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How societies justify, sustain, and eventually dismantle inequality

March 3, 2020

How societies justify, sustain, and eventually dismantle inequality

March 3, 2020
in Harvard Gazette

As the gulf between the haves and the have nots continues to widen, the roiling debate over economic inequality has become a political prime mover in the U.S. and across Europe. French economist Thomas Piketty’s 2013 landmark analysis of Western economic inequality, “Capital in the 21st Century,” became a must-read in both popular and academic circles. Now, he’s back with “Capital and Ideology” (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020), a global look at the history of the problem, how institutions and ideologies reinforce it, and how it can be remedied.

Piketty will visit Harvard on Friday to give the Stanley Hoffmann Lecture on France and the World at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES). He will return April 6 for a Weatherhead Initiative on Global History talk and give the annual Tanner Lectures on Human Values on April 15. The English version of “Capital and Ideology,” translated by Arthur Goldhammer, the distinguished book translator and longtime CES affiliate, is due out March 10.

Piketty, a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) and the Paris School of Economics, spoke to the Gazette about his anxiously awaited new book.


GAZETTE: You write that inequality is not the result of economics or technological change, but is rooted in ideology and politics. How so and why is it important to understand its roots — how does that aid in its dismantling?

PIKETTY: What I do in this book is take a very long-run look at the inequality regime in a comparative perspective. I define “inequality regime” as the justification [used] for the structure of inequality and also the institutions — the legal system, the educational system, the fiscal system — that help sustain a certain level of equality or inequality in a given society. I look at the history of this inequality regime over a very long run, across many countries and regions of the world, and what I first observed is a lot of variation over time. You see very fast transformation, sometimes due to revolution, [like] the French Revolution. But also, Sweden used to be a very unequal country until the beginning of the 20th century. And then, following a very large social mobilization by trade unions and the Social Democratic party, Sweden became one of the most equal countries in history. You could say the U.S., after the Great Depression, also turned to a very progressive tax system and reduced its inequality enormously.

And so, in all these historical experiences, what’s very striking is the speed and the magnitude. If you had told people in Sweden in 1910 that the country was going to become a social democratic Sweden 20 years later, nobody would have believed it. The dominant groups always tend to be conservative and always tend to define the existing inequality as being natural, coming from some natural scheme or natural institutions or from rules that cannot be changed. But, in practice, what you see is something very different: The way inequality is organized can change very quickly. Sometimes it takes major shocks, including revolution and war, but it also happens very often in a peaceful manner like Sweden or the U.S.

So this is the story I tell in the book, and it’s important because I think it will be the same in the future. Nobody knows where change will come from — from an election, from social movement, the growing awareness of the climate crisis or other factors of change. But the idea that the current economic system will never change and we’ll just continue with business as usual forever is just not convincing at all, especially in light of the rich political history of inequality regimes that I put forward in this book.

“It’s everybody’s job and responsibility to take part in this conversation about changing the economic system.”

GAZETTE: You seem to have taken to heart some of the limitations of “Capital in the 21st Century.” One that you’ve frequently acknowledged is the last book’s Western-centric focus and what you’ve called its “black box” treatment of the political and ideological changes associated with inequality. How have you tried to rectify those shortcomings here?

PIKETTY: First, I show how the rise of inequality in Western societies was very much rooted in a system of world domination and of colonial domination and colonial appropriation. It’s a theme that was present a little bit, but was not very well developed. So now, I insist on the importance of slave societies and post-slavery colonial societies in the formation of modern inequality. It played a very big role, and in particular, the large wealth portfolio of European society in the 19th century and early 20th century came from colonial wealth and colonial appropriation. It also played a big role in this [private] ownership society in the 20th century. The international dimension and the colonial dimension of the inequality regime of the 19th century and early 20th century is very important in order to better understand the origin of the transformation that finally took place in the 20th century.