Thomas PikettyApr 21, 2022
A Brief History of Equality
Harvard University Press 2022
There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.
– epigraph in The Long Land War by Jo Guldi (2021)
Every political order contains within it tensions, contradictions, and vulnerabilities that at a certain point become too difficult to maintain.
– The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order by Gary Gerstle (2022)
In the Economica Centenary Coarse Lecture delivered virtually to the London School of Economics in 2021 Thomas Piketty lightheartedly remarked on his English as part of a larger point about how linguistic limitations can reduce our access to important information and data worldwide. And like the epigraph above opening a book about the global struggle for occupancy rights, Piketty was noting just how dependent scholars are on the kind of primary sources to which they can use and access. Coming from one of our era’s preeminent scholars of political economy it was more than just a self-deprecating lead-in for his 2020 Capital and Ideology, a book that enlarged the focus of his famous 2014 Capital in the 21st Century by expanding the geopolitical reach of its analysis of the structure of inequality with its emphasis on political and ideological forces as key causative factors rather than purely economic and technological ones. As he mentions in this interview, his latest book concisely refines his arguments.
Coming in at a short 277 pages the professor’s A Brief History of Equality, translated by Steven Randall (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2022) will come as a bit of relief for readers acquainted with his much lengthier earlier works. Piketty offers up this comparative history of inequalities among social classes in human societies – or, as he points out: a brief history of equality acknowledging the long-term trend toward greater social, economic and political equality. The book opens with ‘the movement toward equality’ and ‘the slow deconcentration of power and property’ before reminding readers of our ‘heritage of slavery and colonialism’ and then broaching ‘the question of reparations’. You will hear Professor Piketty share his thoughts on why this question is key for reconciling societal divisions and what reparations could represent in terms of social justice.
As he points out, both in this interview and in the book, ‘everything remains to be invented’ which is offered in the same optimistic spirit with which he argues that the struggle for increasing levels of equality requires ‘collective learning’. The crisp progression of ideas in the ten chapters of his narrative leads to its concluding implications that the need for increasing equality at the global level is not only a moral imperative but also an economic one. Not everyone will agree with the professor’s vision or his interpretations but few will question his authority or transparency in such deliberations. The professor’s research and data can be studied through his homepage, and the World Inequality Database.
Thomas Piketty is a professor at the Paris School of Economics, Director of Studies at The School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, and Co-Director of the World Inequality Lab and Database.
Keith Krueger lectures in the SILC Business School at Shanghai University.