A brief history of equality

Image: Gareth Nyandoro


Commentary on the book by Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty published, in two decades, three very important works on inhumanity in capitalism: High rents in XNUMXth century France; Capital in the XNUMXst century; Capital and ideology. Each containing nearly a thousand pages. In 2021, it launched A brief history of equality, with only three hundred pages. Heeded readers' requests to be concise. “I present a new perspective on the history of equality, based on a strong conviction forged in the course of my research. The march towards equality is a fight that comes from afar and needs to be continued. We observe developments towards equality of status, property, income, gender and race in most regions and societies on the planet”. Optimism is backed by facts.

Progress is attested by health. Life expectancy, which on average was just 26 years in 1820, rose to 72 years in 2020. Infant mortality, which in the same period reached 20% of newborns, reaches less than 1% today. O Homo sapiens never dreamed of such longevity. Rare survived for 50 years. Wolfgang Mozart died at the age of 35, from an edema that spread complications in the body, then the third cause of death after tuberculosis and malnutrition.

Access to education and culture also points to encouraging numbers. Two hundred years ago, only 10% of the world's population was literate, against 85% today. Literacy years jumped from one to eight years nowadays, reaching more than twelve in developed countries. Former privilege of the upper classes, universities gradually opened up and, with the adoption of the quota system, promoted the welcome ethnoracial mobility. Disparities remain in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Thomas Piketty, however, emphasizes the gait growing egalitarianism.

Advances do not correspond to a spontaneous and linear law. They result from mobilizations, revolts and revolutions; and at the same time legal, tax, educational and electoral institutional provisions. Emphasis on formal equality, universal suffrage, parliamentary democracy (which is not lost due to possible defects, which are many), free compulsory education, universal health insurance, progressive tax on income, inheritance and property , co-management in administrations, trade union organization, freedom of the press and international law. All of this, in a global context dominated for forty years by neoliberalism and, consequently, supported by the uncontrolled circulation of capital without a social or climate objective, which evokes neocolonialism in favor of the wealthy and the typical mentality of hyper-individualism yuppie.

For Thomas Piketty, lessons must be drawn from the retrospective of the egalitarian movement. “One consists in neglecting the role of struggles and power relations in the history of equality; another, on the contrary, to sacralize them and neglect the importance of political and institutional opportunities and the role of ideas and ideologies in their elaboration”. Class position is not enough to coin a just society theory about property, taxation, wages, education and democracy. The lack of determination on such topics leads to the Habermasian recommendation for a broad debate.

Plural and multidimensional classes (income, diploma, gender, origin) demand patience from public opinion. Its plasticity does not authorize defining, beforehand, policies for a number of areas. Even the proposal to expand political rights, with the expansion of social participation, needs to be debated in order to generate a methodology with criteria for the allocation of resources. The needs do not coincide and do not express themselves with the same intensity in the zones of a national territory.

The unification of watchwords in the fight against unequal (neoliberal) policies does not mean automatic unity of thought about the alternatives. These require a concertation of points of view and respect for experimentation and collective deliberations, in order to reach consensus. History teaches that authoritarian one-party proposals, bureaucratic centralization, hegemonic state ownership, prohibition of cooperative ownership and suspension of elections do not solve.

Oscillating between Max Weber and Karl Marx, the award-winning economist sometimes attributes to the “elites” and sometimes to the “ruling classes” the reluctance to extend the values ​​of modern civilization socially. A true mockery in times of transnational billionaires more powerful than states. Possession of indecorous fortunes (which during the pandemic enjoyed themselves outside the law of gravity) is in contrast to the penury of the populace, as was the case at the time of revolutions in the world.

In Brazil, between 2019 and 2022, homeless people living on the streets grew by 38%, pushing more than 280 excluded out into the open, according to the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea). Compared to the survey launched in 2012, social poverty soared by 30,4% in 2020, covering around 65 million people, accuses the Laboratory of Inequalities, Poverty and the Labor Market (PUC/RS). Father Júlio Lancellotti used to remember that squares now resemble refugee camps where people find themselves in the condition of sub-people. The challenge is to move towards more equanimity, with the spirit of early Christianity.

It makes its way to walk

Inequality is a historical, social and political construction, and choices are always reversible. Inegalitarian structures vary according to societies and the power of competing views. The international division of labor and the use of natural resources, added to the accumulation of knowledge, affect the samba-enredo. In the path of equality, the difficult battles won against injustices allowed “to transform the correlation of forces and overthrow the institutions fostered by the dominant classes to structure social inequality in their benefit, in order to replace them with new institutions and social, economic and social rules. fairer and more emancipating policies for the population as a whole”. As in the beautiful praise of praxis for change by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Walker, there is no way / if you make the way to the floor".

In all areas of history, ill will deserved analysis and yielded knowledge. In classic reflections on the Republic e The laws, Plato recommended that the differences between rich and poor should not exceed the ratio of one to four. While the Enlightenment philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed that the emergence of private property and its excessive accumulation would be the midwives of inequality and social discord. It is worth mentioning that only after the First Industrial Revolution (steam machine, in textile manufacturing) did evaluations with data and statistics, of relative precision and confidence, start to be made about workers' wages and their standard of living.

The events of the French Revolution led to the extinction of the privileges of the nobility. In 1791, the revolt of the enslaved in São Domingo, which, with the defeat of the French army and the Declaration of Independence, was called Haiti, in return to the denomination of the indigenous people for the island, encouraged the abolition of the Atlantic slave oppression. Without social and union mobilizations, there would be no conquests of labor over capital, to reduce discrepancies over the centuries. In fact, the two world wars can be interpreted as the result of tensions and contradictions linked to the social turmoil prior to 1914, both domestically and internationally. It was the price to pay.

In the United States, a bloody civil war ended the cruelty of slavery in 1865. In 1965, Afro-American mobilizations eliminated persistent racial discrimination (buses, bathrooms, bars, etc.). Confrontations brought down European colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s. The existence of the former USSR forced concessions for a “capitalism with a human face”. The same, with regard to the apartheid South African, in 1994. Rightly, egalitarianism rhymes with humanism.

Apart from wars, revolts and revolutions, the outbreak of economic and financial crises (2008) and pandemics (2020-21) provided a perception, without prejudice, about the strategic value of the State for regulating the economy and building policies public. It was a mistake to encourage deindustrialization. The coronavirus has opened up the atrocious problem. Elementary products (inputs) were lacking in the pharmaceutical industry's production chain, such as hospital beds in ICUs, vents and, astonishingly, sanitary masks. Among us, there was a lack of vaccines. Stocked, 27 million doses were discarded, causing damage of R$ 2 billion to public coffers. They obeyed the genocidal necropolitics of “herd immunization”. Neo-fascist rulers made the bad worse.

The West helped spur China's industrialization by relocating factories in the name of lowering labor costs. In the struggle, he discovered the geopolitical error. The People's Republic of China is a candidate for the leading economic power podium. The Chinese nation has a mixed economy (not really communist). Public property corresponds to 30% of the total, enough to determine the location of investments and the creation of jobs.

The government holds 55% of the total capital of the companies. The Western powers, who persist in insisting on outdated cosmogonies, will not be able to limit the influence of the Eastern regime. If China is not the socialism we want, neither is it the capitalism that the World Economic Forum celebrates in Davos, in the Alps. The alliance with Russia is unbearable for Washington's organic intellectuals who, since Vietnam, have been more wrong than right in their predictions. Brics seam, with twenty other countries in the queue, is a lime shovel in world unipolarity.

A brief history of equality ends with a chapter entitled “Towards a democratic, ecological and diversified socialism”. And “participatory”, characterized by “forms of sovereignty with a universalist tendency”, adds the author throughout the text. There is no doubt about Thomas Piketty's intellectual-militant hope. Ideological struggles will accelerate processes towards greater egalitarianism in societies. The wave of progressive governments in Latin America is indicative of the audience gained, among the continent's peoples, by the banners for equal rights.

Alongside this, the outbreak of environmental catastrophes, the melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctica, rising sea levels, unforeseen droughts and storms and landslides, in risky housing in vulnerable communities, are already calling for mass protests. The future has begun. Young Swede Greta Thunberg is not alone. With her, youth marches with women at the forefront of human consciousness. The extreme right, the rearguard of backwardness, is obliged to attack “political correctness”, on the linguistic level, so as not to reveal its option for the devastation of the environment and its preference for hierarchies of domination and subordination, on the social level. In these circumstances, “they” take advantage of the chaos; “we” the rebel sap for emancipation.

* Luiz Marques is a professor of political science at UFRGS. He was Rio Grande do Sul's state secretary of culture in the Olívio Dutra government.


Thomas Pickett. A brief history of equality. Translation: Maria de Fátima Oliva do Couto. São Paulo, Intrinsic. 2022, 304 pages (https://amzn.to/446ZCUA).

The A Terra é Redonda website exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • A myopic logicRED MAN WALKING _ 12/06/2024 By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL: The government does not have the political will to make education a priority, while it courts the military or highway police, who do not move a millimeter away from the Bolsonarism that they continue to support
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives