A review by Andrew Ng, Senior Contributing Editor
Although it is uneven, long, and at times dry and unconvincing, Piketty’s second major book remains an interesting analysis of the inequality through history and of our present-day politics. The scope of the book is incredibly ambitious, reaching from pre-revolution French inequality to modern-day Brazilian politics. But that ambition comes at a cost: the multitude of historical examples Piketty explains can feel unnecessarily long and sometimes makes the writing feel boring and repetitive.
Capital in the 21st Century, Piketty’s first book, was primarily an economics text, focusing on a detailed analysis of inequality. I have not read the book myself, though our Editor in Chief, Jacob Landau, was not a fan. However, my understanding is that Capital and Ideology differs from Capital in the 21st Century in that its focus is more understanding the long-term history of inequality, and how that can be related to current inequalities (more my current area of expertise – history and political science).
Piketty’s comprehensive account of inequality breaks history into several inequality regimes: ternary societies (the Ancien Régime), followed by the proprietarian inequality regimes of the 19th century, then the Social-democratic regimes which emerged after the World Wars, and lastly, our current neo-proprietarian inequality regime (hypercapitalism). Piketty’s analysis of ternary societies is remarkably comprehensive given the lack of available data on the subject; especially when analyzing the relative sizes of the three social groups of the such named ternary regime (the noble/warrior class, the clergy, and the remainder of the population), Piketty extensively uses graphs and charts that clearly show the evolution of inequality. While often focused on France, Piketty still explains the trajectories of other inequality regimes, such as India and Brazil. This broader perspective is one of the best elements of the book. Any modern history of inequality must include non-western trajectories as they are integral to our understanding of inequality on a truly global scale. As I will discuss later, Piketty’s analyses of these countries is often where his broader theory is the most convincing.
What is Piketty’s broader theory of inequality? He argues that the evolution of inequality is caused by changes in politics and ideologies, rather than material conditions. Piketty sees political changes, such as the growth of neoliberal ideologies pioneered by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as driving the shifts in inequality we see in the world (in the case of Thatcher and Reagan, leading to a growth in inequality in the 21st century), as opposed to Marx’s material understanding of history. According to Marx, the relations of production of a society are what govern historical shifts, rather than the ideologies of individuals or governments. Piketty’s argument in the book is relatively strong, and it ties the threads of his sometimes overly broad historical narrative together. However, Piketty has not convinced me that we should ignore a materialist understanding completely, as I think Marxist readings of history and economics, however incomplete, can be very useful. Understanding the dynamics of both ideological and material conditions together can provide a more complete picture of history. Furthermore, on the economics side, a Marxist perspective can also be valuable as it provides a different framework for criticizing the fundamental class conflicts and production relations in an economy. Piketty’s analysis precludes a deeper criticism of Capitalist production; for Piketty, the solution is to redistribute wealth, rather than to completely remake the economy. I tend to agree with Piketty’s more moderate version of Socialism, but I do think that a Marxist understanding importantly challenges us to think more boldly and broadly.
Though Piketty’s ideology argument is fairly convincing and well analyzed, the second part of his historical thesis is weaker. He argues the way a society’s ideology shifts is through “switch points”. According to Piketty, these are moments when many possible ideological trajectories are possible. Here, he emphasizes that he believes a deterministic conception of shifts in ideology is not possible and does not reflect the “switch points” he describes. However, the evidence he uses to prove this point seems weak and limited. By simply condemning a “determinist” understanding of these events, and stating that multiple trajectories were possible, Piketty avoids any discussion of the real reasons why the course of ideology shifted in such a way. Piketty’s outlook here is fundamentally optimistic: he believes that these historical switch points could have led to more progressive policies had the actions of a few individuals been different. He uses this point to emphasize the possibilities of future redistributive action. However, I would disagree with Piketty’s assertion; large shifts, both material and ideological, have historical causes independent of the actions of a few individuals. Individuals can still exercise agency, but their actions are fundamentally shaped by the world and events around them.
Deterministic conceptions of history are often criticized as being rigid and limited. However, a deterministic understanding should not be conflated with a linear, predictive theory of inevitability (e.g. A Marxist arguing that the end of Capitalism is inevitable). Furthermore, it is important that a partly deterministic conception incorporate multiple causes (both large trends and proximate events) into its understanding. A theory which attributes a single cause (such as Geographic Determinism) can produce important insights. However, these must always be looked at together and not as perfect understandings by themselves.
But if we look at history deterministically, does that mean there is no such thing as free will? (I would argue, yes, there is no free will) Doesn’t quantum mechanics preclude any deterministic conception of the universe as a whole? (this depends on your interpretation; theories such as the De Broglie–Bohm theory would allow a deterministic understanding) These are important questions to ask and address, but are outside the scope of this essay!
Back to Capital and Ideology. The final portion of the book, which describes the evolution of ideology and inequality since World War II, is really where Piketty’s writing and insight is best. His discussion of the evolution of the traditional left/right political divide was fascinating, and Piketty’s analysis of the shifts in educational and wealth cleavages was eye opening. Further, Piketty’s proposal for a stronger, federal European Union was very interesting to understand as an American. In this section of the book, Piketty is successful in using the historical trajectories of inequality discussed in the first portion of the book to analyze our current geopolitical situation. While I may disagree with his assertion that the rise of conservative politics in the United States was primarily driven by the Democratic Party failing to help the lower classes educationally, leading to a new educational cleavage (I think that the evolution of social and racial views has had a larger impact), his analysis is still insightful, and has led me to revise my own understanding. Especially when he shows the similarities and differences in the evolution of different ideological regimes around the world is my existing thinking most rigorously challenged.
In the very last portion of the book, Piketty also offers some proposed solutions to the inequality he has analyzed. Although these are by no means revolutionary, his proposals for corporate power sharing, progressive wealth and income taxes, and a universal capital endowment, are nevertheless well analyzed and explained.
I hope my criticism of Capital and Ideology has not come across as too harsh. Even though I disagreed with many of Piketty’s assertions, it remained a very insightful and interesting read that successfully challenged some of my own assumptions. If one is looking for a comprehensive look into the history of inequality, look no further. But be warned, the book is not an easy read, and at over 1000 pages, not a short one either.