Compared to his previous volumes on economic theory, French economist Thomas Piketty‘s A Brief History of Equality is merciful in its brevity, although no less intellectually rigorous. Designed to be read by politically-minded citizens, not just economists, it distills the key concepts from Piketty’s previous three books – Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century (2018), and Capital and Ideology (2020) – all while remaining under 300 pages.
Piketty is much more optimistic in this volume than in his previous works, providing a balm for those disillusioned with skyrocketing rent, out-of-control housing markets, and stagnant wages. Part historical text, part political manifesto, A Brief History of Equality reimagines democratic socialism in a way that is remarkably grounded and suited for the current economic crisis. How do we save ourselves and the planet from the current system of runaway neoliberalism and capitalism? Piketty thinks he has the answer.
Before delving into that answer, Piketty finds it necessary to examine some history. A Brief History of Equality‘s first half offers a sweeping overview of the impacts of global capital, the ongoing impacts of colonialism, and the steady progress toward equality that has been charted since the 18th century. Compared to the past, we are now in a place of unprecedented equality as a result of class struggle and revolutionary politics: life expectancy has increased from 26 to 72 years, the literacy rate is now at 85 percent, and we have greater access to health care, education, and citizenship rights than ever before.
Piketty locates this progress in the development of the welfare state and progressive taxation on income and wealth. Crucially, Piketty uses data to show that the welfare state and progressive tax systems correlate with better economic performance, not worse. Indeed, the welfare state is a key indicator of economic growth. Society flourishes when nations start diverting funds towards education, health care, and social security. As such, Piketty argues that the sensible thing to do is to continue on the current path toward positive change by expanding both of these institutions via what Piketty calls “participatory socialism”.
Piketty dedicates the remainder of A Brief History of Equality to the specifics of this plan and the policies he believes will create a more just society. Aside from expanding the welfare state and levying high corporate and income taxes on the uber-wealthy, this plan also advocates for workers to be involved in the management of their companies, a greener economy, and capital reimbursement for victims of colonialism. As for the latter, Piketty’s logic is that, since the prosperity of the wealthiest nations was built on the backs of the poorest, it’s only fair that poor countries receive part of the taxes paid by billionaires. This is all part of Piketty’s plan to reduce the economic inequality between the Global North and South and offset the legacy of colonization, which is still obviously present in the wildly hierarchical world economy.
Alongside this, Piketty calls specifically for slavery reparations. Instead of countries like Haiti being saddled with debt as the unfair price for their independence, Piketty believes that prior slaveholding countries, including the US, owe reparations to the countries they exploited. However, Piketty’s discussion of the legacy of colonialism, while necessary and robust for the most part, neglects the issue of ongoing settler colonialism.
To Piketty, colonization is a relic of the past, which is wholly inaccurate — the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, for example, are current settler-colonial states that have yet to reconcile with the Indigenous peoples whose lands they are still occupying. Any discussion about reparations must occur under the assumption that colonialism is not a thing of the past but also of the present.
While Piketty spends much of the book chronicling the advancement of progress, he is quick to point out how pervasive inequality is. He also cautions readers against what can happen if inequality is left unchecked. Inequality breeds the kind of resentment and mistrust that requires an outlet that authoritarianism is more than happy to provide. When governments fail to offer the appropriate solutions, the finger of blame often points to a convenient scapegoat for social and economic problems: minorities. It’s much easier to blame immigrants for “stealing jobs” than to fight a faceless state.
Piketty understands that his plan is complicated and that progress takes time and effort, but he remains optimistic and urgently so. The march toward equality does not follow a straight line, and sometimes it may involve backtracking. There’s a lot at stake, but Piketty’s overview of 20th-century history and politics has given us a blueprint for achievable political transformation and reason to hope that progress is possible.