Education and Property for All: Thomas Piketty on Capital and Ideology

24 February 2020

With the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2013, Thomas Piketty became perhaps the world’s best-known chronicler and theorist of global inequality. His latest book, Capital and Ideology, pushes the conversation on inequality a step further, examining the ideologies that justify inequality across history, and laying out a platform for what Piketty calls a “participatory socialism” for the twenty-first century. Capital and Ideology, translated by our own Arthur Goldhammer, will appear in English on March 10. Tocqueville 21 blog editors Danielle Charette and Jacob Hamburger recently spoke with Piketty about the history of inequality, his understanding of equality and democracy, and some bold solutions for restructuring economic relationships across the globe.


Danielle Charette: Capital and Ideology is clearly an ambitious book. It undertakes a history of what you call “inequality regimes” across many eras and in many different regions of the world. To tell the story you go well beyond traditional economics and venture into the fields of political science, history, sociology, and sometimes even literature and film. Of course, any interdisciplinary project comes with risks, since it requires commenting on fields in which you yourself may not be an expert. Can you say a bit why, as an economist, you organized Capital and Ideology in this interdisciplinary way?


Thomas Piketty: First of all, let me make clear that I don’t have a strong identity as an economist. I view my work more as the work of a social scientist, at the frontier between economic history, social history, historical economics, and political economy, or however you want to phrase it. I have written three books: Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century in 2001, then Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2013, and now Capital and Ideology in 2019. Basically everything I have done over these past twenty years has been about the history of inequality. No book is exclusively about economics.


Now, that being said, you’re right that this new book is even more a book of social sciences than the previous two. My study of ideology sometimes takes the direction of anthropology or political science. I felt that this was necessary in order to better understand the evolution of inequality regimes. In the end, my main takeaway—as I say in the introduction of the book—is that the origins of inequality are more political and ideological than economic, technological, or even cultural. I stress the fact that human societies always have imagination in the way they structure an economic system. I am very much against any deterministic view, and that’s why I venture into other territories.


In this book, I spend a lot of time talking about other people’s work. I take pleasure in citing work I like and trying to summarize books I find interesting in different fields. My previous book focused in a sort of obsessional way on my own data sources. A strength of Capital in the Twenty-First Century was the depth of statistical material, but some might find this a bit boring, or overly focused with certain materials and certain countries and certain time periods. Capital and Ideology uses other resources and the research of others, so it’s much broader.


The risk associated with this, as you said, is that I may also miss a lot of important work and important references. Or maybe sometimes I misinterpret some of the work I cite. All I can say is that I will try to improve this for my next work—and I am very much looking forward to people sending me references for things I might have missed. But the book tries to break down some of the rigid disciplinary divisions. Within the field of history, there are people who write about Soviet history, or about India, or the United States after the Civil War. But these different literatures are rarely in conversation. I think it’s useful to put them together and show what they have to tell us about a history of inequality regimes. My hope is that specialists in these different areas will have some sympathy for this approach and some tolerance for its limitations.


Jacob Hamburger: Since this may be related to the multidisciplinary approach of the book, I want to ask what exactly you mean by ideology. In your conclusion you rephrase Marx and Engels and say, “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of the struggle of ideologies and the quest for justice.” Of course some Marxists would respond that this sounds like an idealist conception of history, but I don’t think that’s actually what’s going on in your book. Capital and Ideology seems to be saying not just that ideas shape history, but that to understand regimes of inequality, we have to look at the sphere of political contestation, institution-building, and policy experimentation. To what extent is this conception of “ideology” distinct from what we might simply call politics?


The basic premise of the book is that every society—and to some extent every individual—needs to have an opinion on justice, to justify the existing structure of equality or inequality. I think we need to take these justifications seriously, even though they are sometimes self-serving or hypocritical. I’m trying to stress the fact that ideology is always more than this: it’s more than just a pure veil for your class interests. Of course, class interest and class struggles are important. It would be stupid to deny that social conflict is the main driver of social change. Just look at France with the gilets jaunes movement last year, or in Chile or in Lebanon more recently. I’m confident that financial crisis and social conflict will continue to shape and reshape political views and balances of power between groups. But your class interest or individual class position are never sufficient to determine your view about the property regime, the fiscal system, the education system, or the system of frontiers.


