Published by EH.Net (April 2023).
Thomas Piketty. A Brief History of Equality. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2022. x + 288 pp. $27.95 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0674273559.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Michele Alacevich, Alma Mater Studiorum—University of Bologna.
Thomas Piketty’s A Brief History of Equality is at once a response to the repeated request by readers and colleagues to recapitulate, in condensed form, the main lessons of his previous books and a contribution to current debates on inequality “based on a strong conviction forged in the course of [his] research: the advance toward equality is a battle that began long ago and needs only to be continued in the twenty-first century” (p. viii).
The book aims at demonstrating that starting in the end of the eighteenth century, Western European societies (and later, their heirs) have experienced a huge increase in equality, peaking in the central decades of the twentieth century. This was made possible by the increasing expansion of several institutional arrangements, such as access to voting rights, parliamentary democracy, and freedom of the press, and a social compact based on highly progressive fiscal systems and the universalization of obligatory education, health insurance, and labor legislation—in a nutshell, the welfare state. The central point, here, is that inequality, even in its economic dimension, was curbed as the result of an eminently political process. Based on these premises, the goal of the book is to increase awareness about the merits of that social compact, and to mobilize individuals and social groups to fight for policies that increase equality, especially the tools that proved so effective only a few decades ago, namely progressive taxation and the welfare state.
This combination of informative and advocatory goals makes for a clear and well-written book. The results, however, are uneven, and while the analytical part is solid and interesting, the advocacy part remains superficial, simplistic, and ultimately unconvincing—even if one agrees with the importance of high fiscal progressivity and the welfare state.
Piketty’s historical sensitivity, already convincingly displayed in his previous works, is refreshing. The brief but dense references to many diverse strands of historical research intersecting the history of capitalism, slavery, empires, property systems, and income, wealth, and social inequalities, stimulate curiosity and show that only a historically informed discussion can meaningfully address the question of social change of contemporary societies.
As an aside, the choice of references is limited and clearly partial. Since Piketty relies on the influential work of Kenneth Pomeranz on the “great divergence” between Europe and China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it would have been interesting to read his take of the equally persuasive work of Joel Mokyr on the same question (see Pomeranz 2000; Mokyr 2016). Also, as the tendency toward equality, starting at the end of the eighteenth century, overlaps perfectly with the onset and eventual spread of the industrial revolution, Deirdre McCloskey’s claim that “the absolute condition of the poor has been raised overwhelmingly more by the Great Enrichment than by […] redistribution”—the Great Enrichment being McCloskey’s term for the Industrial Revolution and its consequences—comes immediately to mind as a relevant perspective (McCloskey 2016, p. 47). But these are merely the curiosities of a sympathetic reader and should not be taken as criticisms.
Two particularly interesting chapters discuss how huge contemporary inequalities are deeply rooted, both internationally and domestically, in the intertwined phenomena of slavery and colonialism and their long-term consequences. By adopting this perspective, Piketty joins other scholars who have remarked how discussions of international inequality and convergence (or divergence) trends are gravely incomplete if they do not factor in the crucial phenomena of imperialism, colonialism, and slavery. Twenty years ago, for example, Branko Milanovic noted how in an influential article on nineteenth century globalization by two distinguished colleagues, “never once were the words ‘colonialism’, ‘colony’, ‘slavery’, or ‘colonization’ mentioned” (Milanovic 2003, p. 669). As he concluded, “From this ‘clean-shaven’ world of voluntary exchanges, the unpleasant facts of slavery and conquest are simply banished.”
Piketty shows instead that imperialism, colonialism, and slavery are fundamental to understanding the dynamics of international and domestic inequality, and the stumbling blocks on the road to increased equality. In a chapter on “The Question of Reparations”, for example, he discusses how considerations of fairness were systematically applied for slaveholders, who were compensated for the loss of their property at the time of abolition, but not for the slaves. Indeed, emancipated slaves often found themselves embroiled in systems of quasi-forced labor under the control of former slaveholders. And when in 1825 France finally accepted the independence of Haiti, the latter was forced to repay an indemnity of 150 million gold francs—or 300 percent of the Haitian national income in 1825—to former slaveholders. The debt was officially extinguished only in the early 1950s. As Piketty shows, a long-term history of colonial and racial domination has had deep and lasting consequences on the current conditions of Haiti and its inhabitants: “the island’s development was overdetermined by the question of the indemnity” (p. 73). For global equality to improve—and for the concept of fairness to be anything but meaningless—the question of reparations must be seriously addressed.
