Beyond Left and Right: Finding Consensus on Economic Inequality
In this report, we contend that theology can open up new avenues of consensus between political and social positions on issues of inequality. (2021)
In this long–read Nick Spencer reflects on Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital and Ideology’. 03/08/2020
He’s back. And this time it’s personal.
Well, that’s not quite true. It was personal last time. Thomas Piketty’s original, groundbreaking, block-busting, macroeconomic tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, first published in 2013, was transparently motivated by a deep concern about growing levels of inequality. Piketty had, after all, been economic adviser to French Socialist Presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, in 2006. In spite of his heroic commitment to data, data, and more data, (in)equality is, it seems, an intimate concern for Piketty.
This time, however, in his 1,000-page follow up, Capital and Ideology, the political is more obviously personal. Concern has matured to worry, even fear. Piketty began his academic career looking at income, wealth and taxation in France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the start of this period, he explains, the concentration of income and property was extremely high, with the richest 10 per cent of the population earning half the total national wage and owning 80 per cent of its wealth. (pp.127-131) What he and his colleagues had not expected to discover as they studied the accounts was that this concentration would get greater over the next hundred years. (139) By the end of the nineteenth century, half of the people who died in France had no property at all to pass on to relatives. By the early years of the twentieth century, inequality was at unprecedented levels, far higher than those of the ancien régime that the Revolution pushed aside. There is, in other words, no natural end point to growing inequality, unless you count the conflagration of world war.
Such warnings from the past litter the book. The Russian Revolution occurred in the shadow of “extreme forms… [of] sacralisation of private property and the rights of property owners.” (583) Refusal to contemplate “new egalitarian postnational solutions” gave rise to totalitarianism in the 1920s and ‘30s. Haiti’s nightmare impoverishment is partly down to the legacy of slavery and partly down to France’s determination that its former slave colony paid its ‘debt’ in full (which it did, finally, by 1950). Wherever you look, extreme inequality drained, destabilised and broke regimes.
Capital and Ideology is not, however, primarily a history book. Piketty’s is a tale with moral. Seen in its historical context, today’s high and growing levels of inequality are a serious worry. It’s ‘Apocalypse Soon’, he fears. The socio-economic position of America’s lower classes has collapsed over recent decades (“I want to stress that my use of the word ‘collapse’ is no exaggeration.” (523)) “The extent of the damage due to global warming is such that this could lead to violent political tensions.” (667) “Without a credible new universalistic and egalitarian narrative,” he writes at the outset, “it is all too likely that the challenges of rising inequality, immigration, and climate change will precipitate a retreat into identitarian nationalist politics based on fears of a ‘great replacement’ of one population by another.” (2) (Arguably it already is.) Capital and Ideology is a very long and very well-evidenced warning cry.
It is also a cry of frustration, with the author on occasion sounding like a jilted lover. His first betrayal was in the hopes of the Enlightenment, embodied in the French Revolution. This swept the corrupt, hypocritical, unequal ancien régime into the historical gutter, with promises of liberté, égalité and fraternité – and then produced a society that grew even more unequal over the next century. This was “not at all”, he writes, “what a certain Enlightenment optimism had led people to expect.” (139)
The second betrayal was the pitiful failure of social democracy to build on its post-war successes. From the early 1980s, he records with much evidence in Chapter 14, left wing parties abandoned the working classes that had previously filled their ranks, and became the home for the educated rich, or what Piketty calls the Brahmin Left: elite, educated, cultured, wealthy, and fiscally self-serving. Although self-consciously distinct from their main political opponents on the right, what Piketty calls the “merchant right”, the two groups have more in common, to coin a phrase, when it comes to economic policy than they care to admit. The result is a kind of electorally alternating coalition of elites that leaves millions of voters, Piketty among them you sense, politically homeless.
