The Paris-based economist Thomas Piketty gained worldwide fame in 2014 for his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which analyzed rising inequality in the modern world and offered new ways to understand data on income, wealth accumulation, and the changing value of labor. In 2020 he followed with another similarly massive, similarly impressive tome, Capital and Ideology, which looks at the belief systems that underly that data. In it he asks the kind of question economic historians tend to shy away from: Where does inequality come from and why do societies naturalize and put up with it? Put another way: Why aren’t we all screaming?
This article is a condensed transcript of a conversation between Professor Piketty and a sociologist and a literature professor, each with their own (at times divergent!) investments in his account of how cultures and their belief systems shape material economic facts … and vice versa. The full conversation originally aired on Recall This Book, a podcast partnered with Public Books. You can listen to the whole thing, including a postmortem between John and Adaner, here, or subscribe to Recall This Book on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. This August and September the podcast also features a series of conversations—with Matthew Karp, Jan-Werner Müller, and Arlie Hochschild—responding to Piketty’s idea of the “Brahmin left.”
Adaner Usmani (AU): One of the things that I really admired about Capital and Ideology was the way in which you tackle both analytical and normative questions. You gave us an account of the evolution of inequality over time in place, but you also tell us very forthrightly about what we should do about it, about what governments should do about it.
What is the relationship between the descriptive and the prescriptive in your book?
Thomas Piketty (TP): This is a book about the history of inequality regimes. One of the main conclusions is that this history is primarily determined by political forces, ideological forces, because all human societies are trained to give meaning to equity and inequality and to make sense of the world.
I did not invent normative perspective and inequality. People have a normative perspective on inequality. It would be strange if, as a scholar, I would put myself outside of society.
John Plotz (JP): One of the things I love most in the book is your account of the slave societies and their intimate integration into the proprietarian ideology. And I wanted to ask you what may be an impossible chicken-and-egg question. It’s about slavery as a vital ingredient of modern proprietarian ideology.
Is slavery a necessary component that makes those ideologies fall into place? Or does the existence of those ideologies enable slavery to arise in the extreme forms that you see in the slave societies?
TP: It all happened together, so it’s difficult to disentangle. But you can imagine an industrialization process and the development process without slavery. It was not necessary. Imagine a world with a different balance of power—both material and ideological—with different state power in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, in America. This would have led to a form of international economic development with a more balanced distribution of power across societies. So that you don’t have forced labor going from Africa … It would have been a pretty different world. But, technically, you could have an industrial revolution with a very different distribution of the gains from industrialization.
So the slaves, instead of being slaves, could have been free workers getting higher wages. They could have moved to America because they wanted to have higher wages, which would have implied that the capitalists and slave owners would have had much lower living standards and much lower capacities to accumulate capital for themself, than what they had.
But this does not imply that capital accumulation could not have taken place. Capital accumulation could have taken place in a more collective manner and in a less unequal manner. We know from the 20th century that the reduction of inequality is not bad for growth and for capital accumulation. Because even if those people at the top accumulate less, you can have more direct accumulation by the middle class.
We also know that more corrective forms of accumulation, starting with education, are very important in the long run. And you certainly don’t want this to happen only within a very small group.
In principle, you can imagine a different 18th century, 19th century, where things would have happened completely differently.
Now, this would have required the balance of power between [sovereign] states. So here, of course, it’s more than ideology. I stressed in my book that balance of power between states—and the relative power of relative state capacities develop different rhythms in different parts of the world—are absolutely critical for everything that happened. But at the same time, this balance of power itself comes with the rise of different ideologies. These allow different processes of state centralization and state construction to assert themselves and legitimize themselves. When they come into conflict, those trajectories that will be chosen out of these times of crises are very indeterminate. They do not just depend on the pure balance of ideology.
Yes, we can imagine a completely different world. But this requires quite a lot of imagination. Because in those specific trajectories that were taken, of course, slavery played an absolutely central role. The vast majority of the cotton used in textile manufacturing in 19th-century Britain, or [in] European or North American plants, came from slave plantations from the US South.
JP: As Americans, we can’t help thinking about the racial legacy here. I know it’s different in other countries. But, everywhere around the world, one of the legacies that slavery has left is racialized thinking.
How do race and racialized ideology fit into your sense of the legacy of slavery? How much do we understand current racial configurations as coming out of that slavery configuration of the early modern period? How much could it be accounted for by other mechanisms?
TP: In the US, but more recently in Europe, too, we’ve tried to forget. We’ve tried to neglect how important this legacy was. But we have to confront this legacy.
In the book I try to show that there’s a discussion about reparations, but it’s one which we need to work [on] together with a discussion of a more universal perspective on economic justice for the future. But we need to articulate two logics.
So, in terms of reparation. It’s not only in the US. But it’s striking that the US Congress voted, in 1988, a law to transfer $20,000 to all Japanese Americans still alive in 1988 who were interned during World War Two.
Yet African Americans were subject to segregation even more recently, through the 1960s. Not just confined in jail for one or two years. But sometimes for 20 years, 30 years, or their entire lives. They could not walk on the same street, go to the same school. This was a serious prejudice.
It would have made sense in 1964, or in 1988, or today to have a similar symbolic reparation as with Japanese internment. And not only symbolic, in some material dimension. And it would have made even more sense, of course, in 1865. Of course, a promise actually was made at the end of the Civil War—that they could receive one mule and forty acres of land—but that promise was never applied.
Meanwhile, the French state received from Haiti huge payments for almost a century and a half, between 1825 and [around] 1950. This was in order to compensate the slave owners in France, in metropolitan France, who had lost their property because of the independence of Haiti. People in France today say, Oh, this is a long time ago, it’s too late. Well, you say it’s too late [to redress these unjustified expropriations to benefit slave owners]. But there were expropriations that took place during World War Two, or sometimes even during World War One, which we are still compensating today, probably rightfully so.
If you refuse to have a discussion about Haiti or racial segregation in the US, then you are in trouble. Because then you give people the feeling that the notion of justice that you’re trying to build is not really fair. It’s not treating different prejudice and different discrimination the same way.
If you think of the issue of antisemitism, the issue of the attitude to Islam, the issues of racial conflict in the US—a big part of these conflicts has to do with our difficulties confronting the notion of justice in terms of reparation for past prejudices during World War Two, or during slavery, or during colonialism.
Some people in my country, in France, still believe that this is a US problem, and that, in France, this is not an issue. But it’s not only a payment from Haiti. Segregation in the [French] colonial empire or in Algeria until the 1960s was in many ways comparable to that in the US. And this is something which people have a hard time confronting.
At the same time, we need to look at the future. And so I propose a minimum inheritance for all, €120,000 at the age of 25. This would really be for all, whether your ancestors were slaves or slave owners. Everybody would receive €120,000 at the age of 25.
So, we need to do both. We need to have some specific reparation: sometimes symbolic (like a pedagogical museum), sometime material for some specific injustice of the past. And at the same time, we need to look at the future of a universal redistribution mechanism. This would, in practice, benefit a lot of people from the minority groups. And these are, of course, still very much concentrated in the lower socioeconomic groups in societies, minority society, or postcolonial migrants in European societies.
We need to have both the reparation and the universal perspective on economic justice. That’s difficult, because very often people want to hear only about one or [the] other. And finding the right balance between the two is very complicated.
AU: One of the really striking things about the book is that the way in which you tell the story of the fall and rise (and hopefully the fall again) of inequality. As you tell it, this story is centrally about the way in which people see the world, about ideology, about ideological change. So when people see it differently, the world will change. And when people don’t see it, when people simply swallow ruling ideology, the world is not likely to change very much at all.
There are two ways in which someone could criticize this argument. One criticism is that this argument overstates the extent to which people, in fact, accept ruling ideologies.
What evidence do we have that people, in fact, accept ruling ideologies, and that they’ve accepted ruling ideologies over the course of history? It could just be that they don’t have the means to rebel against their superiors. Under normal circumstances, it would be foolish for slaves to try and overthrow slave owners, peasants to challenge landlords, workers to challenge capitalists. So what evidence do we have that people at the bottom of social, political, economic hierarchies actually accept ruling ideologies versus simply being unable to change the world that they inhabit?
TP: It depends on which situation. In the case of slavery, I’m not saying that slaves ever accepted the ideology that they should be slaves. There’s something different, which is mobilization capacities, and also the risks that slaves would be taking in case of a revolt. (But it is worth noting that the rise of literacy in family life and then the literacy of US slaves does signal that mobilization capacity [rose in some ways during the 19th century].)
Overall, however, slavery is really the extreme example: you don’t need to have a very sophisticated counter-ideology to be against the ideology of slavery when you are a slave. But in most inequality ideology—including [that of] the pre-ternary societies that I study, [from] before the French Revolution and before the 19th century, all the proprietarian ideology of the 19th century and early 20th century—it’s not so easy to find an alternative.
There are alternatives: various brands of socialist and communist ideologies were developed in the 19th century in order to serve as an alternative to the proprietarian ideology. But, as we now know, some of these ideologies didn’t work so well.
Finding your counter-ideologies is usually not so simple. That’s really what I want to stress in the book: there’s always a tendency on the left to say, We know what we should do. And the only problem is that we have a group of very powerful people who don’t want this to happen. So all that matters is the balance of power.
I’m not saying the balance of power is not important. I’m not saying that you don’t have people who are trying to protect what they have—that’s obvious. The problems that we are trying to solve are not simple. And we know that the pure balance of power in 1917, in Russia, allowed the rise of a completely different state, a proletarian state instead of a proprietarian state. But, in the end, this balance of power led to the development of a set of institutions and rules which did not lead to the emancipation of the working class that they were supposed to lead to.
Things could have happened differently, if there were a different group of people, a different … It was not written in advance that it would happen like this.
Even when the Social Democrats [took] power in Sweden, back in 1932, they developed a different ideology, starting from a different starting point, of course. But still, I show in the book that Sweden, it was not a nice, egalitarian place to begin with. It was an incredibly inegalitarian place. Different from Russia, of course. But it was not written from the beginning that things would need to go in such different directions. Political and ideological mobilization was critical in both cases and will be critical in the future bifurcations.
JP: As Americans, we have to ask you about how you view the last four years of President Trump. Where are the developments? Do you see an advent of some new ideology, like a new turn in the neo-proprietarian, or is it just shifting deck chairs? Could this be as big as Thatcher and Reagan?
TP: I’m not sure. From a European perspective, we’ve already seen something a little bit like Trump, when we had Berlusconi in Italy … No, it’s not the same, but it comes relatively close. Except, of course, Italy is not the superpower of the world.
It was quite impressive when Berlusconi came to power. But that was already [almost] 30 years ago. And Italy is interesting. It’s very close to us when we are in France. And at the same time, that level of complete decomposition of the postwar political system is much more advanced. I’m not sure we’ll all go in this direction, but unfortunately that’s not impossible.
Federal institutions in the US, of course, have lots of problems. But the good news for the US is that European federal institutions have even more problems.
In the end, Trump was, of course, an awful and a terrible president. But to me, compared to George W. Bush—who went to war in Iraq and caused half a million [Iraqi deaths] after 2003 and 2004 in the Iraq War—in a way Trump was less damaging. I understand that in the US you view Trump as damaging. But if we take a world perspective? It could have been worse.
If he had used the US military to do things, it could have been worse.
After Vietnam, after Iraq, the question is, When is the next time that America will use its military to do very bad things? And at least Trump was not the answer to this question.
JP: Can I ask the question in a slightly different way, though? One thing Adaner and I agree on in loving about your book is the critique of the Brahmin left parties. One way to read Trump would be as a vindication of your analysis of the hollowing out of the left side of the American political spectrum.
TP: Oh, yes, of course you’re perfectly right. Trump is a little bit like Berlusconi. It’s not good news!
This means he is a testament to the conflict between the intellectual elite and the business elite that I described. This is what makes Trump possible, and what makes it possible for Trump to claim, in a quasi-plausible manner, that he’s against the elite. In spite of the fact that he’s a billionaire, like Berlusconi.
What makes it possible is because there is indeed another elite, which is not the business elite, which is a PhD elite, which is the intellectual elite, which indeed votes massively for the other side. Now, this was not true in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, where all the elite voted for the Republican Party or for the right-wing parties, or for a conservative party in Europe. So, at that time, it would have been completely ridiculous for a billionaire to claim to be against the elite, because his entire political coalition was an elitist political coalition. So it would have made no sense.
What makes Trump possible today is this conflict between the elite and the fact that the Democratic Party in the US has become a party of the elite. And partly because the Democratic Party is not doing a lot to reduce inequality, and in the end is serving the interests of the educated elite, the children of the educated elite, with more attention, or at least as much attention, as it is serving the interests of the poor.
When I read the New York Times, I don’t see a lot of self-questioning about that.
I see people who are very upset against Trump. I can understand this, especially these recent weeks. But if the Democratic Party wants to be able one day to regain the confidence of socially disadvantaged voters from all origins—which was more or less the case in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, whether Black or white, or whatever their ethnic origins—they will have to be a bit less self-confident in the idea that they have done everything right and don’t have to change anything. And it will take a very, very long time.
Featured image: French economist Thomas Piketty at the reading for his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA (2014). Photograph by Sue Gardner / Wikimedia Commons