Naturalizing Inequality: The Problem of Economic Fatalism in the Age of Piketty

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Using the unprecedented 2014 Science special issue on inequality as a conceptual guide, this article examines the recent return of an assortment of fatalist arguments which claim that high levels of economic inequality are a natural, inevitable, and basic characteristic of human civilization and that, therefore, it would be incredibly difficult and damaging—if not impossible—to significantly reduce such income and wealth gaps. Classifying these varying arguments into four natural “laws” of inequality—mathematical, neoclassical, historical, and genetic—this article seeks to unpack the internal logic and external politics of such claims by placing them in their broader historical context. In so doing, this article will also show how certain aspects of Thomas Piketty’s earlier work played a key—albeit unintended—role in the recent renaissance in naturalizing inequality. In conclusion, this article reflects on other aspects of Piketty’s analysis that can be used to “denaturalize” inequality and reveal its highly contingent, political, structural, and institutional basis. Finally, the article will end with a call for historians of capitalism to pick up the denaturalizing mantle and seek to explicitly disprove and challenge the contention that high levels of inequality are all but inevitable.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)338-378
Number of pages41
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© University of Pennsylvania Press. All rights reserved..

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Economics and Econometrics


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