Very often you form these views on the basis of your experience of class position, but sometimes you use what you see in the trajectory of your family, or in the trajectory of your country and other countries. Sometimes you read books or exchange ideas. But ultimately you need to be able to describe what you can own in society: Can you own natural resources? Can you own other people? Can you own knowledge? Can you own buildings? How are these property rights exerted, and what are the powers of the different stakeholders in this relation? That’s the first issue. The other issue is the system of frontiers: What are the limits of the political community? What kind of relations do you want to have with other political communities? How do you treat foreigners? What I mean by an ideology is the set of ideas and discourse about how these different institutional pillars need to be organized, and how they change over time.


In my conception, ideology is broader than politics, but at the same time less institutional. People can have ideology that they express in their intimate family circles, or in novels, or in a variety of forms that are not directly political. But of course both notions are very related. Some people might have a view of politics that is much more driven by class interest than the struggles of ideology than I am describing, but I think many political scientists and historians will agree with the way I define the role of ideology in the transformation of societies. Interesting issues begin once we enter into the specifics of the different national trajectories and continental trajectories.


The general lesson when you look at this whole set of societies is that there are always—at any given class position or level of economic development—alternative ways to organize property. So, for example, the typical Marxist idea (though of course the ideas of Karl Marx were much more subtle than what is sometimes referred to as Marxist, and nobody knows what he would have thought about twentieth- and twenty-first century politics) of a one-directional change between feudalism and capitalism doesn’t square with the diversity of trajectories that I describe in the book. This is true both within European ownership societies with a very large diversity of trajectories, and also within the colonial world—and in particular in the interaction between the two. European ownership societies in their domination of other societies have completely transformed the conditions under which you move from what I describe in the book as the trifunctional or ternary societies, to ownership societies, and to a modern centralized state. This entire process of modernization has gone through a much more diverse set of trajectories than what is typically envisioned in the feudalism-capitalism transition story, and this diversity is very important in order to analyze the prospects today for inequality at both the national and global level.



DC: Throughout the book, you speak of the “sacralization of property.” The suggestion seems to be that we imbue property with this quasi-religious status. What would it mean not to treat property in this way? And how does this relate to your overall discussion of what you call the ideology of “propertarianism”?


One book which has been very interesting, and which I spend a lot of time discussing is The Great Demarcation: The French Revolution and the Invention of Modern Property, by Rafe Blaufarb. Before the French Revolution, we have a political and ideological system which very much relied on explicit religious principles. There was a religious class—the clergy—who were not only a spiritual class but who also owned a big part of the land. The clergy to some extent organized  educational or health services, not just religious services. Then of course there was the noble class, which was supposed to provide other services to society, in terms of law and order. I describe this organization as a “trifunctional” or ternary society, which looks very different from the “proprietarian,” or ownership society, that followed after the French Revolution.


In ternary societies, property rights and political or regalian rights were always linked. One was never a pure owner. The clergy or nobility needed to provide spiritual services or other services to society. Or at least this was an organizational story that made sense until a certain stage of development, when the rise of the centralized state made the nobility less and less useful, and the Enlightenment made the clergy less and less convincing. For all sorts of reasons, the legitimacy of the system broke down, and then different trajectories became possible during the French Revolution. All sorts of trajectories were possible, but the one that was indeed taken has elements of the “sacralization of property,” in the sense that people replaced one religious principle with another.


Blaufarb shows very well how the issue of social relations at the local level, involving unpaid labor dating back to serfdom, developed into a complicated system of rents during the French Revolution. People were afraid to redefine property. Rather than redistribute holdings to landless peasants, they in effect sacralized past power relations and transformed these relations into the language of property. Another example which I think is even clearer of this phenomenon appears at the time of the abolition of slavery and the issue of whether slave owners would receive financial compensation. This was an issue in France with the case of Haiti’s independence-against-debt 1825 deal, then in Britain’s abolition in 1833, and then again in France with the abolition of slavery in the other slave islands in 1848. In each case, the question was financial compensation to slave owners, rather than slaves.


