Luke Cooper’s reply to Thomas Piketty and Mike Savage: Are we still in the not-so-beautiful era?

logo95x95Are we still in the not-so-beautiful era?
A reply to Thomas Piketty and Mike Savage 

By Luke Cooper, Anglia Ruskin University



9780674430006-lgI was struck by two themes of the dialogue that stand out as worthy of comment and further reflection. Firstly, the recurring references to the elite culture of the belle époque as an exemplar point of comparison for analysing today’s super-rich. Secondly, the critique of methodological nationalism – only touched upon briefly in part three of the interview – and the questions for Piketty it poses. Drawing these themes together I want to point to the tensions that exist within the lifeworld of the super-rich between the ‘globality’ of it, i.e. the way they inhabit a world that appears to them as borderless, and the continued significance of nationally rooted identities.




Social change and the ruling class in the belle époque

Piketty’s work points to ‘U-shaped curves’ in the rise and fall of substantial income inequality. He shows, for example, that the United States has now returned to early twentieth century levels.[4] Naturally, then, the belle époque becomes a key point of comparison, and Piketty and Savage both focus on the discontinuities between the old elite of this era and the new elite of our contemporary period. Savage notes the social transformation of the family structure seen across the last century as a male dominated rich gave way to one in which women won equality in legal rights, from property to the vote. This arrival of legal personhood for women evidently elicits significant cultural change in the lifeworld of the rich. Piketty focuses, in contrast, on the end of elite paternalism with the erosion, to the point of negation, of nominally caring aristocratic attitudes towards the poor. Importantly, Piketty argues that the ‘unruly’ and ‘violent’ capitalist ideology we live with develops because, and not in spite of, the emergence of meritocratic discourses that animate our times. For when wealth supposedly depends on merit the poor deserve their lot just as much as the rich deserve their plenty. As such, ‘modern meritocracy discourse’ was Piketty argues, ‘invented as a way to protect the elite from democracy’. This leads to an almost ostentatious desire for the elite to display their own superiority, their own sparkling merit, in order to dispel any idea that they could be ‘done away with’ as a ruling class.

The era of the belle époque provides a fascinating point of departure for this discussion, but not just as a point of sharp contrast. For it is in this period that the discourse of ‘meritocratic violence’ took hold. One can even argue the ideational and cultural dispute between aristocratic and nouveau riche sentiment in the elite was characteristic of the overall dynamic of this period. The consummate expression of violent-meritocracy was found in the America of the belle époque, fostering a culture war across the Atlantic with the values and outlooks of ‘old Europe’. But even in the United States these discourses exhibited contradictions that find echoes in the present.

For America the ideology of meritocracy served to romanticise the violent conflicts the commercial-territorial expansion of the US state westwards entailed. In his famous article, ‘The Problem of the West’, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the essence of being American lay in the ideal of the frontier. The ‘United States is unique in the extent to which the individual has been given an open field, unchecked by restraints of an old social order, or of scientific administration of government’ he wrote. ‘The self-made man’, he continued, ‘was the Western man’s ideal, was the kind of man that all men might become’. Jackson Turner’s piece not only serves as a reminder of the racialized violence of settler-colonialism that underpinned the rise of the ‘American man’. It also helps us to understand the contemporary crisis of the American dream. For in its appeal to the ‘ideals of equality, of the exaltation of the common man’ it sharply counterposed the American mission to the notion of inherited wealth and title associated with Europe. If this constitutes ‘being American’ then how can it be reconciled to a social order in which, as Piketty notes, the average Harvard graduate now comes from the top 2 per cent? If posed in these terms, one can start to visualise the volatile nature of American politics, and moments like the Occupy revolt of 2011, as reflecting not simply an ideological and cultural expression of a failed economic model, but a wholesale existential crisis in the country’s identity.

