Narrating inequality, eliding empire

March 29, 2021

Ed. note: The references for this paper are at the original site here.


Piketty’s call for a historically informed, global analysis of inequality is timely, as is the need for a corresponding transformation of our current politics. However, I believe there to be a fundamental flaw in his analysis which reproduces a Eurocentric approach to understanding global inequality. The key issue is that Piketty organizes his historical comparative analysis in terms of inequality within nations. Yet, the polities he is discussing were rarely just nations over the long durée. Rather, they were imperial formations constituted by a colonizing state and the territories and populations that were incorporated. His approach separates the logic of what he calls the modern proprietarian regime of inequality from enslavement and colonialism when both were integral to it. In contrast, I argue for them to be seen as necessarily interconnected with a lasting legacy in contemporary configurations of global inequality.

Piketty opens Capital and Ideology—the successor volume to the blockbuster Capital in the Twenty‐First Century—with the following line: “Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse” (2020, p. 1). It is a curious formulation, since it presupposes both that inequalities can be justified and that the “political and social edifice” is itself built independently of its legitimation. Piketty goes on to write, “every ideology, no matter how extreme it may seem in its defense of inequality, expresses a certain idea of social justice” (2020, p. 9). Of course, a more nuanced sociological account would ask how the edifice is constructed to withstand challenge and to question the ways in which ideologies are entwined with power. Piketty, however, is interested in setting out the forms of inequality that structure different nations and examining the ideologies used to justify those inequalities. Further, he seeks to examine the contemporary implications of these processes so that we are better able to transform them, in the future, toward more egalitarian ends. The central problem animating the volume is that the meritocratic narratives that have come to justify modern inequality are looking ever more fragile. Further, he argues that if the economic system they are justifying is not radically transformed, we are looking at the collapse of the global economy and a future defined by xenophobic populism. In order to avoid such an outcome, Piketty continues, it is necessary to understand the weaknesses of such narratives and, for this, it is important to adopt a transnational approach and one that is historically informed. This would enable the construction of “a new universalist egalitarian narrative” and one that would, in turn, provide the basis for “a new participatory socialism for the twenty‐first century” (2020, p. 3). In these terms, Piketty, then, is making a justificatory argument for less inequality, and not simply addressing modern justifications of inequality.

Capital and Ideology sets out a history of different regimes of inequality in order to establish the significance of the current global system of inequality. The organizing principle Piketty mobilizes, albeit implicitly, to bring the different regimes within a common framework, is one that is very familiar to sociologists. It operates with a distinction between premodern and modern societies where the latter are primarily represented by Europe and the USA. In this understanding, a distinctively modern regime of inequality—grounded in private property and market exchange relations—is produced in Europe and is then globalized. The global impact of European modernity intersects with traditions in other parts of the world to produce “multiple modernities” (Eisenstadt, 2000). A paradigm shift that, as I have argued elsewhere, is less significant than is usually proposed (see Bhambra, 20072014).

Piketty has stated that he wrote Capital and Ideology to address what he saw as the two main limitations of his earlier volume. The first was the almost exclusive focus on the West and the second was the lack of a deep engagement with the ideologies that support inequalities. However, simply acknowledging that other parts of the world exist is not sufficient to address the limitations associated with not having taken them into account initially. Acknowledging their existence ought to make some difference to the conceptual framework otherwise proposed in the absence of their consideration. The failure to rethink the historical and conceptual framework of “capital”—within which his understandings of inequalities and ideologies are located—points to continuities across the two volumes that weaken the analysis presented. Further, it undermines the possibilities of effectively addressing issues of global inequality in the present which is put forward as one of the motivations of the volume.

Piketty’s call for a historically informed, global analysis of inequality is timely, as is the need to transform our politics in the light of a new understanding. However, I believe there is a fundamental error in his analysis which reproduces problematic legitimations of global inequality. The key issue, as will be discussed through this article, is that Piketty organizes his historical comparative analysis in terms of inequality within nations. Yet, the polities he is discussing were rarely nations over the long durée. Rather, they were imperial formations constituted by a colonizing state and the territories and populations that were incorporated. In fact, the “nations” that Piketty discusses, only become nations after decolonization. The relations between colonizer and colonized are also significant in the production and reproduction of inequalities both within countries and between them. Without an adequate understanding of global colonial entanglements, I argue that it is not possible to put forward a credible future alternative to current inequalities.


