How do you fight an ideology

After his surprise bestseller Capital in the 21st century (see review in NG | FH 6/2014) has Thomas Piketty with Capital and ideology a second mammoth work has now been presented, which is explicitly based on the earlier book. The "capital" is already retained in the title. As he explains in the introduction, he is now not so much concerned with describing inequality, but with exploring why it is so difficult to combat or how it could be combated. Piketty suspects the obstacles in the field of ideology and politics, less in the economy itself.

Because, as he already explained in his first book (he summarizes these results again in the introduction), one can definitely fight inequality; this turnaround was achieved between 1920 and 1970. From their peak before the First World War, when wealth was around seven times the gross domestic product and the income of the richest 10% made up almost half, these values ​​fell to three times or more by 1950/60. a third, to increase again from 1970 and to approach the conditions of over 100 years ago. More equality is possible - above all thanks to more progressive taxation and also without the dramatic costs announced by market apologists, because growth was even higher in times of lower inequality.

A colossal show of strength in four main sections

In order to reveal the political and ideological roots of inequality, Piketty analyzes in two (of a total of four) main sections (approx. 250 pages each!) On the one hand the inequality regimes of the past in Europe and on the other hand in slave-holding societies (Antilles, US southern states), Colonies (Africa, India) and societies influenced by imperialism (especially China, Japan, Iran). In a third main section he examines the great transformation of inequality in the 20th century (1914–1975) outlined above, in order to turn to the political conditions for strategies against inequality in the fourth (and last).

The first two main sections contain a wealth of information and assessments, which unfortunately are not always ideally ordered and also structured in relatively different ways. The parts about the feudal regimes of Europe and about the slave economies are characterized by very extensive, also quantitative analyzes of inequality, while there the ideologies of domination take up a little less space. For the colonies, especially India, and the other Asian societies, on the other hand, data on the distribution of income and wealth are largely missing. Instead, Piketty focuses on the size of the various classes (government elites / warriors, religious / intellectual elites, productive "lower classes") and on the ideologies that justify these social structures.

These analyzes serve the central concern of the author, the critique of the ideology of inequality, since they present regimes of inequality whose legitimacy has almost completely disappeared. Hardly anyone today dares to justify slavery, colonialism or feudal structures in which the nobility and clergy exploit the rest of society. But the real scandal that Piketty reveals is not so much these regimes themselves, but the processes of their detachment, which led not to equality but to property regimes that were similar or even more unequal. The revolutionaries of 1776 and 1789 did not touch property, including slaves. And with the abolition of slavery, the slave owners received opulent compensation, not the slaves, for example, who were mostly forced to continue to serve - formally free, but de facto oppressed and exploited. France, for example, forced Haiti, the state of the only successful slave rebellion, to make payments to France or the slave owners in the amount of three annual national income as compensation, which, with the necessary loans and interest, meant continuous bloodletting, which continued until 1950 (!) persisted and has not been made good to this day.

In addition, Piketty shifts somewhat from the main strand of his argumentation, in that he keeps looking at international conditions, i.e. ultimately the distribution of income in the world between countries and not within countries. There are connections between the two, but they are not discussed systematically, only on a case-by-case basis. It shows quantitatively how high the foreign assets (and the resulting income) of France and Great Britain were. But Piketty concentrates more on the balance of power, whereby it is noticeable that the term "imperialism" does not appear in his work, even if he largely shares the findings assumed in this term.

The third main section is devoted to the crisis of property companies in the USA and Western Europe, which experienced a sharp reduction in inequality as a result of two world wars, the Great Depression and the challenge posed by the Russian Revolution and the state socialist alternative. A massive taxation of high incomes and wealth as well as the expansion of the welfare state with its security systems and free education and health care served this purpose. The rights of the owners were not only restricted by taxation, but also by rights of co-determination (especially in Germany and Scandinavia) and nationalizations (France, Great Britain). But, as he explains in the second chapter of this part, this social democratic project remained unfinished despite great progress in the 30 years between 1945 and 1975 ("Les Trente Glorieuses"). The educational revolution, in particular, paradoxically contributed to the failure of social democracy (in the broad sense from the US Democrats to the SPD, Labor, etc.) as it developed from representing the poorly educated lower classes to that of the educated classes and thus provided support lost to the poorer classes.

The second cause of the failure of the social democratic regimes was the decline and eventual collapse of real socialism, which undermined all anti-capitalist strategies and forces and gave triumphant credibility to the neoliberal counter-reform of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. What is missing in this context, however, is an analysis of the economic downsides at the end of the "Trente Glorieuses" (mass unemployment, stagflation, national debt, oil crises, etc.), which gave the neoliberal recipes momentum. The subsequent global unleashing of capitalism (privatization, deregulation, free capital movement, tax competition) produced a hypercapitalism that not only drove inequality to new heights, but also revived archaic forces of racism and nationalism.

