...describes four broad inequality regimes, obviously inspired by French history but, he argues, of more general relevance. First are “ternary” societies divided into functional classes — clergy, nobility and everyone else. Second are “ownership” societies, in which it’s not who you are that matters but what you have legal title to. Then come the social democracies that emerged in the 20th century, which granted considerable power and privilege to workers, ranging from union representation to government-provided social benefits. Finally, there’s the current era of “hypercapitalism,” which is sort of an ownership society on steroids.
For Piketty, rising inequality is at root a political phenomenon. The social-democratic framework that made Western societies relatively equal for a couple of generations after World War II, he argues, was dismantled, not out of necessity, but because of the rise of a “neo-proprietarian” ideology. Indeed, this is a view shared by many, though not all, economists. These days, attributing inequality mainly to the ineluctable forces of technology and globalization is out of fashion, and there is much more emphasis on factors like the decline of unions, which has a lot to do with political decisions.
But why did policy take a hard-right turn? Piketty places much of the blame on center-left parties, which, as he notes, increasingly represent highly educated voters. These more and more elitist parties, he argues, lost interest in policies that helped the disadvantaged, and hence forfeited their support. And his clear implication is that social democracy can be revived by refocusing on populist economic policies, and winning back the working class.
Piketty could be right about this, but as far as I can tell, most political scientists would disagree. In the United States, at least, they stress the importance of race and social issues in driving the white working class away from Democrats, and doubt that a renewed focus on equality would bring those voters back. After all, during the Obama years the Affordable Care Act extended health insurance to many disadvantaged voters, while tax rates on top incomes went up substantially. Yet the white working class went heavily for Trump, and stayed Republican in 2018.