What Are the Roots of Global Inequality?

What Are the Roots of Global Inequality?

Tipping Point

Thomas Piketty’s new history of global inequality.


On a Friday night early this past winter, two of France’s left-wing intellectual heavyweights duked it out over a familiar question: What to do about private property? At the Paris Bourse du Travail, a union hall shared by the local branches of the country’s major labor confederations, the radical economist Frédéric Lordon played to the crowd. Sporting a hoodie, light blue jeans, and navy sneakers, the fire-breathing Lordon called for abolishing and collectivizing all private property. In a collared shirt and dress shoes, his opponent, who for the last several years has been sounding the alarm about skyrocketing wealth inequality, found himself in an unfamiliar position. One of the world’s foremost critics of capitalism, Thomas Piketty was making the case for moderation, or as he put it, a more lasting “radicality.” “The false radicality of saying, ‘We’ll talk about it later, after the collapse of the current economic system’ or ‘We don’t want any form of private property in the socialist or communist system we have in mind’—this is actually a very cheap radicality,” Piketty insisted. “It’s a radicality that doesn’t scare anyone. The elimination of very small types of private property doesn’t at all correspond to what’s being asked or what is desirable from the point of view of individual emancipation.”

A socialist future that allows for small-scale bakeries and restaurants might not be so bad, Piketty argued. Rather than abolishing all forms of private property, one could achieve an egalitarian and democratic society by more heavily taxing wealth and income and transferring power from shareholders to employees. When one of the moderators asked him if he believed in the prospects of the Grand Soir—the Great Evening, or the notion of an inevitable workers’ revolution that has inspired generations of French leftists—Piketty fired back, “The Grand Soir is great, but it’s the morning after that interests me most.”

That seems a good way of summing up Piketty’s approach overall. Trained by mainstream economists at Paris’s School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and at the London School of Economics, he has always been more of a midcentury social democrat than a revolutionary. All the same, his interest in inequality has pushed him into terrain that has long been the domain of a more radical left—contemplating not only restrictions on wealth accumulation but also the political empowerment of ordinary people. This interest in tackling inequality was explored in the book that made him famous, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which he concluded with a call for a global wealth tax. But in his follow-up, Capital and Ideology, Piketty has shifted gears. While he dedicates a large portion of the book to the history of economic injustice, he also offers a more fully fledged program aimed at making it disappear.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century arrived in France in 2013 (an English translation came out the following year), replete with rigorous insights into the history of wealth inequalities at a moment of growing backlash against them. Published less than three years after the explosion of Occupy Wall Street in the United States and amid the heady surge of left-wing parties in Greece and Spain, Piketty’s work found a ready-made audience on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did the economist delve into reams of tax data to show how the top 1 percent was getting ever richer, but he also made a bold claim about the very nature of capitalism itself. Capital’s rate of return, he posited, is greater than the overall rate of economic growth. In other words, wealth grows faster than the rest of the economy, leading to increasingly concentrated inequality. Unless policy-makers respond with countervailing measures, capitalism does not produce a trickle-down effect; instead, it tends toward the reproduction of mass wealth disparities and thus to hardening class stratification. This imbalance isn’t a glitch in the system but rather the natural product of the global economy left to its own devices.

For those who read Capital in the Twenty-First Century (or those who only read about those reading it), the appeal was obvious: Piketty had taken a wrecking ball to the claim that capitalism improves mass living standards over time, a contention that once divided the world in two but had become so ingrained in the ethos of the early 21st century that it hardly seemed worth discussing. And while some of Piketty’s arguments weren’t easy for the nonspecialist to digest, he managed to hammer home other points with elegance, quoting passages from Balzac and Jane Austen to remind readers of the long-term importance of inherited wealth and class status. Almost overnight, the book transformed him into a globe-trotting intellectual celebrity. It also renewed attention in France to a domestic violence case: In 2009, Piketty’s former romantic partner Aurélie Filippetti, then a Socialist member of the French Parliament who later became minister of culture, filed a complaint against him, which was withdrawn after he apologized for having made her “suffer violence.”

Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s popularity turned on a central insight: Piketty shifted the focus of his analysis away from income disparities to disparities in wealth. The rich aren’t just getting ahead by earning more, though that’s part of it; they’re also outpacing the rest of us through their investments and homes and land, passed down from generation to generation. Because of this structural imbalance, Piketty insisted, only a global wealth tax, implemented by national authorities and coordinated on an international level, could begin to tame the power of capital. Although difficult to realize in comparison with the more expansive social democratic programs articulated by an emerging new left, a global wealth tax was a relatively modest proposal but one that was revelatory nonetheless. As the economist Stephanie Kelton, a former adviser to Bernie Sanders, put it, Capital in the Twenty-First Century was “the right book at the right time.”

