Piketty’s Capital And Ideology: some notes

Matthew McKeever
21 min readJan 25, 2020

Every society, Thomas Piketty’s new book begins, has to find a way to justify its inequalities. It’s a good sentence, worth unpacking. Some things we don’t have to justify. We don’t have to justify hurricanes, or coronavirus, or Eluid Kipchoge, and people would have you believe, Piketty tells us, that inequality is a natural phenomenon just like them, a brute fact of nature about which we can’t do anything.

The aim of his book is to show that this is wrong, by looking in detail at how inequality has manifested in different ways in different times, and how other societies have managed to deal with it. As a reader of— or a reader of a reader of — his other book, Capital In The 21st Century — might have guessed, there’s a lot of graphs about tax, income, and so on. But for those — not including myself — who don’t find graphs about tax inherently interesting, there’s a story that goes along with it, about how different societies (American, European, Indian, Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, and more, and in each case across a wide span of time) have either justified or set about removing the very big lumps and dips those graphs that plot the course of inequality give us.

To take but one example, the following graph shows the part of national income owned by the 10% whose income is highest across the twentieth century, and in many ways tells much of the story of that century and of the book:

See voir.piketty.pse.ens.fr/ideologie/pdf/G0.6.pdf

Note the peaks and troughs, how inequality has fallen then risen again. Piketty’s aim is to show us the meaning and history behind this, to show us how societies either justify or remove inequality, to help us see that inequality is a contingent and mutable fact of the world. And seeing that, we see that other closely related concepts are also contingent and mutable: that the concept of property, for example, has been viewed in many different ways in different eras, now worse (in societies with slavery, in which humans could be property) now better (the mid part of the 20th century, in which highly progressive taxation shared wealth around). Realizing this, we can realize that there are other ways of thinking about it today.

And I use ‘thinking’ purposefully. If the first word of the title tells us we’ll get a lot of economic information, the second is such as to make a philosopher like me get excited. The non-naturalness of inequality means that it’s ideological, where roughly an ideology is “a collection of a priori plausible ideas and discourses which aim to describe how society ought to be structured” (p16; all references are to the French edition and translations mine; for a caveat about this, see the end of this introduction).

A few pages later, in a passage that would make his readership among the IDW splutter, he writes:

the market and competition, profit and wages, capital and debt … workers, citizens…tax havens … don’t exist in and of themselves [en tant que tels]. They are social and historical constructs which depend entirely on the legal, fiscal, educational and political system that one chooses to implement and the categories which one gives oneself … the important point is that these relationships of force aren’t entirely material: they are also and especially intellectual and ideological..ideas and ideology count in history (20, my emphasis).

It’s a great book, in a bunch of senses. It’s gigantic and sweeping; it contains so many facts that unless you’re a scholar of inequality you’ll almost definitely learn a lot; and it succeeds in what I take to be its aim, to make one realize that better ways are possible, and those better ways don’t involve wild divergences from what’s come before, but just expanding on and going further with such mainstays of economic policy as taxation and co-management by workers of business that were already present in one way or another in what the French call ‘les trentes glorieuses’, the roughly thirty-year high-point after the second world war in which inequality decreased and productivity increased.

Of course, many will have problems with Piketty’s vision of the future of ‘participatory socialism’: rich people will balk at the very high marginal tax rates not only for revenue, but also for inheritances and property/wealth that he proposes. And those more left will think that he’s patching a system that needs to be torn down, that, as we’ll see, he’s suggesting a managed capitalism when the past forty years have shown that we need to get as far away from any capitalism as possible.

I don’t intend to say anything about these normative questions (for the little it’s worth, I’m pretty on board with what he suggests.) My aim here is instead different, and severalfold. I will first look at some details from the book concerning the first word of the title, namely capital. Concentrating on the US, I’ll run through some familiar and some probably not so familiar facts about the rise and fall of inequality there in the 20th century. I’ll talk a little about his explanation of the rise of nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and across the world. Then I’ll turn to ideology, where I’ll complain a bit that Piketty’s conception isn’t expansive enough, and would be improved by consulting a range of philosophical work, from contemporary analytic philosophy through feminist and critical race theory about the nature and effects of ideology. I’ll finish by presenting Piketty’s vision of a better future.

