Piketty on the merchant right and Brahmin left

The French economist Thomas PIketty is famous for his best-selling book, Capital in the 21st Century, which explained why inequality constantly increases.

Thomas Piketty

The explanation is the formula r>g.  It means that the rate of return on assets over time exceeds the rate of economic growth.  That means the wealthy get an ever-larger share of the economic pie until and unless something happens to destroy the value of their assets—war, revolution or a financial crash.

Piketty has just published a sequel, Capital and Ideology. in France.  It will be published in English translation next March.  Reviewers say it takes a more global view than the first book and advances more radical ideas for reducing inequality.

The part that’s getting the most attention is Piketty’s notion that politics in the USA, UK and France are polarized between a “Brahmin left,” representing the highly-educated, and a “merchant right,” representing great wealth—two elites who have more in common with each other than with the majority of working people..

Initially, left-wing parties represented poorly educated wage-earners, while right parties represented owners of capital and the professional classes.  Over time, left-wing parties helped children of wage-earners advance into the educated middle class, and their children supposedly became the liberal elites, whom Piketty calls the “Brahmin left.”

The Brahmin left occupy high positions in organizations—government, corporate, educational, “non-profit”— based on their educational credentials.  Their counterparts, the merchant right, have power based on their ownership of businesses and financial assets.

Both believe their power and position is based on merit.  Both embrace global competitiveness, immigration and dismantling of trade protections and the social safety net, which leave working people with lower wages and greater insecurity..

This has produced a nationalist backlash.  Americans elected Donald Trump as President, the British voted to exit the European Common Market and Marine le Pen’s National Rally has a substantial following among French voters.  What they have in common is opposition to globalization and immigration.

The nationalist backlash is not yet a serious threat to the financial elite.  But it has driven immigrants and racial minorities into the left-wing parties in all three countries.  By championing minority rights, the Brahmin left can convince themselves they are still on the side of the underdog.

Piketty thinks the “Brahmin left” and “merchant right” may merge, and true workers’ parties may emerge in opposition to them, as the original British Labor Party emerged in opposition to the Conservative and Liberal parties in the early 1900s.


Piketty prepared some charts and slide shows earlier to illustrate his ideas about the Brahmin left and merchant right.  Here are some of them.

The chart below shows the trend in the United States for the Democratic Party to align with the high-educated and, more recently, with the rich.

It shows that, historically, the Democratic Party in the 1940s and 1950s represented wage-earners without great wealth or great formal education.

The year 1972 was a milestone.  George McGovern was the first Democratic Presidential candidate on record to get a bigger vote from the most highly educated part of the population than from the bottom 90 percent.

The year 2016 was another milestone.  Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic candidate on record to get a higher percentage of the vote from the richest part of the population than from the bottom 90 percent.

The next chart, above, shows she also got a majority of the votes of the upper 10 percent, 5 percent and 1 percent of income earners in 2016—the first time on record for a Democrat.  The question is whether this represents a permanent shift or only the financial elite’s panic over the election of Donald Trump.

The next chart shows the same thing is going on in France, but to a lesser degree.  The left parties have long represented the educated elite and, in the last election, they got almost as much support from the financial elite as from the rest of the population.

The last chart shows that, In Britain, by contrast, the Labor Party has attracted the educational elite, but not the financial elite.  Unlike in the USA and France, Piketty sees no indication that the British educated elite and financial elite will join forces.  Rather the British party system will represent a clash of elites for some time to come.


I’ve long realized how the Democratic Party leaders have turned their back on labor, and I understand the methods by which rich people and corporate executives influence elections, law-making and administration.

I don’t understand the inner workings of British and French politics, but it isn’t hard to believe the same forces are at work in those two countries.

When Ronald Reagan transformed the Republican Party into an ideological party of the right, I expected that the Democratic Party would polarize into an ideological party of the right.

Instead, under the leadership of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the Democrats turned away from the legacy of the New Deal and embraced a supposedly kinder, gentler and more intelligent Reaganism.

