Long-time readers to this blog know that I very, very rarely talk about books that are not directly related to literary fiction in this space. There are various reasons for that, but it’s a practice that I’ve tried to keep pretty consistent here.
So, it’s kind of a big deal that I’m going to go all out and beg you to read Capital in the 21st Century.And I’ll even make you this promise—yes, this is a book about economics that mostly deals with income inequality, but it also tells a compelling, genuinely new story about the 20th century. And if you’re a student of literature and many of the great 20th century writers (Pynchon, DeLillo, and Bolaño all immediately come to mind as relevant) there is a lot here to inform your understanding.
So here’s my plea: If you are at all interested in the question of income inequality—which is really one of the defining questions of our era—or the matter of what exactly capitalism is and where it’s headed in democratic societies as we are currently capable of construing them, this is a book of the utmost importance. This is really a book about the limits and conditions of our reality, insofar as we construct it socially.
As I was have been telling many people lately, what Capital in the 21st Century tries to do is basically tell a new story of the 20th century, maybe one of the very last new stories we’re capable of telling about that century. The basis of this new story is the research that economist Thomas Piketty has been doing into wealth in rich nations. He’s spent well over a decade studying the accumulation of wealth in a number of major Western nations—he’s pretty much analyzed it as far as possible, given the records that we have. This is an unprecedented study, a thing that, as he notes, would not have even been possible even 20 years earlier.
So here’s the main point of this book: Piketty has tracked wealth in a number of ways across several major economies, going back into the 19th century. He’s discovered that most of these pictures of wealth were static for most of the 19th century, fell off a cliff during the two 20th world wars, and are now in the process of going back to 19th-century levels. The rest of the book tries to explain why this is, just what it means, and its implications for capitalism in democratic societies.
I’m hesitant to sum up the book like this, because it’s such a wide-ranging, continually fascinating inquiry, that this really, really, really doesn’t do the book justice at all. But I wanted to give some idea of what the main thesis is.
The things Piketty has found out about how wealth is accumulated in a capitalist society, and why we’ve managed to attain the level of wealth distribution we currently have, and whether or not this distribution is a historical aberration, are all incredibly fascinating interesting, and, I would say, hugely important. I studied economics back in college, and this book has the feel of the major studies we were made to read back then . . . the sort of a book that students of the social sciences will be reading for a long time to come.
I’ve been thinking about Capital in the 21st Century a lot in terms of something like Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Even though they’re completely different—DeLillo writes postmodern fiction, and Pickney is an academic economist—they’re really doing the same thing: giving us a new narrative of the 20th century. A new narrative that brings out aspects of the story that have never before been systematically examined, and one with profound implications for the story our society tells us about its past, and our idea of where we’re headed in our future.
Yes, it’s true that Capital in the 21st Century is a serious work of economic thought, but it’s not an excessive technical, jargony read at all. The prose is very, very clear, and it’s a pretty fast read, considering what it sets out to do. Anyone with a decent education and some willingness to use their brain should be able to read it without much trouble. In fact, this is one of Piketty’s gifts: being able to take all the data he’s analyzed and put it into comprehensible, compelling narratives. He even invokes Austen and Balzac at many points to help get his points across (and, as he does it, this doesn’t feel pedantic or trite in the least).
Beyond all of its importance as a work of serious research that speaks to one of the defining questions of our time, this book is just plain fucking fascinating. I had no idea that until the 18th century there had been virtually no economic growth on Earth (as defined by the measurements we use today). Or that Germany doesn’t have a minimum wage law. Or that World War I was basically what finally destroyed the landed aristocracy in Europe. Or that, despite everything we hear about computers transforming society these days, the economic development we’re experiencing now is actually rather slow—and still slowing down—compared to other eras. Or that inflation is a purely 20th-century phenomenon and didn’t exist in earlier centuries (and Piketty ingeniously brings in Balzac and Austen to speak about this fact).
This is the sort of book that anyone who considers themselves a cultural critic should be conversant with. If you think about yourself as a “theory” person, this book definitely belongs on your shelf alongside your Baidou, your Deleuze and Guattari, your Rancierre, your Marx, etc, etc. Even people who think of themselves as more along the lines of strictly literary critics will find a lot here to put what they’re reading into a new perspective, particularly much of the postmodern fiction of the last few decades.
For instance, here’s a paragraph from the book that I tweeted about a week ago. It speaks to how a lot of the ideas in this book can put a lot of the most important literature of the 20th century in a new perspective:
The roots of modernism pic.twitter.com/DJSTxYYqS7
— Scott Esposito (@ScottEsposito) April 5, 2014
I’m convinced that this book is absolutely a major work of social science that should and will have serious implications for anyone who reads it. But don’t take my word for it. Read Paul Krugman’s essay in the NYRB, where he basically talks about this book as a major work of economics that gives us a revolutionary understanding of our societies.
More from Conversational Reading:
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- 20th-Century Compositions A couple weeks ago, New Yorker critic Alex Ross gave an MP3-driven tour of 20th-century composition. These are works that do "not to represent all...
- 20 20th-Century Poetry Books Here is the list of 20 20th-century poetry books that poet and editor CJ Evans put together for me. (I'm posting this because some people...
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