Piketty identifies six main regimes of inequality: trifunctional, slaveist (esclavagiste), colonialist, proprietarian, social democratic, and communist. Trifunctional regimes are organized in terms of three status groups or castes, those of a nobility (with military functions), a priesthood, and the people (primarily, a peasantry). This is the only ideal type proposed to capture human history across the globe through to the ancien régime in France in the late eighteenth century. The proprietarian regime is organized in terms of the rights of private property and is inaugurated by the modern market economy that transforms status groups into classes and establishes the individual as the subject of political and economic theory. Slavery and colonialism are understood as transitional regimes, which give way as the proprietarian regime is moderated by other ideological claims (including those of the principles of equality integral to the idea of the modern individual). The social democratic and communist regimes are presented as emerging from the crisis of proprietarian societies as projects for a more egalitarian society, albeit incomplete and limited in their own terms.

Piketty’s framing here is Eurocentric, notwithstanding his claims otherwise. The trifunctional regime is presented as existing globally, but its end is identified with the French Revolution and the inauguration of a proprietarian regime across Europe. This regime, in its impact on other parts of the world, produces the slaveist and colonialist regimes although, as will be discussed, the connections are elided in the presentation of these as separate regimes. For example, Piketty examines the French and British slave islands in the Caribbean as entities separate from France and Britain. Finally, there are the social democratic and communist regimes which are identified primarily in terms of developments within European history.

Another curiosity of this typology is not just that the premodern world is severely underpopulated—in that there is only one ideal type representing all of human history prior to the French Revolution—so, too, is the modern. Piketty suggests that one of the primary threats facing contemporary societies is that of the rise of xenophobic populism. However, he offers no discussion of fascism as a legitimating discourse through the twentieth century mobilized by a number of European states. Neither does he address modes of authoritarian military rule that have propped up the edifice of inequality in many countries, including the European settler societies of Latin America. Even in its orientation to the modern, then, the volume is partial and the selection of cases far from systematic. Piketty’s construction of the ideal types of colonial and slave societies is also problematic. At various points in the book, he acknowledges the empirical connections through which such regimes of inequality were forged, but these connections are then elided in the conceptual separation of the categories. This has an impact on his understandings of regimes of inequality more broadly.

In his discussion of slavery, for example, Piketty starts by stating that “slave societies existed long before European colonialism” and then goes on to comment that his focus will be on “the ways in which slavery was abolished in the modern era” (2020, p. 203). There are a scant couple of pages addressing slavery in ancient societies, serfdom, and modern slavery, before a more extensive discussion of abolition covering the rest of the chapter. There is no significant discussion of what slavery actually was and how the modern form of it—chattel slavery—was established. There is very little discussion of the revenue brought into European countries through their involvement in the trade in human beings, their use of enslaved labor on plantations, or the impact of the expansion of these markets for the sale of their goods. There is also no explicit discussion of what idea of social justice was embedded in the legitimation of the regimes of slavery or colonialism given that Piketty earlier states that “every ideology … expresses a certain idea of social justice” (2020, p. 9). What constitutes (or, what could constitute) the legitimacy of modern slavery as a regime of inequality? Do those who were enslaved need to feel that their bondage is justified? Piketty does not address such questions and nor is there any discussion of why those who were enslaved, or the societies from which they were taken, were not thought to have anything of significance to say about the processes of enslavement or their own humanity (see Grovogui, 2009).

Given that modern chattel slavery entails the commodification of the laborer and his or her use as property, it is more appropriately understood as part of the proprietarian regime and not a regime separate from it (see Bhambra & Holmwood, 2018). Nearly all of Piketty’s discussion of slavery is about its abolition, which, in turn, is discussed primarily in terms of the compensation to be paid to those who had owned other people. While abolition is presented as a consequence of reforms deriving from the ideology of equality, Piketty also argues that given that those who were enslaved were private property, it was appropriate that slave owners be compensated for their loss. He is largely silent on the justice of reparations for those who were enslaved and lost property in their own persons (as proprietarian ideology might have allowed). I shall return to Piketty’s handling of abolition later in the article, but it is perhaps apposite to note the slippage Piketty makes between those who are enslaved and those who are free and not white. In the course of his discussion, Piketty states that “slaves accounted for 90 percent of the population of Saint‐Domingue in the late 1780s (or even 95 percent, if one counts metis, mulattos, and free men of colour)” (2020, p. 215, emphasis added). Eliding free men of color into the category of the enslaved suggests that “they” are all the same in their difference from “us.”

