Sociological ruminations on Piketty

A sociologist reflects on Thomas Piketty.

Mike Savage, July 1st

Authors note: this is a stream of consciousness set of reflections, which i hope to work up for publication. Comments very welcome!

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In the short time since Capital in the twenty first century was published in English, it is clear that Thomas Piketty has opened up a moment of fundamental possibility for contemporary social science to satisfy the thirst for wide ranging social analysis which has not been slaked in recent decades. Rather than play to specialist academic communities, mired in their own paradigms and technical toolkits, Piketty displays, in a series of gripping tables, figures and charts, interspersed with pithy and cogent prose asides, the long term patterns of economic growth, wealth and capital across numerous nations over the past two hundred years. In this venture he connects fundamental research interests across the social sciences. He places questions of accumulation and inequality at the heart of his interpretation.

I should come clean at the outset. I had originally been invited by Jerome Bourdieu to Paris in spring 2014 to speak at an event to mark the launch of Piketty’s book in English. Having initially agreed, in the end, confronted with a busy diary and numerous competing demands, I passed up the opportunity, little realising what I was missing. When the public tumult began I was initially bemused, feeling marginally shamefaced that I had missed my opportunity to be at the stage from the outset. It took me a little while to get hold of the book. Beginning it in a spare hour one weekend, I was immediately consumed and read it from cover to cover in pretty much in one sitting over the next day or so. I have not done this for many years – not for Bourdieu, or Deleuze, or Latour or any of the hallowed soothsayers of our times. Put simply, Piketty’s book is fundamentally the most riveting and accessible work of social science which I have read for decades.

Why is the book so fascinating to me? Certainly, it captures a certain zeitgeist associated with the growing public recognition that the rising significance of the very wealthy is one of the defining issues of our time. And its interests in elites chime closely with my own concerns with conceptualising the elite groups[1].  Its unusual willingness to offer policy recommendations – notably in his call for a wealth tax – alongside its academic pronouncements is striking. But for me, it is the way that he also raises fundamental social scientific questions in addressing his concern with the nature of capital that is so striking. Although he is not a Marxist, his spirit of inquiry has a certain sweeping power which reminds me of the best work of this tradition.

It has become clear that debate on Piketty has settled into political disputes about the value of his proposed wealth tax, and reflections on the quality of his data sources, his (lack of?) economic theory and so on. These foci are not surprising given the nature of his book. However, I want to avoid the debate concentrating completely on these economic issues as I think he also offers an unusual – and I will argue highly insightful, even though not uncontentious – angle to explore fundamental questions of historical change, social class and inequality, and indeed the nature of the sociology and the social sciences themselves.

In this blog I therefore want to approach Piketty sociologically in order to bring out three features of his work which I think offer challenges, and also resources to sociology. These are firstly, his descriptive mode of presentation, and the way that he has elaborated a kind of ‘sociology of inheritance’; secondly his conceptualisation of time, history and social change – which seems massively at odds with sociological orthodoxy; and finally his conceptualisation of social classes and privilege in general. In all three of these areas, I will suggest, Piketty unsettles sociological perspectives in ways which are profoundly important and in my view offer resources for better kinds of sociology. This is not to say that there are no problems with his perspective, and indeed I will seek to bring these out, but it is to argue that he poses a set of fascinating opportunities for reflection.

 

1: Economics and Social Science

It is the fact that Piketty writes as an economist that is fundamental to his appeal. A book of this kind – though not this actual book – might have been written by a social policy researcher, a political scientist, and perhaps even by a sociologist. Indeed, many of his central ideas, that there is a key difference between income and wealth, that the latter is more unevenly distributed than the former, and that the accumulation of wealth lies at the heart of social inequality is standard fare, even mundane in these disciplines. However, a book of such a kind not written by an economist would not have commanded such authority.

The fact that Piketty has spent fifteen years assembling the transnational data base on income and wealth from across the globe (though especially Europe and North America) rightly stands out. Even his critics (sometimes grudgingly) concede the scholarship. His most vociferous critic, The Financial Times, appears to have been firmly rebutted. But fundamentally it is the fact that he speaks from the highground of economics which allows him an unusually prominent platform. Let us tease out the kind of economist that Piketty is. He himself makes it clear that he distances himself from mathematical versions of the discipline towards more interdisciplinary framings. ‘I see economics as a subdiscipline of the social sciences, alongside history, sociology, anthropology, and political science’ he proudly declares (Piketty 2014: 573). However, we can also suggest that his relationship to economics itself is more agonistic than even this statement suggests.

