, Volume 90, Number 5

Robert H. Wade

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.

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