Editors’ Note: Andrew Hart reviews Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology, with a particular focus on what the book might (or might not) tell us about the relationship between philanthropy and inequality.
French economist Thomas Piketty’s latest book, Capital and Ideology (Capital et idéologie, 2019), arrived in English in mid-March, when people with office jobs were just becoming acquainted with a life lived between the bathroom, kitchen, home office, and bed. In those anxious first days of quarantine, it seemed that the end of history was finally ending. Basic income, industrial nationalization, single-payer healthcare—it was all on the table, and the retreating state seemed poised to march again. After decades in which nothing had happened, these were the weeks in which decades would happen.
Two and a half months later, and not much has changed. The system that, in theory, should treat the illness instead thumps and groans and issues the metal-on-metal screech of poorly oiled machinery. It’s the same clanging under the hood that careful listeners have heard for quite some time, but only after the slow-motion crises of recent years has it become too loud for many to ignore. And so time glides ahead while events seem to grind and lurch behind on a predetermined course, like train cars on a rusty track.
Yet in Capital and Ideology, Piketty makes the case that the future is not on rails. To do that, he adopts a form rarely seen since the days when his discipline was called “political economy.” Unlike a typical “serious” work of economics, this book contains hardly anything more mathematically complex than charts and tables. And unlike a typical “popular” work of economics, it does not follow the playbook of taking market logic as natural, making simplistic assumptions about human behavior, and using the result to construct a clockwork universe or derive counterintuitive little curiosities. Instead, Piketty tries to describe inequality as it really exists and has existed historically.
This is not, as some economists have accused, merely a series of potted historical summaries interspersed with analyses of world literature. Nor is it, as some on the left have asserted, merely an attempt to reckon with political economy in a manner that pays curiously little attention to Marx. Nor is it, as its myriad graphs, tables, and references to online datasets might suggest, merely a thousand-page executive summary of the author’s formidable research. Granted, it is some of all of those things. But it is also a sprawling, capacious text that gathers together disparate strands into an economic history of inequality spanning the last thousand years and most of the globe.
Given this expansive scope, it’s hardly surprising that the history of philanthropy, or really any single topic, features only occasionally. But what Piketty has to say about the nonprofit sector is important, especially as this crisis exposes a political system that, despite its unwillingness or inability to respond, seems hellbent on perpetuating itself forever.
Unlike most in his profession, Piketty refuses to treat the economy as a force of nature whose workings are explained by scientific laws. Instead, as he attests, it is made up of “social and historical constructs,” the “systems that people choose to adopt and the conceptual definitions they choose to work with.” In particular, Piketty thinks it’s impossible to understand a given form of inequality without understanding the corresponding “inequality regime,” essentially a given society’s ideological justification for its own stratification.
Piketty doesn’t attempt to find ideology in graphs of incomes or tables of national accounts. Rather, he sets out data describing the economic reality of a particular society, and then uses works of history, sociology, anthropology, film, and literature to reconstruct the ideas of the time. In so doing, he reveals both wide-ranging tastes and more than a few curious blind spots. This is a book that bounces between discussions of bardic poetry, 18th-century novels, the “great divergence” between Europe and Asia, and contemporary Iranian cinema. It is also, as Frédéric Lordon pointed out in debate with Piketty this January, almost allergic to a whole academic tradition of ideology and inequality that runs through Plato, Rousseau, Marx, Weber, and Bourdieu. But set aside that Piketty perhaps does not cite all the right books. Here is an economist—an economist!—relying on disciplines outside his own.
Capital and Ideology really shines, however, in its insistence on historical contingency. The book is not simply about the past, present, and future; it also asks what could have been and what could be. “The inequalities and institutions that exist today are not the only ones possible,” Piketty writes in the introduction, and the book’s lengthy historical analysis offers plenty of possibilities to chew on. In its refusal to believe that history takes a preordained path, Capital and Ideology offers a key departure from Marx, or at least a kind of vulgar Marxism “according to which the state of the economic forces and relations of production determines a society’s ideological ‘superstructure’ in an almost mechanical fashion.” By contrast, Piketty “insist[s] that the realm of ideas, the political-ideological sphere, is truly autonomous.”
This question of materialism versus idealism is beyond the scope of a book review, and anyway, there’s no real reason to assume that ideology is either entirely autonomous from, or entirely bound to, material conditions. But after the defeats of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., the prospects for even a modest change in material conditions look pretty grim; if ever there were a time to act as though ideas have a force of their own, it’s now. At the very least, Piketty’s approach rises above the stale air that sets in around discussions of the inevitable revolution or the inescapable defeat.
Capital and Ideology is a big, freewheeling book that has a lot of the world in its pages. Like any such work, its value lies not so much in a straightforward first reading, but in the connections it suggests between its disparate parts—and Piketty explicitly encourages readers to chart their own course. Thematic threads crisscross the book’s seventeen chapters, and grabbing one tends to pull on others all over the text.
