With the Miliband: Thomas Piketty. (Image: Dan Murrell)
Show Hide image

Thomas Piketty: a modern French revolutionary

Piketty’s book Capital is being acclaimed as the most important work of political economy to be published in decades. It has certainly caught the attention of Ed Miliband’s inner circle.

In Balzac’s novel Le père Goriot (1834-35), the impoverished young nobleman Rastignac is confronted with a dilemma by the cynical convict Vautrin: should he work and study hard to become a lawyer, only to earn a mediocre income, or should he seduce an eligible heiress and lay his hands on an inheritance sufficient to pay him an income worth ten times as much? Rastignac mulls the path of seduction until he is asked to bump off a brother who stands inconveniently between the heiress and her fortune. Murder is a step too far, even for a social climber.

Rastignac’s dilemma is one of the literary vignettes that enliven the most remarkable work of economics in recent years, if not decades: the French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. It was first published last year in France, and its appearance in English this spring (Belknap/Harvard, £29.95) has caused an intellectual sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. It has been called “one of the watershed books in economic thinking”, a “magisterial treatise on capitalism’s inherent dynamics” and a “bold attempt to pick up where Marx left off and correct what he got wrong”. The American Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman has described it as “epic”, with a “sweeping vision”, while Jacob Hacker – the Yale political scientist credited with coining the term “predistribution” – has compared Piketty to de Tocqueville.

Piketty, who was born in 1971, has made his name studying the historical evolution of income and wealth distributions in advanced economies. A son of parents from the radical soixante-huit generation, Piketty was an intellectual star in the making from an early age, completing his doctorate on wealth redistribution at 22 before becoming an assistant professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A few years later, dissatisfied with the mathematical abstractions of US economics, he returned to France and began researching the work that would establish his academic reputation, Top Incomes in France in the 20th Century. From there, Piketty collaborated with other academic luminaries such as Emmanuel Saez, Tony Atkinson and Facundo Alvaredo to produce groundbreaking empirical studies of the highest incomes in leading capitalist economies, now synthesised into the World Top Incomes Database. These have galvanised new interest in the causes and consequences of widening inequality, while helping inspire the slogan of the Occupy movement: “We are the 99 per cent.”

The central thesis of Piketty’s latest book is that in societies where the rate of return on capital outstrips economic growth, wealth inequality ineluctably rises. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than economic output increases. The entrepreneur becomes a rentier and inequalities harden. We are returning to the 19th-century world of the novels of Balzac and Jane Austen, whose characters are caught up in the trials and tribulations of inheriting, living off or losing wealth.

Piketty’s thesis is arresting because he buttresses it with ample historical data to show that the reduction of inequality in the middle of the 20th century was an exception, not the norm in a market economy. Ordinarily, he argues, if capital is reinvested it yields between 4 and 5 per cent a year, outstripping economic growth. Wealth inequalities therefore increase. This has been true of almost all human history. The 20th century was exceptional because of the capital shocks of two world wars, decolonisation and the growth of the welfare state. The huge inequalities of the belle époque gave way to a more egalitarian distribution as capital was destroyed, taxed or nationalised to pay for the war effort and the building of public services and social security. Growth, on the other hand, was relatively high because of technological catch-up and convergence, particularly in Europe and Japan following the Second World War.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, these processes started to go into reverse, as growth rates slowed, capital was rebuilt, taxes on wealth and top incomes were cut, and the institutions of postwar social democracy were dismantled. Today, wealth holdings in the advanced economies are six times as large as annual national income – the same sort of level as existed before the First World War.

There are important differences in the structure of wealth inequality between these two epochs, however. In the Edwardian era, the richest 10 per cent owned virtually all the nation’s wealth in countries such as France and Britain; the wealthiest 1 per cent owned roughly half, and the middle 40 per cent only 5 per cent. Today, the top 10 per cent own 60 per cent of Europe’s wealth and 70 per cent in the US, while the middle class owns between a third and a quarter, respectively. In historical terms, this growth of a “patrimonial middle class” has been an important transformation, underpinning its political importance in distributional conflicts and its swing position in the electoral landscapes of advanced economies. In contrast, nothing has changed for the assets of the poorer half of the population: it still owns less than 5 per cent of the wealth, as it did before the First World War.

Piketty also shows that increased income inequality in the past 30 years has changed patterns at the top. The top 1 per cent of the income distribution now lives off higher labour incomes, and not just rents from wealth. As property has penetrated into the middle classes, so the “coupon-clippers” cohabit with the “working rich” at the very top. These are the “supermanagers” or top executives of large firms who have vastly increased their compensation packages since the 1980s.

In 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash, income from capital was the primary resource of the top 1 per cent of the income hierarchy in the US; in 2007, you have to climb into the top 0.1 per cent before that is true. Of this super-elite group at the pinnacle of the income distribution, between 60 and 70 per cent consists of top executives. Contrary to popular myths, less than one in 20 is a celebrity or sports star, and only one in five is a banker. There has been a “skyrocketing” of the pay packages of leading executives in large firms in the non-financial as well as financial sectors.

