Review: Thomas Piketty: Capital and Ideology

One of the most productive things that I have done during Melbourne’s lockdown is read Thomas Piketty’s latest work, Capital and Ideology (Harvard University Press, 2020). It is undoubtedly not the most leisurely book to read, at 1150 pages, dense with footnotes, appendices, and graphs, spanning a three-hundred-year period, multiple countries, and the fields of economics and history. It is a monumental work of scholarship, and along with his last significant work Capital in the 21st Century (Harvard University Press, 2014), it provides a rigorously empirical, data-centric and troubling view of the undoing of financial egalitarianism in Western democracies. Piketty provides the historical reasoning of this, the monumental failure of the command economies of communism, the weakening of progressive taxations and other policies design to redistribute wealth (such as inheritance taxes) and the shift in the ideology of egalitarianism to ideologies based the uncritical embrace of ‘meritocracy’.

The primary cause of the significant shift is that the political left (Labour and Democrat’s) shifted from worker’s parties to parties of the educated (or what Piketty calls the Brahmin left). A more educated demographic is more likely to vote left; the less educated are more likely to vote right. Politics has become less of a class battle and more of a battle between elites; the ‘Brahmin left’ and the ‘Mercantile right’, with a bunch of Identitarian political cleavages to keep things interesting.

I will attempt to outline the four key arguments.

Inequality has always been justified by ideology, from pre-modern ‘trifunctional societies’ (church, nobles, and warriors), to slavery, colonialism, communism to what Piketty terms ‘hyper-capitalism’. All regimes had an ideology to justify financial inequality from the slave states of the Caribbean and southern United States (that drew up to 100% of their income from the slave trade), to Belle Époque France, to 21st Century hyper-capitalist states. Piketty has a knack for measuring the transition of inequality through various historical epochs using vast data sets of national income, taxation, and inheritance records. During the late Belle Époque (the period after the French Revolution) a ridiculously small elite owned nearly all the property in Paris, justified by the post-revolutionary-meritocracy of mercantile ‘egalitarian exceptionalism’.  It was only through the advent of progressive taxation and inheritance taxes in the 20th Century that France and other countries moved to a more quantifiable egalitarianism.

Piketty claims that communism was a disaster so great that its failure overshadows the regimes of colonialism and slavery that came before it (and this argument has infuriated the Chinese CCP so much, that they have banned his book in China). Plus, the failure to regulate capital through the experimental, centralised command economies of communism, has pushed western countries in another ideological and policy direction, to have very-little wealth in public hands. In fact, all that citizens now own through their governments (schools, roads, buildings, and agencies) is worth zero dollars once government debt is considered. Indeed, in some countries, governments must pay private enterprise interest as governments own less that they owe (and this has happened in the short timeframe of 10 years).

Social democratic policies are another area of focus of Piketty’s examination. Although they have not disappeared altogether (Norway, Sweden, Germany, and to a lesser degree, New Zealand and Australia), their influence on the world stage is marginal to the 21st Century libertarian notion of globalism (free-trade, tax havens, and ‘race to the bottom’ tax competition between nations).  Piketty argues that social democracies should form federal alliances to regulate capital on a global scale, as they have so successfully done domestically.

The social democracies were some of the most egalitarian societies the world has ever known, but this did not happen through mere cultural reasons or imagined ‘egalitarian exceptionalism’, but through clear policies linked to the unambiguous ideology of wanting to be egalitarian. This entailed political courage and enacting policies of wealth distribution through high progressive taxation and high rates of inheritance tax. The period from the Second World War until 1980 was a prosperous, high-growth, high-innovation period and this was archived through maintaining egalitarianism via high progressive taxation, especially in the US (up to 75%), which is now the most inegalitarian western economy. Piketty’s point is that fiscal egalitarianism and innovation are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, the opposite may be the case.  Globalism needs to move onto a more egalitarian footing, and this can only be done through alliances of progressive, egalitarian countries, something like a federal version of the EU (that presently only collect and distributes 1% of European GDP).

As Piketty argues, one of the significant reasons that western countries (particularly the US), became so inegalitarian is because of shifting ideologies and voting patterns, especially on the left. Piketty uses post-election surveys to examine voter behaviour and discovered that there has been an almost complete reversal of voting patterns among a less-educated demographic. Since the 1980s, the less educated are more likely to vote Republican or Tory, and the more educated are more likely to vote Labour or Democrat. This shift mirrors the reduction of progressive taxation and the heightening of inequality in western democracies. The policies of the left (or what Piketty terms the Brahmin left) are seen by the working classes as supporting high-education and high-salaries, whilst neglecting working-class demands (which are often essentialised as ‘populism’). The pressure of global capital, the ‘race to the bottom’ in taxation competition, and a highly fractured polity have perhaps forced the hand of progressive parties.

