I have just finished Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Harvard UP), and it is magnificent. The Book We Need Now. Much thoughtful ink has been spilled on the technical and historical aspects of the book. What's most striking to me is the respectful hearing it is getting even on the right, which acknowledges (one might even say surrenders to) the central thrust of the arguments it makes about the shape and sources of galloping inequality and the dire social and thus political implications thereof.
While I have little to offer technically on the subject, I thought it might be interesting to try to situate the book historiographically, via some personal reflections of my experience reading the book.
Piketty is precisely my age, and has apparently been on precisely the same political trajectory. That trajectory is defined by two formative aspects of our youth: on the one hand, we're both children of post-68 leftist intellectuals, who passed to us in equal measure a respect for the values of socialist humanism and a distrust for the institutions of political power; on the other hand, the central political experiences of our childhoods were the belligerent revanchism of Reagan/Thatcher, the corrupt cynicism of Mitterand/Gonzalez, and the feckless foolishness of Gorbachev—capstoned by the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the very year we reached our majority.
Along with the impression left by post-Tienanmen China's capacity to generate (highly inegalitarian) wealth, this collapse produced two crucial psycho-political instincts in people of our specific age and political upbringing. First, it generated a deep disbelief in the utopian nostrums of so-called actually existing socialisms, which we were just old enough to have believed was a "permanent alternative" to liberal capitalism, but just young enough never to have personally committed to, despite our upbringings. (This is a very microgenerational experience: for those even four or five years younger or older than us, at least one of these does not apply.) Second, it led us to appreciate the economic importance of price mechanisms, innovation and competitiveness, without generating any love for capitalism as a system or any respect for the self-regard of the rich, who people with our background regard less as exemplars of meritocracy than as avaricious parasites. For us, TINA is the Big Lie of our times: just because socialism failed as a political project was no reason to believe the story (that the Right in our countries told about the lesson of this failure) that capitalism was humane, and not still an ecologically rapacious form of social vampirism.
What I find beautiful about Piketty's book is that it crystallizes and speaks to and for this worldview — that is, to the sensibility of a "red diaper" GenXer. It is a book written by someone who watched the socialist-utopian eidolon of his elders implode, without ever buying into the liberal-utopian promises made (or the sense of political limits imposed) by the successor regime(s).