Third, and one senses most bitterly for Piketty, is the ‘failure’ of the European project. “I voted ‘yes’ [to the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty] in 1992 and [to the Treaty for a European Constitution] in 2005”, he says in a footnote, “in the hope that a more social and fiscal Europe would finally come.” “Such dangerous expectation,” he laments, “seems to me increasingly dangerous and difficult to support.” (802) The European project, he argues, “benefits the most powerful actors and the most advantaged social groups.” (800) It has united the Brahmin left and the merchant right, the “educational and business elites”, because both have done so well out of it, and left behind the lower and middle classes, whose opposition is now often tarred with the accusation of racism. In reality, he says several times, “the disadvantaged are not more spontaneously racist than the elites”. It is simply a side effect of their consistent socio-economic neglect. (860)
All in all, then, for all its size, studied tone, multiple footnotes, and graph-studded pages, Capital and Ideology is an urgent, even desperate, and personal call for change. The last ‘Gilded Age’ ended up in disaster. If we’re not careful, this one may too.
Capital and Ideology adopts a wider angle lens than its predecessor. Whereas Capital focused primarily on France, UK, US, and a few other European countries, its sequel covers these but also includes India, China, Sweden, Russia, Haiti, Iran, Japan, Brazil and Eastern Europe, at least in so far as data sources permit. It also takes a longer historical perspective, chapter 1 exploring the structural inequality of what Piketty calls “ternary” or “trifunctional” societies, i.e. those based on the three ‘classes’ of nobility, clergy and workers.
The purpose of this range is not only because he can – after the success of Capital, I suspect Harvard would have published Piketty’s shopping lists – but because he wants to amass as much evidence as possible to make his central point. This, in essence, is that economic inequality such as we see today is not natural but, ultimately, political. Without quite going to the extreme of arguing that a classless, perfectly equal society is possible, Piketty is clear that – as he says in the book’s opening line – “every human society must justify its inequality.” If said society is not happy with its current level of inequality, or cannot justify it satisfactorily, it can, has to and should do something about it. “Inequality is determined primarily by ideological and political factors, not by economic or technological ones.” (268) There is an alternative. Things can be different.
Hence the history. Late 19th century Sweden was hugely unequal, aided and abetted by a remarkable political system in which the number of votes available to each voter depended on his tax payments, property and income. (188) Thus, in municipal elections of 1871, there were 54 rural towns in which one voter cast more than 50 per cent of the votes. And this was in Sweden, darling of 20th century social democracies. (Frustratingly, Piketty is opaque on what turned inegalitarian Sweden into a social democratic utopia in the first quarter of the 20th century, other than to say it wasn’t the Great War. I’d be curious to hear from any Swedish historians who could tell me where the Folkhemmet really came from).
In Japan, investment in public infrastructure and education during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and then, after World War 2, an ambitious programme of agrarian reform and highly progressive taxation on top incomes and estates, massively reduced longstanding economic and social inequalities (387). Levels of economic inequality fell precipitously in Europe and the US between 1914 and 1945, and then stayed comparatively low for the next thirty years. Post-Independence India deliberately (if imperfectly) tackled caste identities, which had hardened under British administration, through a system of quotas that would increase the presence of women and lower castes in politics. (359-60)
Time and again, inequality was tackled by changes within, or sometimes of, regime. Some revolutions were clearly ‘roads not taken’, in Piketty’s terms. China’s transformation over the course of the 20th century from a trifunctional regime to a “proprietarian”, then a communist one did less than nothing to address its multiple inequalities. But even these “missed opportunities” have something to teach us, namely that things change. (399) Cultural, civilizational or economic determinism is a lie. “Many trajectories are possible”. (362)
When countries did adopt trajectories of equality, they did so to different extents and at different times. Progressive income taxes arrived in Denmark in 1870, Japan in 1887, Prussia in 1891, Sweden in 1903, the UK in 1909, the US in 1913, and France in 1914. Progressive wealth taxes came to Prussia in 1893, Saxony in 1901, Sweden in 1911, and Austria, Switzerland, Norway and Denmark in the next ten years.
When they arrived, they did so for different reasons. The threat of Irish independence from the 1880s compelled Westminster governments to accept agrarian reforms and land redistributions they had previously dismissed. (183) The growing Labour movement and the swell of popular, now-enfranchised working class opinion enabled Lloyd George’s Liberal Government to take on the entrenched might of the House of Lords in his pursuit of his 1909 ‘People’s Budget’ of progressive income taxation, increased death duties and increased land tax. (179) Fear of another Bolshevik revolution scared European elites towards progressive taxation and redistribution after the Great War. (467) Growing conviction that extreme inequality was antipathetic to the quintessential American belief that everyone should have a fair chance to build their own destiny helped legitimise punitively high levels of progressive taxation in the US. The Depression then helped cement these by legitimising Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from 1933.
