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Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century: How to succeed in business without really trying

French economist Thomas Piketty

Ed Alcock/The Guardian

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Thomas Piketty
Belknap Press

Overstuffed as it is with titles promising miraculous secrets to losing weight or the lowdown on the afterlife, the bestseller list only rarely has an openings for brainiacs. Every few years an intellectual book does become a surprise hit, but such successes are rare and unpredictable.

This season, the belle of the ball in publishing is one of the unlikeliest of all Cinderella books, Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century, a massive – nearly 700 pages long – excursion into the economic history of Europe and North America over the last two centuries. Originally published in France last year as Le capital au XXIe siècle , Piketty's cinderblock of a book carries the sombre message that, under normal conditions, capitalism has a tropism towards plutocracy, with the returns on capital on average exceeding economic growth. Rule by the rich can only be checked by world-changing calamities (wars and revolutions) or the introduction of progressive taxes that are likely to be ferociously resisted by the entrenched elite.

With its dire warning about a possible New Gilded Age of extreme inequality, Piketty's daunting monograph hardly seems like fun summer reading, yet the book is currently No. 1 on, outflanking familiar titles like Heaven Is For Real and George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series.

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Although books as challenging as Piketty are only rarely top the charts, he is by no means the first brainiac bestseller. Instead he belongs to a venerable tradition of smarty-pants books that catch the mood of a moment and re-set political debates.

Earlier examples of the species include Friedrich August von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (1944), John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society (1958), Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), Michael Harrington's The Other America (1962), James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1963), Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind (1987) and Richard J. Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994).

Intellectual bestsellers are almost always bellwethers and clarion calls; they both anticipate social change and give shape to emerging social movements. Hayek's book presaged the post-war right-wing politics of Barry Goldwater, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Galbraith and Harrington both inspired the renewed commitment to social justice of 1960s liberalism. Protesters against heavy-handed urban planning took courage from Jacobs, just as feminists did from Friedan and anti-racist activists from Baldwin. Lasch's sense of "malaise" spoke to the drift of American life towards the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Bloom prefigured the culture wars of the 1990s just as The Bell Curve, with its atavistic racial politics, was symptomatic of the deepening commitment to the Southern strategy among Republicans.

Like these predecessors, Piketty's book speaks to the politics of the future, suggesting that many are still receptive to the message of anger at economic inequality articulated by Occupy Wall Street and its vision of a war between the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent. Not surprisingly, Piketty is joined on bestseller lists by the populist message of Senator Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance and the more cynical lessons of Michael Lewis's The Flash Boys (wherein Wall Street is portrayed as a giant scam).

Yet even among intellectual bestsellers, Piketty is a singularity, since his book is winning academic plaudits from top-notch scholars such as Paul Krugman and Robert Solow, along with its hefty sales. Jacobs, Friedan, Harrington, Baldwin, and Carson weren't scholars but freelance intellectuals.

They wrote terrific, even monumental, books but they stand outside of the academy. Hayek was an impressive economist but the demagogic Road to Serfdom is among his weakest works, a dishonest pamphlet rather than a serious work.

Galbraith, a towering thinker, was also an academic anomaly, with his institutional approach to economics standing, for better or worse, outside a field increasingly devoted to abstract mathematical models. The fact that Galbraith is regarded as heterodox among economists reflects badly on the field, but has limited his influence. In his attempt to fuse psychological theory with cultural criticism, Lasch was a quirky oddball, a school of one. Bloom's Closing of the American Mind helped to popularize the political theories of Leo Strauss but by itself added little new knowledge to the world. The Bell Curve has been completely demolished by scholars such as James Flynn, Bernie Devlin, Arthur Goldberger, Charles Manski and Cosma Shalizi. Among social scientists, The Bell Curve is no more respected than Donald Sterling is among basketball players.

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An academic book doesn't have to have huge sales to have an impact, it just has to reach the right readers. John Maynard Keynes's The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) had respectable but not outstanding sales when it was published but, over a generation, won over the economics profession. Piketty therefore does seem to be something new: a book that could have the intellectual stature of The General Theory while also matching the sales of The Road to Serfdom. The one-two punch of academic credibility and a wide readership could make Piketty a world-changing book.

Piketty has often been compared to another author who wrote a book called Capital: Karl Marx. In some ways, the linkage is a false one. Piketty's moderate social democratic politics are far from revolutionary Marxism. Yet there is a useful point of similarity: Like Marx, Piketty can help us both understand the world and to transform it.

Jeet Heer's next book, Sweet Lechery, featuring his selected cultural and political essays, will be released later this year.

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