At the heart of Capital in the 21st century is the formula r<g. This simple equation summarises the book’s argument that ‘the central contradiction of capitalism’ is that the return on capital is usually higher than the economic growth rate and therefore that we can expect an historical default towards returns on accumulated wealth exceeding those on current income. This is a very simple idea, and it is one which is of great sociological interest in gesturing towards a sociology of inheritance, or perhaps a sociology of ‘haunting’. The past will always exceed the present. I will return to this shortly. But for now, let us note that this is a strange equation. Piketty gives no obvious theoretical reasons for it, and in this respect Marxist critics are quite right to point out that there is no analytical foundation, such as a theory of value, underling his magnum opus. Really, the equation can only be understood as an empirical generalisation inductively derived from the mass of data gathered here. But this is precisely the point. Is Piketty actually ironising economist’s favoured tools in order to reassert his fundamental point about the significance of history?

Methodologically, Piketty is conducting a fundamental critique of the repertoires used in much of what currently passes as social science.  This is nowhere marked more strikingly than the way he invokes literary figures ranging from Jane Austen, Honore de Balzac, and Orhan Pamuk more than Simon Kuznets, Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes to explore the nature of wealth accumulation and inheritance in the 19th century. From an economist, this is brilliant chutzpah. Perhaps he might be accused of using these novelists as illustrating (his) history, but arguably his thinking about wealthm inheritance and accumulation draws directly on these literary models.

Furthermore, at its heart, Piketty’s book is fundamentally descriptive. Rather than the typical social scientific insistence on causality as the holy grail, the book’s ample figures and graphs present only uni and bi-variate distributions. There are no complex causal multi-variate models, no ‘variable centred’ attempts to distil the relative significance of various bundles of independent variables and the like. There is no league table of causal variables which pop out at the end of the book. Instead, Piketty relies on descriptive figures showing trends over time with no attempt to explain the trends through introducing independent causal variables.

This strategy is interesting given the current methodological debate regarding the relative merits of ‘descriptive’ versus ‘causal’ strategies in the social sciences (see for instance Abbott 2000; Savage 2009). Piketty is far from alone in championing description (in Savage 2009 I also explored the use of descriptive approaches by Andrew Abbott, John Goldthorpe and Bruno Latour and of course this could be extended to include Clifford Geertz and others). Within this debate, it will surely be the case that his book is now the best example of what one might be able to achieve using description and the fact this appears so powerful is indeed telling.

What are the merits of this descriptive strategy? Firstly, we need to get away from the view that this is an empiricist approach, or that Piketty’s strength lies in assembling ‘facts’ (for which argument see http://manchestercapitalism.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/piketty-or-just-facts.html). Just like all social scientists, Piketty is well aware that facts do not speak for themselves. What is distinctive to Piketty’s work is his repertoire of assembling his data to a particular visual template. Bruno Latour drew attention to the way that natural scientists are happy once they have visualisations of their findings, and so it is here. Piketty, in Latour’s terms mobilises a powerful set of visual inscription devices and uses these to great effect. His trademark is the way that he uses estimates of national income as a benchmark against which estimates of types of capital and wealth are measured[2]. Piketty rarely uses any absolute measures, the main exception being his careful and important account of population growth in chapter 2. He characteristically sets out one variable of interest with respect to its relationship to a national benchmark.

This reliance on relativizing his key data against measures of national income matters in several ways. To be sure, there is the minor point that this may encourage additional error, as he is benchmarking one set of estimates against another, rather than reporting either of the estimates in absolute terms. More than this, he essentially removes the absolute growth of the world economy from his account. He is controlling for history, one might sceptically suggest. This matters because the absolute, rather than relative, patterns might be important as they can be associated with sociological factors such as an expanded division of labour, a complex state infrastructure, welfare provision, and so forth. Thus, in his now famous arguments that forms of inequality are returning to those of the late 19th century Belle Epoque, we are not reminded that absolute levels of prosperity are now much higher, with the implication that this might give greater capacities to the billionaires of today (e.g. through cost efficient ways of investing their money[3]) compared to the magnates of yesteryear).  We might also note the way that his reliance on national measures also smuggles in a certain kind of methodological nationalism, and that even though he extends his range of national case studies relatively widely, and is also attentive to the significance of international flows of capital, this nonetheless complicates his analysis[4]. And finally, we might also note the how this kind of analysis is typical of the economists’ move to strip out context from history through the use of abstracted cross temporal and cross cultural measures, to render historical change as somehow outside history, as it were.