There were, then, various moves towards economic equality in a range of countries, from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, for a variety of reasons. Time and again, however, the biggest and most significant shift towards equality was on account of war.
Piketty is keen to deny this or at least to downplay it. But it was self-evidently true in Capital (see my essay on Capital, “The absence of war”, in this volume) and it is no less clear here. His graphs on European and American (in)equality show extreme and largely stable inequalities of income and wealth right up until the Great War. At this point, inequality starts to fall. It recovers a bit in the 1920s before falling again in the 30s and then plummeting in the 40s.
Time and time and again, Piketty acknowledges the connection between (progressive) taxation, in/equality and war. It was international tensions of 1913-14, and the ensuing financial burden created by the “imperatives of national defence” that finally broke the French Senate’s resistance to progressive taxation. (149) When a progressive tax was finally adopted, in July 1914, “it was not to finance schools or public services but to pay for war with Germany.” (151) It was the same in the UK where the fall in inequality was “mostly [due] to the fact that… British investors were obliged to sell growing fractions of their foreign holdings and lend to their own governments to finance the wars.” (279) “The collapse of the share of the wealthiest [in the first half of the 20th century] is all the more striking because there was no sign that such an evolution was possible before the outbreak of World War I.” (424) Wherever the sources are available, he writes in a footnote, “we find that no clear tendency toward reduction of inequality is visible before the [Great] war: this is true of Germany, Denmark, Holland, the United States, and Japan.” (194)
Such evidence notwithstanding, this is a conclusion Piketty resists because it rather weakens his central point. Things can be different – granted. But if it’s only war that makes them different, then we’ve reached a dead end. No one, outside a fringe of anarchists and doctrinaire Marxists, favours actual conflict as a way of reducing inequality. But if it’s not possible to achieve through peace, what then shall we do?
Thus, time and again, Piketty stresses how, although war is significant, it is not the only game in town. Sometimes this seems to be a triumph of hope over evidence. “The fact that the compression of wealth inequality does not really begin until World War I obviously does not mean that it would not have occurred had there been no war”, he writes at one point. (195) “Obviously” is a telling and question-begging word there; this seems to be a statement of counterfactual optimism rather than anything ‘obvious’. “The aspiration to greater justice and equality takes many historical forms and can thrive without experience of the trenches.” (465) “Aspiration to greater justice and equality” is painfully vague in a book full of graphs. “The end of ownership society was due more than anything else to a political-ideological transformation,” he writes half way through, without expanding on what it was that drove that “political-ideological transformation”. (468)
That said, he does offer titbits of evidence for change without war. As noted, progressive taxation had eased into the bloodstream of many Western countries before they stumbled into mutual mass slaughter. Some of this early progressive taxation (progressive by the standards of the time, not by ours) was used to finance civil expenditure. The emergence of Swedish social democracy had little to do with the war. Ditto the rise in top rate taxes in America, to over 60 per cent, which happened in 1932. Perhaps most substantially, the experience of many countries during the so-called Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years which combined strong economic growth, and relative and static levels of equality after World War II, shows that inequality can be tamed without trenches.
Unfortunately, as I argued in my previous essay on Capital, this particular period is slightly illusory, not only because Piketty himself describes its combination of growth and equality as anomalous, but because it was a generation that lived in the shadow of war – indeed in the shadow of 30 years of war-depression-war – and also in the fear of an apparently successful economic alternative in the form of the Soviet Union. Absent those, the successful social democratic war against inequality begins to unravel, as indeed it did from the 1970s.
But – and this is where Capital and Ideology does mark a fresh, important and potentially hopeful departure from its predecessor – although Piketty is not able to provide readers with many concrete examples of societies successfully tackling inequality in the absence of war (or its shadow), his discussion of how and why societies have managed to do so, in war and peace, does bring something new to the debate. Indeed, it gets to the very heart of the matter, that being the question of what we consider to be sacred.
For someone who appears to have no particular interest in religion, the idea of the sacred appears quite a bit in Capital and Ideology. The reason for that is because Piketty rightly identifies the way in which we treat property as the key issue in all this. Inequality is directly related to the extent to which we sacralise property.
