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:
Danielle Allen is a professor of government and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Education and Equality in the 21st Century.
Elizabeth Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. The Politics behind Piketty.
Kenneth Arrow is the Joan Kenney Professor of Economics at Stanford, and is a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Which Inequalities Matter and Which Taxes are Appropriate?.
Chris Bertram is Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Bristol. Piketty, Rousseau, and the Desire for Inequality.
Ann Cudd is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Boston University. A critique of Piketty on the Normative Force of Wealth Inequality.
Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Piketty, in Three Parts.
Olivier Godechot is professor of sociology and Co-Director of the Max-Planck Sciences-Po Center on Coping with Instability in Market Societies. Resurgence of Capital or Rise of the Working Rich? On Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,
Margaret Levi is the Sara Miller McCune Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. A New Agenda for the Social Sciences.
JW Mason is an assistant professor of economics at John Jay College, CUNY. It’s Bargaining Power All the Way Down.
Martin O’Neill is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of York. Piketty, Meade and Predistribution.
John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland. Piketty and the Australian Exception.
Miriam Ronzoni is a senior lecturer in political theory at the University of Manchester. Where are the Power Relations in Piketty’s Capital?
Thomas Piketty is Professor of Economics at EHESS and at the Paris School of Economics. Capital, Predistribution and Redistribution.