In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in The Twenty-First Century became one of the rare hardcore economics books to feature on bestseller lists. Written in the backdrop of the Occupy Movements, the book used piles of data to show how modern capitalism works to advantage private wealth — concentrated in the hands of a minuscule percentage of the global population — vis-à-vis incomes from salaries.
Given its central argument — if you have investments in real estate and stock markets, you are more likely to do well than those with salaried incomes — the allure of Capital wasn’t difficult to understand. But the nearly-700-page tome was often also described as a “bestseller that’s never read”.
Piketty’s latest work, A Brief History of Equality, is a slimmer and a far less dense companion volume to Capital — and to his 2019 work Capital and Ideology. As the author notes, “The volume of documentation might well (have) discouraged the best-intentioned citizen. It was time for summation”.
But there are good reasons to see this less-than-300-page work as an independent text.
Like Piketty’s earlier works, A Brief History of Equality is as much about inequality. His central argument is that there has been a long-term — although by no means linear — movement towards equality in the past 200 years. That, however, seems to be reversing since the 1980s. This “limited form of equality”, Piketty argues, has been beneficial from every point of view, because collective prosperity “has allowed citizens to participate more fully in social and economic life”.
But then why is this victory a “limited” one?
Piketty points out that this is because the magnitude of the dominance of the top 10 per cent vis-à-vis the bottom 50 per cent is far less compared to what it was about 100 years ago. However, the diminishing dominance of the well-healed 10 per cent owes much more to the improved fortunes of the middle 40 per cent.
At the same time, the concentration of property hasn’t ceased to be extreme. This paradox, Piketty explains, is largely due to “historical heritage”.
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The turn to the welfare state in the last century, improved access to healthcare and education, and profound changes in legal systems have been at the core of the march towards equality. These radical transformations were “borne” by intense social and political struggles — though, in a departure from radical theoreticians, Piketty cautions against arriving at a cause-and-effect relationship between the organisation of the welfare state’s emancipatory institutions and popular movements.
Discrimination can be overcome through a “recourse to history, diffusion of knowledge, deliberation and confrontation among different points of view” — prescient at a time when a section of the Occupy Movement has turned to Trumpism, and elements of the Arab Spring have fed into Islamism.
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