Piketty and the middle classes

Nancy Birdsall

Nancy Birdsall

‘Pikettymania’. That’s how Nancy Birdsall discredited the global interest in Thomas Piketty’s book ‘Capital in the twenty-first Century’, a book that was published last year and has reached ‘airportstatus’, if one looks at the number of copies that can be found in international airports selling ‘hot books’ for air travellers. Thomas Piketty is French. Nancy Birdsall American. Thomas Piketty created global interest in the huge inequality of the current economic system in the world, and the growing inequality of assets. Nancy Birdsall does not seem to like that. She is President of the Washington-based think tank Center for Global Development, an influential position. She gave one of the keynote lectures at the recent Conference of the European Association for Development Institutes in Bonn, that I attended as well. The conference focused on ‘the middle classes’ and Nancy Birdsall made a plea for better defining ‘middle classes’ (which is useful), and for no longer looking at mean income levels but at median levels (and also suggested a tool to link the two; and that is another useful suggestion). However, she packaged her useful proposals in a naive and ‘depoliticized’, and also very positive ‘developmental’ assessment of the world’s middle classes. Yes, they can be a ‘progressive’ force. Sometimes, and depending on context and history. But in other cases ‘fortress middle classes’, and/or those losing their priviliges or feeling insecure by ‘pressure from below’ can be mobilised to form the social core of fascism.

Thomas Piketty at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (photo: Sue Gardner)

Thomas Piketty  in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (photo: Sue Gardner)

Reactionary counter-debate
In a period when at last there is global attention for both the ultra rich (Piketty’s attention for the top 1%) and the ultra poor (‘inclusive development’ in the negotiations for a new global contract for the post 2015 period after the millennium development goals) this focus on the middle classes, I am afraid, should be mistrusted as a reactionary political counter-debate. By focusing on the median and the middle classes, the extremes on both sides are framed out of sight. We should not let that happen just when they have been rediscovered!

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