Piketty on the "Brahmin left" and the "merchant right"

Thomas Piketty, the French economist behind 2014's game-changing Capital in the 21st Century, has a new book, Capital and Ideology (out in France now, coming in English in 2020), which uses the same long-run economic series that Capital 21C benefited from to understand the relationship between wealth and ideology. Central to Piketty's thesis: that it's not enough to use class to understand how people vote — you also have to take account of peoples' beliefs about class (this is a neat way of resolving the tension between traditional left class analysis and contemporary "identitarian" theories of leftist politics).

In a very accessible slide deck from a 2019 presentation, Piketty explains this theory using long-run data-series from elections in the US, the UK and France. These data series show how our politics were transformed to the current situation, with nativist/authoritarian parties on the rise:

* Initially, left parties represented low-education/low-opportunity workers, while right parties represented the capital and professional classes

* Over time, left parties made progress in advancing opportunities for some low-income workers, and shifted to representing the interests of high-education, socially liberal elites, whom Piketty calls the "Brahmin left"

* The right parties, meanwhile, became even more firmly entrenched in representing the interests of the "merchant right"

* Both factions embraced globalism, migration, and dismantling of trade protections, including the social safety net that stood in the way of "global competitiveness," which left low-opportunity, low-education people in increasingly dire straits, pressed by lowering wages and reduced social safety nets

* The Brahmin left largely abandoned its universalist/egalatarian platform in favor of a "meritocratic" one that joined the right parties in a semi-eugenic belief in some peoples' innate superiority (Piketty: "hard to have a platform promising a PhD for all")

* The Brahmin left parties want to tax the merchant right at slightly higher levels to pay for operas and universities but are otherwise OK with globalism, attacks on trade unions, etc

* Low-education/low-opportunity workers stop showing up at the polls: there's been a collapse in their participation in politics (this also made the two factions increasingly indifferent to their needs)

* The merchant right has reactivated these voters by making nativist/racist appeals, blaming foreigners for their collapsing fortunes. This has been a devastatingly effective tactic for getting turkeys to vote for Christmas, leading to more alienation, more embrace of authoritarianism

* This is OK by the merchant right, who have historically (since the French Revolution!) justified their wealth and privilege with a belief in their innate superiority and styled themselves as destined to govern over their social lessers ("Live as though it were the first pages of an Ayn Rand novel")

Where Piketty gets most interesting is in speculating about where this might lead. Elites, he notes, tend to club together to defend their interests, so he wonders if the Brahmin left and merchant right might not form a single bloc, in a new great alignment?

Or will there be new New Deal that racist left parties embrace to help white workers, incidentally lifting the fortunes of all workers, including racialized ones?

He also notes that since elections are increasingly won by "none of the above" (that is, the decisive factor isn't who voters vote for, it's which voters don't vote at all), that there's an opportunity for a new, egalatarian left to rise and rise, buoyed by voters who have been abandoned by Brahmin left and neoliberal right.

It's a gloss that explains the incredible establishment disdain for the likes of Sanders and Corbyn, despite the popular support for their agendas: the Brahmin left and the merchant right are both intrinsically anti-egalatarian, so any egalatarian proposals are dismissed out of hand.

Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of Political Conflict (Evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948-2017) [Thomas Piketty]

(via Naked Capitalism)