Thomas Piketty, the Man Sending Property to the Guillotine

Six years after the publication of the 800-page bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in which he defended increased taxation on higher incomes to reduce inequalities, French economist and writer Thomas Piketty is back with a new subversive and even bigger work. Weighing in at 1,104 pages - two pounds of paper! – Capital and Ideology was published in France last September and will be released in the United States in English this month.
© Ed Alcock/The Guardian

Last June, the French intellectual with the biggest international sales – four times more than controversial novelist Michel Houellebecq – went to see Joël Pommerat’s play about the French Revolution, Ça ira (1) Fin de Louis, a reference to the guillotined French king Louis XVI. He loved it. The production resonated with his favorite topic, the fight against inequalities, while begging an essential question: Why did the French Revolution fail to reduce them?

This then inspired another query. Six years after the publication of his exceptionally well-received book (2.5 million copies sold worldwide, including 400,000 in the U.S.), why has the proportion of wealth held by the ultra-rich increased even more? Piketty enjoyed a rock-star welcome from Washington to Beijing, invited by Obama’s advisors and the lea-ding Chinese universities. He had long conversations with former French president François Hollande, and worked as an advisor for the Socialist candidate in the 2017 presidential elections. But the Democrats in America and the Socialists in France both lost. Was it all for nothing?

Naturally, such events make one think. Piketty is proud, but also intelligent, a tireless worker, and passionate about moving forward. He decided to return to the drawing board, but this time by focusing on the very roots of inequalities. Why do we accept them while celebrating meritocracy? Piketty’s answer boils down to a single word: ideology. According to the author, we need to work on ideas and values, starting with the concept of property. Why is it sacred? Why did King Charles X force Haiti to compensate former slave owners, plunging the country into debt, without compensating the slaves themselves? For Piketty, who founded the Paris School of Economics in 2006, rivaling the London School of Economics, there is only one solution: sending property to the guillotine. So to speak.

The French writer, 48, is pushing his anti-billionaire theory a little further, suggesting a battle plan that “goes beyond capitalism.” As part of this proposition, property would become temporary over a certain limit, thanks to the introduction of a new progressive property tax reaching up to 90% above two billion dollars. As for power within businesses – share-holder voting rights – this would be capped at 10% with the rest shared amongst employees. In France, where the marginal rate of inheritance tax can reach 60%, even the left is wary of the inflexibility of this irascible descendent of Robespierre, the hero of the French Revolution for some, but a bloodthirsty ideologist for others.

We may have to wait until Piketty’s U.S. tour in early 2020 for the French to once again show enthusiasm for this economic troublemaker. This is what happened in 2013. It seems the history of ideas often weaves its own surprising path. Piketty had to appear, as if a pop star, on the front cover of Bloomberg Businessweek alongside the title “Pikettymania!” before he was read or listened to in Paris. Despite speaking English with an almost clichéd French accent (think Maurice Chevalier), the conferences by the economist and two-year MIT professor garnered a greater following in America than in France.

As the old saying goes, no man is a prophet in his own country. According to Roland Lescure, representative for French citizens in North America and a supporter of Emmanuel Macron, “Thomas Piketty belongs in the United States,” where inequalities are the most blatant. “He may find a place in Elizabeth Warren’s campaign team and as part of the debates in the Democratic primaries,” says Lescure. Two of the economist’s co-writers, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, are actually already working on a wealth tax proposition with the Massachusetts senator.

Piketty could be the best weapon in the French soft-power arsenal. After all, he is selling America his books along with the French social model – an overly generous one, given France’s growth rate. But this gamble may not pay off in a country that has always preferred to increase its number of millionaires rather than reducing it via taxation… or the guillotine.

Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press, March 10, 2020. 1,104 pages, 39.95 dollars.

Article published in the March 2020 issue of France-Amérique.