Tocqueville expressed the dominant view when he recommended financial compensation to slave owners. The standard argument followed by “liberal” intellectuals like Tocqueville was something like this: if you start denying compensation for expropriated property in this case, where will you stop?


Looking back at the nineteenth century, it would have been fairer to compensate slaves, rather than to slave owners, and to pay this compensation with a tax—a tax not just on owners of slaves but also other large property owners who benefited from the entire slave system. Addressing slavery in this way could have led to a democratic deliberation about the right level of inequality of property and how to limit the concentration of property in a few hands. But this is exactly what Tocqueville wanted to avoid; it’s exactly what the so-called liberal thinkers—who were in effect the very elite, proprietarian thinkers of the nineteenth century—wanted to avoid.


This of course is an extreme example. Today we’re not dealing with the abolition of slavery, but we have other problems to solve—regarding natural resources, the ownership of knowledge, etc. Today we have a quasi-sacralization of billionaires. There’s an ideology where no matter the number of zeros in someone’s net worth, wealth is always good and cannot be questioned in any substantial manner. As in the nineteenth century, people ask, if you start questioning this sort of wealth, where are you going to stop? I think democratic deliberation, on the basis of historic experience, could help us set limits about what is a reasonable level of private property. However, it’s complicated, and that’s why people prefer to sacralize property rights—whatever their level, wherever they come from. We don’t want to know where Russian oligarchs got their wealth, but now that they have it, we say they should invest it in Europe or the US as much as they want, with no limit. I see this a big limitation on our ability to solve other problems, such as rising inequality, global warming, the diffusion of knowledge, the protection of public knowledge, and the preservation of natural resources.


JH: Your terms “proprietarianism” and “neo-proprietarianism” are interesting because they recall a concept that you don’t discuss very much in Capital and Ideology, if at all: neoliberalism. In both cases, you have an ideology, or a way of justifying inequality, that emerges in the nineteenth century and that reemerges in a new form in the contemporary era. Did you make a conscious decision not to use the word “neoliberalism”? If so, was the idea to draw the attention away from the idea of “liberty” towards a more explicit discussion of property?


Yes, it was very much a conscious decision. I don’t much like the term “neoliberalism,” because “liberalism” itself is full of ambiguity. It’s interesting to look at the history of this term and why it has come to mean completely different things in Europe versus the United States, but in the end for this book these ambiguities create problems. The second reason for not using it is that proprietarianism, or the notion of ownership societies, is much more meaningful for focusing attention on property regimes and property relations. And perhaps most importantly, the view that I try to articulate is that the rise of modern liberty and freedom actually has come with the limitation of property rights. That is because we’ve managed to balance the rights of property owners with the rights of wage earners, the rights of consumers, the rights of local governments, and so on. It was through this limitation of the rights of property owners that we developed throughout the twentieth century a system of effective liberty and access to fundamental goods like education, healthcare, and higher purchasing power for all.


People who want to equate liberty with private property usually have a political agenda, which is to protect the private property and liberty of a small group of people. I’ve seen this firsthand with some of the reactions to my work in some daily newspapers close to the business world in France, like Les Echos, or L’Opinion. I was not surprised that they were shocked by my proposals for a tax on billionaires, but they were even more shocked by the proposal for an “inheritance for all” of €120,000 at age 25. They were very concerned about what all these children of the lower and middle classes would do with this money, and what constraints we would need to put on how they could use it to avoid. They were afraid this would reduce their work incentives. But these same people have no problem with the fact that some people at the top inherit millions, or tens of millions, of euros. They seem to assume that these wealthy heirs will always do very clever things with the money they inherit. This kind of view of liberty in fact is very elitist and authoritarian, and restricted to a very small group of people.


