Thomas Piketty is a French economist famous for documenting the egregious thirty year rise in inequality. When his new book Capital and Ideology came out a few months ago, I started writing up notes — mostly based upon his presentation slides for the book and his course notes for a class based on the book. With each passing day, the inequalities he discussed took on increasingly fatal dimensions. Tens of thousands across the globe, in the U.S., and hundreds in my home state of Georgia have now died thanks to ideologies that uphold inequality.

As the U.S. in particular continues to unravel thanks to its attachment to an “ideology of inequality” I have four takeaways from the book:

  • It’s a decent read if you have the time and patience. You could probably get what you need from the presentation and course slides.
  • Piketty makes the point that if society can’t sell its citizens on going along with a given kind of inequality, then that society is going to collapse. We’re seeing now the early stages of what that collapse looks like.
  • The U.S, Brazil, U.K., and India in particular are trapped in fatal ideologies handed down from the slavery and colonialism.
  • The only bright spot I see for people on the dying end of the inequality is solidarity. We can learn from each other successes — we don’t have to accept this, we have the power to struggle against this. We have the power to say “no more”.

So who is Piketty?

He’s an economist that documents disparity. A succinct example is his famous “elephant graph” of income inequality in the U.S. from his 2014 book Capital in the 21st century.

The top 10% has regained 50% of the wealth.

Since the 1980’s income inequality has exploded in the U.S. and across the world.

Of course, if you’re Black (like I am), or Brown, or Indigenous and living in the U.S., this is nothing new. You probably have years of lived “receipts” from your life and those of friends and loved ones to validate the enormous disparities in wealth, healthcare, and justice. You want academics to “tell you something you didn’t know”, or at least offer some new thoughts on how to re-envision and bring about a more equitable world. Piketty doesn’t have many answers — for those there are hundreds if not thousands of local organizations like The Black Women’s Health Imperative, The Poor People’s Campaign, The Black Mamas Bail Out, Southerners on New Ground consisting of real people making real progress to address the myriad dimensions of inequality that are literally killing us. What Piketty (in the slides) does offer are nice graphs that can help place the struggle in an international and historical perspective. Maybe it’s supplemental information to your lived experience or the brilliant work of Angela Davis or Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Things probably can’t go on like this for much longer

Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for
them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in
danger of collapse.

Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology

As of today, some would argue that this society has collapsed. In April, the unemployment rate was believed to be 14% for White Americans, 16.7% for Black people, and 19% for LantinX people. That rate is expected to be much higher in May. This system of inequality has left 15% of its children without adequate food.

As of today, racial inequality in health care means that 70% of the COVID-19 deaths in Detroit are in the under-served African American community, who are just 30% of the city’s population. The COVID Tracking Project’s Racial Data Dashboard is showing how the human rights tragedies in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia are unfolding. In the age of coronavirus, the U.S. does not have an answer for the fact that 80% of the African American residents of an assisted living facility in the neighborhood I used to live in are infected with the virus; or why the city of Albany, GA, whose population is 73% Black has had critical medical infrastructure de-funded over the years, suffered the first deaths due to coronavirus in the Georgia, and has been dealing with one of the world’s highest infection rates.

The farcical “reasons for” inequality play out in the rates of infection and death of the undocumented, in Indigenous communities, among the incarcerated, in LatinX communities, unsheltered communities, low income communities, and among Black communities cities like Albany, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New Orleans, and too many other cities. Deaths attributed to racist systems of healthcare access that were too long unquestioned. For this, I think Ibram X. Kendi said it best in an Atlantic article

Why do racial disparities exist?
Why are black people generally being infected and dying at higher rates than other racial groups? This is the question of the hour. And too many Americans are answering this new question in the old, familiar way. They are blaming poverty, but refusing to recognize how racism distinguishes black poverty from white poverty, and makes black poverty more vulnerable to a lethal contagion.

And Americans are blaming black people.
To explain the disparities in the mortality rate, too many politicians
and commentators are noting that black people have more underlying
medical conditions but, crucially, not explaining why. Or they blame the choices made by black people, or poverty, or obesity—but not racism.