But as expansive as Piketty’s work is, it’s still much more an outline for further study than a definitive treatment of any particular issue. Readers hoping to find, for instance, detailed analysis of the role of philanthropy in what the book labels today’s “hypercapitalist” inequality regime will discover just two paragraphs at the very end of chapter 13. Piketty’s basic point is that, although “private financing channeled through a decentralized network of participatory organizations” may play a useful role in some economic sectors, “philanthropic discourse can be deployed as part of a particularly dangerous anti-state ideology.” Philanthropy is “neither participatory nor democratic” and privileges the prerogatives of the wealthy who have vast sums to give. Because those gifts come with significant tax breaks, the “lower and middle classes subsidize through their taxes the philanthropic preferences of the wealthy,” essentially confiscating public funds for private ends. These problems are especially nasty in poorer countries, where the rich can more easily circumvent the weak state, diverting funds needed for development.
This discussion is tightly written, and, to those broadly sympathetic to Piketty’s politics, it should be persuasive. But there’s nothing particularly novel about it, nor does Piketty attempt to summarize research on, say, the Gates Foundation’s effect on the U.S. school system. That’s just not the kind of book it is. The structure of Capital and Ideology presents hundreds of little historical snapshots and encourages readers to pull back and find connections between different places and times before zooming in on the nuances of the present.
Indeed, those interested in contextualizing the interplay between inequality and philanthropy could zoom out and find a compelling description of the hypercapitalist present in which the ultrawealthy have rewritten the rules in their favor and reshaped the global economy to amass enormous fortunes, immiserating developed countries and kneecapping developing ones in the process. Within this system, philanthropy is just one of several strategies that billionaires use to shape their public images, justify their vast fortunes, and create a quasi-religious ritual out of the workings of wealth. Piketty’s examination of the billionaire mindset in contemporary novels and his critique of drawing sharp distinctions “between the wicked Russian oligarchs and the nice entrepreneurs from Seattle and Silicon Valley” stand alongside his disavowal of a “moral hierarchy of wealth” in his earlier Capital in the Twenty-First Century as a good start for anyone interested in these questions today.
But Capitalism and Ideology is not just about today. Early in his discussion of medieval “ternary” societies, in which the nobles ruled temporally, the clerics presided spiritually, and the peasants worked the land, Piketty lands on an illuminating comparison. The church, in those times, held more land than any other institution, even the monarchy. To contextualize the scale of ecclesiastical holdings (between 20-35% of all property in 18th-century western Europe), Piketty compares them to property held by today’s nonprofit organizations (ranging from 1% in France to 6% in the U.S.).
From its early history, Piketty writes, the Catholic church sought to legitimize and secure its status as a property-holding organization. Through the immense pressure it was able to exert on temporal powers, it shaped an entire corpus of property law in its own interests. The Italian historian Giacomo Todeschini, liberally cited in this portion of the book, believes that this body of law became the ideological framework of early-modern capitalism.
With this body of law in place, church holdings became particularly stubborn. Part of the church’s staying power was that, unlike the nobility, it wasn’t a traditionally dynastic institution, and was thus more capable of following through on its long-range goals than royals with their unending temporal squabbles. The result was that, as Europe emerged into early modernity, vast holdings of its property were under the control of an ancient institution whose prerogatives were very different from the rest of society’s. In France, only the Revolution broke the church’s power, and even that didn’t happen particularly effectively or all at once.
As Piketty points out, today’s national accounts often place in the charitable sector foundations that “theoretically operate in the public interest but in practice serve mainly the interests of a single family, which for one reason or another has donated part of its wealth to the foundation, sometimes for tax purposes, other times for internal family reasons.” Further, national accounts themselves “are social and historical constructs that reflect the priorities of an era and of their inventors” and “are seldom much concerned with issues of inequality.” In fact, there is little political will to account for wealth inequality at all.
There are many ways to connect the past to the present and to a possible future. In a depressingly plausible one, the ultrawealthy, like the clerics before them, continue to shape the property laws to their benefit, and turn the nonprofit foundation into a legal means of quasi-immortality. Their scions, and a bureaucracy of professional managers, ensure that their prerogatives survive while investing an almost sacred meaning in their wealth. And like 18th-century Europe, in the grips of the dead hand of an ancient order, the future is haunted by billionaire ghosts.
The 1700s are a settled matter, of course, but the future is not. Broad horizons aren’t easy to picture in a world that, for many, has narrowed to a few rooms, a computer screen, and the occasional trip to the grocery store. But nothing is preordained. Like Piketty, we can glean insight from art and scholarship, draw connections between different times and places, and imagine that our ideas have the force to change the future.