Unfortunately, at least in my country, this is the way liberalism as a term is used. These people pretend that they are “liberals,” but in my view I care much more about liberty than they do, because I care about liberty for all. The way contemporary “liberals” instrumentalize the notion of liberty and liberalism for the sake of a small group does remind me a little bit of how liberal thinkers like Tocqueville in the nineteenth century instrumentalized their view of liberty in order to compensate slave owners. Since compensation amounted to quite a lot of money, Tocqueville had the idea to pay for half of it with taxpayer money and the other half from former slaves themselves, who would need to repay their former owners over twenty years. After all, they would have to learn to be free. It’s the same elitist view of liberty you see today. So yes, I think stressing the issue of property and how you organize property relations is more relevant to understanding the problem of inequality than the notion of liberalism.


JH: One of the parts of the book I imagine will spark the most commentary is your program for what you call “participatory socialism.” Can you briefly explain the central elements of this platform?


The notion of participatory socialism that I develop rests on a number of pillars, including access to education and educational justice, access to property rights, and the circulation of property.


To concentrate on property, there are two main directions that I propose to explore. One is co-management, and the other is progressive taxation and inheritance for all. With co-management in Germany and Sweden, starting in the 1950s, you have up to 50 percent of voting rights on the boards of large companies going to elected worker representatives, even if they don’t have any capital share. This means that if workers, in addition to these voting rights as workers, also hold 10 or 20 percent of the company’s capital (or if a local government holds a similar share), then they can command a majority, even if some shareholder owns the 80 percent. This is a view of property which is very different from the principle of “one share, one vote” in the United States and Britain. In France you have one seat for worker representatives, but this was introduced in 2013, so fairly late—and it’s only one seat, far less than in Germany or Sweden. I argue in the book that co-management has largely been a success, allowing workers to be involved in the long-term strategy of companies. The fact that workers have access to the company’s books, or to information on how CEOs are compensated, allowed companies in these countries to avoid the kind of extreme rise in top CEO compensation that we’ve seen elsewhere in recent decades.


I propose to extend the principle of 50-percent worker voting rights universally. But I don’t want to idealize this system, and I think it needs to be pushed further. One way to do this would be to put limits on how much of a vote a single shareholder can have, at least in large companies. A single shareholder can have 90 percent of the 50 percent voting rights reserved for shareholders in a very small company, but as the company gets bigger and bigger, you need more deliberation; you need to involve more people in making decisions. For instance it could gradually be limited to 10 percent of the 50 percent voting rights for shareholders in companies employing more than 100 workers.


The other pillar of participatory socialism is the progressive taxation of property. Progressive taxation of inheritance has been in place in many countries for over a century. It constributed to reduce wealth concentration and raised social mobility, but I think it’s not enough. You need to limit the concentration of property at the topnot only at the time of death, but also on a yearly level. This is what allows us to avoid extreme concentration among billionaires, and also to pay for a universal capital endowment, or “inheritance for all,” which I believe would go a long way towards changing power relations in society. Basic income is important, as is access to education, health, and the pension system. But access to property, in addition to all of this, is what allows people to set up companies or own their housing. More generally, it puts you in a different negotiating position in terms of what kind of jobs or wages you will accept. For many people, having €100-200 thousand euros of capital, and no debt, would make a huge difference. In the US, for example, the bottom 50 percent has an average adult income of less than $15,000, and so this sort of capital endowment would give most people very different economic opportunities.


JH: A thread that runs through many of the chapters of the book is the failure of not only liberals and conservatives, but also many on the left to reimagine new forms of property ownership.  In particular, you are critical of the focus of many socialist and communist parties in the twentieth century on the nationalization of industry. Can you explain why you think this focus on nationalization was so limiting? Do you think that there is something inherently undemocratic about the model of centralized state socialism, as you suggest regarding the Soviet model? If you look at some left candidates today—Bernie Sanders, for example, has expressed openness to expanding public control of power utilities—there is some talk of rethinking nationalization in a context where there has been so much privatization of industry in recent decades. Can nationalization still be an option for a “participatory socialist” left?