Piketty’s historical tale begins with European ternary societies, populated by a tiny number of exceptionally wealthy noblemen, a slightly larger number of reasonably wealthy and educated clergy, and a vast number of dirt poor and largely uneducated peasants. These societies were extremely unequal but, as he says, “it is wrong to think [they] were intrinsically unjust, despotic, and arbitrary.” (59) In particular, ownership was not absolute but came with certain requirements. Holding property involved certain social, political and military responsibilities. In particular, the Church “sought to limit the ability of family groups to concentrate control over property,” (94) and acquired vast wealth in the process, some of which it distributed through charitable institutions.
This arrangement was swept away, rapidly in the French Revolution, more gradually elsewhere, and replaced with “proprietarian” regimes, which afforded absolute protection to private property. This, Piketty is at pains to stress, was intended to be liberating. Proprietarian ideology had “an emancipatory dimension”. (120) Grounding people’s social identity in what they could earn and own, rather than what function they discharged in society or to whom they were born, offered at least the potential of freedom and personal development. Guaranteed state protection of property was a way of safeguarding people’s agency, capacity, and identity. (120) Proprietarianism was, in theory at least, a good idea.
However, treating property as if it were sacred and merited complete protection turned out to be a cure worse than the illness. Piketty is especially interesting on how this whole process relates to other ideas of the sacred. “The sacralisation of property,” he writes, “was in some ways a response to the end of religion as an explicit political ideology.” (123) “Absolute respect for property rights” offered “a new form of transcendence.” (124) It was “basically a natural response to fear of the void.” (123-4) Sacralisation of property is, in effect, a kind of misplaced religion, sometimes also known as idolatry, treating that which is created as if it were transcendent or salvific. It is not a sin unique to proprietarianism. As Piketty observes, in what sounds like a tone of resignation, “every ideology is the victim of some form of sacralisation.” (592) Yet, the history of the modern world, and in particular the nineteenth century, is marked by this particular idolatry more than any other (though blood and soil gave it a fair run).
Thus, the period between 1815-1914 saw European countries sacralise property and monetary stability to the extent that “the very idea of not repaying a debt was considered totally taboo”. (443) The idea of punitively, or even progressively, taxing income let alone wealth, or of interfering with ownership rights, was similarly anathema. Hence France’s long punitive treatment of Haiti. Hence the British state’s determination to repay Napoleonic debts even at the cost of any significant social spending. Hence its longstanding commitment to pay off slave owners. Hence the British media hysteria following the Chinese destruction of British opium stores, as a violation of property rights. Hence the bitter fight over Lloyd George’s ‘People Budget’ which marked not simply a rise in taxation but a wholesale regime change, threatening to desacralise the very thing on which all social stability allegedly rested.
None of this would have been necessary if the sacralisation of property had made good on its original emancipatory promises, and levelled the poor up. But, as the gospel of Matthew tells us, whoever has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance, which was pretty much what the top decile did have in France, Britain, Germany and the US in 1900. And in the meantime, among the remaining 90 per cent, and in particular the bottom 50%, even what they had was taken from them. European states at the end of the 19th century had millions of people who lived in poverty, highly vulnerable, and with precious little agency. In any sensible definition of the word, the sacralisation of property was not working.
The answer, then, to the once-cure-now-turned-illness of sacralising of property is, naturally, to desacralise it; to do the unthinkable and remove from (mainly very rich) people something of their earnings, assets, savings, or land. This was, of course, the story of the 20th century, which Piketty told in Capital and retells here. But it is not a solely modern tale, and Piketty is helpful in giving examples of when and where else it happened.
One of the incidental but striking, and often repeated, points in Piketty’s book is the impact that priestly celibacy had on equality. Most societies had priestly classes. Indeed, Piketty’s ternary structure could be found, mutatis mutandis, in India, Japan, China and elsewhere. However, in India, for example, Brahmins could marry, have children and pass on property through their family, effectively becoming a self-sustaining, and very wealthy, class in their own right. (324) Similarly, in Iran, “the Shiite clerical class is a true social class unto itself, with matrimonial alliances uniting families of major ulemas [bodies of Muslim scholars]” (402)
By contrast, Catholic clergy, formally forbidden to marry and reproduce since the 12th century, could not exist as a self-sustaining class. Clergy might inherit wealth but they could not pass it on, or allow it to accumulate in families. The clerical could not develop into a hereditary class. (96-97) Moreover, this also meant that the clergy had to replenish their ranks with outsiders, one of the few routes out of poverty in the middle ages. These rules were flouted, of course: it seems an iron rule among the human species that the higher the standards, the deeper the hypocrisy. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Catholic doctrine on the priesthood desacralised property among one particular and important class.
