It would be hard to deny that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has caused anything short of an intellectual firestorm. First, the book sold well in Piketty’s native France warranting an English edition. Next, without much advanced hype, the book sold out in English within weeks of Belknap/Harvard Press publishing it in the United States this past March. Then, curiosity swelled as to how Piketty’s magnum opus became Amazon’s and the NYT’s bestselling non-fiction book, outpacing the likes of Michael Lewis, who had just published his latest NYT bestseller Flash Boys. By April curiosity soon turned to fervor, prompting a series of propositions as to how we might make sense of “Pikettymania”: was Piketty’s book truly the successor to Marx’s Capital? Were Americans finally getting serious about economic reform, income inequality, and social injustice? Or, was this simply a timely title that went viral, a lot of chattering about a book without much actual reading and reflection?
There have been a range of opinions about the lasting impact Piketty’s book will have on the discipline of economics and how the general public will understand that impact. For example, Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman has argued, “Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.” And yet, I ask what does this “transformed discourse” look like? Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, it looks quite familiar in fact. Piketty (and his book) seem to be a lightning rod for punch-drunk praise, or tired critique, with little nuance and nary a sign of the new itself.
The critical reception of Piketty’s book has become almost as voluminous as Capital itself. Certainly there is some merit to the present reactions, but I wonder if we have lost sight of if not already extinguished the opportunity for the serious discourse Piketty’s text provided? It’s easy to praise r > g as a simple and succinct rendering of 21st-century capital and even easier to dismiss Piketty’s text on the grounds it does not pretend to traverse. But these reactions are perhaps symptomatic of an even easier, if no less obvious reality, highlighting in many ways the books hidden truth: despite a growing awareness of income inequality, and the inevitable social injustices that follow, we too often accept the complexity of global capitalism as a reason to ignore its brutality. Because of this, we too often treat interpretation as a careless exercise of assimilation, looking for easy answers, prefabricated responses instead of challenging ourselves to question our comfortable categories for organizing knowledge.