(A few big caveats. First, I haven’t read the whole book. I’ve read like 700–800 pages of 1,200. But I’m only going to talk about the bits I’ve read (and those bits I’ve read I’ve read several times). This is nevertheless a real shame — one could easily write a book about all the fascinating material in the book, and since part of its value is its sweep, by narrowing my focus I’m almost certainly missing material of value. Second, I’m not a social scientist so this is all the amateur talk. Third, the book isn’t yet available in English (it’s released in March) so I’ve been reading the French published in September, and in addition to not being a social scientist, I am also not a translator of French social science texts. But all translations, which are mine, should hopefully be okay. Where I’m not sure, I’ve added the French in brackets — corrections welcome!)


Let me begin with some intellectual autobiography. I myself was one of those who more or less thought that inequality was a natural phenomenon, not because it benefited me (I have a PhD in philosophy (and no inheritance), with all the earning power that implies), but because it seemed always there. In particular, the message I thought I took from like Piketty’s previous book (I didn’t finish it, I confess), but also Robert Gordon’s Rise and Fall Of American Growth is that the equality of the post- and maybe a bit pre- war period (which I’ll henceforth call, to save typing, the circum-war period) was the result of a series of unpredictable exogenous shocks to the economic system the natural state of which was to be inequal. In a very naive picture: bombs came and blew up all the rich people’s stuff, things were fair for a bit, but the dastardly capitalists somehow managed to regain their wealth and regain the unfair equilabrium.

Turns out — who would have thought? — the story is more complicated than that, and that the comparative equality of the circum-war period is attributable to many factors. But first let me say a bit about that equality.

Look again at the above graph. Collect together the 10% of people who earned the most in the first decade of the 20th century — they amounted for around 50% of national income. Fast forward past a depression and into a war, and from around 1945 to 1980 they ‘only’ amounted to 30%. That’s obviously still a huge number, but it’s a decrease of 40%, which isn’t nothing.

We see something similarish for property. Consider this graph which shows the market value in a given year relative to the national income of that year (so that 100% would mean the value of property was equal to the value of income that year) on the y axis:

Source: http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/ideologie/pdf/G10.8.pdf

As Piketty says: ‘for the first time in the history of modern societies, a significant part of the all assets (several dozens of percent, even nearly a half) was held by social groups who found themselves among the less rich 90%’ (p501, and a footnote suggests that the qualification of ‘modern societies’ is meant to exclude hunter-gatherer societies, which, not having a lot of stuff, didn’t have great inequality in the possession of stuff).

He goes on to tell us that the market value of all private property for a given year was 6–8 times overall national revenue in the 1900s, 2–3 times it in 50–70, then again 5–6 in 2000–2010. When that number is lowers, it means the possibility of one’s ascending to the propertied class is greater — the result of a mere couple of years saving. When it’s bigger, the gulf widens.

I think it’s worth letting this sink in. Depending on how old you are, your parents lived during the most equal period of all time (at least as concerns economics; for many black people, or white women pushed back into the house after working in factories after the war, this equality might have seemed dubiously beneficial. More on this below.) If you’re a millennial, equally interestingly, you lived just after the most equal period of all time (and indeed in an era in which the previously parenthesized racial and gender inequalities were being, if slowly and imperfectly, righted). What our position in history makes of us is an interesting question worth thinking about.

Returning to Piketty, he points out that these facts about distribution of property transform ‘the very nature of property and its social meaning’ (I can’t find again the page number for this but it’s probably between 489–530). And this is also a fascinating thought: that quantitative changes (changes in marginal tax rate, say) in a particular bit of fiscal policy can lead to qualitative changes in concepts, in how we think.

