 per cent. Even the world’s richest person Elon Musk (estimated fortune: 253 billion euros) would be a billionaire within three years with Piketty’s tax rates and five years later fall below 100 million euros. The highest income tax rate also goes to 80 or 90 percent. To reduce global inequality, he also proposes a worldwide tax of 2 percent on wealth above 10 million euros, the proceeds of which would flow into all countries’ coffers in proportion to their population.

Thomas Piketty was in the Netherlands to promote his book 'Capital and Ideology'.  Picture ANP

Thomas Piketty was in the Netherlands to promote his book ‘Capital and Ideology’.Picture ANP

While about half of all people in Western countries never inherit a cent, Piketty argues for giving every citizen who blows out 25 candles a basic inheritance of 120,000 euros, although he notes that this amount is only illustrative, “one more ambitious approach is therefore also possible”. In addition, there is a basic income and a job guarantee, in other words a full-time job paid by the public for anyone who wants it. A transcontinental parliament, where African and European parliamentarians sit, for example, must deal with issues of global importance, such as climate change or tax evasion.And quasi-worker autonomy, called “participatory socialism” by Piketty, should see entrepreneurs lose the majority of votes as soon as their business has more than ten employees.

“The principle of equal opportunity is often defended by everyone on an abstract and theoretical level, but as soon as someone starts talking about its implementation in practice, the wealthy fear it like the plague,” writes Piketty in defense of his proposals. . He points to US education figures, which show that the access rate to higher education among children from the richest 10 percent of all families is three times higher than among the poorest children.

Yet it is unfortunate how step-motherly Piketty also addresses the fundamental questions his reform agenda raises in his latest book, especially for someone who has otherwise been so thorough in mapping inequality. For example, what is the ideal level of inequality in a society and why? His latest book does not even address this issue while Piketty is on board Capital in the 21st century don’t go so far as to say that differences in wealth are only justified when they serve the “common good”. And what exactly ‘usefulness’ means could only be answered through ‘democratic consultation and political confrontation’.

The enthusiasm for Piketty’s ‘gradual de-marketing of the economy’ also remains unanswered, as does the practical question of how he intends to see his plans implemented. It’s strange because A brief history of equality filled with faith in manufacturing ability. Was Piketty there Capital in the 21st century still pessimistic about narrowing the gap between rich and poor – only the ‘chaos of war’ could have done that in the twentieth century – in his latest book he sings the full praises of ‘social struggle’ as the engine of political change.

After John Lennon, you can say that Piketty is a dreamer, with his future vision of a world without too many possessions. The social struggle that was to lead to a reality of basic inheritance, transcontinental parliaments and ‘taxes as confiscation’ is never fleshed out anywhere in his book. “The march towards equality is a struggle with an uncertain outcome, and far from being marked,” writes Piketty, and this is what the class fighters of all countries must deal with.

Thomas Piketty: A Brief History of Equality. Translated from the French by Alexander van Kesteren. De Geus; 328 pages; €24.99.

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De Geus statue

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