There are similar issues with Piketty’s conceptualization of colonialism which presents colonial societies as separate from proprietarian ones. He turns to addressing colonial societies by stating that the “forms of domination and inequality … were less extreme than slavery” (2020, p. 252). He then goes on to identify two ages of European colonialism. The first from 1500 to 1850 which was characterized by “military domination and forced displacement and/or extermination of populations” (2020, p. 253). The second was from 1850 to the 1960s and, he suggests, “is often said to have been kinder and gentler” although he accepts that “violence was scarcely absent from the second phase” (2020, p. 253). However, his focus on colonial societies is on the ideologies that sustained forms of inequality within societies that were colonized. Not on the inequalities produced through colonialism. As such, he focuses on caste in India, for example, as opposed to accounting for the processes of colonial drain that enriched Britain as they impoverished India (see Naoroji, 1901; Patnaik, 2017; Rai, 1917).

In contrast to Piketty, I would argue that colonialism cannot be understood as a category separate to that of proprietarianism. This is because it is constituted by the proprietarian regime taking other territories and populations into private ownership and through its enforcement of trade relations and the use of coerced labor on colonial plantations. Are those who are subject to colonial rule willing subjects? Do they consent to their colonization and exploitation? By not even raising such issues—issues that pertain to questions of legitimacy which are, in turn, seen to be integral to the framework as otherwise presented—points to the inadequacy of the conceptualization at work here. For example, while Piketty acknowledges that the Chinese and Indian share of global manufacturing output, which had been 53% in 1800, had fallen to 5% by 1900 he does not see this as necessarily linked to the historical processes of colonialism and its determination of the modern world. Rather, he suggests that “it would be absurd to view this as the only possible trajectory leading to the Industrial Revolution and modern prosperity … one can imagine other historical trajectories” (2020, p. 381). The modern world, it seems, need not have been produced through slavery and colonialism. But the point is surely to account for its actual historical trajectory not conjecture that it need not have happened this way and imagine other ones? The purpose of such conjecture is to imagine a logic of proprietarianism independently of slavery and colonialism. In this way, the actual trajectory is elided for the present as something in need of redress.

As such, Piketty’s regimes of inequality implicitly justify unequal treatment of others without including them in the discussion of that treatment. It is not clear how such a situation could express any idea of social justice. In effect, by treating slavery and colonialism as separate regimes, he detaches them from the very ideas of private property and political domination that are integral to the modern regime of inequality. This does not augur well for a book that looks to the past to reconstruct understandings of global inequality and to develop “a new universalist egalitarian narrative.”


There is an implicit historical grand narrative that animates Piketty’s analysis and this can be summarized as follows: the trifunctional societies of the premodern era evolved into ownership societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and then, collapsed in the twentieth as a consequence of the world wars, communism, and processes of decolonization. This is a frame that is centered on an understanding of European history, where the significant moments of periodization are those understood to be endogenous forms of social, political, and economic organization within European countries. While other countries from around the world are analyzed and assessed in this volume, this is done by locating them within an analytical frame constructed out of what is seen to be an endogenous European experience (analytically endogenous, if not actually endogenous, as we have seen). While some connections are acknowledged, these are usually one‐way; that is, the consequences of colonial rule upon colonized societies. There is little reflection on what colonization did to the colonizers or how it structured global inequalities beyond the nation. As such, the historical work that Piketty undertakes is limited by its adherence to the standard story of European history, devoid of its colonial connections, standing in for a world historical frame through which all others are to be understood in their distinction from what occurred in Europe.

For example, Piketty points to the importance of understanding the long historical trajectories, which underpin inequality regimes, because, he argues, “the various regions of the world have only gradually come into contact with one another” (2020, p. 42). He writes that it is only since “the era of decolonisation” that “various parts of the world [have] become intimately intertwined” (2020, p. 42) which rather begs the question of how they came to be colonized in the first place and what significance he attributes to those earlier processes. Indeed, he regards the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution to have “coincided with extremely violent systems of property ownership, slavery, and colonialism” (2020, p. 19, emphasis added), as opposed to have been constituted through them. He also sees the world wars as acts of “genocidal self‐destruction” between the European powers (2020, p. 19) effacing the imperial rivalries that led to the wars in the first place and the significant numbers of colonial subjects who fought and died in them (not to mention the genocidal violence associated with colonialism itself). In his account of the compression of inequality in Europe and the United States in the period 1914–1970, Piketty mentions as significant, “the two world wars, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the Great Depression of 1929” (2020, p. 30), but not the processes of decolonization that transformed the world, and Europe with it, from the independence of Ireland in 1922 onward.

