Piketty’s account of the proprietarian order is a devastating indictment of racist imperialism and class war in Europe and – usually by way of Europe – around the world, supported at every point by an array of data and graphs. Much of that story is well known, some of it less so, such as the extraordinary political-economic effects of the end of slavery and serfdom. In sharp contrast to the mythology of enlightened European abolitionism, the emancipatory aspects of 19th-century ownership societies weren’t a product of the moral triumph of liberal commitments to self-ownership, or of ‘freedom’ in the markets. In almost all cases – French and British slave traders and plantation owners, Russian landlords, the Brazilian landed elite – those who lost human ‘property’ were treated with deference and handsomely compensated.
Piketty has amassed a huge amount of learning in support of a single thesis: that ‘inequality societies’ have been the historical norm but they are not inevitable. Rather, they depend on ideologies of justification, and much of the book is devoted to examining these ideologies, showing how they have always been contested and how they might be transcended, It is impossible not to admire the skill and perseverance with which he deploys his massive arsenal of data and arguments. Still, what caused this reviewer to rub his eyes was Piketty’s audacious self-assurance.
Passages that compare, for example, the scale of the clergy class in Poland, Spain and India between the 16th and 18th centuries are truly awesome in their learning. This points to a strength and weakness of Capital and Ideology. The detail was similarly ample in C21, but there was a narrative energy that propelled the reader. I can remember reading that book, on my phone, waiting in a passport queue on a family holiday. That may, alas, say as much about me as the book. But that singular clarity is absent in this book. Too often this book feels like a work of reference, albeit of extraordinary scholarship.
Maybe the political science consensus is wrong. What I can say with confidence, though, is that until the final 300 pages “Capital and Ideology” doesn’t do much to make the case for Piketty’s views on modern political economy.
The bottom line: I really wanted to like “Capital and Ideology,” but have to acknowledge that it’s something of a letdown. There are interesting ideas and analyses scattered through the book, but they get lost in the sheer volume of dubiously related material. In the end, I’m not even sure what the book’s message is. That can’t be a good thing.
Piketty’s core skill is the careful compilation of numbers that reveal how inequalities of wealth and income have changed. He argues convincingly that the switch to a society constructed around property rights resulted in a considerable increase in inequality during the 19th century, as wealth accumulated without significant ethical challenge. Property rights are social constructs and so in principle can be reformulated in any way a society chooses. Piketty argues that the process is best done through informed deliberation by means of representative democracy – parliaments. He is contemptuous of the capture of parties of the left by the “Brahmin class”, the well-educated affluent.
Piketty’s journey through these regimes is, to be honest, a bit of a slog. Some have accused him of biting off more than he can chew by moving from economist to historian of multiple countries, and seeing everything through the prism of inequality. It’s fair criticism. He has some good points to make, however. Cuts in the highest rates of income tax in Britain and America in the 1980s were justified by the argument that they would bring about an improvement in economic performance. Although that seemed to be the case initially, the long-term record for both economies was worse rather than better.
As he recounts the history of the transition from slave-owning, feudal and colonial societies towards 19th-century modernity, the most consistent actor in the name of progress is the state. By the end of the book, while we have a detailed description of the correlation between forms of inequality and the ideologies used to justify them, there is not a trace of cause and effect. Facts, Piketty states, are untrustworthy because they themselves are socially constructed. It is as if Piketty, a commanding figure in the economics department, has sauntered across to give a (very long) lecture series in the history department without bothering to engage in the methodological debates that rage there.
Piketty, a man of engagingly wide interests, is not principally a literary critic. The first, long section of this door-stopping volume is devoted to a survey of inequality in a wide range of societies across a long period. These include medieval Europe, India and a number of colonial and slave societies. The purpose is to explore the ways in which unequal ownership of property has been described and rationalised over time. The breadth of Piketty’s learning is extraordinary, and though he is never tempted to use three words where ten will do, the prose is nonetheless clear and a pleasure to read in Arthur Goldhammer’s excellent translation.
The result is that much of this book is glaringly ahistorical. It offers interesting surveys of various past societies — revolutionary France, colonial India, civil war America etc. But it mostly concludes that their main error was not hiring Piketty to design their tax systems. This is not history so much as teleology; time and again we are told that there was a better path for Society X, in the form of Piketty-style socialism, but it went untaken. After several hundred pages of this, Piketty’s focus switches to the present. And again he has interesting stuff to say.
Capital and Ideology is an astonishing experiment in social science, one that defies easy comparison. In its ambition, obsessive testimony and sheer oddness, it is closer to the spirit of Karl Ove Knausgård than of Karl Marx. It alternates between sweeping generalities about the nature of justice and the kind of wonkery that one might expect from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, often in the same paragraph. It is occasionally naive (it will bug the hell out of historians and anthropologists) but in a provocative fashion, as if to say: if inequality isn’t justified, why not change it?