Ibram Kendi, from Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus

Of course, if you’re Black (like I am), or Brown, or Indigenous and living in the U.S., this is nothing new, you have a lifetime of receipts that have shown with clarity America’s commitment to inequality.

unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.

The recent murder of Breonna Taylor tragically brings to mind the assassination of Fred Hampton, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery follows the familiar pattern of state sanctioned lynching.

If you are old enough to remember the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, you know what societal collapse in the U.S. looks like, and this is it — you’re on the edge of dread waiting for the eventual spark that leads to the 2020 version of Watts, or Detroit or Ferguson.

The same patterns of inequality happen across the globe

It won’t come as a surprise that the kinds of ideology that enable these patterns of inequity happen across the globe.

Surprise, Brown and Black people see their interests protected by the Left
White supremacy and inequality cleave society in France
The racial, class, and caste divides are global
The disparities in the U.S. that you knew.
The divides mirrored in Britain

That the same race based inequalities play out in Brazil, France, and the U.K. on the one hand is not encouraging. That Black Britons are also more at risk of COVID death like their U.S. counterparts is tragically believable. That the persistent divides in caste in India mirror the U.S. inequalities is tragic. Piketty’s analysis of caste inequality is probably not nuanced enough to give a complete picture, but maybe Nitin Bharti’s dissertation is one of many starting points You don’t wish these hardships on anyone.

I struggle to come to answer the “Now, what is to be done?” question.

The paths forward

As I’ve thought through the book — or rather just the ways in which inequality and ideology intersect — a few things stood out.

Talk to your children.

In long breakfast conversations, my partner, Gayatri Sethi, and I talked to the 15 and 13 year old how Capitalism and it’s ideologies play out in the mess we’re in. My partner gave the unedited version of her sparring with various nobel laureates as a University of Chicago economics undergrad, only now having the words to express the depth of the racism inherit in their view of the world. She explained the meaning of the Tswana saying “a person is a person among people”, that humanity cannot be reduced to a profit motive, that you can only exist fully in a society when you acknowledge the humanity of others. We talked through Piketty’s The Economics of Inequality with the 15 year old — he understood it and wrote a successful book report!

Maybe building a generation that knows that things are wrong, and they don’t have to be this way, and what alternatives are is a good start.

Seek solidarity

My daughter at a solidarity protest

There are so many people around the globe, and down the block making moves to change things. Angela Davis mentioned the amazing work of Brazillian activist and councilwoman Marielle Franco, that continues despite her assassination. The protest movement in Hong Kong was largely responsible for the successful grass-roots response to the coronavirus, thus providing a path for effective action in the face of a pandemic. The same same activists are protesting today. The Indian state of Kerala has demonstrated how to effectively confront coronavirus with limited resources. With inequality so perversely compromising the lives of so many, there is actually a wealth of human ingenuity and experience that can lead us out of this mess.

Organize

In the U.S. an election is also looming. Again, it is worth noting the Hong Kong movement created the infrastructure that zeroed out COVID-19 in spite of an anemic government response. It’s worth remembering that movements like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Sit Ins, and the heroic Voter Registration Efforts of the the 1960s created changes that democratized the United States without the support of and in spite of the U.S. political parties. Freedom Riders did not need Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Libertarians, or Marxists to validate the legitimacy of their collective action. We don’t need politicians to approve our struggle for freedom or to save us from tyranny. The inequality graphs point to significant coalitions of every day people that could be organized around tangible change across divides of race, class, caste, and privilege.

I guess to close, I see room for optimism, hope and justice, because I know that human beings have shown an astounding inventiveness in transcending that which divides them in order to build that which saves them.

Posted by charlescearl

Data scientist at Automattic.com.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this lucid reflection.
    Nothing to add, but maybe the fact that the meritocratic fairy tale (I love metaphor) creates the need for charity when the answer is be solidarity. These 2 answers are NOT the same. Charity validates social inequality. Solidarity implies social justice.

    Reply

  2. That is a beautiful insight (I will quote it)! From what I can see the mutual aid groups (as in mutual support and solidarity) are the ones that are effectively addressing the issues on a local level — from housing to food. That is the one beacon of hope I see.

    Reply

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