The pragmatic utopianism of Thomas Piketty

In April 2014, the economist Thomas Piketty found global fame; the French edition of his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century had caused something of a stir in his homeland, and when the book was translated into English the stir became a storm. It rocketed to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List and won plaudits from politicians, academics and commentators - there was even talk of a Nobel Prize. He toured the newspaper offices, studios and universities of the English-speaking world. Surprisingly telegenic for an academic, he was described, almost ad nauseam, as a ‘rock star economist’.

Keeping up such media momentum was, of course, impossible. Piketty is French, lives in France and writes in French. While many people in the English-speaking world made the effort to slog through the almost seven hundred pages of the book (and even more claimed that they had), fewer people would, or could, read him in French. So, while Piketty’s status as a public intellectual in France is now secure, few of his broader public have access to his journalistic work. Chronicles brings together, translated into English by Seth Ackerman of the American Marxist journal Jacobin, essays from his long-running column for Liberation, the left-wing daily founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge July in 1973.

Though he eschews the abstractions of a philosopher like Sartre, this is the tradition to which Piketty belongs - that of the left-wing intellectual willing to engage directly in the messy business of contemporary politics. His desire for self-confessedly unachievable objectives - most notably a global eighty per cent wealth tax - does not prevent him from offering policy advice; he has been a supporter, and then a critic, of the presidency of François Hollande, and is now - at least nominally - an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn. Utopianism and pragmatism are hard-wired into his intellectual DNA; his parents were soixante-huitards and Trotskyists, while a visit to the Soviet Union in its dying days persuaded him of the necessity of capitalism. This is a productive dialectic, and it enables him to take a critical perspective on a global economic system often seen as unalterable, perfect, or perfectly rational. Scorned by some at the time of the English publication of Capital as a Marxist, Piketty in fact offers hope for the rejuvenation of social democracy.

Piketty is something of a dreamer, and how much of his dream is desirable will be left to the reader to decide

These short essays, written between 2008 and 2015, cover a wide range of topics - from press freedom to refugees, from reparations for slavery to protests in Hong Kong, from French secularism to the 2013 Italian elections - always from the perspective, and with the careful attention to detail, of an economist. The first in the collection, on the bail-out of the banks in response to the 2008 crisis, demonstrates Piketty’s characteristic mastery of the economic facts, his clear explanation and analysis of them, and his sensitivity towards the political realities within which they exist. One of his greatest strengths as a commentator lies in his interest in the public understanding and perception of economic discussions, as his piece on the introduction of a carbon tax showcases. The final essay, from Le Monde, brings us up to the Paris Attacks of November 2015, and offers a view of the conflicts in the Middle East close to being reductionist in its reliance on economic explanations, but excusable insofar as it compensates for the lack of such a perspective in general; throughout, the book remains very clearly from the perspective of an economist, but, equally clearly, aimed at the general reader.

Despite the breadth of the subjects dealt with, the overwhelming majority of the book is focused on the political and economic reform of the European Union. Piketty advocates Eurobonds, Eurodebt and Eurotax (on wealth, corporations and banks); he talks of the possibility of national governments submitting finance bills to the European institutions and the creation of a European Senate for the Eurozone. He is a federalist, but a pragmatic one who asserts that federalism does not demand that “we make everything uniform and place everything in common”, but rather that “we need to place in common that which we can’t do alone. Nothing more, nothing less.” Taken together, the thrust of this book is an argument for a reformed and democratic Europe capable of global influence - more than once Piketty berates European leaders for consigning the EU to the status of a “political dwarf”, and implores them to take leadership so that it can realize its gigantic potential.

Piketty is something of a dreamer, and how much of his dream is desirable will be left to the reader to decide. But his writing, while taking justice as its starting point, does not make pleas to the heart or to our sense of morality as often as it appeals to evidence, pragmatism and fact. Politics is the art of the possible, and Piketty asks us to reconsider what is possible without fading into fantasy. This is his greatest offering to the contemporary left, who all too often seem to assume that everyone is as motivated by emotion, sympathy and outrage as they are. If Piketty has accomplished anything, it has been to furnish the left with new arguments, new ideas and, importantly, new practical approaches to global problems. His writings on Europe, published in English on the eve of Britain’s fateful referendum on membership of the European Union, should give us pause for thought, and thoughts with which to fight.

Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times by Thomas Piketty. Viking, £16.99, April 2016

George Morris is a Modern History graduate of Clare College, Cambridge. You can follow him on Twitter at @george_b_morris.

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