The historiographical frame of European modernity, as Barbara Weinstein (2005) has argued, is so thoroughly embedded in the cultural frameworks within which scholars operate that it rarely requires explicit acknowledgment. The idea of world historical events emerging endogenously in Europe and subsequently diffusing across the globe tends to be presented “as the historian’s ‘common sense’” (2005, p. 77). This comes to be central to the framing of research across the long durée and to the configuration of associated concepts. The ways in which concepts are shaped by the histories embedded in our everyday understandings matters. This is because the past we acknowledge (and that which we do not) affects political understandings in the present, for example, of how global inequality is configured. If we imagine our past to be determined by national boundaries, we are likely to think that contemporary inequalities are shaped by national processes, including the ideologies that percolate within borders. If, instead, we understand our past as an colonial past, then, our understanding of inequality in the present will be different. In part, because our understanding of the state—which is regarded as the key locus for the shaping of inequalities and the ideologies that justify them—will also be different.

Like Weber, Piketty understands the modern state in terms of the legitimate exercise of coercive power within a given (national) territory. But European states did not simply lay claim to a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within their own self‐defined national territory. Rather, they extended their violence into other territories, over other populations, and in support of non‐state actors (such as trading companies and the appropriations of settlers). “Piketty produces comparisons between nations,” Stanziani writes in relation to Piketty’s earlier volume and goes on to ask, “but is the nation the relevant unit for studying inequality?” (2015, p. 99). Along with many social scientists, Piketty, for example, posits a “postcolonial state” contrasted to the modern nation without addressing the processes of colonization that were themselves part of state formation. One of the substantial critiques that has been made of the Westphalian thesis, upon which Piketty implicitly relies, is by Antony Anghie (2006). He argues that within this model, sovereignty is seen to be the primary concept in terms of determining the fact of being a modern nation state. While this model is based on the historical examples of European states, it ignores the exercise of power of those states over other societies. This is deemed not to be a problem for the theoretical framework as those other societies and states are not regarded as being sovereign. As such, they can be unproblematically incorporated into the ambit of modern nation‐states (through imperial conquest) and not contest the claim to nationhood that is otherwise being made (they are simply subjugated and elided territories of no empirical or ideological consequence).

However, as Anghie states, it is unclear how it was “decided that non‐European states were not sovereign in the first place” (2006, p. 741). That is, there is a meta‐ideological justification of inequality in the failure to address the empirical inequalities constituted through processes of colonialism and to elide any consideration of them historically. If colonization was taken seriously, however, then the modern nation state would only be seen to emerge in the period of decolonization as previous states would be more appropriately understood as imperial or colonial states (see also, Gary Wilder, 2015). Whereas Piketty conceptually separates out discussion of France and Britain, on the one hand, from Haiti and India, on the other hand, in the following sections I consider them within their historical colonial contexts. That is, to discuss the emergence of regimes of inequality and the ideologies that sustain them in the context of the French Empire, where France and Haiti are understood to be part of the same conceptual universe, and of the British Empire which similarly brings Britain and India into a common framework of analysis.


At the time of the French Revolution, Saint‐Domingue was the most profitable part of the French Empire. Raw materials, namely sugar, coffee, and cotton, were grown on plantations in Saint‐Domingue, worked by enslaved Africans, and then shipped to towns in France to be turned into commodities. A third of these commodities were consumed within France with the rest being exported, including to Saint‐Domingue which was the largest export market for metropolitan France (James, 1989 [1938]). Colonialism and slavery were not simply profitable in their own terms, but the expansion of available markets also contributed to the dynamism of what tends to be presented as an endogenous feature of the metropole. While Piketty acknowledges the processes of French colonization that brought Saint‐Domingue into the political and economic ambit of France, there is no real reckoning with what this might mean for how France is itself to be understood in relation to its colonies. What difference would it make to understand the wealth produced by the colonies, and consumed by France, within a common frame rather than for these relations of inequality to be elided in the presentation of France as an ownership society existing separately from Saint‐Domingue which is seen as a slave society? Why is France not also seen as a slave society given that a significant proportion of its income and wealth comes from the practice of slavery in another part of the French empire?