What accounts for this? Piketty argues that it has nothing whatever to do with managerial talent. It is the product of collusion between executives and their boards, pure and simple. When marginal tax rates onthe super-rich ran at 90 per cent, as they did in the 1960s and 1970s in the US and elsewhere, there was little point awarding oneself a huge pay rise. But when those rates fell to 25 per cent, there was every incentive to do so.

This income inequality produces its own peculiar ideology, which Piketty terms “meritocratic extremism”. Without very high pay, the argument goes, only those who inherit wealth can amass riches, which would be unfair. Very high pay rewards talent and enterprise and therefore contributes to social justice. Piketty is scathing in his contempt for this ideology.

“This kind of argument,” he writes, “could well the lay the groundwork for greater and more violent inequality in the future. The world may come to combine the worst of two past worlds: both very large inequality of inherited wealth and very high wage inequalities justified in terms of merit and productivity . . . Meritocratic extremism can thus lead to a race between supermanagers and rentiers, to the detriment of those who are neither.”

Given these findings, it is not surprising that Piketty’s prognosis is bleak. Without countervailing political action, we can expect worsening trends. Population will be stable or falling in the advanced economies, while the rate of technological progress cannot be expected to exceed 1-1.5 per cent. Hence, if the rate of return on capital remains between 4 and 5 per cent, it will easily outstrip growth. In the 21st century, current wealth inequalities will therefore be amplified, the consequences of which, Piketty argues, “are potentially terrifying”. We will all live under the dead hand of the accumulated inequalities of past generations. “The earth belongs to the living,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. But if Piketty is right, in the coming century, the dead will rule the world as “the past devours the future”.

A more competitive market – doubling down on the free-market experiment – will not spring this trap. As Piketty noted in a recent interview, “. . . the fact that returns on capital are higher than the growth rate has nothing to do with monopolies, and cannot be resolved by more competition. On the contrary, the purer and more competitive the capital market, the greater the gap between return on capital and the growth rate.”

Instead, we need to rebuild the democratic institutions that can redistribute income and wealth. His signature policy is a global tax on wealth, levied progressively at different wealth bands. He is politically realistic enough to know that formidable practical and political obstacles lie in the path towards that objective. So he sets out various steps towards it, such as greater transparency about asset ownership, and automatic transmission of bank data to tax authorities, while urging the adoption of a wealth tax at the European level. A tax at 0 per cent on fortunes below €1m, 1 per cent between €1m and €5m, and 2 per cent above €5m would affect about 2.5 per cent of the population of the European Union and raise about 2 per cent of Europe’s GDP.

This would of course require greater political and fiscal integration in Europe, which is why Piketty was a co-signatory, with Pierre Rosanvallon and other French intellectuals, to a recent open letter calling for tax-raising powers and a budget for the eurozone, held accountable to a new European chamber of national parliamentarians. Is this utopian? No more so than the “stateless currency” the eurozone already possesses, he says.

Is Piketty’s analysis too pessimistic? Thoughtful politicians will embrace much of his analysis. Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband’s intellectual consigliere, has read the book and called for its arguments to be debated widely. Piketty’s work gives substantive grounding to the core argument of Miliband’s leadership that Britain’s post-Thatcherite economic model generates socially destructive, unjustified and ultimately unstable inequalities. But parties aspiring to elected office will also be deeply wary of the politics of levying supertaxes on the wealthy, and with good reason: François Hollande is currently the most unpopular president in French history.

When the social-democratic and liberal politicians of the mid-20th century built the good society, they did so with an organised working class at their backs, pushing them forward. No such historical force exists today in advanced capitalist democracies. Nor do we really know from Piketty’s analysis what political action can achieve, because his analysis of the reduction of wealth and income inequality in the 20th century doesn’t quantify how much came from wars, and how much from public action, such as taxation.

Piketty also rests his central claim that the rate of return on capital exceeds growth largely on historical data, which leaves him open to the criticism that Dean Baker and other economists have made, namely that he underplays the potential to reduce inequality offered by progressive policies other than taxation, such as reforms to corporate governance and intellectual property rights, or egalitarian education and skills, wage enhancement and public investment strategies. He leaves largely unexplored the potential for spreading capital ownership itself more equitably in society, so that more can share in its returns. Indeed, his work could be used to justify wealth predistribution policies, such as employee share ownership, profit-sharing, the creation of new sovereign wealth funds and universal asset stakes for citizens, instead of redistributive wealth taxes.

The magisterial sweep of Piketty’s Capital is such that he cannot answer everything. His range is immense. And his open, fluent style will guarantee him a wide readership. In contrast to much of what passes for orthodox economics, he is engaged with the problems of the real world (indeed, he took time out from his academic career to advise the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal in her bid for the French presidency in 2007). The discipline of economics, Piketty argues, remains trapped in a juvenile passion for mathematics, divorced from history and its sister social sciences. His work aims to change that.

Perhaps his greatest achievement is to rescue the study of inequality for “political economy” – a term that went out of fashion in the 20th century but which is now experiencing a revival. Despite the enormity of the challenges Thomas Piketty’s book poses, it ends on a note of urgent activism, not acquiescence: “If democracy is some day to regain control of capitalism, it must start by recognising that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again.”

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, where Thomas Piketty will be speaking on 30 April. For details visit: ippr.org/events

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

0800 7318496