In the fourth main section, Piketty looks at the changes in electoral and party structures and the social fault lines in the societies under study (USA, Europe, India, Brazil) that stand in the way of a change of course towards less inequality. The rejection of the traditional class struggle that dominated the post-war period through identity conflicts made it possible to mobilize voters from the lower classes against foreigners, foreigners, people of different faiths or people of color and thus to divert attention from the growing inequality of income and wealth, but also from educational opportunities.

In the last chapter, Piketty outlines his counter-strategy of participatory socialism inside the states and social federalism in the external relationship (on a European or global level). He relies on highly progressive taxes on income, assets and inheritance, the income of which is intended to further reduce inequality, among other things. with a capital base for everyone (120,000 euros by the age of 25) and more balanced financing of the education systems. Participation is to be strengthened both in business (including more co-determination) and in politics (reform of party funding). In the international area, he envisions a parliamentarization of supranational politics, which should improve the design and acceptance of the necessary regulations for the containment of global capitalism. A central component is the recording of all income and assets by financial and supervisory authorities and the international exchange of this information in order to enable the planned taxation.

Arrogant, but not arrogant

In the course of the 40-hour reading, the reviewer was probably as often fascinated as he was annoyed. Fascinated by the wealth of data and arguments, annoyed by the eclectic choice of literature references, the neglect of central titles, the superficial handling of theoretical fragments and the sometimes chaotic structuring of the wealth of material. So Piketty treats z. For example, at one point the consequences of the Versailles Peace with its gigantic reparation demands on Germany, without the classic work of John Maynard Keynes The Economic Consequences of the Peace to mention, however, two sides of Hitler My fight to dedicate. Many classics are neglected for a book devoted to the ideology of inequality and the property society. B. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, while others are presented broadly, e.g. B. Karl Polanyi and Hannah Arendt. The new book by Branko Milanović (see review in the NG | FH 4/2020), which fits in with his theses and offers a good supplementary (and in some cases also more clearly structured) analysis, deserves a more detailed consideration - instead of two footnotes on individual aspects.

A more thorough editing would have done the book good. In the 11th chapter on social democracy, Piketty deals with details on co-determination that would have fit better in the 13th chapter. In Chapter 12, on communist societies, he makes longer statements on the level of state assets in general, which actually have no place there. The entire 13th chapter is a colorful mixture of questions of method, climate, monetary policy (central bank balance sheets), patriarchy, etc. One has the impression that the author was buried in the avalanche of his own knowledge and no longer had the strength to spell out a rigid structure in detail . At the beginning and end of each chapter he makes the helpful attempt to give the readers a thread in the hand by looking back at the last chapter and looking ahead to the next. But especially in the second half of the book, this is often lost in between.

Piketty seems to have tried to achieve (at least) two publication goals with one book: On the one hand, he wanted to present the extensive empirical work that he has carried out with friends and experts since his major work in 2014 and published in various journals and above all on his website (which is worth a visit, especially if you want to go deeper). In particular, these are the studies on the distribution of income and wealth in China, India, Brazil and the Middle East, which complement his previous work, which had focused on the USA and Western Europe, as well as the work on electoral and party structures. On the other hand, he could not refrain from presenting a wealth of individual considerations on certain aspects, also fed by an often random selection of theoretical and - typical for Piketty - also fiction works, i.e. novels and films. While the chapters that present the interim work are mostly well structured and empirically supported by tables, the other topics often seem arbitrarily selected and placed. The book would have provided material for at least three books that would have been more focused on their respective topics and concerns.

In the final part, Piketty reconciles his audience and the reviewer with a very modest self-assessment of his work, in which he admits many deficits and presents the book as an introduction to a broad debate. Discerning readers are advised to start reading with this in the course of expectation management. But despite all its weaknesses, this book should - thanks in part to the now famous author - intensify the discussion about inequality and its justification. It is to his great merit that we have brought the limelight back to the scope and ideological basis of inequality and suppressed policy options to combat it. In the near future, its importance is likely to increase again in view of the Corona crisis: Because the sharp rise in national debt and distortions in the structure of income and assets require unconventional answers - as they were also given after the two world wars. Piketty's proposals and his deconstruction of the ownership ideology could and should illuminate and open the way for the development of socially balanced policy options.

Thomas Picketty: Capital and Ideology. C.H.Beck, Munich 2020, 1,312 pp., € 39.95. Website: