The French economist with a celebrated theory of inequality is back—this time with a theory of everything in 1,100 pages. But is he, Paul Krugman asks Prospect, sufficient a polymath to pull it off?by Tom Clark / February 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
Can a book change the world? Thomas Piketty looked as startled as anyone when his first doorstopper on inequality was greeted with this question six years ago. I remember the scholarly statistician’s transformation into a media sensation vividly, because the Guardian had me take a taxi with him around London to make a (possibly) comic video billed as “on tour with the rock-star economist.”
Now the Frenchman is back, with a tome that is grander in size and scope, and he seems less fazed by the interest and controversy that he generates, as befits his new project: exposing the “ideologies” that ensure that wealth begets wealth, and thereby entrench inequality. Things have been frenetic, and also testing in ways I hadn’t clocked when we spoke—with the resurfacing in the French press of stories about his being investigated for violence towards a former partner, 11 years ago. He is in end-of-day mode when we sit down for an hour—after a long day of briefings, media interviews and prepping for the LSE lecture he still has to give—but he looks if anything younger than he did when thrown into the limelight in 2014. And he has, like his new book, an air that is almost bizarrely optimistic, given the circumstances of 2020.
As I run through the list of Brexit, Trump, the abject collapse of the French Socialist party in which he used to be steeped, and the many other disasters that have befallen progressives since we last met, the bean-counting scourge of the super-wealthy chuckles, and suggests his Zen outlook might be the product of the chance he has had to keep “researching and thinking about inequality regimes” throughout world history. “You know,” he says, “the current level of inequality and current organisation of the economic system is certainly not the only possible one. There are alternatives, there are always alternatives, and history seems to show us they will keep changing.”
And in a way, this is the thread that runs all the way through the 1,100 pages of Capital and Ideology as it trots from ancient India to the French revolution, 20th-century Sweden and on to contemporary footloose finance, baffling some prominent readers as it…