Capital and Ideology is a different kind of book. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer, it moves from an account of wealth accumulation in the most advanced economies over the last few centuries to a sprawling exploration of inequality worldwide going back to the Middle Ages. In the process, Piketty wades a few steps further into the forbidding waters of politics. Opening with a look at the feudal societies of the premodern era and surveying the development of capitalism and colonialism, he then turns to communism and the heyday of social democracy in a brief study of the post–World War II era before ending with a chapter that outlines a “participatory socialism for the 21st century.” This was the same set of proposals that he defended against Lordon in January and has been championing in the French press since the book’s release last September. In both its ambition and tone, Piketty’s socialism is not all that different from the parliamentary socialism of the early 20th century, but it marks a considerable move left for someone whose first forays into politics fell firmly within the mainstream of France’s Socialist Party, which by the 1990s had abandoned any pretense of breaking with capitalism. In fact, Capital and Ideology goes well beyond anything proposed by the leading parties of the European left today, including Podemos in Spain and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-populist La France Insoumise.

At just over 1,100 pages, Piketty’s new book surpasses Capital in the Twenty-First Century in size and scope by a considerable extent; it is, in many ways, a far more ambitious work in both its range and its politics. For one thing, he expands his analysis of inequality beyond the major Western economies that constituted much of his earlier focus. He unpacks the concentration of wealth in colonial and slaveholding societies like British-occupied India, French-controlled Algeria, and prerevolutionary Haiti (which was, in 1780, the world’s most unequal society, according to Piketty). Making stops in apartheid-era South Africa and contemporary Brazil, he also looks at the concentration of wealth—or lack thereof—in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

This journey is not an abstract undertaking. As in his previous book, Piketty’s quest to quantify and track inequality is grounded in a rigorous analysis of data (much of it tax returns but also censuses and government budgets). In Capital and Ideology, he also seeks to better explain how systems of inequality persist and justify themselves. In what is ultimately as much a work of history as of economics, Piketty wants to take “ideology seriously.” Modern economics, he suggests, can shed light on an ultraspecific set of trends—say, how tax cuts for high-income earners affect wealth distribution and the gap between wage growth and productivity—but the dismal science often struggles to supply a larger picture of how these policies came into being, why they last, or how they operate across borders and regions. To truly understand inequality, he posits, one must think globally. And to think globally, one must also turn to politics—the politics of both the past and the future—and the ideological frameworks that justify social arrangements.

Piketty begins his story with Europe’s “ternary” or “trifunctional” societies: feudal regimes in which the nobility, the clergy, and commoners all played rigidly defined roles. This system of rights and obligations began collapsing in the 16th century—most dramatically in France in the 18th century, where a revolution ushered in an awesome expansion of individual property rights. While the uprising was fueled in part by the promise of égalité and fraternité, these ideals fell largely by the wayside after the revolution. As Piketty shows, by the late 19th century, France was even more unequal than it was under the ancien régime.

The inequality in postrevolutionary Europe continued to increase until the early 20th century. Private sector wealth tumbled during World War I and the Great Depression, but it took an even larger global conflict for an alternative political framework to emerge. As states responded to the chaos of World War II, they moved quickly to take over key sectors of the economy; they also prolonged recent experiments with various types of taxes and granted new rights to workers. As a result, in France during the postwar years, the top 10 percent’s stranglehold on wealth fell even further, as it did elsewhere in Europe. Around the same time in Soviet Russia, inequality remained even lower. Once slouching into rampant material disparities, many countries were now able to more fully realize the promise of equality and fraternity. The “proprietarian societies” (which Goldhammer helpfully translates as “ownership societies”) that had come to dominate much of modern history proved to be not the natural and inevitable outcome of market forces but the result of specific decisions that prioritized individual property rights—decisions, moreover, that could be reversed. “Inequality,” Piketty says, “is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.” After these ownership societies entered into a state of crisis in the early 20th century, social democratic governments emerged that vowed to tackle inequality and place limits on property rights. They imposed or extended taxes on income (and in some cases, wealth) and expanded access to education and housing. Many pursued the nationalization of key industries and, in the German and Nordic cases, forced businesses to share power with workers through innovative “co-management” measures.

