Brief Thoughts on Thomas Piketty’s _A Brief History of Equality_ (2022)

The economist/social philosopher Thomas Piketty has recently offered an optimistic reading of world history in which, despite setbacks, there is marked progress toward more economic opportunities and greater social equality and legal rights.  His progress narrative emphasizes the synergies between economic growth and the growth in social equality, and the last chapter of A Brief History of Equality is entitled, “Toward a Democratic, Ecological, and Multicultural Socialism.”  

However, by tying all those ideals so strongly together, Piketty’s assumptions simultaneously provide support for an antithetical story from the one he tells. What happens when economies are radically destabilized, or even collapse, due to the changes unleashed by the Anthropocene?  (Note that I just wrote when, not if).  Two deadly eco stressors (economics and ecology) have already been destabilizing many nations and regions, fueling a turn toward greater authoritarianism, not better democracy.

Piketty doesn’t downplay humankind’s history of backlash and violence, often (though not always) triggered by economic crises, but he treats these as exceptions or pauses in his progress narrative.  That said, I praise Piketty’s emphasis that democracy must always be fought for and defended; he makes progressive, activist communities pushing for justice and opportunity central to the story.  Also his chapters on “Exiting Neocolonialism” and “Toward a Democratic, Ecological, and Multicultural Socialism.”  Piketty doesn’t see liberal elites driving history, but the populist vision of entrepreneurs, the working class, and some intellectuals (all of whom, in the right circumstances, want broader, more diverse markets and worlds within which to live).  Piketty does have trouble accounting for what makes populism in different circumstances progressively inclusive, versus xenophobic or fascist.

Thomas Piketty. A Brief History of Equality. Transl. Steven Rendall.  Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2022.  

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