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Inequality, freedom and the politics of power


Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has handed those of us interested in a better, more socially-just political economy a huge gift. I can only hope we don’t squander the energy it has given us by getting bogged down and distracted by the conservative backlash and smear campaign currently underway. For those of us who’ve been paying attention, Piketty is telling us nothing we didn’t already know intuitively but he has given us a wealth of data that better enables us to present our case for a better, fairer society in a more convincing way.


Despite the great benefit of solid data, albeit exhaustively researched and compiled, we need to accept that facts alone offer us little in the way of a route to change. Simply revealing the problem is not sufficient to demonstrate that an alternative exists. Without a narrative and a compelling story offering a fundamentally different way of seeing the world, facts, such as those offered by Piketty, remain little more than a target for the pedantic counter-arguments of conservatives and a source of defensive counter-counter arguments for progressives. Meanwhile, the Left-Right data pie-fights become a mere sideshow for the mass of people who actually have real problems in the societies they live in and limited patience with ideological pugilism.


It is, however, wonderful that inequality is back on the agenda and no time could be better for the Left to rally around a new vision of what kind of society might better serve the common good. It looks like it ought to be a good time to be a social-democrat, and yet, frustratingly, we’re still not clearly winning the argument. Our historical cause célèbre is the current hot topic of the day but it seems the Left still needs to create a really clear story to explain what inequality is and why it matters. Something that immediately strikes me from following popular debates on this subject, especially in the English-speaking world, is that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the basic terms of the discussion, people are not really clear on what is meant by “equality”.

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