But the glory days didn’t last long. With an increasingly globalized economy came not just greater global inequality but greater domestic inequality as well. The European Union established a monetary federation, but it failed to achieve a fiscal or budgetary one—creating a situation today in which corporations can easily offshore and outsource production to the lowest bidder and the superrich can shelter their wealth with little pushback. Social democrats proved unable to adapt to these changing times and renew their platforms accordingly. Much the same happened in the United States: The conservative revolution ushered in a wave of deregulation and tax cuts, paving the way for the top 1 percent to amass more and more wealth while the American center-left failed to double down on its redistributive agenda and offer its base a convincing alternative. Today as a result, a “neo-proprietarian” order reigns supreme. Based in part on the values of the 19th century ownership societies, this order is also marked by an extreme form of meritocratic ideology, one that blames the poor for their struggles and idolizes billionaires for their success.

But if they stand so plainly against the collective interest, how do these proprietarian and neo-proprietarian societies sustain themselves in majoritarian systems? For Piketty, the answer is ideology. While Marx and Engels argued that the underlying material conditions and class structure of a given society held the key to understanding the resilience (or, for that matter, the fragility) of its political system, Piketty has a very different read on how authority reproduces itself. Class certainly influences the way people think, but so do other factors, from religious beliefs and a sense of national belonging to the seemingly random crises that occur throughout history, like famines and pandemics. Paradigm shifts are contingent on all of the above, not just on the formation of social classes or the tensions that arise among them. At the same time, in Piketty’s view, ruling ideologies are themselves more fluid than Marxist intellectuals have historically recognized. Justifications for who gets to own what are ever capable of change and compromise, depending on the actors behind them—evolving, fading, or regenerating.

For example, the 19th century proprietarian order had its roots, Piketty argues, in what was originally a very simple goal: the separation of the state’s authority—the provision of security and laws and a monopoly on violence—from the individual’s right to hold and sell property. Making this separation was clear enough, but whether the state ought to then set limits on the latter remained an open question, as debates raged over whether to adopt land reforms to benefit small-scale farmers or impose progressive taxes on income or estates. In the end, the egalitarians lost out.

Piketty contends that this debate was settled through political choices—a marked contrast with both classical and neoclassical liberal economics, as well as classical Marxist economics, all of which tended to naturalize these changes as inevitable. Instead, a “fear of the void,” as Piketty puts it, produced by the democratic revolutions of the late 18th century helped usher in the sacralization of private property. Whereas the old trifunctional system was held together by religion—a critical role performed by the clergy—the order that emerged in its wake initially lacked a mechanism to provide a similar sense of institutional stability. Ultimately, this void was filled by a quasi-religious worship of property. The resulting proprietarian societies, while genuinely emancipatory for some, were disastrous for many others, evolving in the 19th century into deeply inegalitarian and dehumanizing systems. As Piketty notes, when these governments finally abolished slavery, they directed financial compensation not to the enslaved, who had been denied a wage for the entirety of their lives, but to the former slaveholders.

While the original proprietarian order had its roots in democratic revolutions, the neo-proprietarian order has a very different origin. It was born, Piketty asserts, largely as a response to the spread of social democracy and fueled by a sense that redistributive policies had gone too far. After the popular breakthroughs of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the fall of the Soviet Union only further entrenched the neo-proprietarians. Today’s dominant order, then, marks a return to some of the earliest capitalist values: glorification of the supposedly individual accomplishments of the superrich, systematic bashing of the poor in the name of meritocracy, and incessant warnings against regulation for fear of opening Pandora’s box. All of this has produced an intense backlash against even modest proposals to rein in property—notably by hindering governments’ ability to track the movement of wealth internationally.

While all of this will strike many readers as indisputably true, what may frustrate some is that Piketty never identifies a central force behind these world historical changes. There is no one motor, in his account, driving these conflicts forward. While Marx privileged class formation and class tensions, Piketty appears committed to unpacking each of the major transformations he identifies on its own terms, insisting on a multitude of alternative paths that might have been followed at any given moment. Some may find this approach nuanced; others may be put off by its unwillingness to dig in and take sides. The closest we get to a unifying theory of change comes at the book’s conclusion, when he turns to an oft-cited proclamation by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” “Their assertion remains pertinent,” Piketty writes, “but now that this book is done, I am tempted to reformulate it as follows: the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of the struggle of ideologies and the quest for justice.”

It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like Marx and Engels’s original, and yet Piketty’s version does have a certain political urgency to it. Capitalism may encourage the concentration of wealth, and it may well be plainly unfair, but these aren’t sufficient conditions for an alternative to emerge, especially when the political and cultural arguments for the status quo are so widely accepted. To push back, therefore, we need to propose our own more egalitarian visions of society and rally large numbers of people behind them. A more just order is possible, though it remains conditional on our actions—like any other regime change in history.