As it happens, this wasn’t the only impact Christian doctrine had on equality structures. From the early Middle Ages, the Church was in a position to ban polygamy and cousin marriage across Europe. This in effect “broke down extended kin-based institutions [in which humans had naturally lived] and encouraged a nuclear family structure”. According to a 2019 paper in Science which studied the effect of this, it is the (Catholic) Church’s transformation of European kinship structures in Middle Ages which lies, ultimately, behind the distinctive inclination towards WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – psychology. Whether or not that is true, there is an argument that this subtle undermining of the extended kin group in favour of smaller and more fluid family units, in which you couldn’t simply marry cousins to keep property in the family, served the cause of equality. It is an argument to which Piketty refers when he says that by forbidding cousin marriage (“albeit with limited success”) and stigmatizing the remarriage of widows, the Church “sought to limit the ability of family groups to concentrate control over property”. (94)
However important clerical celibacy and dismantling of extended kin-based institutions were, they were simply part of a wider and longstanding Christian teaching on the purpose of wealth, what Piketty rightly calls “the radicalism of the Catholic Church’s political project”. (94) As an aside, this was hardly a uniquely Catholic project. Protestant Reformers said some very tough things about the responsibility of wealth. Protestant sects did some very radical things about the ownership of property. Churches today are campaigning on inequality. The marriage of church and state in Eastern Orthodoxy generated a particular responsibility of the latter for the public good. “Is it an accident that sixth-century Byzantium speaks in accents reminiscent of the welfare state and socialism?” asks one scholar. (From Irenaeus to Grotius, 4)
By this teaching, ownership of property is perfectly legitimate and proper. “What is lawfully possessed is not another’s property”, wrote St Augustine. However, it is only legitimate in so far as it fulfils the dictates of justice. “‘Lawfully’ means justly” Augustine goes on to clarify, before explaining, “He who uses his wealth badly possesses it wrongfully, and wrongful possession means that it is another’s property.” (From Irenaeus to Grotius, 130)
Other Church Fathers could be considerably more blunt. “At the beginning God did not make one man rich and one man poor,” thundered John Chrysostom, the fourth century Archbishop of Constantinople. “Is it not wrong to have solitary dominion and solitary enjoyment of common property? ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Ps. 24.1).” (From Irenaeus to Grotius, 102)
The same range of tone is evident in contemporary Catholic teaching. “Ownership of the means of production… is just and legitimate if it serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when… it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society.” (#43) So wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. “Inequality is the root of social evil”, tweeted Pope Francis nearly a quarter of a century later. Different tone; same idea.
Many of the fiery early Christian denunciations of private wealth were to be found in homilies on 1 Timothy, where Paul’s famous words on “the love of money” offered ample opportunity for anti-capitalist polemic. However, it is Jesus’ words in ‘the parable of the shrewd manager’ in Luke chapter 16 (which Chrysostom also quotes) that most profoundly articulated the demand to desacralise property. The parable tells of how the manager of a rich man’s estate is accused of wastefulness. Fearing dismissal, he goes around his master’s debtors reducing their debts, so that they might look kindly upon him if he finds himself in need. He shaves 20 per cent off one debt, and cuts another in half. Instead of being outraged at his employee’s behaviour, however, the master is impressed and commends him. “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves,” Jesus says, “so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings,” before concluding, as famously as Paul, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and money,” or, as the Authorised Version terms it, “God and mammon”.
As a parable and teaching, the story cuts the ground away from absolute property rights in favour of relationships. Earning stuff, owning stuff, lending stuff, owing stuff: that’s all fine, just so long as it doesn’t lead you to sacralise stuff.
The question of the sacralisation of property is central to Capital and Ideology, even if biblical and Catholic social thought is absent. The point is crucial: if you want to address inequality, you need to be able to desacralise property.