Sure. In my discussion of the ideal property regime, I stress the roles of three forms of property that need to be used in order to supersede pure private property: public property, social property (co-management), and temporary property, i.e. the permanent circulation of property through progressive taxation and inheritance for all. Public property, or state property, is also important. There are many sectors, including utilities or railways, that should be public property. In France right now, because of European directives, we are obsessed with the idea of cutting the SNCF [French national rail service] into pieces, privatizing railways and introducing more competition. I think this is stupid, utter nonsense—this is not going to lead to any extra welfare for anyone. So I am all with Bernie if he wants public railways or utilities. There are also other sectors like the education and health sectors, where you often have another form of property, nonprofit institutions. These can also be improved in terms of the way they are governed or the way they accumulate assets, and state property can be a part of the solution.


But this should not apply to the full economy. For most sectors of the economy, we need to look at different forms of property arrangements, including co-management and the redistribution of property to all. Now in the past, it’s true that the Socialists in France or the Labor Party in Britain were a bit too obsessed with nationalization—at least until the 1980s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they dropped this nationalization agenda, but they never replaced it with another agenda. So they were left with no platform for reforming private capitalist property, and I think that’s part of the problem we’ve had in the decades since. The problem with the social-democratic parties broadly speaking is that, for a long time, they could simply define themselves as the people in the middle between capitalism and communism, but after the fall of communism they didn’t have a positive definition of what they stood for. In the case of France, it’s very striking that the Socialist Party had a full majority in the National Assembly during 20 of the past 38 years, usually on their own, but they were never able to pass a law adopting German- or Swedish-style co-management. Instead, they nationalized some sectors, when they could nominate people from the finance ministry to serve on boards! Worker representatives were not part of the program. I think this has been a major intellectual limitation.


DC: Toward the end of the book, you talk about large-scale political realignments that have taken place in a number of countries. Key to this realignment is the character of the “elites,” and you identify two distinct groups of elites. The first is what you call “the Brahmin Left” and the second is the “Merchant Right.” What are your worries about these groups, particularly in regard to access to higher education?


In this part of the book, I use all the post-electoral surveys conducted since 1948 in most Western democracies, and I look at the following question: if you rank voters by level of education, by level of income, by level of wealth, what do you get in terms of who’s voting for what party? These three dimensions of social stratification are of course always correlated, but they are never fully correlated. You might have high education without high wealth, etc. But what’s very striking is that in the 1950s, 1960s, and to a lesser extent the 1970s, the social-democratic parties—the Labor Party in the United Kingdom, Democratic Party in the United States, the Socialist Party or the Communist Party in France—all get their highest vote share from the lower education group, the lower wealth group, and lower income group.


In contrast, if you look at the situation over the past 30 years, the education cleavage has completely reverted back on itself, and now it’s the highest education group voting for the democratic parties, socialist parties, and labor parties (“Brahmin Left”). This is less true for wealth: the wealthy used to vote until very recently exclusively for the right or center-right parties (“Merchant Righ”). This is a highly unstable equilibrium. What I argue in the book is that we need to account for this long-run transformation of political cleavages if we want to understand the strange political sequence of events that we’ve seen recently, in particular in France.


Macron in a way has brought the Brahmin Left and Merchant Right together: the most well-off voters in the former center-left party and the former center-right party formed a coalition. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy against Trump was not exactly the same, but tended in this direction. How did we get here? Let me be clear that I don’t have a perfect explanation for this evolution. But what I want to argue is that these social democratic political parties abandoned any strong ambition for redistribution and reduction of inequality. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, they had an agenda of educational expansion for those who did not have access to primary or secondary education. There was an agenda of pushing the educational frontier, pushing for worker’s rights, social rights, social security, and progressive taxation—an agenda for the reduction of inequality. Yet starting in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, this agenda started to be abandoned. Or, more precisely, this agenda was not updated to a new set of challenges, including the challenge of higher education.


With the rise of higher education, it’s more complicated to define what educational justice means. When the emphasis was on primary and secondary education, it was easy to say that educational equality means everybody has to make it to the end of primary school, and then everybody has to make it to the end of secondary school. With higher education, it’s more complicated. The notion of justice is not so easy to define. I’m not trying to say these parties simply abandoned the poor. It was more complicated: they didn’t make enough effort to define a new agenda. So that’s one explanation for the realignment. The other concerns attitudes towards property, attitudes towards financial globalization. Social-democratic parties did not really try to set up an international economic system that could allow countries to keep progressive taxation and fiscal justice together. In the United States, we often hear an explanation that stresses the role of the Civil Rights movement: the consequence being that poor, white voters gradually shifted from Democrat to Republican. But the problem with this kind of story is that you see pretty much the same evolution in the structure of the electorate in France, Britain, Germany, etc., without the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. I think it’s important to put this evolution in a broader comparative perspective.


