Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Thomas Piketty, a 43 year old, left leaning, French socialist economist, has written a 700 page book on inequality which has achieved something few would have thought possible. He has rocked the neo-liberal economic establishment to its foundations. To read the tidal wave of reviews by economics professors and others across the world is to get a sense of the impact that Piketty’s conclusions are having: that inequality is even more extreme than most experts thought, is worse than at any time since the 19th century and is set to reach nightmare proportions in the years ahead.
Even some of the most ideologically blinkered of free market economists, having read this book, now openly admit that the Professor Piketty has laid down a challenge which they dare not ignore and which could change the political environment. Many say he has “re-written the economic text books for this century.”
The experts are impressed less by his conclusions than the mountain of evidence he marshals in support of them. This book has been written with the active collaboration of many experts working on data – which has never been properly collated or analysed before – about how wealth and income differences have evolved over the centuries. Only with the latest data processing systems has this been made possible.
Examining the history of income and wealth inequality, Piketty recounts the extreme inequalities which marked the centuries before the First World War. In a fascinating section which follows, he links the reduction of inequalities between 1914 and 1945 in large measure to the sheer destruction by war of so much (mainly inherited) wealth.
But he also underlines that in post-war Europe, between 1945 and the mid 1970s, an unprecedented combination of higher taxes, social reform and strong trade unionism resulted in a gradual narrowing of inequality. But his documentation of trends since the 1970s is bleak in the extreme.
In describing the accelerating concentration of wealth in the hands of the infamous “1 per cent”, Piketty demonstrates the interaction between outlandishly extreme salaries paid to top business executives and the way in which this boosts not merely income but feeds directly into wealth inequality. In the US not only do the richest 10 per cent own 75 per cent of the country’s wealth but between 2010 and 2012 an almost unbelievable 95 per cent of the overall growth of income went to just one per cent of the population.
At the heart of his detailed analysis Piketty insists that “the central contradiction of capitalism” is the tendency for inequality to grow when the rate of return on capital (by which he means something broader than the conventional Marxist definition of the rate of profit) is higher than the economy’s rate of growth. He also notes that as developing countries industrialise, inequalities get worse, not better. In the developed capitalist world he warns that the prospect of slower economic growth in the years ahead combined with the political domination of the interests of the super rich in our political systems threatens to make these extreme inequalities even more grotesque.
Given this analysis, and Piketty’s title for the book “Capital in the 21st Century” it might be thought that he is fairly obviously a Marxist. But although he was brought up in a family of Marxists (his parent were militants in the French Trotskyist Lutte Ouvriere organisation) this is not really the case. While acknowledging his debt to Marx’s pioneering work, he highlights distributional issues and insists there are potential reforms which can and should be taken even within the existing capitalist system.
In essence this comes down to the blunt conclusion that there should be a coordinated, world wide annual tax on all forms of wealth (not just property). He suggests this might start at one per cent on wealth between $1 million and $5 million rising to 10 per cent or possibly more on fortunes above $1 billion. Piketty of course understands the enormity of this challenge but argues that “Although this risk is real, I do not see any genuine alternative: if we are to regain control of capitalism, we must bet everything on democracy – and in Europe, democracy on a European scale.”
This, of course, is where the political dialogue on the left should begin. Piketty admits such an approach is a very long shot. So could such a strategy have to await some prior existing “socialist order” or might the struggle to redress the Kafkaesque world of income and wealth inequality trigger a revival of international movements directed at achieving a new economic and social system?
At the very least this “extraordinarily important book” (as the Financial Times described it) provides the left with the arguments and the evidence for action which not even the most blinkered of defenders of the present neo-liberal order can challenge. We should take advantage of the obvious intellectual disarray which Piketty has inflicted on our enemies. This book should be in everyone’s local library.
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite