Thomas Pikety in conversation with Rune Lykkeberg

Photo: Det Kgl. Bibliotek

Thus the world changes

With the monumental work Capital and Ideology, comparable to the masterpieces of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the French star economist Thomas Piketty pays homage to human imagination and freedom.

With the monumental work Capital and Ideology, comparable to the masterpieces of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, French star economist Thomas Piketty pays homage to human imagination and freedom and the possibility of changing the course of history. The interview with Piketty in The Black Diamond is livestreamed to public libraries, schools and your living room.

With Capital in the 21st Century (2013, Danish edition 2016), the French economist Thomas Piketty launched a comprehensive debate on the growing economic and social inequality of our time as a potential threat to the stability and cohesive force of modern democracies. Most unusual for an academic and scientifically economic work, the book became an international bestseller and secured its author a 'rock star' reputation as one of the most original economists and critics of capitalism of our time.

In March 2020, Piketty's long-awaited and even more comprehensive follow-up work, Capital and Ideology, which was predicted to reach immediate status as a classic when it was published in French in the autumn of 2019, will be published in Danish. In the new 1200+ pages of well-researched work, Piketty challenges us to adopt radical new perspectives on politics, ideologies and on the driving forces in the creation of history. In Capital and Ideology, the author manages to simultaneously write the world history of unequal societies, to exhibit the dead ends in which both left- and right-wing politics, in his opinion, have ended up two decades into the 21st century, and to present his own ideas on how a more socially just system could be built.

A book of so considerable ambition is unparalleled in today's intellectual landscape, and it is tempting to draw parallels to the greatest ground-breaking works of political economy, be it Adam Smiths Wealth of Nations or Das Kapital by Karl Marx, but with the difference that Piketty can draw on vast amounts of research, data, and accumulated knowledge that he and his research colleagues have spent six years plowing through.

As the title indicates, his new book is not just an economic and historical work, but above all an ideologically critical work; indeed, it is an attempt to relaunch an ideological critique that has a better and broader foundation in documentable facts and is detached from the rigid thought schemes of Marxism and Hegelian historicism.

Opposites between ideology and reality

Our way of arranging ourselves financially is never natural, is Piketty's central point. Markets, wealth distribution, forms of ownership and capital are all historical and historically changeable constructions that only have power over people to the extent that we as a society decide that they should have it.

Looking at fiction, film, intellectual life and the history of ideas as sources of insight into ideologies, Piketty explores the conflict-ridden material and ideological interactions between social groups that resulted in feudal thraldom societies, slave societies, colonial societies, caste societies, communist world societies and social democracies, which have shaped the lives of billions of people throughout history.

His thesis is that all ideological justifications of unequal societies can only work if they manage to convince through a core of truth. But he also demonstrates in detailed presentations how these justifications inevitably fail when the contradictions between ideology and reality intensify and become irrefutable. When a new ideology displaces an existing one at the critical branching points of history, according to Piketty, it never happens with historical necessity. Capital and ideology are rich in 'counterfactual' analyses of how history could have developed alternatively if the central conditions, power relations and run of events had taken a marginally different form.

His conclusion is that the main force of moral and human progress has been the struggle for greater equality and education rather than respect for the inviolability of private property and the maintenance of stability, as the defenders of existing liberal free-market-based democracies would typically argue.

Clash with extreme inequality

Since the neoliberal revolution starting in 1980, the extreme inequality of a new age has derailed the dramatic human progress that has occurred over time, especially with the post-war establishment of social democratic welfare states in a number of the world's most developed countries.

Piketty shows in his new book how this setback can be understood partly as a reaction to the spectacular collapse of world communism, but also as a result of the technocratic specialization of economics and independence from politics, of neoliberal ideologues' efforts to maintain the orthodoxy and hegemony of hypercapitalism, and the temptations and delusions of identity-political and populist currents.

A book of so considerable
ambition is unparalleled in
today's intellectual landscape

Once we have made this clear, we can begin to formulate alternative visions of a better balance between economy, politics and natural resources. Piketty is an advocate for developing what he calls a new participant socialism, which he will base on a redefined ideology of equality. This must do away with the inviolability of private property, but through new types of social ownership, which must take completely different forms than the massive stateisation of the property by communist societies. The alternative must be created through a new and more democratically inclusive and transnational sharing of knowledge and power between people.

In these times of gloom, where so many of the world's well-established liberal democracies appear increasingly crisis-stricken and dysfunctional, and climate catastrophes lurk in the immediate future, Piketty presents an optimistic breakthrough project that pays homage to human political imagination and freedom. With Capital and Ideology, he has written a monumental work that can not only help us to better understand the course of the world and history, but also to change it.

- Niels Ivar Larsen, journalist at Information and one of four translators of Capital and Ideology.