Religious teaching does that; practice is another matter to which we shall return. War does it even better. There’s nothing like a real and present threat to your very existence as a nation to legitimise massive expropriation and nationalisation (432-33). It isn’t infallible. There were rich British landowners who were prepared to make peace with the Nazis in 1940, on the assumption that doing so would enable them to preserve their estates. But they were a minority, even in their own party.
Widespread poverty combined with a universal franchise also seems to have a property-desacralising effect, or at least to make it possible. The effective pressure towards more progressive taxation in European countries in the late 19th century would not have occurred without the dismantling of censitary regimes (where voting was restricted or weighted by property qualifications) and the enfranchisement of the working classes. Universal suffrage seems to have been a necessary rather than sufficient cause of property desacralisation, however. “Even with universal suffrage, a majority coalition in favour of progressive taxation does not come magically into existence.” (142) Universal suffrage seems also to require widespread and shared economic hardship to catalyse the necessary political action. It was the Great Depression of the early 1930s that enabled FDR’s New Deal, an interventionist package that would have been electorally inconceivable only five years earlier. (434)
All this just about steers us away from Walter Schneider’s grim conclusion in his book The Great Leveller, namely that only mass-mobilisation warfare, revolution, state collapse, and pandemic have ever been powerful enough to steer a people decisively towards equality. Such calamities certainly can have that effect, although the early signs, as the world tries to stare through the fog into a post-Covid future, give little indication of coronavirus reducing national or international inequalities. However, if we follow Piketty in understanding the road to equality as effected primarily by the desacralisation of property and then trace the ways in which property has been desacralised, we may just find ourselves on a more hopeful path (it would be hard to be on a less hopeful one than Schneider’s). Ideology, plus universal suffrage, plus shared experience, particularly of hardship, might just be able shift the dial. But we should be under no illusion about how hard it is to build the solidarity, shared purpose and trust needed to desacralise property and make it serve the cause of justice and shared human flourishing.
And this is where the theological and ecclesiastical perspective outlined above has one other lesson to teach us.
France erupted in violence at the end of the 18th century precisely because the Church’s teaching on wealth failed to secure anything even close to acceptable levels of material equality. Long captured by the spirits of the age, the Church had become adept at sweetening the bitter fruit of inequality but was unable, unwilling or disinterested in uprooting the plants that produced it.
It was no better in Britain where, in the decades after the French Revolution, a number of influential Christian thinkers theologically legitimised inequality by baptising the harsh political economy of the Industrial Revolution. The moral, political and economic world, they argued, was as ordered and harmonious as the physical one that Newton had revealed. Commerce, government and true religion were parts of one grand master plan. For those who had eyes to see, the poverty, inequality, self-interest, and competition that political economy revealed to be facts of life were, in reality, evidence of God’s goodness and wisdom. To interfere with them was to deny him.
The examples of France and Britain show how easy it was for the Church’s longstanding teaching on wealth and riches to be ignored or subverted. More generally, they underline how fragile ideology can be. It’s a problem that Piketty clearly recognises. As noted, his entire book is motivated not by regret for the Church’s failure to live up to its ideals on property and equality, but for its secular equivalent – social democracy’s “[failure] to update and deepen its intellectual and political approach to ownership, education, taxation, and above all the… regulation of the global economy.” (578)
Such failure can act as a spur to revise, refresh and reignite ideology. Piketty’s final chapter is a long, detailed and highly ambitious agenda for a reinvigorated newly-internationalised social democracy. He advocates a “participatory socialism” in contrast to the “hypercentralised state socialism” of communist countries. (969) He wants a new European democratic body, a European Assembly that would draw on national parliaments and the European Parliament, and that would be of “incontestable legitimacy”. (913) Ultimately, his ambition is for “a vast transnational democracy, ultimately resulting in just common taxes, a universal right to education and a capital endowment, free circulation of people, and de facto virtual abolition of borders.” (1031) Based on the experiences analysed in this book, he says in his closing pages, “I am convinced that capitalism and private property can be superseded and that a just society can be established on the basis of participatory socialism and social federalism.” (1036)
Unkindly, one might say that this ever-expanding list has the feel of a man slowly losing his grip on reality. The future is Sweden on steroids, just at the time that Sweden is losing its own grip on social democracy and evicting its citizens from the Folkhemmet. Less unkindly, one might say that this vision is intended primarily to inspire, to open the eyes of our heart to the horizon of what is possible by overlooking where we actually are.
