We, the puzzled citizens of the 21st century, have learnt that history doesn’t move in a straight line and that we might get some insight into our future if we take time to learn about our past and draw some conclusions. Amid the confusion of having witnessed the almighty fall of communism, the withering of social democracy and the collapse of deregulatory capitalism in the brutal economic crisis, we wonder which direction our democracy should take in order to avert the social fracture and implosion that inequality and the adventurous populism that piggybacks on it might trigger.
These are uncertain times and all of us are somewhat lost in our quest for satisfactory answers —that is, new ones— to the historical debates on power, freedom, democracy and equality. The old debates have been joined by no fewer than two new certainties —shared from many different ideological viewpoints— which demand an urgent answer: inequality has grown in wealthy countries and the environmental challenges are endangering our civilisation. These issues speak to all of us.
An inspirational thinker has made his appearance in this troubled scene: Thomas Piketty. He believes that history is the struggle of political ideas and the search for justice, which is the tenet of his new book, Capital and Ideology (2020). Piketty’s new 1,200 page essay follows on Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) —which sold 2.5 million copies— and, once again, the author aims to start a debate and provide hints to help us think about and try to comprehend the world we live in. Piketty claims that “inequality is neither economic nor technological: it is ideological and political” and he corrects Marx when he argues that, rather than class struggle, it is the struggle of ideas that constitutes the running thread in the history of human societies.
To start with, it is great news to hear that ideas are influential and transformational, as the author himself points out in a conversation with economy professor Albert Carreras, which you will find in this newspaper published as an interview.
Piketty argues that it is the struggle for equality and education —as opposed to the sacralisation of property— that has driven economic growth and human progress, and he makes specific suggestions for wealth-sharing and the organisation of the EU. Piketty does not intend to set a new dogma and he states that “unlike class struggle, ideological struggle is based on sharing knowledge and experiences, respect for one another, deliberation and democracy”, but he proposes “establishing a fair society based on participatory socialism and social federalism”. In order to attain it, he suggests establishing a regime of social and temporal property that would require power-sharing in companies, a progressive tax system on income and property, a collective regulation of carbon emissions to finance social security and basic income, an environmental transition and the introduction of truly egalitarian rights in education. In short, Piketty has the courage to formulate a new way of organising globalisation, which he calls democratic socialism in the shape of “social federalism”. This would gradually gain momentum once the 20th century inequalities have been curbed, the neocon revolution of the 1980s has retreated, communism has collapsed and the markets have failed to regulate themselves.
In Capital and Ideology, the French economist gives a biased view of Catalonia’s independence movement, which he pictures as a sort of movement by the unsympathetic wealthy with a tendency to introspection. In fact, this view is fairly widespread abroad among those who are unfamiliar with Catalonia’s economic situation as opposed to Madrid or the Basque Country’s, for example. In his interview with Carreras in Barcelona, Piketty nuances his position and offers an apology “to progressive, left-wing separatists, of which there are many, if I’ve failed to listen to them or read their writings properly. I haven’t seen —and perhaps I haven’t read enough about it— Catalonia’s left-leaning independence movement explain the kind of fiscal solidarity, European-wide fiscal solidarity, that they would like an independent Catalonia to be part of”.
Piketty nuances his views after learning about the tax hikes in Catalonia, but he is right when he states that —on the whole— Catalonia’s independence movement hasn’t spoken clearly. Following the torrent of events in 2017, the movement is still lacking in ideological heft, both on the centre-right and centre-left. It still needs to tell the public what policies it advocates in terms of fiscal solidarity and pro-Europe federalism.
Piketty has penned a provocative, stimulating book which helps us to think amid the confusion.