French economist Piketty writes a brief history of equality


The French economist Thomas Piketty offers a comparative history of inequalities between social classes in human societies in his new book as he looks at the great movements that have shaped the modern world for better and for worse: the growth of capitalism, revolutions, imperialism, slaverywars and the construction of the welfare state.

“A Brief History of Equality,” published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, is slated for release April 19. It was first published in French under the title “Une breve Histoire de legalite” last year and was translated by Steven Rendall.

“It’s easy to be pessimistic inequality. We know that it has increased dramatically in many parts of the world over the past two generations. No one has done more to expose the problem than Thomas Piketty,” a statement from the publishers said.

“Now, in this startling and powerful new work, Piketty reminds us that the great sweep of history gives us reason to be optimistic. Over the centuries, he shows, we have moved towards greater equality he says.

Piketty says his book offers a “comparative history of inequalities between social classes in human societies. Or rather, it offers a the story equality, because, as we will see, there has been a long-term movement throughout history towards greater social, economic and political equality”.

Revolts and revolutions, struggles and social crises play a central role in the history of equality evoked in the book.

This story is also punctuated by multiple phases of regression and identity introversion, according to the author.

Piketty shows how human societies have evolved in fits and starts towards a fairer distribution of income and assets, a reduction in racial and gender inequalities and better access to health care, educationand citizenship rights.

Piketty, professor at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and at the Paris School of Economics and co-director of the World Inequality Lab, explains that it was possible to write this book today “mainly thanks to the numerous international studies that have profoundly renewed research in economic and social history over the past few decades”.

What then are the main lessons that can be drawn from this new economic and social history? The author says the most obvious is inequality is first and foremost a social, historical and political construction.

“In other words, for the same level of economic or technological development, there are always several different ways of organizing a land system or a border system, a social and political system or a fiscal and educational system. These options are political in nature,” he writes.

Another lesson is that since the late 18th century there has been a long-term movement towards equality, he says.

It is the consequence of conflicts and revolts against injustice that have made it possible to transform power relationships and overthrow the institutions supported by the dominant classes, which seek to structure social inequalities in a way that benefits them, and replace them with new institutions and new social, economic and political rules that are more equitable and emancipatory for the majority, he elaborates.

Piketty says that more recently, the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid pandemic have already begun to upset various certainties that not long before had been deemed irrefutable, certainties regarding for example the acceptable level of public debt or the role of central banks.

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William D. Babcock

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