These are serious issues to which I will return, however against these problems I want to also mention a number of striking advantages. Firstly, it allows him to descriptively unpack ‘outliers’. Such outliers are notably revealed by Piketty’s figures which indicate how far the top few percentile of the wealth distribution tends to be distinctive compared to the rest of the distribution[5]. It is for this reason that he criticises the gini coefficient as the best measure to examine wealth. Whilst in principle there is no reason why multivariate causal models should not also reveal top end outliers, in practice Piketty’s inscription devices do a readily accessible job and are excellent tools. Given his argument about the distinctiveness of the distribution at the very top wealth, his visualisations are highly fit for purpse

Secondly, Piketty’s benchmarking of different kinds of capital against national income is of profound theoretical as well as substantive interest in allowing a way of empirically assessing the ‘inheritance’ effect.  The relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, between the ‘fixed’ and the ‘mobile’, or between ‘de-‘ and ‘re-territorialisation’ has been amply explored in social theory over many decades in the work of Giddens, Bourdieu, Deleuze, Delanda and numerous others. However, it has proven very difficult to empirically make much of these distinctions in concrete research, however analytically valuable they might be. Yet, Piketty gives us one way – imperfect, but valuable – way of operationalising some kind of distinction which allows us to grasp ‘the power of the past’. If we take his measures of capital as in a sense the ‘fixed’ stock of value from the past, and ‘income’ as current forces, we hence get some kind of assessment of the relationship between the past, historical forces as opposed to the role of current forces over different periods. Of course, I appreciate that this is at best a loose analogy. The realisation of past stocks of stored historical capital relies upon contemporary conditions, whilst current income is of course actually measured annually rather than simultaneously.

Nonetheless, even allowing for this, Piketty’s argument that there is generally a ratio of six times capital to one times national income is a nice way of operationalising some kind of way of assessing the relationship of the past over the present. Six times structure to one times agency would be a lovely, albeit tongue in cheek, way of resolving this long term sociological dispute. And the fact that this ratio falls in the middle decades of the 20th century when the wartime destruction of infrastructure, as well as the shock of war itself visibly shatters the hold is also suggestive about how historical factors can shape this relationship in different contexts. I return to this point below.

Piketty’s insistence on demography is also striking. Much economics, and indeed much sociological research on stratification and inequality seeks to abstract from age, family and kinship dynamics in order to discern the ‘pure’ effect of variables such class, status and so forth as if these can be delineated separately from the other ‘contaminating’ forces. Demography is then shunted off into a separate (and often not very glamorous) siding where it does not cross fertilise systematically with debates about inequality. Piketty demonstrates by contrast that demographic dynamics have fundamental significance in shaping patterns of inequality. This comes out both in his analysis of the demographic transition, and also in his contrast between Europe and America, the latter where population growth is more marked (from a much less dense base) and leads to the ratio of wealth to savings being markedly less than in Europe. Piketty’s focus on inheritance and the significance of transfers within families is further evidence of his re-orientation of social scientific analysis towards demographic, kinship, and household analyses. Whilst highly ‘macro’ in its orientation, nonetheless Piketty recognises the significance of the ‘micro’ strategies of individuals, families, and households. Here, he is pushing at a gate which is also being opened in studies of social mobility which increasingly emphasise the way that wider kinship dynamics cannot be abstracted from the analysis of mobility itself (Mare 2011).

My opening contention therefore is that Piketty’s book is interesting not only as an argument about capital and wealth, but also as a model of descriptive social science that might be able to explore the relationship between past and present within an elaborated perspective on what he terms ‘serial history’. In this way, perhaps Piketty might best be seen as the contemporary representative of French Annales School history with his classical Braudelian insistence on the ‘long duree’. His work can be read as is therefore a fundamental insistence on the need for an historical social science and a powerful demolition of the kind of ‘presentist’ sociology that abounds.  Let me pursue this theme through reflecting on Piketty’s arguments about social change

 

2: Time, History and Social Change

The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.

