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BooksApril 18, 2020

Are you ready for radical change? Really?

Image: Jonathon Knowles/ Getty
Image: Jonathon Knowles/ Getty

For all its petitions and protests, the left is too invested in its own privilege to upend ‘hypercapitalism’, Thomas Piketty argues in his latest book Capital and Ideology – so it’s time to conjure something new. 

It is a very long book. I started it some time in late December when the electoral defeat of the British Labour Party still reverberated around the world and finally finished Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology – his sequel, sort of, to Capital in the 21st Century – in early April, under lockdown, as the coronavirus pandemic collapsed the global economy.

The book speaks to these events with an eerie prescience. Where did UK Labour go wrong? And, more broadly, what happened to the left as a political and intellectual movement and what does it stand for now? Back in 2008, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the global left felt validated, optimistic. They’d been right all along: the economy was rigged; the system was a fraud. Now everyone could see it. It was time for radical, transformational change, time to “move beyond the neoliberal paradigm”, as a thousand Guardian op-eds put it. Time for a fairer, more compassionate society to rise from the ashes of the crisis.

But none of that happened. Instead electoral support for left-wing parties collapsed around the world. There were still some left-wing governments – Barack Obama was the first black president! – but they were mostly centrist; a handful of radical left governments rose during the Euro crisis then fell again. Nothing really changed, and voters increasingly preferred right-wing authoritarian populism. The failed campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in late 2019 and early 2020 seemed to signify the death of the progressive left’s decade of hope. What happened? And, now that the world is rapidly plunging into an even deeper crisis: What is to be Done?

Bernie Sanders, before the fall (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The fox knows many things, the old saying goes, while the hedgehog knows one big thing. Piketty’s big thing is inequality. It is the central problem of economics and the defining feature of every human society. None of us deserve to be born into rich families or poor families, or rich countries or poor countries, yet almost all of our opportunities, our health, our access to education, our success or failure in life derive from an accident of birth.

You may (or may not) recall that Capital in the Twenty-First Century argued that inequality was built into the economic logic of capitalism, operating via ‘laws of capital’ which Piketty uncovered in vast repositories of historical data. The most famous of these was r > g: over the long term the rate of return on capital was greater than economic growth, which meant that in a capitalist economy, those who owned things would gradually grow richer than those who worked.

But Piketty no longer seems to think this is true. Now he argues that inequality is a social phenomenon: a result of the choices a society makes about who owns what, and why. It is driven not by immutable laws or other impersonal historical forces, but by institutions, politics and legal systems, and the value judgments embedded in them, judgements that are always presented as sensible or inevitable (“there is no alternative”) but are always socially constructed.

The first 600 pages of the book – it is over 1000 pages long – consists of Piketty’s description of all human history. He begins with “ternary societies”. These were premodern, mostly feudal orders lacking a strong centralised state. They were divided into three main classes: the nobility, a warrior caste that kept order; the clergy, a priestly/intellectual class that provided education and “spiritual guidance”; and the workers who did all the manual labour. The first two groups were the ruling class. They were not parasitical, Piketty argues: on the contrary, they created enormous value. And that’s where the inequality comes from: the ruling class can establish a monopoly on all the high-status, high-value positions and introduce laws on who can wield political, religious or cultural power. And they can build an ideology justifying their choices as natural and necessary, warning that to deviate from them will destroy society.

He sees the same basic structure in premodern China, India and Japan, repeating itself throughout the modern era. He examines slave economies, colonialism, post-colonialism (Capital in the Twenty-First Century cited Balzac and Jane Austen: this book gives us the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the cultural significance of Black Panther), post-revolutionary France, early industrial capitalism, the communist states of the 20th century. All of these, he argues, were “inequality regimes”: societies in which elites captured key political, legal, educational and cultural institutions, locked in their privilege and then constructed an ideological justification for the system that massively benefited themselves.

For all his disdain for Marxism, Piketty’s ideas here are not a million miles away from some of the mid-20th-century Marxist theorists – the dreaded “cultural Marxists” – although Piketty can explain in a handful of brisk sentences what Adorno or Gramsci struggle to communicate over hundreds of dense pages. He spends a long time looking at revolutionary failure, especially in the Soviet Union and post-revolutionary France. The revolution can overthrow an elite class – the church, the capitalists, the aristocrats, the Tsar – but it never solves the deep problem of elite capture, and it generally makes it much, much worse. Instead of separate systems governed by rival elite factions, which often keep each other in check, the revolution centralises everything under a single elite – “the party” – ruling through a cruel and unaccountable bureaucratic state.

The heroes of Piketty’s Grand History and Theory of Everything are the mid-20th-century social democracies. They had genuine democracy, popular workers’ parties, powerful trade unions, redistribution of wealth and state funding of healthcare and education. Social democracy worked, Piketty argues, but it failed to properly deliver on its convictions and by the late 20th century the project was intellectually exhausted.

But isn’t “social democracy” pretty much what the contemporary left stands for? Weren’t Bernie and Jeremy social democrats? Isn’t that the same ideology that’s losing elections all around the world? It is not, Piketty replies. Left-wing parties have the same names as those mid-20th-century social democratic organisations but the parties themselves are radically different. And that is the main subject of the second half of his book.

Here’s the key graph from that section showing the left-wing political parties of France, Britain and the US transforming from workers’ parties in the mid 20th century, to parties of educated elites during the early 21st century. Remember that in Piketty’s model, education is a huge component of class. The more educated you are, the better access you have to high-value, high-status work, and the more political, economic and cultural power you have to entrench your privilege and that of your descendants.

