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Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Capital in the 21st Century - Reclaiming the Left for Cishetwhitemen

Thomas Picketty doesn’t understand much about the 21st century. If his book cost a little less than £30 I might have paid for it, and if it lasted a little less than 700 pages I might actually have read it. I managed the first few chapters, skimmed the next few then skipped to the policy recommendations before going back to play racist grindr 2048. Despite this, I’m pretty sure most other people with an Opinion haven’t read it either though, so I’m on relatively safe ground. In summary - I’ve no idea if anything in this book is true, it’s long, expensive and boring, and what it has to say has been said elsewhere countless times since. Review over.

BUT it’s already the most influential single piece of left wing literature of the decade, maybe the century. The reason relates as much to tone as to content. Pikety is calm and rational throughout, almost dispassionate. He’s putting a case forward, but doesn’t hector the reader, or attempt to blame them. This is marxism for the managerial generation, the solutionists who think themselves above petty ideology. It doesn’t matter what the numbers and the graphs are saying, the fact that they’re there at all allows those of a wonkish disposition to open their minds to far left ideas. The reader isn’t encouraged to empathise with the victims of rising inequality per se, but to see it as a problem they can solve, provided they’re clever enough.


For a book from the left to focus so resolutely on economics is unusual in recent years. Since the demise of the USSR and the ‘triumph’ of ‘neoliberalism’, the ground has been almost completely surrendered. Even post financial crash and austerity politics, everything is viewed through a social prism. At worst this can become self obsessed and nihilistic but at best it focuses attention on the lived experience of the worst off, building from the bottom up. Picketttty, on the other hand, has no intention of radicalising the masses, the whole argument is aiming from the top down. There are plenty of soft liberals out there writing on finance, but marketing serious expansions of state power in the same way is revolutionary. It’s left wing thought devoid of identity politics, privilege checking and post modernism, and that’s why it’s succeeding. Though it seems pretty unlikely Pikcettey’s recommendations will happen any time soon, he may have shifted the Overton window of the political classes. If so, the long term impact could be massive.

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