In his interview with Tyler Cowen, French economic historian Thomas Piketty said that his roots are in the Annales School of French historians, people like Fernand Braudel who focused on long-term economic and social forces rather than politics. Then this:
COWEN: When I read Braudel, it strikes me there’s something quite conservative about the argument. I don’t mean politically conservative, but I mean literally conservative — the sense of long structures stretching through decades or even centuries. Do you share that with him? Or do you think, in some way, you deviate that makes you more politically radical?
PIKETTY: You’re right. I don’t know if this makes me more politically radical. You’re perfectly right that one big difference between the work I’ve been doing and the work people like Braudel or Labrousse were doing is that I had to deal a lot with the 20th century, whereas these people were working a lot on previous centuries — 18th century, 19th century, or even before in the case of Braudel.
Working on 20th-century data and, in particular, the enormous reduction of income inequality during the 20th century led me to a different kind of perspective and a different kind of thinking and issue. To be very precise, the political dimension is so much more important and, in a way, unavoidable and impossible to escape when you study the 20th century. When you study the 18th century or 19th century, or maybe you can have this Marxist or economic perspective stressing the long-run evolution, these deterministic economic forces.
When you study the 20th century, politics is everywhere: World War I and World War II, the Great Depression, the creation of social security systems, the development of progressive taxation, decolonization, end of apartheid. Politics is everywhere if you want to understand the evolution of inequality. I would say it’s also, to some extent, the same for the 19th century and the end of the 18th century. I talk about the French Revolution and the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue.
I think the history of equality or inequality cannot just be an economic history. It has to be a political history because, if you want to account for what you see, if you want to explain what you see, it’s political processes — sometimes revolution, sometimes tax reform, sometimes political confrontation of all sorts — play a major role. I had to develop this perspective, and indeed, this is a big difference with the Annales school.
It's an interesting thought, that the history of, say, Mediterranean peasants in the ancient and medieval worlds could be done without paying much attention to politics, since political change never had much impact on the lives of ordinary people. Whereas beginning in the 18th century and especially in the twentieth century politics began to have huge impacts on ordinary human lives.
But one could also say that modern politics is ultimately driven by technological change, so that the real driver still remains social and economic factors, with politics as what Marx would call an "epiphenomenon."