By Thomas Piketty
Capital and Ideology is the epic successor to one of the most important books of the century: at once a retelling of global history, a scathing critique of contemporary politics, and a bold proposal for a new and fairer economic system.
Thomas Piketty’s bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) galvanized global debate about inequality. In this audacious follow-up, Piketty challenges us to revolutionize how we think about politics, ideology, and history. He exposes the ideas that have sustained inequality for the past millennium, reveals why the shallow politics of right and left are failing us today, and outlines the structure of a fairer economic system.
Our economy, Piketty observes, is not a natural fact. Markets, profits, and capital are all historical constructs that depend on choices. Piketty explores the material and ideological interactions of conflicting social groups that have given us slavery, serfdom, colonialism, communism, and hypercapitalism, shaping the lives of billions. 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. The new era of extreme inequality that has derailed that progress since the 1980s, he shows, is partly a reaction against communism, but it is also the fruit of ignorance, intellectual specialization, and our drift toward the dead-end politics of identity.
Once we understand this, we can begin to envision a more balanced approach to economics and politics. Piketty argues for a new “participatory” socialism, a system founded on an ideology of equality, social property, education, and the sharing of knowledge and power. Capital and Ideology is destined to be one of the indispensable books of our time, a work that will not only help us understand the world, but that will change it.
Leonid Bershidsky on Bloomberg wrote:
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century blended history, statistics, and theory. Capital and Ideology, his new magnum opus, is long enough (1,200 pages) to lump together several books: a quantitative history of inequality through time and space, from medieval Europe and ancient India to present-day societies; a largely noneconomic theory of social stratification; an investigation into the social roots of current populism; and a political manifesto for the European left. From the extraordinary wealth of its empirical material to the breadth of its cultural scope, and from the rare alliance of statistical precision and literary references to the level of its intellectual and political ambition, there is much to commend in this remarkable book. [...] Piketty’s bold agenda relies on three main pillars. The first is the empowerment of employees through a radical reform of corporate governance; the second is a massive redistribution of wealth and income through an overhaul of the tax system; the third, which essentially applies to Europe, is a move to transnational federalism. [...] On all three accounts—corporate governance, taxation, and European governance—Piketty’s proposals, therefore, raise many questions that he fails, or does not even attempt, to answer. Absent a systematic discussion of the implications of, and possible objections to, his ideas, they can hardly be regarded as serious policy proposals. In the end, what is deeply disturbing in his book is not the radicalism of his plans. It is the contrast between the thoroughness of his empirical analysis and his casual approach to policy issues."
Idrees Kahloon on The New Yorker wrote:
"If the first work was largely an economic treatise, the second [...] is essentially a political one. It tracks how different political ideologies have justified and promoted inequality since the Middle Ages. To Piketty, the years between 1950 and 1980 were the most successful for 'egalitarian coalitions,' by which he means parties of the left, but these have since faltered. To address that failure, he attempts to set out a manifesto for the modern left. [...] Piketty doesn’t believe in meritocratic explanations of large wealth: In his view, U.S. tech titans are no better than Russian oligarchs because, like them, they have only exploited society’s resources — from public investment in science to the tax and legal systems created to favor them. His idea, however, isn’t to nationalize all wealth like a Soviet-style communist; the collapse of that system has, in Piketty’s view, contributed to the current rudderlessness of leftist parties. Instead, he would redistribute assets [...] Piketty’s book doesn’t do a good job of explaining how an inevitable collapse in property prices will affect the tax base and investment — or, indeed, in what form assets will be parceled out if the rich can’t sell 90% of their assets immediately. [...] If you can get through all of this book, you could believe that anything is possible — even 'participatory socialism.' But it isn’t, and its very impracticality only detracts from Piketty’s economic analysis."