(One of the most interesting philosophical connections that jumped out at me when reading this book was between what it had to say and the position in contemporary philosophy called conceptual engineering, which is concerned with assessing and perhaps changing our concepts if we think they are defective. Piketty’s book can be viewed as the best history to date of the history of the concept of property, something that might have many lessons for conceptual engineers.)

All this poses two questions. Why did inequality decrease so much in this period. And second, why did inequality start rising again the 1980s? If we know the answer to the first question, we can answer the second, maybe.

I’m not sure there’s a coherent single answer to either of these questions (which seems like a good thing! Reality is complicated). Bombing plays a part in it, as did nationalizations and forced expropriations. People lent money to the government to finance the war ‘maybe [because of] patriotism’] (p514) maybe because so many poorer people lost their lives that it seemed morally intolerable not to help out (p542). And those debts didn’t get repaid: inflation and money printing melted them away. The war cost a lot for the rich.

So, wait, was I right in my super naive story? Not really. If indeed high taxes were an important tool which the war-time governments used, in order to be used a tool needs to be invented. And merely high taxes wouldn’t probably have sufficed to increase the lot of the poorest: that required the development of the various expansive social welfare programs like the New Deal, Johnson’s big society, and the NHS in the UK and its analogues in other European countries. In addition to stuff being taken from the rich, it needed to be also given to the poor, and not used to make guns.

One of the most interesting parts of the book was the prehistory of taxation — how it arose before the war demanded it. The facts are that in 1913, for the first time, a federal income tax was levied, and in 1916, an inheritance tax. Piketty tells us (p532–3) that around the turn of the 20th century the people’s party in the US had a platform foregrounding equality and sharing the wealth, and though they didn’t get into power, their presence on the political scene, he thinks, was indirectly responsible for the mood of the country being open to such taxes that eventually got enshrined in the 16th amendment of 1909 (again, way before the depression and world war two).

I don’t want to overemphasise this, because I only know about it from this book, but if we have here, in the depth of a guilded and peaceful age, a call for inequality, redistributive mechanisms lobbied for and introduced, maybe that can happen again.

It was equally surprising to me to learn that the US was in this time ‘one of the main poles of the international campaign which was developing for income tax’, that, for example, Irving Fisher, the president of the American Economic Association spoke in his keynote address of 1919 of the importance of reducing inequality and the badness of the fact that the many had nothing and the few had almost anything.

He ends this section with a very good thing to reminder::

when Roosevelt was elected in 1932, the intellectual groundwork had already long been laid for the US to introduce progressive fiscal policies (p534)

It’s not just disasters that make things right: this was one of the biggest hope-inspiring points of the book for me.

Added 23 June 2020: From summer 2020 I’m going to move my occasional writing from medium to tinyletter. If you want to read more from me in your inbox, please consider signing up: https://tinyletter.com/mittmattmutt. I’ll post relatively infrequently, and hopefully interestingly, on the same sort of themes as the blog, so: popular philosophy/explainers, culture, literature, politics/economics, etc. I might also do things like brief reviews of books I read and so on.

Let’s turn to our second question: why did inequality start rising again? First, some figures: the part of income going to the bottom 50% was around 21% in 1960–70 moving to around 12% in 2010–15, while that of the most rich 1% went from 11% to 20%. In 2015, the average revenue of the top 1% was eighty times more than that of the bottom 50%: 1,3 million dollars vs 15,000 (p611).

This might be at least vaguely possibly justifiable if it were accompanied by a rise in productivity, but this isn’t so: productivity, as people often say, seems to have fallen off just in this period when inequality rose again. It can seem as if the key to productivity is equality, and I took from this book the very weird impression that the state, rather than being a sort of fur-ball in the throat of the economy, messing things up and distorting it, was instead something like a mechanism that funnels capital to its most productive uses (namely, the creation and maintenance of a healthy and educated people, as opposed to one other completely useless unproductive billion in Bezos’s bank account).

