The French economist offers a follow up to his influential Capital in the Twenty-First Century, challenging readers to revolutionize how they think about ideology and history, exposing the ideas that have sustained inequality since pre-modern times, and outlining a fairer economic system.
The book is packed with fascinating detail and vast quantities of skilfully assembled data; it is written (and translated, by Arthur Goldhammer) in an accessible, conversational tone. But Piketty’s vital contribution is somewhat obscured by the book’s title. He is not in the business of uncovering the ideological dynamics that make the interests of the powerful appear to coincide with everyone’s general interest—what Boutmy called ‘political hegemony’—or in explaining the way they have historically operated. Instead, he gives us a systematic examination of inequality across time and place, and of the ideas the powerful have used to justify it ... Piketty’s confrontation with the void leads him to something like a liberal argument for socialism, and as the rescue packages for a world struck down by Covid-19 pile up, he has, at least for the moment, a captive audience. Whether or not his revolution without revolutionaries can get us where we need to go, his analysis of how we got here demands our attention.
If inequality has become the subject of intense public attention, a good deal of the credit goes to the French economist Thomas Piketty ... And now...Piketty has published a yet more ambitious book, Capital and Ideology ... It encompasses history, political science, and political theory, and is even more voluminous than its predecessor. This reviewer must report that the eleven-hundred-page work broke an (admittedly unsteady) card table and later caused a carry-on to exceed the weight limit on an (admittedly stingy) European airline ... There’s a reason for the heft. Capital and Ideology sets out not only to describe capitalism but also to help us 'transcend' it. Piketty both diagnoses and prescribes: he tries to expose the contradictions of the reigning ideology of 'hypercapitalism' and its malign consequences...and, to stave off disaster, recommends a breathtaking series of reforms ... This picture is discouraging. If it’s also familiar, that is a tribute, in part, to the success of Piketty’s previous work ... Of course, the people who are most likely to hear—and heed—Piketty’s call to action, whether or not they scythe their way through his book, are all of the Brahmin left. Throughout the book, Piketty heaps praise on Sanders, Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Jeremy Corbyn ... if a candidate were to go the full Piketty—by proposing enormous taxes on the rich and taking steps toward surrendering sovereignty to a transnational socialistic union—do we really think that nativism and nationalism would retreat, rather than redouble? Would erstwhile supporters of Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, and Geert Wilders evolve beyond their fears of Muslim migration and accept the new utopia?
My conclusion: the 1,200-page tome might become even more politically influential than the French economist’s 2013 overview of inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century ... In his overambitious history of inequality from ancient India to today’s US, Piketty recounts the justifications that recur throughout time ... Advocates of inequality will come up with the usual justifications. But now is the redistributionists’ best chance.