I will not summarize here Piketty’s discussion of the centuries-long improvements in social and economic equality, the major subject of chapters 1, 2 and 6, but readers will find discussions of the evolution of concentration of property, the concomitant transformations of property rights, the great redistribution that took place in the twentieth century, and the relative merits of synthetic versus positional indexes both clear and informative.
What is less convincing, as mentioned, is that part of the book devoted to discussing the policy proposals to reignite the progress of equality. As much as the tone is motivational—“The battle for equality is not over” (p. 203), “The battle for equality will continue in the twenty-first century” (p. 226)—the discussion remains general and repetitive. The major point, for Piketty, is that the recipes that worked in the twentieth century and more specifically in the three and a half decades after the end of World War II should be reignited by popular mobilization: “the welfare state and progressive taxation are powerful tools allowing us to transform capitalism. The movement toward equality can be resumed only if these institutions become the object of a vast movement and a collective appropriation” (p. 150). And a few pages later: “To continue the march toward equality, the most natural path seems to be already blazed: we have to deepen and generalize the institutions that made the movement toward equality, human progress, and prosperity possible over the course of the twentieth century, starting with the welfare state and progressive taxation” (p. 155).
At the same time, the national welfare state of the 1950s-1980s was limited to the countries of the global North, and it is increasingly impossible to replicate it elsewhere after thirty years of financial and commercial globalization. As Piketty writes, the hyperglobalization that was unleashed in the 1980s “has helped permanently weaken the fragile process of constructing a legitimate government and state power in the global South” (p. 208). The solution, as well as the “true alternative” to the authoritarian Chinese state capitalism, is for Piketty “democratic socialism, participatory and federalist, ecological and multicultural. It is the logical end of a long-term movement toward equality that has been underway since the end of the eighteenth century” (p. 226).
Even for those like me who, in principle, agree with progressive taxation and the need to strengthen the welfare state, the discussion appears unconvincing for at least three reasons. First, Piketty has nothing to say about how to establish and put into practice a new international system of cooperative development that would align the interests of different groups of countries and overcome the contradiction between the national dimension of the welfare state and the international dynamics of global capitalism. He writes that this model of cooperative development should be “based on universal values and on objective, verifiable social and environmental indicators”, and that “[w]e must also describe precisely the transnational assemblies that would ideally be entrusted with global public goods and common policies of fiscal and environmental justice” (p. 244). But this system is nothing else than a deus ex machina that, by virtue of the powers that Piketty has assigned to it, will force to cooperate countries that in fact have often deeply opposed interests.
Second, values and interests are often far from being universal even within single countries. The democratic, ecological, and multicultural socialism that Piketty claims is the solution to socially divisive policies, is actually characteristic of a distinct and, I am afraid, minority group of individuals even in liberal democracies. In Paris in 1930, the Italian antifascist Carlo Rosselli published a small essay entitled Liberal Socialism ( 1994), in which he argued in favor of the convergence of the socialist and liberal approaches and an extension of democracy and equality in all spheres of society, with a strong emphasis on participatory and federalist mechanisms and the state’s direct and active intervention to secure social rights. Piketty’s idea of democratic socialism seems very similar to Rosselli’s proposal. However, and this is my third reason for criticism of this part of the book, Piketty does not explain, if not in very superficial terms, what he intends.
The volume would have benefited from a more in-depth discussion of the policy proposals advanced in it, as well as of the political philosophy that underlies it. Since this is (also) a battle of ideas, the philosophical framework would merit more extensive discussion. At the same time, precisely because this is also a battle of ideas, Piketty has a point when he states that “it is vital to construct such a [new] narrative and to show in what way the welfare state and progressive taxation do in fact constitute a systemic transformation of capitalism” (p. 155). Despite the limits just mentioned, Piketty’s book is a contribution to this new narrative.
McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2016. Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Milanovic, Branko. 2003. “The Two Faces of Globalization: Against Globalization as We Know It.” World Development, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 667–683.
Mokyr, Joel. 2016. A Culture of Growth. The Origins of the Modern Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Piketty, Thomas.  2018. Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century: Inequality and Redistribution, 1901–1998. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Piketty, Thomas.  2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Piketty, Thomas.  2020. Capital and Ideology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2000. The Great Divergence. China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rosselli, Carlo.  1994. Liberal Socialism. Edited by Nadia Urbinati. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Michele Alacevich is Professor of the History of Economic Thought and Economic History in the Department of Political and Social Science at the University of Bologna. His publications include A Short History of Inequality (Brookings Institution Press, 2018, with Anna Soci), “Planning Peace. The European Roots of the Postwar Global Development Challenge” (Past & Present, 2018), and Albert O. Hirschman. An Intellectual Biography (Columbia University Press, 2021).
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