You can order Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century directly from Truthout by clicking here. This nearly 700-page book has electrified the debate about capitalism because it argues, with persuasive statistical and historical analysis, that the current economic system insures the increase of economic inequality and undermines democracy.
Thomas Piketty’s huge bestseller, Capital In the Twenty-First Century, has become the curriculum of a nationwide class about class in America. Piketty shows us that we need to talk anew about class and that the new class we need to talk about is a recycled version of the old classes of Europe.
This old new class is a “caste class.” Piketty is not only opening a conversation about class, but about caste, a point largely lost in all the commentary on his book.
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Reviewers have focused mainly on Piketty’s historical documentation of extreme class inequality, which is as high today as in the late 19th century European Belle Epoque and in the US Gilded Age. They also highlight Piketty’s discovery that very high inequality – which tends to produce low social mobility – seems to be an inherent feature of Western economies over the last 300 years, the only exception being the mid-20th century, especially in the United States, where inequality briefly declined.
The ideas of class and class warfare have virtually disappeared in American public discourse, discredited by associations with propaganda of Communist regimes. Piketty’s work helps underscore the need for a new conversation on class in an era of extreme inequality.
What Piketty has also done, however, is create a new discourse on caste, and its relation to class. Americans have been focused on biological and cultural forms of caste, especially race and gender. But castes are groups based on inheritance of any form of social differentiation that remains permanent or lifelong, whether skin color, gender or economic privilege.
The American approach to caste has created an “identity politics” in the United States, focused on race, gender and sexual orientation, that is largely abstracted from economics and class.
This has weakened class politics, while stripping away much of the vital economic dimensions of caste politics – and promoting caste movements that fail to help the most economically disadvantaged women and people of color.
Although reviewers of his book have not discussed this possibility, Piketty’s work has the potential to ignite a new political conversation on the intertwining of caste and class. This would dramatically change our politics, creating new kinds of movements against today’s inheritance-based Gilded system.
Pitekky’s work shows that today, as in Belle Epoque capitalism, ruling elites and the working population increasingly fit the definition of castes as well as classes. People inherit not only permanent skin color and gender, but, more and more, a lifelong position in the economy. The children of the “caste class” of top corporate executives will enjoy multibillion dollar inheritances, keeping them rich for life.
The children born into the bottom 50 percent are also becoming a caste class – the majority being female and people of color – who earn stagnant, low wages or go jobless. Only about 15 percent get a college degree, the same as their parents, and without this ticket to mobility, they also will inherit a relatively permanent dispossessed economic station.
The political implication is profound. We need a new politics integrating caste and class issues, and Piketty’s analysis hints that “caste class” movements might emerge to challenge a system of inherited privilege. Cultural castes, such as women and African Americans, may increasingly redefine their agenda in terms of the right to economic class gains as well as caste liberation. Already asserting rights to equality based on gender and race, they could ignite a new passion into the struggle for economic rights against inherited lifelong privilege.
If Piketty’s predictions about rising inequality and declining mobility prove true, white male workers may see common cause with these fellow caste class members, and increasingly view fair wages, mobility and economic security as basic rights against inherited, lifelong economic dispossession. Caste classes could reframe labor struggles as civil rights movements traditionally associated with caste struggles.
Alexis de Tocqueville would no doubt welcome the emergence of another brilliant French writer whose work helped Americans see in their own experiment a grand democratic promise to overcome the inherited privileges of the Old World.