Review: Thomas Piketty: Capital and Ideology

One of the most productive things 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. 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 designed to redistribute wealth (such as inheritance taxes) and the shift in the ideology of egalitarianism to ideologies based on the uncritical embrace of meritocracy.

The primary cause of the significant shift is that the political left (Labour and Democrats) shifted from workers 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 epoque 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 epoque (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). 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. 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 than 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 a ‘race to the bottom’ tax competition between nations).  Piketty argues that social democracies should form national alliances to regulate capital globally, 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 wealth distribution policies through high progressive taxation and high rates of inheritance tax. From the Second World War until 1980 was a prosperous, high-growth, high-innovation period. 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 on a more egalitarian footing. 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 Western countries (particularly the US) became so in-egalitarian is 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 Brahman 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.

In conclusion, Piketty argues 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 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 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.

Towards an ‘inconvenient’ Digital Humanities

Next year will be a reasonably big year on the Digital Humanities calendar in Australia. In March, we will hold THATCamp here at the University of Melbourne and also, we will establish our very own Digital Humanities Association in the first quarter of 2011. In the second half of the year, I will run a symposium with a Digital Humanities theme; possibly on reading or on Virtual Research Environments.There are also a number of projects that VeRSI is involved that will come into fruition in 2011.

In terms of a regional Association, there is a lot of work to be done. The term ‘Digital Humanities’ isn’t widely used in Australia but I have found little resistance to its use within the forums in which I have participated or organised. It is important to use the term ‘Digital Humanities’ as it is well understood in the US and Europe and as with all good research; we need to engage with the depth and breadth of knowledge in the field both locally and internationally so that this knowledge can be advanced (both locally and internationally). Plus we must acknowledge all the hard work of humanities scholars to establish the field over many decades. The Digital Humanities is research led and not service led. There are already a lot of excellent support mechanisms to support general computing in the humanities, but where the real gap lay is in research computing. By ‘research computing’ I mean using computers in a meaningful way to answer research questions (ie. the work of the  ‘Digital Humanities’). As an example of this; the Founders and Survivors project is using linking methodologies to link records about the convict experience in Tasmania and uncover new knowledge about convicts. Convicts are the significant founding population of Australia and the use of computing methodologies in this instance is establishing new knowledge about this population.

The Digital Humanities isn’t about publishing a facsimile of a document online and then getting excited about this new found convenience. I have never heard of an Historian argue in a historical thesis the case for ‘convenience’. Research is inconvenient; it is about asking inconvenient questions. It isn’t simply about creating new access to digital facsimiles of a document (this is why we have Google who do a pretty average job). It is about creating machine readable texts that retain and advance the interpretative layer of that text. And the Digital Humanities isn’t Benthamite, utilitarian, nor modernist. These idea are usually associated with industry and government water utilities. The Digital Humanities is about culture; the cultural use of computing to understand new things about the human cultural condition. And some of the things we discover may be uncomfortable and inconvenient.

The Digital Humanities is always going to have at its core a rich philosophical debate about its defining values and principles. This is the sign of the maturity of the field because what field doesn’t have at its core the same set of reflections. It is the Benthamite, utilitarian, modernists who need concrete definitions. They would like to see us ‘defined’ in a glass cabinet in a 19th Century Museum where we would become inert, safe, and a curiosity to be viewed on special occasions. But like all humanities research, the Digital Humanities makes critical, dynamic, and holistic people who create problems (not solutions) . It is a dynamic set of skills and values that we apply to answer (inconvenient) questions.

Decoding Digital Humanities #4 (November 25)

Professor Willard Mccarty of King's Collage London described the Digital Humanities as a 'Methodological Commons'

Decoding Digital Humanities is an informal monthly get together in the pub to discuss all things digital in the humanities. This is an opportunity to meet others working on digital projects (or thinking of starting one) and is open to staff, students, and faculty.

This week we will discuss the recent article in the NY Times on the Digital Humanities. In particular, some of the contentious questions that arise from the article such as are the humanities heading towards a ‘post-theoretical age’.

Also, if you have any ideas on how could be developed to better serve the local DH community, send them my way.

Hope to see you next Thursday: Prince Alfred Hotel 191 Grattan Street, Carlton.

Supporting Digital Humanities

There is a conference being held at the moment in Vienna, Austria titled ‘Supporting Digital Humanities’ (19-20 October). It is the first joint conference between the two major European digital humanities infrastructure projects, CLARIN and DARIAH. There is a very important distinction to be made here between ‘supporting the digital humanities’ and supporting the humanities. Accordingly, the conference’s aims are stated as thus:

Digital technologies have the potential to transform the types of research questions that we ask in the Humanities, and to allow us to address traditional questions in new and exciting ways. Supporting the Digital Humanities will be a forum for the discussion of these innovations, and of the ways in which these new forms of research can be facilitated and supported.

