Review of A Brief History of Equality by Thomas Piketty


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Thomas Piketty’s monumental “Capital in the 21st Century” (2013) offered one of the most thorough and illuminating studies of capitalist economics since Karl Marx published the original “Capital” 150 years earlier. Despite the simplest covers and crudely 700 pages of scholarly and often dense analyses, Piketty’s “Capital”was a runaway success – selling over 2.5 million copies worldwide. The book appeared at a crucial moment. Economic discontent had been simmering since the financial crash of 2008-2009; many have blamed the economic elites and their allies in government for pushing the global banking system (and the well-being of tens of millions of people) into an abyss. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street gave this anger direction and movement, facilitated the emergence of political leaders such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and generated a thirst to understand the mechanisms of capitalism capable of producing profound economic inequalities and injustices. Piketty’s tome provided insight into the workings of capitalism that many were urgently seeking.

“Capital in the 21st Century” has focused most of its attention on the advanced industrialized world of Western Europe and the United States. Piketty’s even longer sequel, “Capital and Ideology” (2019), deepened this original analysis while broadening its scope to include much of the rest of the world, focusing in particular on how the slavery and colonialism encouraged the triumph of the capitalist West. Piketty’s latest book, “A Brief History of Equality,” neatly encapsulates the findings of his two original volumes in “only” 250 pages of text. Readers will find this book appealing only because of its brevity. But “A Brief History of Equality” is also a very different kind of book from the first two.

Although not quite a manifesto, “A Brief History of Equality” offers a strong argument for why we should be optimistic about human progress, which Piketty defines as “the movement toward legality”. Over the past 200 years, he notes, life expectancy has risen from 26 to 72 years. “At present, he adds, humanity is in better health than it has ever been; it also has more access to education and culture than ever before. Piketty is keenly aware of the disparities in the well-being of individuals both within advanced industrial societies and between North and South. But his reading of the history of the 20th century allows him to think that these inequalities of the 21st century can be reduced, on the one hand because “the march towards equality in all its forms” is irrepressible and on the other hand because that past generations of reformers have blazed the trail that still lights the way forward.

Piketty focuses in particular on the governmental revolution that liberal and leftist forces in the industrialized West propelled between 1910 and 1980. During these decades, he writes, Western societies built robust welfare states, invested massively in education and other public goods, and dramatically narrowed economic inequality – and therefore the gap in life chances – between rich and poor. Piketty calls this transformation an “anthropological revolution”; for him, this represents a social-democratic triumph. Taxation was the key instrument of the revolution. In country after country, total tax revenue skyrocketed from less than 10% of national income in 1910 to between 30 and 40% by mid-century. These tax regimes were highly progressive and redistributive, with the United States (surprisingly) leading the way by imposing an average top tax rate of 81% on top earners between 1932 and 1980.

The triumph of social democracy in the 20th century West imbued Piketty with the confidence that humanity can move on to a new stage of equality. A committed and lucid socialist thinker, Piketty presents in “A Brief History of Equality” one of the most comprehensive and comprehensible social democratic programs available. His proposals include publicly funded elections, transnational assemblies to complement national legislatures, a 2% global tax on all individual wealth that exceeds 10 million euros (about $10.4 million), the involvement of workers in the management of big business (to promote “participation socialism”), and the revision of global treaties to ensure that the international movement of capital enhances rather than hinders the pursuit of key objectives such as the reduction of greenhouse gases and the reduction of economic inequalities between North and South.

Piketty understands that none of his proposals will be easy to implement. But his reading of politics in the West of the twentieth century gives him reason to hope. Then, he argues, progressive movements — women demanding the vote, workers fighting for industrial rights, social democratic parties vying for victory at the polls, minorities fighting for civil rights — sparked a broad transformation Politics. Such protest movements, appropriately tailored to the needs of 21st century citizens, can achieve similar results.

To make the case for the effectiveness of progressive politics, however, Piketty ignores a sobering insight offered in his “Capital in the 21st Century.” In this work, Piketty argued that the social-democratic triumph of the 20th century did not stem solely from the work of progressive movements. Equally important, and perhaps even more so, was the destructive force of two world wars. “It was the chaos of war,” Piketty wrote then, “that reduced inequality in the 20th century. … It was war, not democratic or harmonious economic rationality, that erased the past and enabled society to start afresh.

The First and Second World Wars to which Piketty refers killed nearly 100 million people, destroyed production facilities on an immense scale, stripped the European powers of their revenue-generating colonies and destabilized both fortunes and thought everywhere. economic elites. The catastrophe of war, Piketty argued in his 2013 work, gave social democracy its chance to triumph in the West.

Hence a key question for Piketty’s 2022 book: can inequality in the 21st century world be reduced to the same scale as in the 20th century West without another great war, or a far more destructive pandemic? than the one we are experiencing, or a first-order climate catastrophe? We certainly want to answer with Piketty that it is possible. He came up with a plan that was intelligent, thoughtful and motivated by admirable political convictions. But such a plan, as Piketty himself showed in “Capital in the 21st Century,” may not be enough, even if backed by a phalanx of progressive movements. The vast and cruel destruction of life and property, Piketty wrote, was the critical prelude to the social-democratic triumph of the 20th century. Hopefully, the world will not need similar death and despair to usher in an era of economic and social reconstruction in the 21st century.

Gary Gerstle is the Paul Mellon Emeritus Professor of American History at the University of Cambridge and the author, most recently, of “The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Age of the Free Market.”

A brief history of equality

Translated by Steven Rendall

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