The challenges to winning people over to a more egalitarian vision of society become clearest when Piketty turns to the origins of our current impasse. Refreshingly, these are not presented as some inevitable consequence of globalization or technological progress. Instead, they’re the product of a series of misguided—albeit reversible—political choices. Examining decades of voting patterns, Piketty shows how the historically center-left parties in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom evolved from what he calls “workers’ parties” into “parties of the educated.” In the period immediately following World War II, the various parties of the center-left—whether the Socialists in coalition with the Gaullists or the Democratic Party under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman—all won the bulk of their support from voters with lower levels of education and income.

These parties, however, began to lose their working-class base in the 1960s and ’70s (and in the United States’ case, the 1950s), and by the 1990s, the old class cleavages had disappeared, with many working-class people feeling cast out from their traditional political homes and either voting for right-wing parties or not voting at all. For Piketty, then, it’s not a simple question of the center-left parties losing ground to the right; they also lost ground with their own base. A look at the coalitions behind François Hollande in France and Jeremy Corbyn’s strong showing in the UK in 2017 only clarifies this trend. Their candidacies garnered much greater support among the most-educated voters than with the least-educated ones.

How did such a dramatic reversal come about? A common hypothesis is that white working-class voters were increasingly receptive to the nativist and racist ideas on the rise. This may be partly true, but it does not account for the losses and diminished enthusiasm among other working-class voters at the same time. The bigger reason, Piketty argues, is that social democratic parties abandoned the cause of wealth redistribution. By accepting the terms of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, the historical parties of the left embraced a much more scaled-back view of what constitutes a fair society and lost the faith of their working-class base. Placing a higher value on things like educational achievement, public access to culture, and somewhat higher taxes on the wealthy, the members of what Piketty dubs the “Brahmin left” gave up on the very redistributive politics that had won support among a low-to-middle-income electorate.

As the parties of the left lost their historical base, Piketty continues, right-wing parties began to absorb parts of it. They continued to defend the same elite economic interests as before, but they also attracted many white working-class voters, weaponizing questions of race and identity to win them over. This “merchant right,” Piketty argues, became the high-income counterpart to the Brahmin left and proved to be better at attracting certain segments of the working-class vote.

To be sure, this balance is deeply unstable, as shown by France’s most recent presidential race, which saw the emergence of both a rejuvenated left-wing bloc and an energized far right—only for a Brahmin liberal to win office. The ongoing battles in the Democratic Party illustrate similar tensions, with figures like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg defending the values of the Brahmin left against an insurgent wing demanding that the party reverse its hands-off approach to inequality and once again represent the interests of working people. While Piketty completed his book before the US primaries began, it’s not hard to imagine what he might say about the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Though it clearly wasn’t enough to win him the Democratic nomination, Sanders’s popularity underscores the value of debating the state’s role in regulating and, yes, managing the economy.

In the last 70 pages of Capital and Ideology, Piketty outlines what a “participatory socialism” in the 21st century might look like. The first pillar of his program, “social ownership,” involves curtailing the influence of managers and shareholders and boosting the decision-making power of employees. Under his proposal, workers would receive half the seats on companies’ boards of directors, with a ceiling imposed on the voting rights of investors composing the other half, thereby limiting the power of large shareholders. The second pillar, “temporary private ownership,” involves enacting a set of progressive and, ideally, internationally coordinated taxes on property, inheritance, and income. All of this is complemented by what Piketty calls “inheritance for all,” a lump sum grant to citizens once they reach the age of 25. (He suggests the sum be set at just over $130,000 in France today.) He stresses that these proposals are an initial blueprint more than anything else, a vision to be tinkered with according to circumstances rather than a political program to be followed to the letter. “Justice,” he writes, “must always be conceived as the result of ongoing collective deliberation.”

While it may seem self-evident in the United States to call this program socialist, Piketty’s use of the S-word in France is a bit more fraught. Tarnished by decades of compromise and failure to live up to the ideas in its platform, in particular during Hollande’s time in office, the Socialist Party has been part of the Brahmin left as much as any center-left party and has lost much of its support on the national level. In response to the party’s many letdowns, its rivals on the French left today often avoid talk of socialism, appealing instead to the values of humanism, solidarity, and ecology, or—in the case of Mélenchon’s movement—calling for a citizens’ revolution. But what else is one supposed to call an international project that involves radically overhauling property rights in favor of ordinary people? As a political tradition stretching back more than 150 years, the idea of socialism still seems a worthy goal, whether fully attainable or not, and its rich history offers lessons, warts and all. In Europe, that means owning the victories, mistakes, and betrayals of the past, while in the United States, it means signaling a clear desire to leave behind a system that’s increasingly unpopular and unsustainable.

