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Reasons, Romanticism, Conflicts & Movements

Thomas Piketty (b. May 7, 1971) – the French Economist, Professor of Economics at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Associate Chair at the Paris School of Economics and Centennial Professor of Economics in the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics – has penned three books on inequality in the last two decades. Each of those publications contains more than 1,000 pages. However, his latest work, A Brief History of Equality, has just 275 pages. According to the author, he has written this book mainly to address some issues raised by his close friends.

As the title suggests, this publication is not about inequality, but about a brief history of equality. At the very beginning, the author has said that the movement of Modern History throughout the world is towards social, economic and political equality. There is less inequality in various aspects, like Rights to Property, Income, Education, Health (in Democracies), across the globe now than 250 years ago. However, the pace of this change has not been a smooth one, as the concept of inequality has seen many ups and downs. The degree of change has also varied widely from country to country. Overall, the bigger picture that has emerged is there are many reasons to call it the History of Equality.

According to Piketty, there is still no room for complacency, as huge inequality still exists. In the seventh chapter of his publication, the author has presented a chart, which shows that the richest 10% in Europe used to own about 90% of the total wealth at the beginning of the 20th Century. The ratio stood at just over 50% in 2020. Secondly, inequality has risen quite a bit, especially in the US, over the past four decades. The richest 10% owned about 60% of the wealth in the mid-1980s. Now it stands at 70%. Thirdly, the progress towards equality has benefited mainly the middle class, and not the lower class. As far as the ownership of property is concerned, the poorest 50% of citizens own 5-6% of the total wealth, and only 2% in the US. In other words, half of the global population are practically destitute. Even on the basis of other parametre, the bleakness of persistent deprivation of opportunity still looms large at the bottom.

Piketty is of the opinion that it is important to understand the reasons for the progress towards equality the world has made so far. It shall help the global community make further progress. Economists often talk about Inclusive Growth, Democracy, Decentralisation, etc., to explain the progress. Piketty is no exception to this, as he has mentioned in his book that Democracy should be based on the active participation of common people, and it is essential to fight against inequality. He has mentioned in the very first part of the introduction that there were various incidents of conflicts and rebellions against injustice behind the long-term trend towards equality in the late 18th Century. Hence, there has been a change in the structure of power. The powerful class, which was eager to maintain the status quo, created a new system by dismantling the old one.

In this context, the author has identified the French Revolution (1789) as the primary milestone in the History of Equality. He has claimed that the Revolution uprooted the French aristocracy. Similar revolts repeatedly took place in different parts of the globe in the next two centuries. France and Germany witnessed a number of revolts in the 19th Century, while the US experienced a Civil War from April 12, 1861 to May 26, 1865. The 20th Century witnessed organised labour movements in Europe, the vigorous campaign of Left-Wing Politics and the courage of Free Press, which decreased the level of inequality to some extent. Unfortunately, labour unions, Leftist parties and other forces active in the cause of Social Justice have weakened in many countries, including the US, in the last three-four decades. As a result, the level of inequality has intensified. In other words, the course of history does not turn towards equality by itself, but one has to do this. Here lies the importance of struggle.

Interestingly, Piketty did not discuss the role of organised movement, and the use of force, if necessary. Although his study of history recognises conflict and revolt, his Moderate Politics cannot accept revolution. Still, the moderate author has done a wonderful job by rejecting the increasing inequality as a natural phenomenon. Instead, he has identified injustices in a Democratic System, and has strongly advocated for alternative systems and institutions. For him, the main task of a revolution is to develop an alternative idea to counter vested interests.

Piketty has further mentioned in his publication that Capitalism does not mean the modern Neoliberal Economy. According to the author, Capitalism has taken different forms in different countries at different times, as the system has no particular or universal form. In Germany, workers play a number of roles in the management of industrial and commercial organisations. Behind this practice known as co-management, there is a fundamental concept of capital enshrined in the German Constitution. As per this concept, the Right to Property is worthwhile only when the property is used for social good. Economics, influenced by Neoliberal Capitalism, does not accept this concept. According to Neoliberal Capitalism, the ownership of property is sovereign, while the lone purpose of capital is to generate maximum profit, and social welfare is irrelevant. Piketty has opined that it is not the one and only ideal of Capitalism, as there are other moral bases, as well. Those moral bases encourage workers to play certain roles in the management of the industrial sector, as well as in the economy. It is called Democracy at Work.

The French economist has not only stressed on morality, but also on practicality. Citing the example of the Scandinavian countries, Piketty has noted that when workers get involved in the management of an organisation, the quality of management also improves. With the expansion of social and economic equality, more people enjoy the opportunity to work hand-in-hand in various fields, and to make decisions on different issues. As a result, their efficiency increases. He has rejected the idea that huge inequality is essential for efficiency and growth, as claimed by the corporate-friendly media. Piketty has also rejected one of the concepts of the Neoliberal Philosophy that the basic amenities, such as Education or Health, should be bought at market prices. No matter how strongly this strange idea is propagated in Neoliberal Philosophy, it is already a proven lie in the real world.

The Neoliberal Philosophy has made these lies popular, intentionally. With the grip of Neoliberal Capital on the economy getting stronger, its ideological supremacy has increased as well. Piketty has stated that this supremacy must be countered. People need to believe that it is very much possible to build a system based on Social Justice, Equal Opportunity and Economic Democracy. Such a system can not only reduce inequality, but also increase efficiency. This battle of ideas is very important to trigger a social change. The book, penned by Piketty, can be a big help in that battle.

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