Thomas Piketty’s Leftward March

Matt McManus

June 29, 2022

The defining political struggle of the past four centuries has been for greater equality. Every large-scale form of social organization from antiquity onwards has been defined by vast disparities; between classes, genders, sexes, religions, and races. And within each society, various ideological forms emerged which justified these inequalities - either by mythologizing them as embodying a transcendent divine social ordering or naturalizing inequalities by reading back into nature the inequalities that appeared within society, and which were upheld by power. Yet from the beginning there were always doctrines that resisted the most domineering forms of social stratification. These ranged from the Stoic philosophies of ancient Rome, the Buddhist emphasis on our shared human fragility and finitude, to the more fraternal elements of the Abrahamic faiths.

Whatever their origin, starting in the seventh-century vast political movements emerged which began to seriously question not just the forms of inequality within their own homelands, but everywhere. By the time of the great revolutions in America, France, and above all Haiti, the ideological veneer insulating aristocratic control had been irrevocably shattered. It became clear that there was nothing inevitable about the disparities in wealth and power that had so stratified the world before, and consequently that society could be remade. The past 250 years have seen fierce debates and even mass conflicts in the fight for equality, during which time progressive forces have made incalculable gains. And yet, as the past 40 years of neoliberal hegemony and right-wing populism have taught us, there is nothing inevitable -let alone teleological- about these victories. They are always hard-fought, often incomplete, and dangerously at risk of being rolled back when the forces of reaction rally.

This story is frequently told, but one of its better chroniclers is undoubtedly Thomas Piketty, the French economist turned social historian and now, it seems, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. Piketty is most famous for his 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which shocked many by becoming a worldwide blockbuster as well as Harvard University Press’ biggest seller ever. It was a well-written and profoundly empirical tome that, in rather measured and technical (if never off-putting) language, made the grim case that worldwide inequality had been shooting up since the 1980s and was approaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age of robber barons and imperialist plutocrats. It ended with a stirring call for an international effort to combat inequality, though in hindsight his calls for global wealth and progressive income taxes seem a little deflating.

By Piketty’s own admission, Capital in the Twenty-First Century was too politically ambitious for the policy wonks to whom it was partially addressed and not nearly ambitious enough for the radicals who were the book’s other audience. Despite these flaws, Piketty’s book provoked fierce pushback by conservatives angered by its influence, and not a few ultra-leftists and Marxists for whom the book was dangerously centrist and even naïve. Partially in response to these latter criticisms in 2020 Piketty released his massive Capital and Ideology, which was a sequel to the earlier book in the vein of Godfather II or Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Clocking in at 1150 pages, everything was bigger, louder, more magisterial, mostly better, sometimes tediously long, and, in sum, rich and messy. Capital and Ideology attempted the astronomical feat of analyzing all the different ways political and economic inequality have been justified, not simply in Europe but worldwide and from antiquity to the present day. The sheer sprawl made it a unique accomplishment, although it was once again short on details about how to fix the problem.

A Democratic, Ecological, and Multicultural Socialism

Enter A Brief History of Equality, which at a comparatively breezy 300ish pages manages to pack a lot into a short space. It is also unique in Piketty’s oeuvre. While there are some initial chapters covering and adding to material from the earlier book, much of it is taken up with defending what Piketty calls a “democratic, ecological, and multicultural socialism.” This is a big step to the left for him and has been acknowledged as such. In many ways, Piketty has come a very long way from the social democratic internationalism of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which was published less than ten years ago. The book is undoubtedly socialist, even going on to flirt with economic measures that could eliminate the need for private property if implemented.

Of course, a firm embrace of the socialist label doesn’t mean that Piketty has any more time for Marx than he did before. In Capital