Piketty himself states that Saint‐Domingue, which had been a French colony since 1626, “was the jewel of French colonies, the most prosperous and profitable of all” (2020, p. 214). Further, that from 1750 to 1780 around 70% of Saint‐Domingue’s output “was realised as profit to French planters and slaveholders”; something that he acknowledges as “a particularly extreme and well‐documented example of egregious colonial extraction” (2020, p. 218). This is not sufficient, however, for France to be seen as a colonial society—constituted through relations of colonial extraction and appropriation—but it remains, within his schema, as a proprietarian regime. For the most part, Piketty regards colonialism as posing an “external” challenge to ownership societies as opposed to ownership societies being constituted through colonialism as an internal contradiction. This is despite acknowledging that “European prosperity … depended more on its extractive capacity and military, colonial, and slave‐based domination over the rest of the world than on its supposed moral, institutional, and proprietarian superiority” (2020, p. 199). This is in itself an ideological presentation of the history of the contemporary nation as being national as opposed to more appropriately understanding it as colonial.

Further, Piketty’s discussion of Saint‐Domingue is oriented primarily to the issue of abolition and the ways in which slave property became transformed into public debt through the enforcement of an indemnity to be paid by the new state of Haiti to compensate French slave owners. There is little discussion of the justification of France holding Saint‐Domingue or appropriating its wealth and much equivocation about what France may today owe to Haiti. Abolition of slavery in France, as Piketty notes, happened twice. First, in 1794 following unrest in Saint‐Domingue and second, and definitively, in 1848. He largely skips over the initial proclamation stating that the formal abolition “was in reality imposed by the revolts” (2020, p. 217). This, however, is to underplay the magnitude of the events leading up to abolition and its significance for its time. Perhaps a brief detour through CLR James’ (1989 [1938]) classic account of the events will clarify the issues. By the close of the eighteenth century, there were estimated to be over half a million enslaved African people living in Saint‐Domingue together with a sizeable population of free and freed peoples of color. Conditions in Saint‐Domingue were harsh and even before the revolution in the metropole there had been uprisings and unrest on the island. Within 2 years of the events in Paris, revolutionary unrest reemerged in the colony and continued until the state of Haiti was eventually established 12 years later.

James (1989 [1938]) sets out how, during the period of tumult, in January 1794, three deputies from Saint‐Domingue arrived in Paris to participate in the Constituent Assembly – Bellay, a formerly enslaved person, who had bought his own liberty through labor in his own time, Mills, who was of mixed ancestry, and Dufay, a white man. Their entrance, he states, aroused much excitement from the other assembled deputies as indicative of the last gasp of the “aristocracy of the skin” and the move toward the consecration of full equality. As such, they were welcomed as representing the free citizens of Saint‐Domingue. Bellay addressed the Assembly, “pledging the blacks to the cause of the revolution and asking the Convention to declare slavery abolished” (1989 [1938], p. 140). This was followed by a motion by Levasseur (of Sarthe): “When drawing up the constitution of the French people we paid no attention to the unhappy Negroes. Posterity will bear us a great reproach for that. Let us repair the wrong – let us proclaim the liberty of the Negroes. Mr. President, do not suffer the Convention to dishonor itself by a discussion” (1989 [1938], p. 140).

The Assembly, James notes, rose in acclamation and Lacroix proposed the draft of the decree which was to be dispatched immediately to the colonies with the following text: “The National Convention declares slavery abolished in all the colonies. In consequence it declares that all men, without distinction of colour, domiciled in the colonies, are French citizens, and enjoying all the rights assured under the Constitution” (1989 [1938], p. 141). Bellay’s speech, according to James, “introduced one of the most important legislative acts ever passed by any political assembly” (1989 [1938], p. 140) and yet no historian of the “age of revolutions” or of modernity mentions that the most radical political statement of the French Revolution—that is, the one with the greatest universal potential—came from the imperial hinterland. Indeed, the first expression had actually come a year earlier in Saint‐Domingue when the French commissioner, Sonthonax, had declared the abolition of slavery in recognition of the de facto conditions he found there. Further, there is no discussion of the fact that when Napoleon sought to reimpose slavery in the colonies, he was now enslaving French citizens.