JH: As mentioned in the book, this political binary between the highly educated left-wing parties and the high-wealth, high-income right-wing parties is an unstable one. One possibility you raise of where this might go is that these two elites join forces—you describe Macron’s politics as a potential version of this, and we might say the same of Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy in the United States—defining themselves as liberal cosmopolitans against the nativist populists on the far right. What we’ve also seen in the current campaign in the United States is that there is another possibility. Sanders has drawn more support from less-educated voters than Democrats have done for some time. At the same time, he and Elizabeth Warren have made canceling student debt and finally making college education free a central part of their platforms. Do you think a Sanders victory could restore the older left-versus-right binary, with a left party supported by the less educated, less advantaged classes? Or do Sanders and Warren represent a new type of “socialism” that leans further into the educational divide?


We can imagine that in the long run, everyone will get higher education. The fraction getting higher education is now above 50 percent in many countries, and is going towards 60, 70, or even 80 percent for the young generation in a number of countries in Asia and Europe. So the question is going to be, how do you build more equal access to higher education, and how do you pay for the middle-tier universities and colleges? So I think the approach taken by Sanders is the right approach.


Now, is this going to work right away? It’s complicated because as I just explained, the process through which developed a Brahmin Left and a Merchant Right has been a long-term process. It has taken place over 50 or 60 years, with the very large negative consequence of an almost complete political disaffection of the poorest group in society. If you look at the current level of voter turnout for the bottom 50 percent of income-earners in the United States, it’s extremely low, and in principle it could get higher with the kind of platform Sanders is proposing. But it could also take a long time for change to occur. One of the most damaging effects of this multiple-elite, Brahmin Left-versus-Merchant Right political system is that it has left the bottom group completely out of the system for quite a long time. This is not going to change in one election. It’s going to be a long-term process. But now I don’t think we have any option other than to try to increase turnout in this population. The fact that it might not work immediately doesn’t mean that we should not try.


Otherwise, the only other option is to be extremely cynical and say that since these poor people will never vote anyway—and when they vote, they vote for racist candidates—we don’t care at all about them. I think there’s this temptation today in a big part of the Democratic elite in the United States, and also in the ruling groups in France. I can tell you that in the Macron government and in the Macron crowd more generally, you have lots of people who basically feel—though they don’t say it explicitly—that they just don’t want to hear from all these poor people who have voted for the National Front for thirty years. Often they are sincere in the platforms that they are pursuing, but they have become accustomed to the idea that the bottom half don’t vote like they should. However the major fact is that they don’t vote at all. In France, the turnout among the bottom income groups has fallen dramatically to levels that are comparable to the United States.


JH: We would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the issue of climate change and how it appears in your work. In the French media, you have received some criticism from environmentalists who were left unsure, for example, of your stance on economic growth. Do we need economic growth for your model of socialism to work? Is your vision compatible with moving away from our growth-fueled economic system that has been so destructive for the planet?


We need to redefine what we mean by growth, and what we mean by economic welfare. For instance, I always try to use national income rather than gross domestic product (GDP). The big difference is that with national income, you take away the consumption of fixed capital, which in principle should include all consumption of national capital. If you just take oil resources from the ground or fish from the ocean, you get positive GDP, but you produce zero national income. If in addition, you burn the oil, you increase the world temperature and make the Earth unlivable, and so if you put in the right value for the carbon emissions, you actually produce negative national income rather than positive GDP. Depending on how you define what you are trying to grow and what you are trying to maximize, you can have a completely different picture of what you’re doing.


All this being said, I also criticize in my book and in the French media environmentalists who don’t take economic justice sufficiently seriously. If you have only environmental indicators without any income, or wage, or wealth indicators, then it’s going to be very difficult to build the sense of economic and social justice that we need if we want to solve the global warming problem. Look at the carbon tax issue in France and the reaction from the gilets jaunes. Half of the 2014 European MPs from the Green Party in France moved to Macron in 2017 and voted for the Macron policy package, which consisted of increasing energy taxes on the vast majority of the population in order to pay for tax cuts for the top one percent of wealth holders. Of course people went crazy over this! If you are saying you want to fight climate change, and if you decide to give the money to the rich when you could use the proceeds of an energy tax to pay for environmental investments, public infrastructure, transportation, and compensation for the poorest economic groups for their loss in purchasing power, then you run into major difficulties. You can only address climate change by reducing inequality at the same time.


DC: Capital in the Twenty-First Century was notable in drawing upon some classic novels to reinforce your analysis of social inequalities. In Capital and Ideology, you continue these literary references and refer to contemporary fiction and film from around the world. I’m curious, have you seen Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite?


Yes, and I’m very glad it won Best Picture. My book refers to Bong Joon-ho’s previous movie, Snowpiercer, a film that brings together global warming and class conflict. Everybody who has not seen it should. Parasite, in a way, is even more powerful, because it takes place in the Seoul of today. The same tensions around class conflict in Snowpiercer appear in a completely different context. The scene in the film with all the water coming into the apartment was just incredible.


You’re right that in my new book I try to appeal to literature and the arts from many parts of the world. Capital in the Twenty-First Century mentioned Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen and their narratives of European ownership societies in the nineteenth century. But authors from other parts of the world have also shown an incredible capacity to express the consequences of money, power relations, and class relations. This is true whether it be in Carlos Fuentes’ novels on contemporary capitalism in Mexico, or the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on migration patterns from Nigeria to the United States or Britain. Novelists have the ability to express the consequences of class relations, economic inequality, and people’s everyday life. I don’t have this kind of talent, but I try to illustrate that literature can be complementary to the language of the social sciences.


Photo Credit: Fronteiras do Pensamento, Thomas Piketty no Fronteiras do Pensamento São Paulo 2017, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.


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  • Bronwyn says:

    Property for all sounds a little bit communistic.
    The anticipation of the book is a very nice feeling. I hope to read it in March.

    • Tej Gonza says:

      A comment that “property for all sounds communistic” sounds a little bit ideologistic.

      Property for all may be communist, republicanist, liberalist, even capitalist (maybe not neoliberalist). There are many *isms that would support the idea. The important question is how to do it, and how to maintain it. This is the dilemma where the differences in *isms come in. Should we expropriate the current property owners, or should we find financial mechanisms that buy the property from the existing owners in the name of citizenry? What property are we talking about – shares and property in productive enterprises, or personal property like houses, cars? What about land, natural resources, air, water, should these categories (categories that were not “produced” by anyone in a classical sense) at all be “property”? How has a property become the property of the wealthiest, what was the primary appropriation like? If we manage to decentralized property, how to manage it? Should we leave it to the markets to manage it? The experience from the 90s (East and South East Europe) shows that citizens’ privatization does not work if government croonies and tycoons can simply buy this new, denationalized property from the citizens/employees.

      Lots of questions related to what has to be done.

  • Ewa says:

    This interview made me regret the demise of the Soviet empire: had the really existing socialist regimes survived (and it is curious why they did not), one could go on a field trip to a country without property rights and measure its freedom. This option nearly gone, nowadays one remaining way to understand why property is essential to liberty is to read Hegel, or Madison, or Montesquieu, not to mention the much maligned Tocqueville. To be sure, these great thinkers of the liberal past were moved by ulterior motives and narrow class interest, even or especially when they promoted abolitionism. But does this allegation not equally apply to M. Piketty, an abolitionist himself?

    • Tej Gonza says:

      There were property rights, but in the hands of the state and its representatives. The point is simple – freedoms and liberty are not accessible when the property concentrates. Either in the hands of the private or public owners.

  • Daniel H says:

    Very well-done interview of a provocative thinker. While I don’t agree with much of what he says, I think the interview helped us explore the edges of his thinking.

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