But return to our question: why the renewal of inequality? Partly, Piketty thinks, it’s that we didn’t go far enough with the redistributive measures we introduced — go far enough rethinking what our concept of property ought to be if we are to create a just society. I will defer discussion of that until I get to his recommendations for a just society, which covers a lot of the same material, but I want just to point out one factor that seems important.

The fall of the Soviet Union, he repeatedly points out, surely needs to figure in our story. The standard narrative has it that it showed not only that free market capitalism was (by elimination) our best bet, but also that more socialist forms of economic organization were bad. But Piketty is adamant — and it seems right — that this is wrong. The failure of the Soviet Union showed that centralization, nationalization, state property — that those had a chance and didn’t seem to work, and so people returned to laissez-faire, thinking it was the only unrefuted ideology.

But this centralization is only one of many forms of organization deserving of the name ‘socialist’, and he thinks that socialism can live in the 21st century, it just needs to work in different ways. He’s a big fan, for example, of what in French is called ‘cogestion’ and google translates as ‘co-management’, namely having workers on the board of directors and other decision making entities. There’s been a certain failure of imagination among would-be progressivists of all stripes who continue to put many of their eggs in the nationalizing basket, not realizing other baskets are available, or who, having turned away from that basket, think that the only basket remaining is the neoliberal basket. I probably used the word ‘basket’ too much there; sorry about that, reader.


The rise of inequality has been capped off, it seems, by a turn towards nationalism\nativism\xenophobia\anti-immigration-sentiment\racism all across the world. I want to talk a bit about what Piketty has to say about this because, as always, he brings to bear some interesting facts, but also because his explanation seems a bit unsatisfying, and perhaps points to inadequacies in his theory of ideology, which I will focus on in the next section.

So far I haven’t talked about something very important: education. Education is increasingly vital in a knowledge-based economy, and so its distribution becomes very important. Indeed, he thinks that it plays a ‘central role’ in any story we should tell about rising inequality (p623).

Some data: to my surprise, I learn that the US for most of the last two centuries has been the world-leader in education. As concerns primary education, in 1820s US roughly 50% had access; in 1840, 70%, in 1850, 80%. And as for secondary education: the figures were at 30% in 1920s, 50% in 1930s, and almost 80% at the end of the 1950s. These rates were much higher than the level of education in Europe at these times (p604ff).

This is important because the second industrial revolution demanded an educated workforce who could understand how machines worked by, for example, reading their manuals. And Piketty thinks that it’s the US’s educational pre-eminence that explains its economic power:

if the US was more productive and was developing quicker than Europe in the 1800s and the start of the 20th c, it’s not because property rights were better protected there or because the tax system was weaker…[it’s because] the US had more than a half-century advance on Europe in terms of schooling. (p636)

So: education is economically important. But it’s also politically important, and here things turn less rosy. At the heart of Piketty’s thesis regarding nativism is that with the increase in tertiary education, the traditional left-right political divide got fuzzied, and in particular US democratic and UK labour parties, formerly parties for workers, became by and for people with college degrees (this is found in chapter 15 and surrounding chapters). The left looked out for the winners of the educational system, the right for the winners of economic system, and as those winners became ever closer thanks to the role of education in economic development, the others found themselves shut out, unrepresented by the third-way Democrats or New Labour. Some quotations:

the democratic party became the party of the most educated, in the heart of a highly unequal and stratified education system, to which the many have basically no chance of getting int. In such a situation, and in the absence of structural reform of the system, it’s not abnormal that the poorest people feel abandoned by the democrats. (p962)


the feeling of abandonment of the many faced with social-democratic parties constituted a fertile terrain for anti-immigrant and nativist ideologies. For to the extent that the lack of a redisributive ambition at the original of this feeling of abandonment is not corrected, it’s hard to see what would prevent this terrain from being exploited all the more (p1002)