The emphasis on internationalism in Capital and Ideology is also important. In recent years, Europe has seen a rise in nationalism. As parties like Alternative for Germany, France’s National Rally, and Italy’s Lega have discovered, refocusing popular ire from large-scale property owners to bureaucrats in Brussels can pay handsome political dividends. In pursuit of very different goals, some on the left (most notably Mélenchon) have also directed much of their venom toward the EU. Its suffocating budgetary restrictions and democratic deficit are worthy of denunciation, no doubt, but sometimes the left-populist criticism can feel cheap—a diversion from other pressing issues, if not an excuse for old-fashioned flag-waving. The bigger question either way, assuming one rules out leaving the EU, is how to change it. Piketty calls for cross-border cooperation, and this should be obvious. Whether or not his entire platform is achievable in the short term, the reality is that anything close to it would all but require help from abroad to succeed: a bevy of allied countries adopting common policies, collectively disobeying certain EU rules, and investing political capital in revising treaties. As the coronavirus crisis has shown, Brussels’s diktats can be broken under the right circumstances and with sufficient political will. With countries dramatically ramping up their deficit spending to protect their citizens, the EU has suspended requirements for its members to reduce their deficits and limit their debt-to-GDP ratios.

As the world reels from the horrifying devastation of the pandemic, the centrality of an internationalist politics becomes all the more urgent. Economic and material security cannot be secured in one country alone, nor can a participatory socialism defend itself from global problems, whether epidemiological or economic. In certain left-wing and environmentalist circles, the crisis has reignited criticism of international trade and sparked calls to promote more local production of goods and services. Rewiring global supply chains is a worthy goal, but even this would require international collaboration, as would any hopes of boosting working-class power, redistributing vast amounts of wealth, and submitting the economy to democratic oversight. There is no way to durably achieve these aims on a solely national scale.

Of course, as the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and the global recession set in, there is no guarantee that Piketty’s “neo-proprietarian order” will not come out even stronger. Already the pace of change is breathtakingly fast. While most European states have agreed to cover large shares of the wages lost by workers and as some consider outright takeovers of certain companies, EU leaders have also refused to come to the direct aid of Italy and Spain, revealing their stubborn attachment to the eurozone’s flawed architecture. The United States, meanwhile, has limited its relief to a bailout that includes $1,200 in direct payments to millions of Americans but also sends hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations, with precious few strings attached. Against this backdrop, Piketty’s proposals don’t seem far-fetched, but the political nature of achieving them appears all the clearer. Things could change in the coming months, but without a wave of working-class pressure and movements that fundamentally threaten the leaders and parties in charge, the making of the post-coronavirus world will be left to the same ruling elites that brought us this mess in the first place.

Ironically, when it comes to enacting “participatory socialism,” Piketty’s reading of history suggests that radicals who scoff at electoral politics may have a point. Rather than through the ballot box alone, Capital and Ideology suggests, the great ideological transformations of the past often resulted from crises that unmade the previous order: recessions, wars, and revolutions. We appear to be at such a tipping point right now. But one also wonders what gets left out by a vision of history that privileges ideas to such a large extent. At its most extreme, it can obscure the fact that there are certain groups that simply aren’t interested in a good-faith debate—not because they haven’t been convinced yet but because they have a vested material interest in not listening at all. No matter how sensible the counterargument may be, most billionaires will oppose wealth taxes and most bosses pay hikes. Ongoing debates about economic aid in Europe have underscored the same point. Despite all the damage they risk inflicting on the future of the EU, despite the fact that some of their closest neighbors are grappling with humanitarian catastrophe, the business elites of Germany and the Netherlands continue to oppose direct cash subsidies for Italy and Spain along with even modest proposals to issue jointly backed European debt, all because existing arrangements offer them a slight competitive advantage. Immediate material self-interest, it seems, often trumps the more rational long-term choice.

Piketty’s latest work offers us plenty of valuable ideas. But in the end, one can’t help but wonder if he underplays the extent to which individuals’ access to and relationship with wealth (their position in the property regime, one might say) influences how they look at the world and engage in politics. Ultimately, the interests that unite the top one-tenth of 1 percent of wealth holders may be a bit stronger than Piketty suggests, not unlike the ties that bind the bottom 60 percent or so. Piketty’s views on this mark a clear departure from the Marxist conception of class, yet his open-ended vision of historical change still offers space for popular agency. After all, whatever label one prefers—the “working class,” “the multitude,” “the people,” or something else—it remains up to us to build the movements and organizations required to make a world better suited to human needs. And perhaps someday, the myths we tell ourselves about why things are the way they are will be considered every bit as cruel and irrational as those of the past and will cease to be specters that haunt our present.

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