It is important to make this distinction explicit; that new infrastructure development must support digital scholarship (ie. the digital humanities) and not simply be about storage and publication (like older style digital projects).  Infrastructures should support processes such as annotation, text encoding, mining and text analysis, and programmatic access (trough APIs) to the underlying structured data. In this way new questions may be asked or old questions asked in new ways. Often, this promise of the Digital Humanities is evoked more than it is actualised, but still I think there are enough honest researchers in the field who care enough about truth in research, that the potential research findings from these large public investments will be substantial (link).

Cyberinfrastructure debates in Australia (Humanities)

For those interested in the Cyberinfrastructure debate within Australia for the humanities, there are a number of key documents to consider. Here is a report produced by Professor Graeme Turner for the Australian Academy of the Humanities titled ‘Towards an Australian Humanities Digital Archive‘. The report came out of a scoping study of Digital Humanities activities; in particular for consideration by NCRIS’s (National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy) investment roadmap. (Also see the Humanities and Social Sciences working group’s response to the NCRIS Roadmap review).

As a component of the NCRIS process, the National Research Infrastructure Council (NRIC) has been established to administer a programme called ‘Landmark Infrastructure Needs‘. Responses have been called for; here is a response from the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA). And here is the response from the Australian Academy of the Humanities (AAH).

And if you don’t know what Cyberinfrastructure is; it is like a big electronic brain that connects researchers together so they can share data and work on it collaboratively and answer big questions! Here is an example from the Earth Sciences called AuScope.

Decoding Digital Humanities (Melbourne Chapter)

In conjunction with University College London’s Centre for Digital Humanities, Decoding Digital Humanities is an informal monthly get together in the pub to discuss all things digital in the humanities.  This is an opportunity to meet others working on digital projects and is open to staff, students, and faculty.

The first meeting of this semester will be held at the Prince Alfred Hotel, 191 Grattan Street

Date: Thursday  29 July 2010

Time 530-730PM

To kick off this semester, it is suggested that we engage with the same material as our colleagues at UCL. Melissa Terras from UCL gave the closing plenary at the recent Digital Humanities conference in London which is online as text and video and would be a good point to start the informal discussions. This is from UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities web site.

The annual Digital Humanities 2010 conference held this year at King’s College London was brought to a close on 10 July with a plenary speech by Dr Melissa Terras (UCL). Due to the topical and timely nature of issues raised in the speech, we felt it would make an excellent focus for discussion. The assigned reading for our meetup on the 27th will be:

“Present, Not Voting: Digital Humanities in the Panopticon”. Text available here. Video available here.

Have a look at the video and text and come along and discuss at the pub. If you have any suggestions for articles, software, funding opportunities any ‘digital humanities’ ideas drop us a line and we will put it on the agenda.  The meeting is organised by Craig Bellamy and Conal Tuohy of VeRSI.,

DH2010, Review, #DH2010


(Opening Address, Digital Humanities 2010)

Digital Humanities 2010, King’s College London, 7-10 July, 2010.

Members of the VeRSI team attended the Digital Humanities Conference at King’s College London (7-10 July); the annual conference of the Association of Digital Humanities Organisations.  The conference in its various guises has been running for 22 years or 37 years if the first conference of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing is incorporated.  This year’s Digital Humanities Conference was significant as two of the elder statesman of the field, Professors Harold Short and Willard McCarty are both retiring. Professor Short has been head of the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King’s for many years and received a long, standing ovation from the 400 plus delegates at the Conference dinner. Professor McCarty is one of the strongest critical voices in the field and has built a thriving Doctoral programme in Digital Humanities at King’s and has published widely on the application of computing technology to the understanding of human culture.

This year’s conference also included pre-conference workshops on various applied subjects such as text-mining for Classicists, text analysis, peer reviewing of digital work, and even how to design a Digital Humanities Lab. Also before the conference, a THATCamp was held; an informal user-generated ‘unconference’ about humanities and technology. Subjects such as what is computing analysis for an historian, geography in text, and even a manifesto for the Digital Humanities were robustly discussed (a ThatCamp will be held in Canberra, 28-29 August 2010 )

The main conference includes papers on the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and various encoding techniques, Music Encoding within Musicology, Digitisation in Japan, and a number of papers on the state of the field in various regions of the world. The conference was well-recorded including the lively closing plenary by Dr Melissa Terras from University College London’s Centre for Digital Humanities about the state of the field online (