Much the same thing happened in Britain.  Margaret Thatcher’s policies did not radicalize the Labor Party.   Instead the Labor Party turned away from socialism and chose Tony Blair as its leader.  I think Thatcher said in an interview once that her greatest achievement was Blair’s “New Labor.”

The Clinton-Blair turn was taken earlier by French President François Mitterrand, who was elected as a socialist in 1981, but then governed in the interests of corporations.  He was a great champion of the European Union

There is a growing backlash against these policies, but, as I see it, the backlash is as likely to produce radical nationalist parties as it is radical workers parties..  Or maybe there will combinations of the two—nationalistic socialistic parties.

I will have more to say about the Brahmin left and merchant right in my next post.


Le blog de Thomas Piketty (in English)

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

On the political contradictions of accumulation by Thomas Piketty.

Piketty on the “Brahmin left” and the “merchant right” by Cory Doctorow for Boing Boing.

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2 Responses to “Piketty on the merchant right and Brahmin left”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    The folks on the left will hate this but Trump really did run as a champion of the common worker and Hillary ran as an elite member of the intelligentsia.

    The outcome came down to two factors. To respect someone means you believe they have agency. Hillary had no respect for the industrial workers in the rust belt. She took them for granted and hardly campaigned there at all, having completely forgotten the lesson of Reagan and the Reagan Democrats of 1980. There is not a political operative alive who won’t agree with that assessment. She lost states in the rust bucket by small margins and that was enough to sway the electoral college.

    There is also a popular conception that most of the geographic area of the US is being treated as the bicoastal elites personal back yard, much to the detriment of the local inhabitants. Why should Montanna have to radically alter their lifestyle to suit the preferences of urban centers a thousand miles distant? All that effort was put into revving up the leftish base but nothing into winning the hearts and minds of anyone else.

    Being a businessman, Trump *analyzed the market* and saw the same opportunity as Reagan did in the 80s. He did the outreach to the disaffected union and ex-union members of the rust belt. All campaign promises aside, that is viewed as “respect” where I come from. Spouses get divorced for lack of that respect. They still need to be wooed or they will stray.

    Both candidates were very smart. Both would be considered east coast elite. But Trump is viewed as an egotistical, narcissistic, blunt and brash businessman with his true interests front and center. while Hillary was viewed as a clever and sneaky politician. You can’t trust what she says. The former personality type is simply preferred over the latter.

    And then she blabs about public positions vs. private positions in from of a group of corporate elites and even her base can’t be sure she isn’t a corporatist in “progressive” clothing. Where I grew up being two-faced is a greater sin than being obnoxious or fool-hardy.

    Seriously guys. The election was so close, Hillary would have won if she had not made any *one* of her many mistakes. Our world would have been better in some ways, worse in others and unchanged in most.

    And none of his core voters cares a whit if Trump talked to Ukraine to dig up dirt about another politicians business dealings. That is just normal infighting between elites. Just like nobody really cared about Monica Lewinsky. All politicians are assumed to be mendacious and selfish and you aren’t telling us anything we didn’t already expect.


  2. philebersole Says:

    Fred, if you look at the second collection of slides and charts by Thomas Piketty, you’ll see one analyzing the French vote for the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which established the European Union, and the Constitutional Treaty of 2005, which was supposed to establish a constitution for the European Union.

    In both votes, the higher on the scale of wealth, income or education you were, the more likely you were to vote for the treaties.

    Another chart analyzes the 2016 vote in Britain on leaving the European Union. Again, the higher on the scale of wealth, income and education, the more likely you were to vote to Remain.

    It was the lower classes in both countries—however you define lower classes—that favored national independence over the European Union.

    Donald Trump also was opposed to globalization, unlike any of his opponents. I think that gave him his margin of victory

    I think that if you are pro-democracy and pro-worker, you have to be a nationalist to some extent, because national governments are the highest level of authority that is accountable to the voting public.


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