Now, he doesn’t completely rule out the possibility that xenophobia (or at least homophilia, or whatever the opposite is — love for people like oneself) and racism play a role here, but it seems to me that he downgrades that as part of his explanation, and views the worldwide nativist developments as resulting from this ‘abandonment’, itself a consequence of the shift in tertiary education. And he thinks the way to overcome the resort to nativism and separatism is by building better inter-state institutions; like the EU, but better. I was less convinced by this, and to make this point, I want to turn, before considering his positive vision for the future, to the other keyword in his title, Ideology.


So what is an ideology? I found what Piketty had to say somewhat lacking. Here’s a quotation from the start of the book, possibly mistranslated (I don’t really know exactly how to translate ‘frontière’ in this context in a way that makes sense):

Simplifying, one can say that each inegalitarian regime, each ideology of inequality, rests on a theory of the border [frontière] and a theory of property…..Part of it requires responding to the question of the border. We need to say who belongs in the human and politician community…and who doesn’t…on what territory and according to what rules the community is governed…it’s a question, to a large extent, of politics….The other part requires responding to the question of property: can one possess other individuals, land,…, knowledge,…,natural resources, etc? (p17–18)

This isn’t just idle speculation, as Piketty realizes. As quoted above, ‘ideas and ideologies matter in history’. But I don’t think he casts his net wide enough. For example, for a book about ideology, there is very little mention of, say, the right wing press, or its legal underpinnings in the 1987 removal of the fairness doctrine. There is little mention of the fact that it might be that many people just, as a matter of personality type, are less open to others, more distrusting of foreigners and that that psychological fact led to Trump and Brexit; and there is not enough talk about the fact that it could be that many many people are just racist. There’s also not much about how the former — the press — prey on the latter to lead them to — at least so it seems hard to deny — vote against their interests. These are questions of ideology I would like to see answered in a book like this.

And — and I think this is important — there are answers out there. People have been thinking about these questions, about propaganda and racism, about how people can be moved to respond irrationally by language and other media. In fact, and surprisingly, it’s somewhat of a hot topic in contemporary analytic philosophy, which is increasingly inspired by feminist and race theory from a couple of decades ago.

Let me give just a couple of quick examples. People like philosopher-of-language-cum-political philosopher Jason Stanley, along with (and taking inspiration from) feminist philosophers of pornography like Rae Langton and many others, as well as black feminist thinkers like Angela Davis (and, again, many others), have proposed theories of ideology and propaganda, of how worldviews distort how we see reality, and how we use concepts and words and thoughts to do things.

For example, an influential analysis of pornography has it that pornography harms by presupposing a certain harmful ideology of sex. The story goes something like this (for an original text, this might be just about accessible to the non-specialist). A contemporary porn film might start with a guy hitting on a girl, and the girl reacting with disgust. But it’s almost always a curious disgust, a disgust that turns on the head of a pin into desire. This sort of scene, staged again and again, the philosophers think, convey without really outright saying that if someone reacts to your sexual advances with disgust, really they’re just playing hard to get. In order for the viewer to make sense of what is happening — that this is a consensual sex scene, and not a taping of serious sexual harassment — the viewer needs to assume that no means yes. Assume that times as many times as you watch porn, and you can quickly come to believe that no means yes, despite the pornographers being able honestly to say that they never explicitly expressed that message.

The details are less important than the big picture: we use media to get people to believe things without convincing them, by for example just assuming them and forcing our audience to assume them too. This, it seems to me, is something like a fact about ideology — about how ideology does things — that anybody talking about political ideology ought to have in view (this is not a remotely original point to me; it’s already been famously made in the context of politics by people like George Lakoff,as well as by Stanley).

