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Material Conditions and Ideas in Global History

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Richard Drayton, David Motadel

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Accepted/In press7 Dec 2020


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    Uploaded date:15 Dec 2020

    Version:Accepted author manuscript

King's Authors


Since the rise of a ‘scientific’ historiography in the nineteenth century, the role of ideas in history vs. that of material forces has been a key philosophical problem. Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology (2019), read as a work of global history, offers a provocative rehearsal of this question. On the one hand, the book is an attempt to provide a narrative historical frame for the hard data of the World Inequality Database. On the other, paradoxically, it offers a defiant conclusion that ideology is, or at least could be, the key driver in social and institutional change towards universal progress. St Simon, Comte and Spencer have found their twenty-first century heir. How can we historicize Piketty’s impetus, both understanding its provenance and making sense of its limitations? One key issue is its roots in the traditions of National Accounts, which leads to an approach to the global which is stresses comparison over connection, and to an uncritical reproduction of the portrait of an egalitarian non-capitalist Twentieth century painted by Kuznets during the Cold War. Another is its presentism, with the historical argument driven by an attempt to understand the c.1980-2020 conjuncture and its alternatives, and a connected overdependence on the support of a few historians. A third, a consequence in part of the inequalities between the quality of data we have for different parts of the world, and of Piketty’s provenance and imagined audience, is a Eurocentric, even Gallocentric approach. A fourth is a very French republican refusal to address how class is complicated by identities of race and nation so that neither egalitarian policies nor ideologies provide remedies for the populist politics of right. None of these criticisms are in contradiction with our view that Capital and Ideology is a work of social theory of world historical importance.

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