As a conclusion, Piketty seems to be arguing that we need to get over communism, try egalitarianism again, and learn from the social democracies. The state does not have to own everything (the means of production). It can foster egalitarianism through taxation and ‘fiscal justice’, inheritance taxes (that prevent inter-generational wealth accumulation), and workers-representatives on company boards (as is the case in Germany and Nordic counties). One of his more interesting ideas is that there ought to be an explicit public-inheritance, or that every 25-year-old could receive a sum of say, 200 thousand euros to set them up in life at an early stage.  This money would come from an inheritance tax on the enormous fortunes. The ‘egalitarian ideology’ that justifies this is that wealth should be temporary and not accumulated over many generations (that could see us return to the nobility of pre-modern times).

I am fortunate enough to have read both of Piketty’s significant works, and the irony is, this type of scholarship is only possible in the 21st Century. The synthesis of quantitative data with a historical narrative on such scale using such techniques has all the hallmarks of emergent digital humanities (or ‘big reading’).  Piketty has even made much of his data available for further analysis, visualisation, and debate in the classroom. The book was released just before the global coronavirus pandemic, so perhaps there is a historical moment now, as there was directing proceeding the Second World War, where we have the chance to recalibrate ideologically and again move towards egalitarianism.

Moderating successful online forums

As with face-to-face teaching within a campus-based classroom, teaching online through Learning Management Systems is an active process that involves planning and skill to create a productive environment for learning. The tools available to teach online have now been available for quite a few years, but in recent times have become far more intuitive, integrated, and understood within the learning and teaching process. Plus the expertise developed by students to work online; to complete tasks, to act convivially and productively in groups, and to communicate over distance, is increasing desirable as many more work environments become virtualised

 There are numerous tasks that instructors can perform to promote the productiveness in Learning Management Systems. However, the integrated suite of tools in which they are made-up aren’t necessarily productive in themselves and there is a lot that instructors can do to promote their effectiveness to address teaching and learning goals. This partly involves the ability to recognise in the first instance what may work better in a face-to-face setting, and what may work better online. Then instructors must devise coherent, engaging, and convivial activities to sustain the group of students over time, both on and off-line, to work towards these goals.

What works online?

A suggested way to integrate the Learner Management System into a course; it is to first do an ‘audit’ of the curriculum. Tasks such as group writing tasks, discussions and debates, assessment tasks, and the active and critical engagement with content—such as academic articles—can be done either on or offline. It is up to the instructor to decide what mode works best for their particular content coupled with the assessment tasks and learning outcomes. There are of course, tasks that Learner Management Systems do particularly well, such as delivering of core teaching materials such as unit outlines and pre-recorded lectures. However other tasks, such as formative assessment (the informal assessment during tasks), Learner Management Systems also do well and there are an array of communication tools available in them to communicate directly to students, either individually or in a group, to aid this.

Pro-active interaction

Once a decision is made to integrate certain tools, such as forums or virtual classrooms, into the curriculum, it is important to consider how they will be moderated to ensure that the desired learning outcomes are met.  The instructor must take a proactive role to make sure that the interaction with content, the interaction between groups of students, and the interaction with the instructor are constructive and meaningful (see: Salmon; 2012). The tone and calibre of the conversations ensure students may contribute constrictive critique confidently, without the fear of derision or personal reproach.

Instructors should intervene in forums, to moderate and guide, to reward good ideas and drive conversations. This is fairly similar to what takes place in face-to-face tutorials, however there are new opportunities in online forums, such as, to summarise the debate, to reinforce common goals, to place links to content to reinforce or refute an argument, and to reiterate at intervals the benefits of contributing to the forum. Plus forum are in written form meaning they provide a reference point for pursuing ideas for subsequent written assessments.

But as with face-to-face teaching, it is also important to push, to a certain degree, the responsibility for finding course related material and discovering new information—and thus the responsibility for learning— back onto the student.  There is a danger that the instructor becomes little more than a ‘search engine’ offering quick answers to question in an uncritical, encyclopaedic way. Scaffolding, linking, and delivering information in an interesting and challenging way will promote information sharing between students thus assist in the building of knowledge through dialogue.