Paul Mason on The Guardian wrote:
"Piketty has modified his thinking since his previous opus. Rather than imply that rising inequality is a problem inherent in capitalism, he now suggests that the levels of inequality we get are the ones we countenance—that they’re entirely a matter of political and ideological choices. His famous formula, r>g, has all but disappeared. [...] An implicit assumption in his writing is that, when the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. In the absence of economic growth, this zero-sum analysis would be correct. But when growth is positive, the proposition is harder to defend. [...] Imbalances in wealth are troubling because they lead to imbalances in political power, and so to the creation of predatory monopolies and the like. Piketty, for his part, scarcely addresses the issue of why economic equality is a moral concern; in his scheme, inequality is bad, ultimately, not for what it does but for what it is. [...] two essential contentions in his book are underdiscussed. The first is that unequal societies do not grow as quickly as egalitarian ones; the second is that they are less stable. Both assertions are debated among economists and political scientists. Why does Piketty consider them firmly established?"
Raghuram Rajan on Financial Times wrote:
Piketty’s 2014 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century showed how inequality is baked into our current economic model. [...] In this book, Piketty outlines his solution: a 'participatory socialism' in which capitalism is gradually abolished via a progressive income tax and a tax on inherited wealth, which are used to finance both a basic income and a 'capital endowment' for every citizen. n a single table, Piketty demonstrates that, in the abstract, it would be possible to finance a radically egalitarian economy if both income tax and inheritance tax for the rich were set around 60-70%. The outcome would be to 'make ownership of capital temporary'. Meanwhile, by legislating to enforce power-sharing within firms, between workers and bosses, you could achieve the 'true social ownership of capital'. The problem, of course, is the resistance of the current elites [...] It’s a resistance bolstered by the ideology of what he calls 'hypercapitalism'”: our willingness to believe billionaires have earned their money, that their philanthropy offsets their greed, that most of the poor are 'undeserving', and that any tinkering with the present distribution of wealth will lead to economic collapse. [...] Unlike Marx, who wrote that all history 'is the history of class struggles', Piketty believes it is 'the history of the struggle of ideologies and the quest for justice'. [...] Piketty’s socialism, then, [...] is a socialism without class struggle, or the need for class struggle. As a result, the intellectual and moral rearmament the left must undergo has to arise out of academia, or the world of thinktanks and NGOs. [...] By the end of the book, while we have a detailed description of the correlation between forms of inequality and the ideologies used to justify them, there is not a trace of cause and effect. Facts, Piketty states, are untrustworthy because they themselves are socially constructed. [...] And that’s what makes his political solutions seem so abstract and unworkable. [...] As for the most pressing problem – how to deal with the rise of nativism and xenophobia among the communities that once voted left – Piketty’s solutions are perfunctory. [...] Piketty is right to say that, in moments of transformation, big ideas come first. His big idea is to tax capitalism out of existence, and it has triggered an avalanche of derision among the Davos-going crowd. My objection is not that it is too radical but, lacking any explanation of which social forces might enact it, not radical enough."
Branko Milanovic on ProMarket wrote:
"Fans of Thomas Piketty’s influential 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century will find much to like in this long-awaited sequel. It is even more weighty (literally: the English edition has more than 1,000 pages), reflects a prodigious amount of scholarship and is as full of indignation at our world. It contains fascinating descriptions of lesser known historical uprisings against inequality such as the Haitian revolution, and interesting details about better known ones such as the French revolution. Yet, as a call for nations to enact massive redistribution programmes to reduce inequality, this latest work will persuade few outside his devoted following. [...] Unlike Marx, Piketty does not seem to believe the structure of society — the ownership of property, and the economic shares of different groups — is strongly influenced by the technology of production. Marx argued the plough gave us the feudal manor and the steam engine gave us the capitalist mill. Piketty claims instead that the nature of property rights and their distribution is largely driven by the prevailing ideology, a vague term that seems to imply a kind of public brainwashing. [...] Piketty’s interpretation of the data is questionable, which means the prescriptions that follow could be much more harmful to prosperity. Moreover, while he claims he wants greater democratic participation, he pushes grand elite-devised centralised schemes that suggest a tin ear to the protest movements that have roiled the world. [...] Inequality is a real problem today, but it is the inequality of opportunity, of access to capabilities, of place, not just of incomes and wealth. Higher spending and thus taxes may be necessary, not to punish the rich but to help the left-behind find new opportunity. This requires fresh policies not discredited old ones. Read and learn from the vast amount of scholarship on display in this book. But look sceptically at its solutions."
William Davies on The Guardian wrote:
"Before I review Capital and Ideology, it is worth mentioning the importance of Piketty’s overall approach, present in all three of his books. [...] This combination between political economy’s original methodology and big data is what I call 'turbo-Annales,' after the French group of historians that pioneered the view of history as a social science focusing on the broad social, economic, and political forces that shape the world. [...] For the purposes of this review, I divide Piketty’s book into two parts: the first, which I already mentioned, looks at ideological justifications of inequality across different societies (Parts 1 and 2 of the book, and to some extent Part 3); the second introduces an entirely new way of studying recent political cleavages in modern societies (Part 4). I am somewhat skeptical about Piketty’s success in the first part, despite his enormous erudition and his skills as a raconteur, because success in discussing something so geographically and temporally immense is difficult to reach, even by the best-informed minds who have studied different societies for the majority of their careers. [...] While I am somewhat skeptical about that first part of the book, I am not skeptical about the second. In this part, we find the Piketty who plays to his strength: bold and innovative use of data which produces a new way of looking at phenomena that we all observe but were unable to define so precisely. [...] This part of the book looks empirically at the reasons that left-wing, or social democratic parties have gradually transformed themselves from being the parties of the less-educated and poorer classes to become the parties of the educated and affluent middle and upper-middle classes. [...] To simplify, the elite became divided between the educated 'Brahmins' and the more commercially-minded “investors,” or capitalists. This development, however, left the people who failed to experience upward educational and income mobility unrepresented, and those people are the ones that feed the current “populist” wave. Quite extraordinarily, Piketty shows the education and income shifts of left-wing parties’ voters using very similar long-term data from all major developed democracies (and India). The fact that the story is so consistent across countries lends an almost uncanny plausibility to his hypothesis. [...] In the same way that Capital in the Twenty-First Century has transformed how economists look at inequality, Capital and Ideology will transform the way political scientists look at their own field."
Katharina Pistor on Public Books wrote:
"in order to find a thread through so much history, it helps to have a theory. But Piketty’s theoretical innocence has always been part of his charm, and no doubt contributes to his mass-market appeal. The closest he’s ever come to an overarching historical mechanism is the formula R>G (return is greater than growth), presented in Capital in the Twenty-First Century as a distillation of how wealth grows faster than income, and why inequality therefore increases over time. Yet even this, he was keen to point out, was simply an observation of available data, and not to be interpreted as a 'law of any kind. Piketty gives us history without a motor, a series of variations in income and wealth that happen because people at the time wanted and allowed them to. His premise in Capital and Ideology is a moral one: inequality is illegitimate, and therefore requires ideologies in order to be justified and moderated. [...] It seems to assume the existence of a well-functioning public sphere to determine allocations of property on the basis of reasoned argument and evidence, rather than via domination or opportunism. Economic historians may balk at this, but it pays certain rhetorical and philosophical dividends in forcing us to confront the justice (and lack of it) of various economic models, including our own. [...]His insistence on looking beyond the perimeter of the liberal west – and confronting some of its worst historical crimes – is admirable, even if it does inevitably involve some broad brushstrokes. But Europe, and France in particular, remain his centre of gravity. Being Piketty, this is less because of some Hegelian belief in Europe’s unique status in world history, and more – like the drunk man searching for his keys under the street-light – because that’s where the data is. That said, Capital and Ideology also serves as an intervention in policy debates that are unmistakably European. [...] Capital and Ideology is an astonishing experiment in social science, one that defies easy comparison. In its ambition, obsessive testimony and sheer oddness, it is closer to the spirit of Karl Ove Knausgård than of Karl Marx. It alternates between sweeping generalities about the nature of justice and the kind of wonkery that one might expect from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, often in the same paragraph. It is occasionally naive (it will bug the hell out of historians and anthropologists) but in a provocative fashion, as if to say: if inequality isn’t justified, why not change it?"
"Piketty’s account of history weaves together two intellectual traditions: that of modern economics and that of the progressive (European) left. From economics, he derives the notion of fairly stable social systems that encounter external shocks from time to time ('switch points,' which disrupt the random walk of historical events, bear some resemblance to these shocks). From the left, he takes the belief in the feasibility of fair and effective top-down ordering by a (democratic) state. Missing in both traditions is a deeper appreciation for the less visible processes of institutional change. [...] Looking back at the experiences in many countries, over several centuries, that Piketty presents in his book, one is struck not by change but by continuity: inequality persists or, rather, is reconstituted quickly even after switch points that proclaimed a more egalitarian future. Piketty honestly recounts how struck he and his collaborators were when discovering how quickly inequality reemerged after the French Revolution. Nonetheless, in Capital and Ideology, the institutional processes that were at work in the production of private wealth and inequality receive relatively short shrift. And yet, in Piketty’s own account, the seeds for the undoing of the ideas of the French Revolution can be found in institutional change that was forged during the revolutionary period."
More Videos with Piketty on Capital and Ideology
A 21-minute interview by the Financial Times (12 February 2020):
A 1-hour discussion with an audience at the University of Amsterdam (4 March 2020):
- "How political ideas keep economic inequality going" - interview with Piketty at The Harvard Gazette, 3 March 2020
- "Q&A with Thomas Piketty, author of Capital and Ideology" - blog of Harvard University Press, 3 March 2020
- "Thomas Piketty: ‘Economists are no different from other social scientists’" - interview with Piketty at Times Higher Education, 27 February 2020
- "Thomas Piketty: 'There will be another economic crash'" - interview with Piketty at The New Statesman, 12 February 2020
- Powerpoint of lecture by Piketty on the book, London School of Economics, 6 February 2020 (watch the recording of the lecture)
More media appearances of Pikketty can be found at the book's page on the site of Harvard University Press.
Table of Contents of Capital and Ideology
I. Inequality Regimes in History
- Ternary Societies: Trifunctional Inequality
- European Societies of Orders: Power and Property
- The Invention of Ownership Societies
- Ownership Societies: The Case of France
- Ownership Societies: European Trajectories
II. Slave and Colonial Societies
- Slave Societies: Extreme Inequality
- Colonial Societies: Diversity and Domination
- Ternary Societies and Colonialism: The Case of India
- Ternary Societies and Colonialism: Eurasian Trajectories
III. The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century
- The Crisis of Ownership Societies
- Social-Democratic Societies: Incomplete Equality
- Communist and Postcommunist Societies
- Hypercapitalism: Between Modernity and Archaism
IV. Rethinking the Dimensions of Political Conflict
- Borders and Property: The Construction of Equality
- Brahmin Left: New Euro-American Cleavages
- Social Nativism: The Postcolonial Identitarian Trap
- Elements for a Participatory Socialism for the Twenty-First Century
About Thomas Piketty
Thomas Piketty is Professor at EHESS and at the Paris School of Economics. He is the author of numerous articles published in journals such as the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Journal of Political Economy, the American Economic Review, the Review of Economic Studies, Explorations in Economic History, Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales, and of a dozen books. He has done major historical and theoretical work on the interplay between economic development and the distribution of income and wealth. In particular, he is the initiator of the recent literature on the long run evolution of top income shares in national income (now available in the World Inequality Database). These works have led to radically question the optimistic relationship between development and inequality posited by Kuznets, and to emphasize the role of political, social and fiscal institutions in the historical evolution of income and wealth distribution.