This episode, and the many other such debates that took place over the protracted relationship between race and citizenship, point to the fact that ideologies justifying inequality are much more complex than is usually acknowledged. It also undercuts the idea that people in a different time had different morals and values. What the episode of the Constituent Assembly demonstrates is that people at that time were willing to listen to arguments denying the legitimacy of slavery and colonialism and to be persuaded by them. That proprietarian mercenary interests ultimately won out does not undercut the fact that these values were contested at the time and a different outcome had not only been possible, but also had actually been enacted, albeit temporarily. As such, what is necessary now is to account for how and why the proprietarian arguments won out and what this tells us about the cultures that preferred to make their money through colonialism and slavery rather than through honest industry. This is especially so given that, after the abolition of African slavery in 1848, Indian labor was shipped to French plantations in Reunion and Mauritius and, as Piketty notes, coerced to work within systems of “exploitation and injustice not identical to slavery but not far removed from it either” (2020, p. 223). Beyond this comment, however, there is no further discussion by Piketty on the use of indentured labor within European colonial plantations or how they contributed to the wealth of Europe and the poverty of the places from which human beings were taken.


While claiming to address the historical context of contemporary economic inequalities, Piketty’s address of the historical processes of colonialism focuses primarily on the ways in which colonization had an impact on the development of social inequalities. For example, in his discussion of India as a colonial society, as mentioned above, Piketty’s primary concern is the caste system, which, he suggests, “is generally regarded as a particularly rigid and extreme type of inequality regime” (2020, p. 304). The consequence of British colonization is that the evolution of the premodern trifunctional society in India was profoundly altered with the British deciding “to establish a rigid administrative codification of local social identities” (2020, p. 352). It is this identarian inequality that Piketty sees as the most significant inequality bequeathed by colonialism and it is this that he addresses at length in the book. This is despite him acknowledging that there exists “an abundance of evidence [that] shows that colonies were organised primarily for the benefit of the colonisers and the metropole” (2020, p. 271). Within the ownership societies of Britain and France, “one‐fifth to one‐quarter of what people owned at the time was held abroad. … The interest, dividends, profits, rents, and royalties earned in the rest of the world thus substantially boosted the standard of living in the two colonial powers” (2020, p. 279–280). This relationship, however, is not investigated in terms of its significance in producing both subsequent within‐country inequalities and inequalities between countries. It is rather naturalized and not accounted for even as it is identified.

There is no discussion, for example, of issues such as “colonial drain,” that is, the money that colonizing powers took from the colonized country to the benefit of the colonizer country. In the context of India, scholars from Dadabhai Naoroji (1901) and Lala Lajpat Rai (1917) in the early twentieth century to Utsa Patnaik (2017) among others in the early twenty‐first century have detailed and discussed this issue at length. While the extent of colonial drain from India is contested, it is largely accepted that there was a significant transfer of resources through tribute, taxation, and remittances from India to Britain over the period of colonial rule. In summary, Utsa Patnaik (2017), drawing on two centuries of data on tax and trade, calculated that Britain drained a total of around $45 trillion from India during the period from the battle of Plassey (1757) to the outbreak of World War II. While Piketty acknowledges that two centuries of colonial rule “disrupted the previous developmental logic” of India (2020, p. 352), however, nowhere is there any mention of what colonization—and specifically, the wealth extracted from colonial processes—did to the developmental logic of Britain. That is, there is no discussion about how India’s relative poverty today is intimately connected to—and, more strongly, consequent of—the very same colonial processes that made Britain wealthy.

Piketty misidentifies the extent of the British empire by locating it in monarchical processes “from the nineteenth until the middle of the twentieth century” (2020, p. 163), without looking at the ways in which Royal charters were used to establish imperial ventures from the seventeenth century onward. The initial processes of colonization in the New World, for example, were undertaken by private companies that were given charters to explore, to seek profits, and to obtain lands while also making claims for jurisdiction and sovereignty in the name of the monarch. Instead of accounting for the actual wealth produced through colonialism, Piketty turns to fiction to state that “the wealth of Austen’s gentry was quite diversified, including both foreign assets and the gilt‐edged bonds that the British government issued in large numbers to finance its colonial and continental military expeditions” (2020, p. 169). He goes on to say that the wealth of Britain, in terms of the income yield from property, was understood simply in terms of its “universal monetary equivalent” and it did not matter if this money came from “land or financial assets, factories or colonial plantations, real estate or slaves” (2020, p.171).

As such, Piketty acknowledges, even if only in terms of the wealth of the gentry that populate the novels of Austen, that Britain’s wealth was not only generated from activities endogenous to the country, but also came from its empire and imperial holdings. However, as with France, Britain is regarded as a proprietarian society and not a colonial society. India is presented as a colonial society, but its inequalities are only discussed in terms of social categories of caste and not the economic issues associated with colonial drain. Perhaps most significantly, Piketty makes no mention of the tax extracted from the population in India which went directly to Britain and contributed to the financial health of that country at the expense of contributing to the development of India. It seems odd to write on inequality (and future tax arrangements to secure egalitarian ends) and not mention once that over half the money at the disposal of the British government at the end of the nineteenth century came from the taxes and tribute of the populations within the empire and beyond the national state (Temple, 1884).


“Is Western economic prosperity due entirely to the military domination and colonial power that European states exercised over the rest of the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?” (2020, p. 371). While Piketty suggests that there is no simple answer to such a question, he does seem to indicate that without “the ‘discovery’ of America, the triangular trade with Africa, and commerce with Asia” it would have been difficult to imagine “an autarkic Europe” achieving “a similar level of industrial prosperity” (2020, p. 373). In the following paragraph, he goes on to say: “But those relations did not have to be as they were; they might have been organised in countless other ways, allowing for fair trade, free migration of labour, and decent wages, had the political and ideological balance of power been other than it was” (2020, p. 374). So, rather than accounting for the histories that have produced global regimes of inequality, Piketty sidesteps the issues emanating from those histories by simply stating that things did not need to have been the way they turned out to be and could have been otherwise.

The key issue at stake in this article is the extent to which Piketty’s failure to acknowledge the common frame of empire as the condition from which nations subsequently emerged distorts his analysis of inequality on a global scale. By only comparing nations in the present and assessing the inequalities between them as consequent of their internal inequality regimes is to misunderstand the processes that have generated inequality globally. As such, it could be argued, as Geoff Mann does in his review of the book, that Piketty’s analysis “is really a study of the way different societies experience inequality” (2020, p. 26, emphasis added). Rather than an examination of the ways in which inequality has been produced through historically entangled colonial processes. Moreover, it is one where the experiences of such inequality, of those who are not European or North American, are largely ignored.

European empires—such as those of Britain and France, or Germany—did not only have access to colonial “treasure,” but also to populations to mobilize in their wars. Competition among them gave rise to wars which were rendered “world wars” precisely because of the status of the respective powers as empires. Casualties and deaths among the colonized fighting on behalf of the metropole often exceeded those among the domestic population, especially in World War II. These wars were justified locally in “nationalistic terms” binding populations to the imperial project of the nation, as part of the legitimation of their social and political structures. Indeed, the “solidarities” of war were also associated with social settlements for domestic populations in relation to their sacrifice. It is these “solidarities” that contemporary commentators suggest have been undermined by immigration—the movement of former citizens of empire to Europe—to the extent that “meritocracy” itself has been challenged because of its extension to non‐white others.

A historical and transnational project examining the processes through which contemporary forms of inequality have come to configure the world is vital and necessary. It would require a more adequate understanding of the “connected histories” (Subrahmanyam, 1997) that have produced these inequalities as a consequence of processes of colonization and slavery. It would also require us to understand that the current dominance of the political form of the nation cannot simply be read back historically. Further, that longitudinal accounts of within‐country inequality would need to recognize the changing nature of the polity and work out how to address this issue. It makes no sense to compare the economies of Britain and India over the long durée when for the two centuries prior to 1947 the wealth of India was siphoned off to the benefit of the British economy. What was true of Britain was also true of other European colonial powers. Not accounting for the historical processes and legacies of colonialism in the construction of inequalities both within and across countries is a fatal flaw in Piketty’s analysis and undercuts the possibility of constructing a politics that could address the problems of our time. What is needed, instead, is a reconstructive postcolonial sociology that acknowledges the connected histories that have produced the present and seeks to address those inequalities through a commitment to global redistributive justice.


Thanks to John Holmwood for helpful discussions related to this review.


© 2021 The Authors. The British Journal of Sociology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of London School of Economics and Political Science. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non‐commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.


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Gurminder K. Bhambra

School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

Tags: colonialism, economic inequality, empire, rebuilding resilient societies, settler colonialism