This week, Henry Farrell published the Crooked Timber Seminar on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. The seminar, organized by Farrell, Chris Bertram and Ingrid Robeyns, examines Piketty's bestselling book on income equality from a diversity of angles – with section's focusing on education, politics, power relations and more.   

Farrell's contribution to the seminar focuses particularly on the theoretical underpinning of Capital in the 21st Century and how that theory impacts the rest of the book:

"It’s the unfortunate fate of greatly influential books to be greatly misunderstood. When a book is sufficiently important to reshape intellectual and political debates, it escapes, at least to some extent, its author’s intentions. People want to latch onto it and use it as a vehicle for their own particular gripes and concerns. Enemies will distort the book further, some because they dislike the book’s message, others because they feel that they, rather than the book’s author, should have been the messenger adorned by history with laurels. The book will further be subject to the more ordinary forms of misprision and adaptation (some helpful; others less so) that all books are subject to.

These processes of reinterpretation and misinterpretation have been unusually marked for Capital in the Twenty-First Century because it is such a big and ambitious book. There are three major parts to it – a big theory, a set of major empirical claims and a (preliminary) set of policy proposals. Most earlier critics have focused on one or another of these three while occluding the others in a kind of chiaroscuro. I want to do something a little different – to separate out the first part from the others so as better to understand one aspect of its contribution, and to argue that the second and third are connected in different ways than most readers understand. Thinking about the book in this way draws out some potentially interesting insights. If the theory is taken as a contribution in itself, rather than an explanation of the observed empirics, it has interesting and important things to say about the dynamics of capitalism that emerge better when treated in isolation. If the empirics are an important contribution, it is more because they establish the social fact of inequality, which in turn has implications for the policy measures that one might propose as an interim measure."

Seminar participants and their contributions:

Access the full seminar in PDF form here

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