Capital (It Fails Us Now)

Introduction to a Mini-symposium on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

in Historical Materialism
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This introduction to Historical Materialism’s mini-symposium on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century places the three contributions by Husson, Mann and Roberts in the context of an exploration of the link between methodology and politics in Piketty’s economic history of inequality. Touching on the role of time and literature in Piketty’s argument, as well as on his difficulty in accounting for the relations of capital – especially ones originating in colonialism and empire – it approaches Piketty’s book, and its success, in terms of its concerted effort to produce a cognitive mapping of contemporary capitalism that can serve as a prelude to its democratic reform.

Historical Materialism

Research in Critical Marxist Theory



BensaïdDaniel ElliottGregory Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique 2010 London Verso

Bond-GrahamDarwin ‘Colonization, Slavery and Plunder: Reading Race in Piketty’s Capital Counterpunch 2014 March 28–30 available at: <>.

BurgenStephen ‘Thomas Piketty: Rise of Anti-austerity Parties Good News for Europe’ The Guardian 2015 January 12 available at: <>.

GalbraithJames K.VaroufakisYanis ‘Whither Europe? The Modest Camp vs The Federalist Austerians’ Open Democracy 2014 June 11 available at: <>.

GrosjeanBlandine ‘Thomas Piketty: “La lutte des classes n’est pas morte” ’ 2011 Rue 89, 8 November, available at: <>.

HallCatherineMcClellandKeithDraperNickDoningtonKateLangRachel Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain 2014 Cambridge Cambridge University Press

JacobyRussell ‘Piketty v. Marx’ The New Republic 2014 June 7 available at: <>.

JamesonFredric ‘Periodizing the 60s’ Social Text 1984 9/10 178 209

KunkelBenjamin ‘Paupers and Richlings’ London Review of Books 2014 July 3 available at: <>.

LandaisCamillePikettyThomasSaezEmmanuel Pour une révolution fiscale. Un impôt sur le revenu pour le xxie siècle 2011 Paris Seuil

MattickPaul ‘Much Ado about Something’ The Brooklyn Rail 2014 June 5 available at: <>.

MorettiFranco Atlas of the European Novel, 1800–1900 1999 London Verso

MorfinoVittorio Plural Temporality: Transindividuality and the Aleatory between Spinoza and Althusser Historical Materialism 2014 Leiden Brill Book Series

PedenKnox ‘The Abstractions of History’ Sydney Review of Books 2014 July 22 available at: <>.

PedullàGabriele ‘Capitali Romanzosi’ Il Sole 24 Ore 2015 January 25 35 36

PikettyThomas Le capital au xxie siècle 2013 Paris Seuil

PikettyThomas GoldhammerArthur Capital in the Twenty-First Century 2014a Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press

PikettyThomas ‘Technical Appendix of the Book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” ’ 2014b available at: <>.

RichéPascal ‘Taxe de 75%: “Le gouvernement a tout faux”, selon Piketty’ Rue 89 2012 September 6 available at: <>.

Sander ‘The Past Devours the Future: Piketty’s Capital Mute Magazine 2015 February 13 available at: <>.

SmithTony ‘A Category Mistake in Piketty’ Critical Sociology 2014 41 2 401 410

TombaMassimiliano ThomasPeter D.FarrisSara R. Marx’s Temporalities Historical Materialism 2014 Chicago Haymarket Book Series

TombazosStavros Time in Marx: The Categories of Time in Marx’s Capital Historical Materialism 2015 Chicago Haymarket Book Series

VaroufakisYanis ‘Egalitarianism’s Latest Foe’ Real-World Economics Review 2014 69 18 35 available at: <>.

WadeRobert ‘The Piketty Phenomenon and the Future of Inequality’ Real-World Economics Review 2014 69 1 17 available at: <>.


Wade 2014, p. 15. Thanks to Brenna Bhandar, Sebastian Budgen, Geoff Mann and Peter Thomas for their comments and suggestions.


Peden 2014. Peden’s comparison to the fortunes of Graeber’s Debt, an even more sanguine assertion of the longue durée, is illuminating.


Piketty 2014a, p. 213.


See also Mattick 2014 and Smith 2014, as well as the several responses mentioned in Mann’s article below.


Piketty 2014a, p. 274.


Piketty 2014a, p. 39. The conflict is emblematic enough for Piketty that he returns to it on the very last page of the last chapter, p. 570, where, referring to the opacity of the mining company Lomnin Inc.’s accounts, he stresses the urgency of ‘real accounting and financial transparency and sharing of information’ as preconditions for ‘economic democracy’, so that the latter may ‘someday regain control of capitalism’.


Piketty 2014a, p. 250.


Piketty 2014a, p. 255.


Piketty 2014a, p. 567.


Varoufakis 2014, p. 21. For Varoufakis, Piketty’s capital is a ‘metric of wealth’. Varoufakis has also taken Piketty to task for his proposals for reforming the Eurozone (see Galbraith and Varoufakis 2014).


See also the technical appendix: Piketty 2014b, p. 21, n. 10a.


Piketty 2014a, p. 121.


Piketty 2014a, pp. 378 and 571.


Bond-Graham 2014.


Piketty 2014a, p. 514.


Piketty 2014a, p. 572. The French original is somewhat more lyrical: ‘Il est ainsi possible d’éviter la spirale inégalitaire sans fin, tout en préservant les forces de la concurrence et les incitations à ce que de nouvelles accumulations primitives se produisent sans cesse’ (Piketty 2013, p. 943).


Piketty 2014a, pp. 667ff. Though the use of literature in Piketty has been noted by many reviewers, there has been little reflection on its role. An exception is Pedullà 2015, which nicely problematises Piketty’s claims about the difficulties for novelists in representing the contemporary structures of inequality.


Quoted in Piketty 2014a, p. 239.


Piketty 2014a, p. 120.


Moretti 1999.


Piketty 2014a, p. 446.


Piketty 2014a, p. 287.


For an important instance, see Jameson 1984.


See Bensaïd 2010, Tomba 2014, Tombazos 2015 and Morfino 2014 (Chapter 6).


Piketty 2014a, p. 35.


Landais, Piketty and Saez 2011. Both this book and Capital in the Twenty-First Century are published in French in a series edited by Pierre Rosanvallon, a powerful intellectual figure of the French moderate centre-left who has castigated the ‘radical-nostalgic ideology’ of an antagonistic left. Piketty’s sympathy for Syriza and Podemos is thus testament to a shift, perhaps not so much in his convictions, as in the discursive field of mainstream European politics. One now has to travel far to the left of the spectrum even to find mild Keynesian proposals.


Riché 2012.


Piketty 2014a, p. 507.


See for instance Kunkel 2014, overall one of the finest presentations from a Marxist angle of Piketty’s work.


Piketty 2014a, p. 539. Also p. 497.


Piketty 2014a, p. 267.


Piketty 2014a, p. 483. This is a particularly evasive allusion, as the forms of property of capital have not featured prominently in his own account.


Piketty 2014a, p. 254.


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