A brief history of equality

Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change, 1984


Commentary on Thomas Piketty's Newly Edited Book

The appearance of the French economist Thomas Piketty in the global public debate, in 2014, still needs to be reviewed by communication researchers as one of the greatest vexations of economic journalism mainstream. The fact that today's planetary bestseller Capital in the XNUMXst century, translated into more than 40 languages ​​and with sales of over 2,5 million copies, reveal a consistent trend of concentration of wealth in the functioning of contemporary capitalism and defend as a remedy a global tax on large fortunes and inheritance of the order of 80%, made the most renowned vehicles of the international press lose their composure, ethics and accuracy and start covering disinformation long before they rose up against opponents of fake news.

It is convenient to remember this sad episode for journalism whenever a new book by the author arrives in bookstores, as now with A brief history of equality, which has just been translated into Brazil. This reminder is like an antidote to misinterpretations by economic journalists and readers. The Economist, (who called him the “New Marx”), Financial Times, Bloomberg had a bad time with credibility because they were more concerned with disqualifying Thomas Piketty's research than analyzing it with the civility that should be accorded to all academic work.

In 2019, when it launched Capital and ideology in France, Thomas Piketty was already vaccinated against the virus of bad journalism. The reception to his new book [almost 1.200 pages, similar to the first book] was colder, however, it gained a lot in quality. It is curious to see that the same journalists who attacked Capital in the XNUMXst century had lost their breath to face the new discoveries and reflections of Thomas Piketty, precisely at the moment when the world surrendered to his suggestion of adopting direct income transfer programs – although the author, in an interview I did with him, in 2013, therefore, before its worldwide success, it has stated that it will always give preference to the adoption of a progressive tax system (although one measure does not nullify or dispense with the other in the arduous fight against inequality). Either journalists and economics vehicles lost their fear of the “New Marx” and “communism” or they were, in fact, embarrassed (without ever acknowledging the error) when they saw liberal governments “pikettyzize”, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. XNUMX.

Thomas Piketty's work, however, is much more complex than the search for clicks or the need to echo the voice of the “market”. However, although bestseller, the author remains confined to the walls of the university. With the exception of the slogan of Occupy Wall Street - I'm 99% – which appeared on several protesters' signs, little of Thomas Piketty's theory made it to the streets. Except boost the debate on inequality. But even the quoted slogan no one knew that it originated in his works, despite Joseph Stiglitz, to whom the slogan was attributed, revealed the legitimate authorship (okay, in a footnote!).

It takes a deep – very deep – economic, historical, sociological, anthropological knowledge to account for the totality of its arguments and, perhaps, offer some criticism or reflection. That, until today, as seen with fellow journalists themselves, is a limiting factor to enter the debate. Breaking this barrier is Thomas Piketty's intention now, with his A brief history of equality. The author proposes to write precisely for those who never had the courage to face their true previous “bibles”. Or perhaps that, before doing so, they need to attend alignment classes. It might be valid. Even for economic journalists. Not always Thomas Piketty, in this book, is as simple as he imagined it to be, however, incomparably, the book is much more accessible and tells the same story as the previous books.

The reader more familiar with the work of Thomas Piketty will notice a maturation of certain theoretical points that become identifiers of his thinking on social inequality and the condition sine qua non for the world to move forward in what he calls the “march towards equality” – which, by the way, for him, the world is doomed. Fortunately. Although inequalities continue to be established at considerable and unjustifiable levels, as we know, the reader finds a much more optimistic author. And who doesn't need it?

Thomas Piketty, as he underlines from his first academic works and was almost a founding stone of his line of research, highlights the importance of “strong demographic pressure” throughout the history of equality (or inequality) and how population aging will play a prominent role in the course of this march of humanity. And his supporting devices to make it effective are: democracy (universal suffrage, freedom of the press, international law), the progressive tax on inheritance, income and property, free and compulsory education (and he now argues that it should be “ complex and interdisciplinary”), universal health (raised to a much higher position in this book) and business co-management together with the right to trade unions.

This last point deserves special attention. Since Capital and ideology, Thomas Piketty explores this point as indispensable within any perspective of wealth distribution. According to him, in the current “hypercapitalism”, the management model by managers or CEOs paid by bonus and, therefore, focused only on the return on investment to shareholders is one of the greatest obstacles to equality.

His proposal is the transition to a “participatory socialism” (as he used it in Capital and ideology) or “democratic, ecological and diversified socialism” (which he adds now), based on a “mixed property” where there will be public, social and temporary ownership. In this way, it will be possible to overcome the dichotomy between the state model (Soviet) versus the capitalist model (American). The way to establish temporary property is the progressive tax system, since, with more resources, the State would distribute wealth through income transfer programs, starting with young people.

The lay public, rightly suspicious of economic projections or promises, might even receive Thomas Piketty's “utopias” with skepticism. But the reading of A brief history of equality it is less theory and more a class on the evolution of the social pact, with its cruelties, such as the legacy of slavery, its privileges legitimized by ideology and its revolutions and reactions. Before the “march of equality”, attested by Thomas Piketty, we need to understand what allowed humanity to take the first steps. Nothing was conquered without social struggle and the book provides a good summary of this slow devolution of power and property.

The author's prognosis is that, since inequality is a political construction based on historical choices, such as the tax, educational and electoral systems, other transformative mobilizations will be raised by social injustice. Even if this still depends a lot on the role of the press, Thomas Piketty insists that another world is possible, although still uncertain.

*Jorge Felix is a journalist and professor of economics in the bachelor's degree in Gerontology at EACH-USP. Author, among other books, of Economics of longevity: population aging far beyond pensions (Ed. 106 Ideas).


Originally published on the website NeoFeed.


Thomas Pickett. A brief history of equality. Translation: Maria de Fátima Oliva Do Coutto. São Paulo, Editora Intrínseca, 2022, 304 pages.


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