I feel like one of the last kids on the block to take on this book, cited by Paul Krugman as possibly the most important book on economics of the decade. From an opinionated Nobel Laureate no less. The buzz, the hype, the blockbuster nature of CAPITAL: ON THE ORIGINS OF INEQUALITY IN THE 21ST CENTURY made this web-blogger cautious about taking it on too quickly. Was this a “black swan”, a good piece of work by a French thinker that could have been written (but wasn’t) by 100 other equally talented writers, or “the real deal.” It is the latter. I am listening to it the first time around on CD, an odd way to “read” an Important Book, but one that allows the listener to focus on the literary qualities—even poetry– and hear without easy access to tables and graphs. That can come later.
The book beguiles from the starting gate by its simplicity, down to earthiness, accessibility, common sense arresting phrases like “the regaining of control of capital wealth by Democracy.” It so far lacks the punchy agenda writing of a Krugman, Frank, Kevin Phillips on the “Left” or a Buckley or Breitbart, Friedman, Sowell for a Whitman’s Sampler of the Right Note: we put left in quotes because we consider the above mentioned to be centrist Left, and for that matter, the Rightists mentioned to be center Right. Although the comparison may be laughable, Noam Chomsky and Ann Coulter would be further out on the Left- Right Spectrum. And lively reading! Infuriating!
But back to Piketty. He immediately sets himself out of the pack by at least three writerly qualities, in his history and analysis of inequality as nearly if not The social issue of the last three and possibly next three centuries. He seems to strive to be: 1. jargon free (also cliché), he is clear and he is likeable, because of 2. references to books by Jane Austen and other familiar authors—not economists, but who breath a sense of the consequences of inequality into their stories. I am waiting for Charles Dickens. He is also, so far, 3. relentlessly Clear, and there, being anti-jargon, helps.
He then considers Malthus, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx (we are only in the Introduction is this piece) and bores in on the pervasiveness of inequality in every aspect of life, without, at least here, politicizing it or passing swift judgment.
Jeremy Harding, in the 31 July LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, surveying David Marquand’s MAMMON’S KINGDOM: AN ESSAY ON BRITAIN, NOW, takes this book’s theme of wealth and banality in today’s Britain down a playful notch by the following (p.13): “It’s true that we [British] have stuck a lot of what we had on EBay, we’ve learned to tell each other that the state is a costly prosthetic device we should cast aside to walk in the hazardous spaces of the market.”
But this arch line has considerable truth to it, and it weaves nicely with the social and economic concerns of Picketty about the new Market realities and dark places, although Piketty, for the moment is steering clear of playful sarcasm that makes the best, and all too rare, writing of the Left: Marx, Frank, and I’ll think of someone else if you give me a few minutes, come to mind. He is focused in his introduction on the ‘big Historical Force’ of inequality and its social and economic tornado path (or in his better metaphor “Deep Structure”), rather than showing his hand with any clear political agenda. Stay tuned.