I think not having it in view can lead to less accurate analyses. Piketty seems to downplay the role of racism in the rise of nativism (without, again let me stress, completely dismissing it). A feminist theorist like Patricia Hill Collins would say that that’s because he himself is under the influence of a particular ideology, the ideology of (roughly) mainstream well-off economists. But there are other ideologies (she might call them ‘epistemologies’) — there are the ideologies of black women, and it’s not unreasonable to think that they might have a perspective on the popularity of a straight up racist president that goes beyond demographic trends in 20th century higher education and politics.

In short, it seems to me that this book would be improved by engaging with the extant contemporary literature on ideology, both to flesh out the concept, and to correct for blindspots in Piketty’s own view of the world.

I don’t want to make too much of this criticism: I don’t think it vitiates the book. If Piketty — and all of us — should read Davis and Hill Collins, they— and all of us — should read Piketty.

Participatory Socialism

Let me end by considering Piketty’s positive suggestion for a ‘participatory socialism in the 21st century’. He has two main ideas, two ways of rethinking the central concept of property or capital for the 21st century: social property, and temporary property.

The idea of social property is that we have employees or their representatives on the board of directors of companies or other decision-making bodies in businesses. He notes that certain north European countries already have a venerable tradition of this, and that we should just do it more. This is something, I take it, that many people would broadly agree with, and that wouldn’t be out of place in many socialist manifestos.

The idea of temporary property is more interesting. This is a well-run and substantial wealth tax (the French is ‘impot sur la propriété’, but that’s unfortunate because there’s already something called ‘property tax’ in the US and it’s not what he has in mind). He points out fairly enough that massive inequalities in property don’t seem to have much social benefit, and proposes we can do without them by making people give some percent of their wealth away each year via taxation.

He has a pretty cool and appealing idea for what to do with the money: a universal endowment. Running some rough numbers, he points out that with the right levels of taxation, we could fund an endowment for every adult reaching 25 of 120,000 euro, a form of “inheritance for everyone”, with which each year person could get the chance to buy property or start a business (p1131)

While this might seem radical, he thinks it shouldn’t. I said that social property has a decent history and already in the inter-war period we got used to very high marginal tax rates on revenue. That we don’t tax wealth in the same way is surely just a relic of an earlier age, something it is logical to change.

He also suggests, interestingly, that we try to equalize the access to education. For example, if you stop your schooling at 16, you should still be allowed to pursue free tertiary education later in life, at 55 (he even glancingly suggests that people could take some of their schooling in money! (p1164)). The important idea is that educational inequality should be at the heart of our fight against inequality simpliciter.

All this sounds good. But will it happen?

The cover of an issue of Time in 1969. Cover credit: Milton Glaser, http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19691219,00.html

Conclusion, ideology redux

To end, let’s go back forty years. It’s the start of the 1980s and inflation has been kicking everyone’s ass: it has been in the double digits for the last couple of years; the government is telling you to economize by eating entrails. The rockstar economist of the time, the one whose face you recognize, Milton Friedman, tells you that the pain can end if only the government keeps its nose out of the economy. And there’s reason to trust him: he seemed to have predicted the ‘stagflation’ you’re suffering from ten years before it happened.You trust him; entrat Reagan.

Fast-forwarding forty years, the rockstar economist is Piketty, the economic problem is inequality (most millennials, I take it, barely have a sense of the fear inflation could strike in the heart of their parents). The question is: how are we to make it so that the next president listens to our rockstar economist? (Reagan didn’t listen to Friedman, but let’s not let accuracy ruin our nice story.)

This is a particularly pertinent question in light of the recent and crushing defeat of Corbyn in the December 2019 UK general election. How can we get people caring en masse about inequality, get them seeing that the politicians they vote for don’t have the answers?

Well, I don’t know, obviously. But what this book very clearly shows is that another world is possible, because other worlds, worlds where people cared about equality, were actual, even very recently, and even in the jaws of global economic boom (federal income tax was imposed in 1913, recall). That, among with a headful of facts and graphs, is what I take from this great book which everybody should read.