In these suffocating conditions, Piketty offers not so much a breath of fresh air but rather a vital infusion of oxygen. His work is a powerful and extended critique of the conceit that our present time has somehow left behind history behind. Actually, is Jane Austen’s world so different from ours[6]? Have we really left behind the elitism and pervasive inequality characteristic of aristocratic society and the Belle Epoque? Don’t the strategies for wealth accumulation developed by Bill Gates and other billionaires share some common characteristics with the very wealthy of previous centuries? Page after page of Piketty refuses the glib temptations of ‘presentism’ and insists on the need for careful historical study.

The kind of historical interpretation that Piketty articulates is worth setting in contrast to the sociological orthodoxies of social change, for the differences are very arresting. Sociologists of all hues classically identify the onset of modernity, associated with the Industrial Revolution, as a fundamental transition. To be sure, Piketty shows that that the period between 1700 and 1802 did see an acceleration of growth rates. However, they did not reach their peak till well into the 20th century and were only modest at the outset (Piketty 2014: Fig 2.5). Where the Industrial Revolution did make a difference was in permitting Europe to challenge the centuries old domination of Asia within the world economy, and here Piketty’s account is germane to the post-colonial critique of theories of modernity. Here, the recent revival of Asia as the most important region of the world economy is also revealing.

Sociologists have not developed a theoretical account of social change in the middle years of the 20th century, which are normally seen as the extension of ‘industrial capitalism’. Piketty however emphasises the historical distinctiveness of these decades. These are the blip years which defy economic expectations. There are the most striking rates of growth and remarkable economici dynamism. These are also the years of communist revolution[7], fascism, world war and anti-colonial struggles, which makes the neglect of them by sociologists all the more remarkable. Piketty thus brings

In recent decades, those that sociologists have normally characterised as marked by deep and profound epochal change, Piketty argues that we are actually reverting to much older patterns. History, it seems, is reasserting itself. Established and substantiated at great length, he claims that there is in fact there is striking persistence in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and that we are now returning towards the Belle Epoque of the early 20th century after a brief blip in the middle decades of the 20th century linked to the two World Wars and inflation. Whatever social theorists might claim about ‘new spirits of capitalism’, the epochalist remaking of network society and so forth, there is actually a remarkable and enduring regularity which needs to be placed at the forefront of our understanding of contemporary – as much as classical – capitalism. Nothing much has changed, and in fact we are becoming rather more like our Victorian forbears than was the case fifty years ago.

As part of this scepticism towards epochalism, we might also note that Piketty has valuable side reflections about the significance of globalisation, which has become a mantra throughout the social sciences. However, insofar as it is measured by the amount of capital invested abroad from within different nations, Piketty’s evidence appears to be that globalisation is of remarkably little significance. His Figure 5.7 suggests that net foreign assets are of little significance for eight leading nations[8] and that in general their significance is declining vis a vis other sources of capital.

Let me dissect this argument further about his anti-epochalist leanings, as its implications are profound. We are surrounded by arguments that we live in a society of ‘acceleration’ (Rosa 2013), and of intensifying mobility and speed (see Urry 2007 and many others within the ‘mobility paradigm’). In fact, the picture Piketty paints is the complete opposite, because he is able, through benchmarking wealth against income, to contrast current with inherited capital. Therefore, Piketty suggests, there was less inheritance (as a higher proportion of the national income) during the middle years of the 20th century. The ratio of capital (i.e. historic, accumulated value) against current income is switching towards the former, so that the balance of historical forces over contemporary ones is increasing. This is notably true with respect to the growing importance of inheritance, where literally children are handed down the residues of resources accumulated by their forbears. In the French case, Piketty argues that inherited wealth was 80-90% of total wealth in the 19th century which fell to slightly less than half by 1970, but is now climbing, has reached nearly 70% and is expected to reach 80% by 2050. Similar patterns obtain elsewhere.

In similar vein, Piketty notes how wealth accumulates dramatically even once entrepreneurs cease direct activity. Thus, Bill Gates wealth has increased far more since he ceased being CEO of Microsoft. Rather than economic capital being the reward for active engagement in the world of business and finance, it is actually the significance of rentier income which is striking. Accumulation takes a form which is highly familiar to the Victorian landed class, it appears.

