‘Capital and Ideology’ by Thomas Piketty reviewed by Thomas Klikauer, Nadine Campbell

Capital and Ideology

Belknap Press, Cambridge, 2020. trans. Arthur Goldhammer, 1104 pp., $39.95 hb
ISBN 9780674980822

About the reviewer

Thomas Klikauer (MAs, Boston and Bremen University and PhD Warwick University, UK) teaches MBAs and …


About the reviewer

Nadine Campbell holds a PhD from the University of Sydney and has been teaching both undergraduate …


To an overwhelming extent, Piketty’s Capital and Ideology* – has neither capital nor ideology as core subjects. Instead, the book delivers an impressive amount of empirical evidence and critical analysis on ‘the nature of inequality regimes’ (15) even though, as the author notes rather frequently, inequality regimes are not natural. Radically, Piketty’s book challenges the l’idée fixe that ‘modern inequality [exist] because it is the result of a freely chosen process in which everyone enjoys equal access to the market and to property and automatically benefits from the wealth accumulated by the wealthiest individuals, who are also the most enterprising, deserving, and useful’ (18).

As a well-trained economist, Piketty starts with a classic line: ‘for the purposes of this book, an inequality regime will be defined as a set of discourses and institutional arrangements intended to justify and structure the economic, social, and political inequalities of a given society’ (21). While Piketty is an expert on economics and inequality, when it comes to the issue of ideology, things get a bit nebulous. He says that ‘I use “ideology” in a positive and constructive sense to refer to a set of a priori plausible ideas and discourses describing how society should be structured’ (23). His book does not deliver a sustained discussion on ideology. As a substitute, he tries to get away with a rather ambiguous definition in which ideology means almost anything and nothing at the same time.

Originally developed by French philosopher Comte Destutt de Tracy, ‘ideology [was understood] as a method of knowledge in social science’ (Klikauer 2017: 83). Napoleon abused de Tracy by calling his idea about science, ideology. Shortly thereafter, Karl Marx gave ideology an even more negative connotation in his German Ideology. Ideology’s negativity has been exquisitely described in Therborn’s The Ideology Of Power and the Power of Ideology (1988) in that ideological change, the ideological constitution of classes and ideological domination are formed from a post-Marxist perspective. Based on this and to avoid a Piketty-like everything-and-nothing definition of ideology, perhaps a more useful characterisation of ideology might focus on the purpose of ideology. One might argue that ‘ideology serves three key functions: it camouflages contradictions, supports domination and prevents emancipation’ (Klikauer 2017: 85).

Such a functional classification of ideology means that Piketty’s inequality regimes need to camouflage contradictions such as the promising equality – or at least equality of opportunity – while simultaneously sustain inequality regimes. Secondly, ideologies supportive of inequality regimes also need to maintain domination. This is the role of Piketty’s top centile (the top 10%) over 90% of a given population. Finally, to achieve emancipation, such ideologies need to prevent the 90% from revolting against the 10% (Hanauer 2014).

While avoiding a healthy debate on the role of ideology in sustaining inequality regimes, Piketty pitches feudalist – Piketty’s ‘tri-functional societies’ (27) against modern property societies – his code word for capitalism. Here, he rejects the notion of an inextricable link between capital and the political-ideological sphere when he emphasises that the political level is autonomous (33) from that of capital. If that is the case, one wonders why there are more corporate lobbyist than politicians in every country with the noted exception of North Korea and Cuba. One also wonders why capital operates a gigantic PR machine telling us day in and day out how wonderful capitalism is. In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Piketty’s l’idée fixe of an autonomous political-ideological sphere might be somewhat of a misconception.

At times, Piketty gets very close to the third function of ideology when, for example, noting that ideologies seek to ‘naturalize inequality’ while eliminating ‘alternative forms of social organization’ (43). Such a naturalisation is a classic tool of ideology in order to prevent emancipation. Piketty also gets close to ideology’s first function when writing that ideologies impose a specific meaning on a ‘complex social reality’ (48). Inside every ideology’s attempts to impose meaning lurks the denial of capitalism’s contradictions (Bell 1976).

The imposing of meaning includes the fact that ‘inequality has come at the expense of the bottom 50%’ (63) while others benefit. During the last three decades, those who beneft ‘were Russian oligarchs, Mexican magnates, Chinese billionaires, Indonesian financiers, Saudi investors, Indian industrialists, European rentiers, and wealthy Americans’ (74).

To make such stratospheric wealth and its accompanying inequality regimes acceptable to ordinary people, a handy ideology is needed. Such ‘an ideology [is] based on equal opportunity […] but its real purpose [is] to glorify the winners’ (103). As for the winners, this is ‘a very useful ideology for people [who] find themselves at the top of the heap. The wealthiest individuals can use it to justify their position vis-à-vis the poorest’ (289).

A capitalism sustaining ideology is not only a pathological machine, it also must be, and actually is, an ideology that appears to be plausibile. For example, ‘the ideology of American exceptionalism has often served as a cover for the country’s inequalities and plutocratic excesses’ (351). As in the USA and elsewhere, ‘inequality of wealth is above all inequality of power in society’ (610).

Piketty correctly identifies the source of inequality regimes when emphasising that ‘history teaches us that what determines the level of inequality is above all society’s ideological, political, and institutional capacity to justify and structure inequality’ (613). This is perhaps Piketty’s key insight in regard to the relationship between capital and ideology. For Piketty’s project of progressive taxation, the political context has hardly been inspiring in the period 1990–2010. Long before that, ideologies that sustained colonialism told us that colonialism will liberate and civilize nations. The actual conduct, i.e. colonialism, often led to outright disaster, suffering, and misery (881).

Piketty sees the years 1990 to 2010 as a period of rising inequality while saying that ‘the period 1950–1980 [was] the golden age of social democracy’ (1116). At this point, Piketty’s interpretation, at least partly and at least in the case of Germany’s social-democracy, departs from reality. The 1950s were governed by Germany’s staunchly conservative Adenauer – a strong opponent of social-democracy. Adenauer re-integrated plenty of ex-Nazis into the economic, legal, and political apparatus of post-war Germany. In the 1960s, these ex-Nazis still defined German politics with ex-Nazi chancellors and presidents. Having joint the Nazi party in 1933 with 2,633,930 members, Kiesinger used the social-democrats to become chancellor in 1966. Only in 1969, Willy Brandt, chancellor of Germany in a coalition with the neoliberal FDP, became a social-democracy. In other words, for most of Piketty’s golden years of social-democracy, Germany’s was not governed by social-democrats.

Still, Europe made significant gains during 1950-1990 then declined after that. West-Europe’s annual growth of per capita national income fell from 3.3% in 1950–1990 to 0.9% in 1990–2020. Meanwhile ‘the top marginal income tax rate fell over the same period from 68 to 49%’ (1226). Piketty’s book is full of economic data supporting his thesis that post-war Europe was defined by a high growth rate and high progressive taxation. Neoliberalism reversed this resulting in a more regressive tax structure combined with a slower growth rate. Instead of trickling down, a vacuuming up of wealth occurred under neoliberalism defined by a worldwide rise of inequality starting duign the 1980s (1327). From that time onward, the hegemonic ideology of economists mirrored the Anglo-American form of neoliberal capitalism rather than European social democracy or Germano-Nordic co-management (1357).

In addition to that, neoliberalism (a term that Picketty does not use) has also assured that neoliberalism’s economic and financial system became ever more impervious. Piketty laments the poor state of recording and measuring income and wealth. For Piketty, this complicates his task of engaging in an informed global debate about inequality (1485). This may not be a refusal to take inequality seriously (1501) as Piketty claims, but instead is a deliberate strategy to hide inequality regimes.

Ideology also camouflages contradictions like these. ‘[K]erosene is totally exempt from the carbon tax under European competition rules. What this means is that people of modest means who drive to work every morning must pay the full carbon tax on the gasoline they use, but wealthy people who fly off for a weekend vacation pay no tax on the jet fuel they consume’ (1522). Ideology also obscures the fact that ‘from 1987 to 2017, the average wealth of the 100 millionth richest people in the world […] grew by 6.4% a year globally, and the average person’s wealth grew by 1.9% a year’ (1554). We know this as wage stagnation. Ideologies have been used to justify wage stagnation on a global scale. The transmission of these ideologies falls onto corporate mass media. These work tirelessly to camouflage contradictions, support domination and prevents emancipation.

As a necessary consequence of capital’s dependency on ideology, inequality regimes necessarily need to correspond with ideas of justice. Capitalism’s global inequalities have to be justified. The ideologies used to achieve this need to be plausible. They have to deliver a coherent vision of capitalism’s political institutions. Justifying ideologies and inequality regimes impact differently on different classes. Piketty uses upper, middle and lower class, but interestingly, he divides the middle and upper class into ‘the Brahmin left and the merchant right’ (1728).