Maybe so. But we do that at some risk. Christian social teaching was (and is) at it strongest on these matters when it went beyond teaching to practice and experience; in other words, when the call to “use worldly wealth to gain friends” moved from the pulpit to the congregation, and became embedded in practices whereby the rich and poor knelt together and shared food together. John Chrysostom didn’t simply write or lecture on 1 Timothy and the ‘root of evil’, but delivered a homily to a group of people who were literally standing shoulder to shoulder with one another. In such circumstances, it is harder (though by no means impossible) to live unequal lives together.
As it happens, mass-mobilisation war worked in the same way. It may have been the threat of an enemy that legitimised the great desacralisation of property in 20th century Britain, but it was the experience of fighting against that enemy, on the field of battle and on the home front, that sustained it. It was “the importance of wartime experience itself, and especially the role of mass military conscription [that legitimised] progressive taxation and nearly confiscatory rates on the highest incomes and largest fortunes after the war,” Piketty writes. (463-4)
This is the necessary precondition to any ideological reinvigoration. Readers will have different opinions on how inspiring/ worrying/ naïve Piketty’s vision is. Whatever they think, however, it is supremely unlikely to become reality without experience of the kind of solidarity that is essential for any kind of property desacralisation.
If you look closely enough, Piketty recognises this. The fundamental question, he says at the outset, is “what defines the boundaries of the human community in terms of which collective life is organised, especially when it comes to reducing inequality and establishing forms of equality acceptable to a majority.” (40) “None of these solidarities”, he writes at the other end of the book, when talking about potential joint projects between Bavarians and Lower Saxons or Greater Parisians and Bretons, “exists spontaneously.” Rather, “they are historically and politically constructed and come into being when people see that the advantages of belonging to the same community outweigh the advantages of maintaining borders.” (1026) Equality will be achieved when there are examples, the more and the bigger the better, of people experiencing solidarity.
Thus, for all his visionary globalised participatory socialism, it is his smaller scale and more localised examples of solidarity that are, to my mind, more promising. Roughly half way through the book, in an especially interesting discussion on public, shared and temporary ownership as different ways of desacralising property, Piketty offers a brief and “unfinished” history of social ownership. This is when the gap (read: chasm) between owners, managers and workers in Anglo-Saxon economies is bridged through schemes of mutual ownership, co-management, and worker participation and representation, which were common in post-war Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and Norway. Such schemes can be very hard work; just because owners and workers sit on the same board, it doesn’t mean they will get on well, let alone adopt the same approach. Nevertheless, the success of these endeavours underlines their potential as practical examples of solidarity. “Executives in German, Swedish and Danish firms had to make do with far less fabulous raises that their English and US counterparts, yet this did not harm their firms’ productivity or their competitiveness – quite the contrary.” (499)
None of this is intended simply to pour cold water on the more ideological approach Piketty adopts. It is, for example, astonishing that in our age of intrusive big data we know less about the location and distribution of international wealth than we did a hundred years ago (670). In the light of that, his calls for greater transparency for international wealth and the creation of a public financial register that would allow countries to impose redistributive taxes on transnational wealth (887) seem eminently just and reasonable.
We do need visionary and ambitious ideas such as those that cram the final hundred pages of Capital and Ideology. All too often, book-length analyses of ‘what ails us’ wave airily towards vague suggestions in a perfunctory concluding chapter. It is, after all, much easier to analyse the problem than to propose the answer. Piketty is to be commended for engaging so thoroughly and with such detail in the potential ways out of our maze.
However, such a political approach runs the risk of sliding into the kind of technocratic agenda that has so dominated politics over the last two generations. It was not just the decisions around the cabinet table that enabled the construction of the post-war welfare state, but the multiple solidarities that had built up around mess tables and other shared spaces during the war. However much we need a re-invigorated ideological approach for our age of runaway inequality, it is only when such ideas take root in the solidarities of everyday life and work, that we will see property desacralised and inequality tamed.
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Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Posted 3 August 2020
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.