These findings are not only arresting insofar as the dispute the grand sociological narratives, but also in questioning the moralisation of speed up itself. The dominant motifs – evident notably in movements such as that of ‘slow food’ – around acceleration is that it this has problematic consequences (e.g. being harried, stressed), and that being ‘slow’ is preferable (see Nichols, forthcoming). Piketty’s data suggests a rather different interpretation, that slowness is associated with the declining significance of merit based income and the growing power of inheritance. Slowness is associated with a greater inheritance from the past, and hence the inter-generational reproduction of inequality.

Piketty’s work also debunks claims that the economic role of the state has changed. In fact, with remarkable regularity, the ratio between private and public wealth is in the order of 6:1. This changes very little, if at all, despite changes in the politics associated with state intervention, the shift to neo-liberalism and so forth[9]. This point is so important because of the obsession of the social sciences towards studying the state. Of course there are good reasons for this which reflect the strategic importance of the state for many decisive outcomes, especially militaristic and geo-strategic ones. Nonetheless, and by contrast the private world of wealth accumulation, both at the macro scale in large corporations but also in the smaller scales of household and petty business is also massively significant.

Finally, Piketty’s analysis allows us to recognise the power of small scale, household based accumulation. For, notwithstanding the significance of large corporate forms, in most nations it is household savings which outstrip corporate savings[10]. Similarly, it is wealth tied up in housing which now comprises a very large part of the capital stocks of modern nations.

Now, we need to recognise that Piketty’s practice of controlling for population density and national income has the effect of flattening the historical record in the way we discussed above, but nonetheless it is still useful to work within his parameters. Because he is, in fact, able to detect some striking social changes, as well as continuities, though these are not the kind that dominate in sociological epochalism. What kind of social change does he reveal? The most fundamental shift is that from capital tied up in agricultural land to that tied in housing. By the early 2000s, housing was the single largest source of capital in all nations except the US. This is the clearest possible evidence of the profound shift from rural to urban society that we have, and is a remarkable response to those who claim that urbanism ‘as a way of life’ has somehow become less significant in a globalised world. In fact, urban stakes now appear more important than ever before.

 

3: Piketty and Class Analysis

Let me turn now to consider the implications of Piketty’s arguments for class analysis. There is an interesting growth of dialogue between sociology and economics in exploring social mobility and social stratification in recent years, and Piketty pushes this dialogue much further than his predecessors. However, the logic of his arguments are also rather disruptive of sociological orthodoxy in an interesting and provocative way.

Piketty directly invokes the language of class in distinguishing between upper, middle and lower classes in terms of their income distribution (on a 10: 40: 50 ratio). Piketty admits this is a largely ad hoc and arbitrary classification which large follows the economists’ general approach, which has been, and continues to be, extensively criticised by sociologists who prefer occupational and employment based approaches to class (see Erikson and Goldthorpe 2010), most recently.

It would, however, be wrong to think that Piketty’s use of income based approaches to class is the central feature of his approach and it does not, in fact, figure very extensively. In fact, there are several other more pertinent issues at the heart of his analysis, and which I will bring out here. Most importantly of all, Piketty’s focuses on accumulation rather than exploitation as the central dynamic of capitalism[11]. This move is controversial in some quarters, but I have argued elsewhere (most directly in Savage et al 2005), this framing has great strategic advantages in moving debates about inequality away from abstractions towards the kind of empirically nuanced perspectives. Rather than fixating on dividing lines between exploiters and exploited, dominators and dominated, and so forth, and which defaults to a problematic politics of ‘class antagonism’ that cannot do other than reproduce the very same kind of divisions which it seeks to dispel, a focus on accumulation recognises that class relationships are not zero sum games, that all agents, differentially positioned within society, develop sensible (in their own terms) strategies to secure and advance their position. However, the overall result of such accumulatory politics can nevertheless be to generate structural inequalities. Without class conscious agents or overt antagonisms, powerful inequalities can nonetheless be generated. Piketty’s is the most elaborated and thought through explication of what an approach based on accumulation might deliver to class analysis. It allows us to see how fundamental inequalities can be generated by agents who are completely oblivious to class and who are not necessarily collectively organised.

At the most general level, Piketty’s arguments are consistent with a powerful move which is evident in contemporary social theory which fuses philosophical pragmatism with Bourdieu’s field analysis. Most clearly articulated by John Levi Martin (2011), in his The Explanation of Social Action, this refuses the conventional social science temptation to read behind what actors actually think so that only social scientists really know the interests of social protagonists. The history of class analysis is littered with appeals to ‘depth models’ , where social agents are seen to be the product of underlying forces, notably in claims about false consciousness which ultimately lead to groups claiming to act on behalf of the less enlightened, with all the problematic totalitarian politics that this can lead to. Martin instead insists on the way that if social life is seen as based in fields of ‘organised striving’, it is always those agents who know best about the nature of these fields and how they can operate within them. Thus, the routine talk about house prices, legal testimonies about inheritance, and watching stocks and shares is the very stuff which drives the economic fields which generate inequality. Therefore, it is the mundane small (and big) scale strategies which people deploy for investment, inheritance and such like that is the stuff of class culture and practice. This is an appeal for a kind of ‘flat’ descriptive social

Next, sociological theorists have class – from both Marxist and Weberian persuasions – have nearly entirely focused on the labour market as the arena in which class divisions are forged, and therefore typically categorise class according to employment position and occupation. Piketty starkly shows that this approach misses the role of wealth and inheritance in the definition of class, notably at its upper reaches. Here, Piketty’s perspective is one which Marxists should find congenial. Rewards to income – i.e. those which are usually seen as the arena of class contestation – are now falling in Britain and France (Figures 6.1 and 6.2) and income from capital is now a quarter of total national income. Interestingly, in both nations, class conflict over incomes, notably through trade union conflict, is at its peak when the proportion of labour income in the national income reaches its highest levels (in the decades after the Second World War). The decline of overt class conflict in the workplace might thus be seen in part as linked to the growing role of income from capital.

Piketty also insists that income differences are more invariably more moderate than are those from wealth. The scale of this difference between income and wealth is profound and getting larger, even whilst recognising that is getting more marked and intense amongst income earners too. Yet, analysis of class rarely, if ever, register the significance of wealth or income based inequalities directly.

 

An important implication of this argument is that rather than seeing class as based on the labour market, and hence as associated with a public sphere (which is often associated with male adults), in fact classes are also bound up with households and family life. By re-introducing household wealth into the study of class, it becomes possible to link family dynamics to class in a way which might recognise the significance of non-employed household members and provide a richer and more wide ranging perspective on class[12].

What, then, is the implication of Piketty’s analysis for identifying the key class divisions of contemporary nations? Firstly, and most obviously, he identifies a very small, very wealthy class of households which are becoming markedly more wealthy at a great pace. Yet, because this small very wealthy class is so internally divided between its excruciatingly wealthy top 0.1% (or even more, it top 0.01%), this is a class which is unlikely to be coherent amongst itself, and indeed probably experiences more internal division than any other class. Bill Gates is unlikely to think he has much in common with a mere billionaire, let alone a relatively impoverished multi-millionaire. Just like the Duke of Northumberland would have seen himself in a very different situation to a member of the lesser aristocracy, we need to see this internal demarcation and differentiation of the very privileged. To this extent, the Occupy movement which sought to define a top 1% have found a rather insecure target.

Secondly, Piketty draws attention a larger ‘elite’ class who have benefitted extensively from property ownership and inheritance, and are a significant group of a few percent, perhaps up to 10% as in his reckoning. This is the proportion who can expect to receive in inheritance an amount equivalent to the lifetime labour income of the bottom 50% of the labour force (Figure 11.11) and is hence highly privileged to the extent that they can expect a major windfall during their lives which will insulate them from any serious economic concerns. The fact that such a high proportion of people can expect an inheritance of this amount is striking demonstration of the need to make careful differentiation within the ranks of the very wealthy, and to recognise that whilst the super wealthy are a distinctive group of their own, there is also a much larger (though still very small) class who are extremely privileged. This larger elite class might co-incide in some ways with Savage et al’s (2013) elaboration of an elite class (which they see as about 7% of the population) which is set apart economically from all the other classes they detect.

