Monday, April 25, 2022

Thomas Piketty on How History Changed in the 20th Century

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." 


Shadow said...

what Braudel and the Annales School focused on was long-term boredom.

David said...


You're raising large questions, and obviously there's a huge amount one might be tempted to say. I might start by saying that, based on what I've read and learned of him, Braudel strikes me as less a genuine materialist than a French patriot imbued with a powerful nostalgia. I've long wondered if his ostensible dismissal of politics in his Mediterranean book (written in a German POW camp) was his way of convincing himself that France's defeat in 1940 didn't matter.

John said...

I also thought Braudel had a lot of nostalgia for the peasant past, and also just enjoyed knowing about things like how shifting seasonal winds used to control trade patterns. He wanted to show how important all this stuff he know about wheat farming and transhumance and what-all were to history.

But what struck me about listening to Piketty was this question of whether politics is more important now. Obviously the difference between North and South Korea shows that big political differences matter a lot. But on the other hand California and Texas are both booming despite having opposite politics, or as opposite as you can get within the American Overton window. I wonder if there is a case that all of the difference between the 20th century and earlier times is also driven by deep social and economic forces.

G. Verloren said...


If you look into it, you'll find that the growth in Texas 1) is occurring in already well populated portions of the state, with people essentially being attracted to the large (and liberal) cities and moving to the suburbs around them; and 2) is comprised almost entirely of people of color.

California and Texas aren't really the opposites that they seem - both states have a lot of densely populated and highly liberal cities, surrounded by a sparsely populated but very vast tracts of conservative rural lands. Texas only ends up a "red" state because of how their districts are drawn - the Pew Research Center reports that more Texans actually lean Democrat than lean Republican. And as urban populations climb in the coming years, the GOP will struggle to keep winning elections, even with their gerrymandering advantage - so look for them to start pushing really hard for (even more) blatant redistricting in their favor.

David said...


There's a certain type of historical materialism that strikes me, FWIW, as part of the same modernist spirit that gave us brutalism in Architecture: the goal, conscious or not, is to conceive of history essentially without people, or of a history where human motives have a consistency and automaticity that makes people as people--with their individual quirks, their unpredictable psychology, their devotion to things that aren't in their material interest, etc., etc.--glorious irrelevant.

Braudel doesn't seem like that to me. He seems to me fascinated by human experience. He wants to know what it's like to be at the mercy of the trade winds or the harvest cycle. In contrast, his gestures at materialistic or deep forces causal explanations seem a bit pat or lame to me, at least in what I've read of him as I remember it (which may, of course, tell you more about me than him). At one point in Mediterranean, for example, he asserts that the late middle ages were a time of city-states, and then the 16th century was a time of monster-states, but he offers no explanation for these cycles--they're just "the times." Beyond that, it's worth pointing out again, as everyone who reads the Mediterranean book does, that the final third of it is the probably the best political history of Philip II's age written up to that time, with plenty of detail, plenty of respect for individual character, plenty of attention to monarchs, and so on.

Another purpose to invoking deep material forces may be to get around or over inconvenient contemporary politics. Marx invoked deep social and economic forces in part so that he could dismiss non-Communist ideas of freedom as mere epiphenomena. An event like the 1830 revolution in France thereby becomes something that only fools would care about.

I'm obviously suspicious, to the point of paranoia, about the motives of those who invoke deep social and economic forces. Too often, it seems to me the invocation reaches too quickly a point of exclaiming, "and thus, we can stop worrying about X! Yay!" To make it solid, and not just something to throw in the face of the idiots who care about X, we have to do a lot of groundwork first. Something like, writing Das Kapital before the Manifesto, and then, wonder of wonders, getting people to read it. (I've never read even a stitch of Kapital.)

So here's a question: What are deep social and economic forces?

David said...

I would add materialism all too often is retailed in the form of crude just-so stories that are way too easy and fun to tear down: the desert gave us monotheism, irrigation gave us monarchy, Greek mountains created the polis, and so forth.

John said...

Well, remember the discussion we had about the cities the Spaniards found in Mexico. At some point in economic development, cities appear, and they have much in common worldwide: temples, palaces, markets. But in my city we have huge retail outlets in strip malls, not streets lined with stall, and the cause of this is presumably basic technological and economic factors.

Much of the world spent thousands of years in a system with a subject peasantry, an aristocratic elite that held the top military and religious posts, and a commercial elite that tended to form oligarchies in the cities they controlled. This was presumably due to deep economic and social factors, along with the tendency of social mammals to form hierarchies.

I remember thinking, when a Soviet environmental movement appeared in the 1970s, that maybe this was the inevitable product of a shift to a post-industrial economy.

I guess what I have in mind is things that happen regardless of any political act that makes the nightly news.

Again, I am not asserting that these long-term factors are all that matters, just wondering.

David said...

The issue of the cities the Spaniards found in Mexico is a profound one that I continue to puzzle over. There are clearly similar structures related in deep ways to, say, agriculture--although one has to be careful. Remember we determined technology was one area were the Spanish and the Mesoamericans were most different, the latter having no economically significant metallurgy, wheels, beasts for transport, the Spanish having nothing important that was much like chinampa, etc., etc. Of course, agriculture, streets, building with bricks, market stalls, etc., are all also forms of technology, which would be very important here (though perhaps as much as results as causal factors?).

I think a key is those "social factors," the ways humans tend to relate to one another, especially if one expands the concept to social psychology and allows for a good deal that isn't interest-seeking in a simple, just-so kind of way. In this sense, I found Mark Moffett's _The Human Swarm_ to be kind of a revelation. Robert Sapolsky's _Behave_ was an interesting supplement, packed with information, though flawed. (Sapolsky eloquently shreds the just-so phenomenon when it comes to biological-evolutionary explanations, while having a weakness for it when it comes to history; he's devoted to the deserts-give-us-monotheism trope.)