Why has Piketty’s Capital become a publishing sensation? Not for revolutionary
findings; its message that western societies have experienced increases in inequality
of income and wealth over the long term is hardly new. Of the several reasons
discussed in this article, attention is paid in particular to the book’s timing and its
claim to reveal the laws of income and wealth distribution in western societies.
Had the book been published before 2008 it would have been much less successful.
Piketty’s revelation of the big trends and their underlying logic helps to objectify,
legitimize and offer a kind of catharsis for surging middle-class anxieties during
the Great Recession. These anxieties have been further intensified by evidence
that over 90 per cent of the increase in disposable income in the United States
has accrued to the top 1 per cent of the population in the past several years, and
a not much lower percentage to the top 1 per cent in Britain. In the conclusion it
is argued that if Piketty’s forecasts are even remotely accurate, capitalism will lose
its core claim to legitimacy.