On the former, middle class, Piketty argues that the US-democrats and European left – socialists and social-democrats – have left the working class behind focusing instead on what Piketty calls the Brahmins. These are citoyen, i.e. an enlightened middle class that favours social justice, democracy, and equality. He shows that this enlightened middle class of citoyen tends to vote for the progressive parties. For example, ‘in the 2016 presidential election, voters with doctoral degrees (2% of the electorate) voted 75% […] for the Democrat’ (1852). Furthermore, in all countries in Piketty’s book, ‘less educated voters have little by little ceased to vote for the parties of the left’ (1983).

Piketty blames this on the failure of US Democrats and European social-democratic parties to develop an international programme of solidarity that supports the lower class. This smacks of blaming the victim. There is a reason why the less educated voters have little by little ceased to vote for the parties of the left. One reason is that corporate mass media has, over the last forty years, made significant inroads into the working class consciousness with Murdoch being one of the key contributors (Frank 2005; Bageant 2007; Jones 2011; Peck 2018).

Perhaps Piketty’s analysis hinges on two problems. Firstly, Piketty might like to reverse cause and effect to understand what is happening. Today’s lower class has been captured by right-wing media securely locking it in right-wing populism as seen in India, the Philippines, the US, the UK, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, etc. – the list goes on. In other words, the upper-class votes for an ideology that defends private property and capitalism (2219). Meanwhile, large sections of the lower class have been captured by right-wing populism. Wedged between both, the middle class is divided into petty bourgeoisie and the democratic citoyen or what Piketty calls left Brahmins. With a shrinking reservoir of voters, European social-democracy suffered the same faith as communists did before them – electoral wipeout.

Ideas like Piketty’s demand for a ‘90% tax on billionaires’ (2245) no longer reach the lower class while the petty bourgeoisie middle class rejects such ideas just as the bourgeoisie upper class. What remains is the narrow pool of enlightened citoyen, and these are not enough to win elections as we have seen throughout the last decades defined by the demise of the communists first and the social-democrats later. Moreover, taxing billionaires 90% means taking away 90% of $1,000,000,000. This leaves $100 million to live on – enough for the 2,208 billionaires of the world.

Piketty’s concludes that ‘every ideology has its weaknesses, but no human society can live without an ideology to make sense of its inequalities’ (2326). While this is surely the case, Piketty’s survey of inequality regimes and its political consequences pretends, like to many, that the media plays a little role in all this even though the media and capitalism are inextricably linked. Capitalism depends on the media for two reasons. Firstly, the media makes us spend money that we do not have, on things we do not need, to impress people who do not care. This is called consumerism which runs on marketing. Secondly, capitalism depends on a supportive hegemonic environment with an ideology that tells us the capitalism is good, and there is TINA: there is no alternative to capitalism. This is the task of propaganda and public relations (Bernays 1928; Wimberly 2019).

In the end, Piketty’s book presents a wealth of information, economic evidence and political analysis, stretching over a whopping thousand pages. Piketty’s core premise that capitalism generates inequality regimes is sound and supported by a wealth of evidence. These inadequacies were a major issue of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014). Piketty’s definition of capital as predominantly a financial measure of equipment, money, financial assets, land and other valuables will discourage a more Marxist oriented perspective. Even though Piketty seeks to remedy this in his current work, his analysis undervalues several deeper issues.

By contrast, Marx focused more on a philosophical description of capital, including its ethical, sociological, psychological, political, and financial aspects. For Marx, capital is always expressed as a social relationship establishing relations of production. While grossly under-theorising ideology, Piketty spends very little time on production. For him, Capital and Ideology is about re-distribution via progressive taxation. Still, his demands for progressive taxation are well placed. Despite his insufficient grasping of ideology and a few problems in the understanding of politics, Capital and Ideology makes for exquisite reading.

* Note: The review was conducted using the ebook version of Capital and Ideology  which has 2,487 pages.

25 April 2020


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  • Hanauer, Nick 2014 Beware Fellow Plutocrats, the Pitchforks Are Coming TED https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2gO4DKVpa8
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  • Therborn, Göran 1988 The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology London: Verso
  • Wimberly, Cory 2019 How Propaganda Became Public Relations: Foucault and the Corporate Government of the Public London: Routledge

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