Building strong foundations

Online sessions may be framed as an ‘online seminar’ or ‘online tutorial’ and may be synchronous or asynchronous, again depending on the content and activities. As with face-to-face teaching, it is important to make the topic of study interesting, to ground the objects of the study in anecdotes, stories, and in real-life experience.  Also, couching the object of study in discursive dialogue between students will assist them in learning from each other. This may take the form of a group of students coming together in a forum to provide feedback on an article; to summarise and critique it, and then develop a set of questions to bring to class to further explore in a face-to-face meeting.  

In general, ideas should be presented to students in such a way that they make sense in the overall course and the substantive conversations directed towards the goal of the course. Activities may be collaborative or practice based, but always with a set of clear and coherent goals.  In summary, building a strong foundation from the start, the planning of activities and the introduction and explanation of online tools in their context will sustain students in the longer term. Both instructor and student are working towards common goals, with shared responsibilities.

For more discussion on moderating successful online forums see: Gilly Salmon, “eModeration: the Key to Online Teaching and Learning, Taylor and Francis, 2012

New Book: Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics

DigitalHumantitesPedagogyAcademic institutions are starting to recognize the growing public interest in digital humanities research, and there is an increasing demand from students for formal training in its methods. Despite the pressure on practitioners to develop innovative courses, scholarship in this area has tended to focus on research methods, theories and results rather than critical pedagogy and the actual practice of teaching.

 The essays in this collection offer a timely intervention in digital humanities scholarship, bringing together established and emerging scholars from a variety of humanities disciplines across the world. The first section offers views on the practical realities of teaching digital humanities at undergraduate and graduate levels, presenting case studies and snapshots of the authors’ experiences alongside models for future courses and reflections on pedagogical successes and failures. The next section proposes strategies for teaching foundational digital humanities methods across a variety of scholarly disciplines, and the book concludes with wider debates about the place of digital humanities in the academy, from the field’s cultural assumptions and social obligations to its political visions. Digital Humanities Pedagogy broadens the ways in which both scholars and practitioners can think about this emerging discipline, ensuring its ongoing development, vitality and long-term sustainability (link)

The Google Book Settlement 18th February 2010


I am just reading Professor Robert Darnton’s new book titled ‘The Case for Books’. Darnton is a well know book historian, especially of the French Enlightenment, and made the bold career move to become Harvard’s Librarian. Admittedly ‘the Case for Books’ is not that good, especially for those who have been involved in academic publishing debates for quite some time. In the quest to reach larger audiences, the book appears to have lost some rigour and Darnton’s first-person monologue is a little too personal at times (he should keep a blog). Still, there is a lot of information on the Google Book project, especially as it relates to the looming legal decision in which I am admittedly not on top of.

Here is a initiative from the UK’s JISC (The Joint Information Services Committee) who have attempted to create a ‘social software’ solution for broader public consultation. Almost always these social software solutions do not work (as it the case here) as the sites lack of community feedback. Still there there is an excellent summary of the case and key issues (link to JISC’s site).

New Book: Joseph Camilleri and Jim Falk “Worlds in Transition: Evolving Governance Across a Stressed Planet”, Edward Elgar, UK, December 2009


The book that I worked on in 2006 as a Research Assistant with Professor Jim Falk is to be launched this Friday at the University of Technology; Sydney. The book is about the rise of ‘global governance’; driven by crisis such as climate and technological changes (I worked on the technology chapter).

The argument, and supporting studies, are built around a simple concept – that over the sweep of human history, ever more potent flows generated and shaped by ever more complex and sophisticated human activity, have increasingly developed across the boundaries around which prior governance institutions and processes have been erected. In this context the authors consider the growth of flows of finance, atmospheric pollutants, information, pathogens, and security threats, the challenges they pose, and the transformations to governance at all levels under way (link).

The book is to be launched by Helen Clark; the ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand. Well done Profs Jim Falk and Joseph Camilleri.

The book has its own web site (here).

The new Wheeler Centre Melbourne

The new Wheeler Centre is about to open in Melbourne and is hosting a number of events.  It appear to be somewhere between a think tank and writers centre. Can’t wait!

Our City of Literature status is not about Dickens on the tram, Nabokov in the Great Southern Stand or a Bronte or two over breakfast. It’s a recognition and celebration of Melbourne’s passionate readers.

We’re home to many of Australia’s best and best-loved writers, past and present. We host an extraordinary network of booksellers, a diverse publishing culture and a vibrant community of thinkers.

Being a City of Literature is about engagement locally and globally. Because there’s a public conversation going on: in our papers and online, on our TVs and radios, in our workplaces and homes. Books, writing and ideas flow through Melbourne and there is something for everyone (link).