What we see at the beginning of the graph are the “winners of social democracy” rising up, becoming enfranchised, and voting for the political parties that empowered them. But as the graph continues into the 1980s, we enter the period that Piketty calls hypercapitalism and everyone else calls neoliberalism. Society becomes a lot more unequal, educated elites become a lot wealthier than everyone else, and they separate into two broad factions that Piketty refers to as “the Merchant right” and “the Brahmin left”.

The Merchant right is just “the right”, much as it has been for over a hundred years. The Brahmin left is a new phenomenon consisting primarily of educated, higher-income public sector workers; academia, obviously; most of the media, the rest of the culture industry. In policy terms the Brahmin left wants to raise taxes on their higher-income rivals in the Merchant right, and spend the money on more white-collar public sector jobs, more funding for tertiary education, more money for the cultural sector. Save Concert FM. Meanwhile, the working class – the people who left-wing political parties congratulate themselves for representing – are electorally homeless. Fewer and fewer of them bother to vote. When they do they increasingly vote for the right.

All elites need an ideological justification for their privilege: the Merchant right argues that free market outcomes are moral; that they’ve worked hard for their money. But most of the Brahmin left tells itself that it is not an elite: instead they see themselves as victims of capitalism or other forms of structural oppression, and view their lives – which are utopian in global terms – as deeply traumatising dystopian nightmares. They are bravely fighting against all this oppression, punching up, speaking truth to power, denouncing fascism and capitalism and neoliberalism. But the Brahmin left do not actually want to change things because they are massively privileged by the status quo. So most of their political activism takes the form of online protests or symbolic cultural conflicts. This worldview is not very coherent, so much of the Brahmin left consumes vast amounts of ideological propaganda to reassure themselves of their status as victims and their high moral and intellectual self-worth.

Over the past decade right-wing political parties around the world have been able to win low-income voters – the white working classes, at first, but increasing numbers of ethnic minorities – by shifting to the centre on economic issues while activating nationalist sentiments and framing the modern left as the class enemies of the working poor. And the 2019 UK election was the collision of all these trends. A social-democratic party was captured and championed by upper-class crackpots who deluded themselves into thinking they were radicals and revolutionaries, but who openly despised their less educated, more proletarian class inferiors. The result was the catastrophic loss of both the white working class, and black and Asian voters. The only electorate Corbyn’s Labour Party captured was a wealthy, predominantly white suburb in west London.

Thomas Piketty on the sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 (Photo: LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

In 1937 George Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, a non-fiction, first-person account of the poverty suffered by the working class in the north of England. Orwell was a social democrat, and he wanted to understand why the people who seemed like they’d have the most to benefit from a socialist government were so reluctant to support socialist parties. Part of the problem, he decided, was the culture of the socialist left: the intellectual cranks and fruit-juice-drinking nudists. Most sensible people saw through it all, and wanted to be on the opposite side of whatever the left stood for. What was needed, Orwell argued, was an authentic, unpretentious socialist movement grounded in national identity. And that’s what most of the post-war social democratic parties looked like.

Piketty’s diagnosis points to a similar problem, but his solution is a lot more intellectual. Capital and Ideology advocates for “participatory socialism”. The two key ideas attached to this are “social property” and “temporary property”. There’s no justification for the sacred nature of modern property rights, he argues: it’s just another excuse for inequality, another elite fabrication. Social property means mandatory representation of workers on corporate boards while temporary property means an end to large inheritances and a confiscatory level of taxation on large fortunes, with marginal tax rates of 90% on the very rich. Everyone gets an equal education payment, a basic universal income, a “universal capital grant” of about $200,000 at the age of 25, so they can go buy a house. And, Piketty assures the reader, there are still vast amounts of wealth left to decarbonise the entire economy.

Participatory socialism would have to become a broad-based movement to succeed, but what Piketty is trying to do with this book, I think, is to create a vanguard for that movement; to call into being a radical left that is technocratic, data-driven and intellectually rigorous. His project is emancipatory, focusing on the liberation of the poorest from material poverty. It is not revolutionary because the revolution always fails, and it is not Marxist because the core tenets of that ideology are wrong in ways that have been obvious for over a century. Piketty’s vision of a new radical left is not even especially anti-capitalist, because under his model the economic “mode of production” does not actually matter very much: capital is little more than an accounting term.

I’m a member of the “Brahmin left”, albeit a low-ranking member of the caste. I have an advanced degree and work at a university and review books by Thomas Piketty. And when I consider the final sections of Capital and Ideology I can simultaneously accept what Piketty is saying about the modern left and acknowledge why everyone else hates us, yet feel very defensive of my class and its values. Our current prime minister is a centrist technocratic elite, and look how nice she is, and how well that’s going.

But radical change is here, now, whether anyone wants it or not. Piketty has been in the media since the outbreak of the pandemic and the collapse of global markets. He’s optimistic that the window of what is politically possible can change, and change quickly at times like these; that his movement can rise, that radical social and economic transformation is still possible, that something good can come of all this suffering, and we can build a better world from the ruins of the old. I hope he’s right, and that centrists like me turn out to be wrong.

Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty (Belknap Press, about $66) is usually available from Unity Books. For now, we recommend buying it as an ebook

This essay was amended on 19 April to include a fuller summary of Piketty’s r > g equation. (This is the original version the author submitted which he then edited for length.)

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