Within the remaining 90% of the population, it is difficult to draw hard and sharp economic boundaries, since compared to those above them, people’s economic capital shades into each other. In fact, Piketty says little about differentiation within the ranks of the larger 90% and this is perhaps one of the reasons why his book has been so popular as it largely – and in many respects, entirely reasonably – identifies the very wealthy as the big winner that it has little to say about the stakes and tensions between those at lower levels of the wealth distribution. Yet, there still remains a very marked difference amongst these groups, and here sociological class analysis has much more to contribute and where Piketty’s focus on the top of the distribution is less helpful. Piketty’s is a republican tract which could unite the vast majority of the population around populist themes. Whether this adequately deals with the extent of structural division within this larger group – amongst gender, ethnic, age occupational and other axes is a point for discussion and elaboration.

The fundamental point which Piketty’s class analysis leads to, therefore, is the need to focus on the very wealthy, and how far this group might indeed by crystallising as a class. Rather than the traditional sociological obsession with the boundaries between middle and working class, and so the dividing lines in the middle reaches of society, we instead need to turn our gaze much higher up the social distribution in order to focus on the very wealthy and a broader elite class. And here his references to the world of Austen and Balzac are very pertinent. Given that he argues that economically we are returning to a period of wealth stability such as they wrote about, are we also likely to see the resumption of the kind of status based, kinship and inheritance dominated, and ritualistic society that they delineate? And if so, what kinds of rituals and symbolic life is characteristic of the super wealthy and the broader elite? What is the role of elite education, of residential and consumption patterns, of friendship and social networks amongst these groups? This is arguably the fundamental sociological question of our age, in exploring the kinds of closure and social and cultural elitism which might now characterise the very highest levels of the social structure. What kind of kinship alliances, elite rituals, and institutional powers do we see around us in 2014?

We do have one vital clue here. Piketty’s recognition that capital is now articulated through urban infrastructure rather than agricultural land is telling. The elite circles of today will not be those of landed society, even their urban and spa haunts which form Jane Austen’s stage. Are we instead seeing the true crystallisation of a new breed of social elites inhabiting very distinctive elite zones in elite global cities, finding ways to mark themselves off and defining themselves as members of a super elite. This is the fundamental question for contemporary sociology.

 

Conclusion

I have suggested that whatever one makes of Piketty’s economics, and his political framing, his book is also a remarkable intervention for sociologists too. He proffers fundamental reflections on the changing (and unchanging) contours of wealth, income and inequality, but, also great insights for reflecting on social change more generally. I can think of few books that empirically minded sociologists could read to better advantage and which offers antidotes to the banal epochal theorising of sociologists such as by Bauman, Beck and Castells. There is a danger that the political reception of the book colours this contribution. And indeed, the fact that he has been criticised both by orthodox right wing and left wing positions is striking of a danger that his capacity to open up questions will get closed down. For those who smugly feel they know the answers to today’s economic predicament already, Piketty’s work can only be a diversion.  I have argued that his book is fundamentally a remarkable work of historical scholarship which inductively makes a case about the nature of economic relations within a wider set of arguments about social change in which history and the power of inheritance occupies central stage. He does not start from theoretical first principles but instead teases out a set of arguments which place the current situation in historical context. Of course, his is far from being the final word. I have shown, he  needs to make assumptions – notably that of controlling for population growth and income levels – which are bound to flatten his historical framing and which (necessarily, and perhaps productively) limit what he can say. Nonetheless, at the very least, we can still follow his path to see where it leads. I would say that this turns out to be a highly illuminating journey.

 

References

Abbott, A., (2000), Time Matters, Chicago, University of Chicago  Press.

Erickson, R and Goldthorpe, J.H., (2010), Has social mobility decreased? Reconciling divergent findings on income and class mobility’, British Journal of Sociology, 211-230

Mare, R. D. 2011.  “A Multigenerational View of Inequality.”  Demography 48: 1-23.

Martin, J-L, (2011), The Explanation of Social Action, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Nichols, G., (forthcoming), ‘Cultures of time in advanced engineering’.

Rosa, H., (2013), Social acceleration: a new theory of modernity, New York, Columbia UP

Savage, M., Class Analysis and Social Transformation, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. 2000, pp 208.

Savage, M., Alan Warde and Fiona Devine (2005), ‘Capital, Assets and Resources; some critical issues’, British Journal of Sociology, 56, 1, 31-48

Savage, M., ‘Against epochalism: numbers, narrative and socio-cultural change’, Cultural Sociology,: 2009. 3,1, 217-238.

Savage, M., ‘Sociology and Descriptive Assemblage’, European Journal of Social Theory, 12, 1, 144-174, 2009

Savage, M., Devine, F., Cunningham, N., Taylor, M., li, Y., Hjelbrekke, J., Le Roux, B., Miles, A., Friedman, S., (2013), ‘A New Model  of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’, Sociology, 47, (2), 219-250.

Savage, M.,  and Karel Williams, (eds), Remembering Elites, Sociological Review Monograph, Oxford, Blackwells, 2008

Urry, J., (2007), Mobilities, New York, Wiley

 

[1] See Savage and Williams (2008) as well as the work I am collectively embarking on with numerous colleagues on the analysis of elites in Britain using the BBC’s Great British Class Survey.

[2] Piketty predominantly uses figures benchmarking against national income in his chapters 3 (public and private capital in Britain and France), 4 (public and private capital in Germany, Europe, US and Canada) 5 (public and private capital in different nations), 6 (the capital-labour split), 8 (the composition of top earners in France and the US), and 9 (income inequality in different nations). This kind of benchmarking is his operational trademark

[3] Which is an issue which Piketty reflects on in

[4] It is interesting that he is most attentive to the question of international transfers when in his policy chapters, when talking about the need for global financial transparency.

[5] See for instance the significance of outliers in the top 10%, top 1%, and even the top 0.01% that he examines in Figures 8.3 and 8.4)

[6] Here, interestingly, Piketty treads a similar ground to the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern.

[7] The fact that Piketty has no data on any of the (former) communist nations (with the partial exception of China) is a key limitation of his analysis, and it would surely be fascinating to bring these into his terms of reference.

[8] US, Germany, Britain, Canada, Japan, France, Italy, Australia.

[9] The fact that the word neo-liberal is never used once in the entire book is striking, and for me at least, highly welcome.

[10] The exception being Japan and Britain, see Table 5.2

[11] I need to explicate this point carefully. I have no necessary objection to the concept of exploitation in and of itself, and it certainly has some rhetorical and moral power. However, it is not easy to apply in empirical research since the labour theory of value, its main underpinning, is a very crude tool to deal with the complexity of economic positions that people find themselves in. See further, Savage 2000 and Savage et al 2014

[12] This having been said, Piketty’s complete absence of observations about gender divisons, within families and more generally, is worthy of note.

5 responses to “Sociological ruminations on Piketty”

  1. Benjamin Geer says :

    I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the book and its importance, but what do you think of Piketty’s decision to exclude “human capital” from his definition of capital? His argument for this — that human capital can’t be exchanged or appropriated by someone else — seems pretty weak to me. How could we integrate Piketty’s view of inequality with a Bourdieusian understanding of capital as something that has different forms (economic, social, cultural, symbolic), with relations of interdependence between them, the possibility of exchanging and converting between forms, and the existence of relations of domination (including symbolic violence) that enables some people to exercise at least some degree of control over other people’s capital?

    • masavage2013 says :

      Yes, I agree this is interesting. I took this partly to be a strategic move to avoid getting into a huge economists debates and so that he can cut to the chase regarding other forms of capital which are the focus, and which have been neglected compared to the human capital angle. Interesting that he does look at slavery (and in an illuminating way). I agree that it should be possible to combine the Bourdieusian angles on capital with his own. One way of reading his book is that he gives a wonderful account of economic capital (which has been somewhat neglected by Bourdieusians) and that the task for sociologists is to reflect on how we also need to include other kinds of capital into an even more overarching account. In a sense, Bourdieu’s argument that inheritance also takes place through cultural capital is something which challenges, or at least extends, Piketty’s account.

  2. Steve Hyde says :

    It’s an edifying review. Piketty’s methodological rigor stems from the database design and the fact that the models are elementary descriptive statistics rather than complex multivariate models. The database gets its empirical rigor from a longitudinal design with geographical controls. This was an expensive research effort built from human capital – the result of 20 years teamwork. Let’s hope this work opens new discourse that leads to better social policy.

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