An earlier critique of class and status obsessed Europe, penned by the philanthropist Kate Garnett Wells in The Atlantic, offers a different insight into the belle époque by drawing attention to the alternative meanings given to the ideal of America. For she defined Americanism in terms of a society moving towards equality of outcome, not only equality of opportunity. ‘American society is an anomaly which must puzzle all those who do not believe in it’, she wrote. The dream of America was seen as a ‘fixed conviction that one man is the equivalent of another in capacity, and that his failure to prove it by results is the consequence of circumstances beyond his individual control’. As such, her ideal was the very antithesis of the violent meritocracy that would come to characterise the American Dream. But she saw this egalitarianism as the potential of America, and not its lived reality. For while the United States had no ‘ruling force’ in the sense of the European landed elite, she argued ‘caste [still] rules in American life with an iron rod’. But it did so as a fractured array of social levels, with none of the rigidity and conformity of European class relations. Garnett Wells believed, however, these caste relations would slowly wither away. ‘Power and money’ will become, she predicted, ‘less [of] a god… Caste in its unkindest or most exclusive forms will gradually disappear in the reality of our living.’ It is a vision that makes for a miserable contrast with America’s present condition. More generally, Garnett Wells’ dream of a future America built on the basis of equality also serves as a reminder of the deep tension between the barrier that inheritance represents to a merit-based society and free market liberalism’s formal commitment to such a society.


The globalisation of Americanism

Whereas Garnett Wells believed caste relations ‘may always remain as an undefined aroma from unknown distance’ beyond the shores of the United States, as it transpired a violently meritocratic American class ideology became globalised in the twentieth century. Its international expansion went side by side its domestic ascent, giving a symbolic, cultural expression to the geopolitical and economic rise of America, one that reconfigured cultural identities in the old European states now pushed to one side.

These cultural changes reconstituted the basis and nature of elite power globally. In Britain, for example, several factors combined to lead to a rise in wealthy American heiresses marrying into the British aristocracy.[5] The heightened capacity for interaction across the Atlantic entailed by communications and transport revolutions,[6] the fact Britain shared a language with an increasingly wealthy United States, whose elites were fascinated by the stuffiness of ‘old Europe’, and the deep economic crisis parts of the British landed aristocracy found themselves in, all combined to generate a cultural phenomenon that would have once been considered an unimaginable breach of the principle of endogamy.[7] This foreshadowed, and gave impetus to, the gradual transformation to a post-patrilineal British ruling class. That money, not hereditary title, was the major source of social power was hardly novel in the long history of capitalist England. Cultural change, however, had lagged behind these economic shifts. Only with the turn of the twentieth century did the advance of urban-industrial society and the concomitant rise of Americanised attitudes to wealth and power destroy the cultural and social hierarchies of pre-modern England, not only their economic basis. As such, by 1914 it had become ‘widely recognised’ by contemporaries of the age ‘that traditional high society had effectively ceased to exist’.[8] Hereditary title was a novelty item, a mark of glamour, and a throw back to a romanticised image of high society, but it was no longer a guarantor of social power.

This tale of how the English ruling class came to terms with an Americanised modernity[9] also shows the transformational significance of the intersocietal, as the distinctive dynamics of development seen in the aristocratic-capitalist empire and the swashbuckling ‘land of the free’ shaped their mutual interchange and social relations.[10] In a sense, we are still living in a longue durée characterised by the march of violent meritocratic discourse as the primary organising principle of social life. Ultimately, this has created a world for the rich which is essentially borderless; reflected in the series of global cities that flaunt their status as play pens for the rich.

The dangers and paradoxes of this moment are considerable. Piketty speculates that the most desirable solution to the gross inequalities of our time would be a global capital tax, but he recognises its serious lack of feasibility. For the cosmopolitanism of the modern world is ultimately limited and partial, with high levels of elite mobility juxtaposed to the continued supremacy of the nation-state form, nationalism and related identities, which construct a series of divisions highly amenable to creating a favourable climate for big capital, from taxation regimes, to labour codes, housing and urban redevelopment. It is this contradictory and unstable dynamic between the global and the national that arguably constitutes the primary contradiction of the early 21st century world. Piketty’s aspiration to rethink the ‘geographical scale’ and ‘spatial unit’ of analysis, combining the comparative with an intersocietal dimension, is very welcome in this context. By moving beyond ‘methodological nationalism’ one can start to reconceive ‘the global’ as a complex tapestry of difference and integration.


Luke Cooper is Lecturer in Politics at Anglia Ruskin University. His research focuses on processes of social and political transformation across the longue durée with a particular focus on the role of nationalism and national identity in social change. He is currently writing a book on the historical sociology of the long nineteenth century and can be found on Twitter @lukecooper100.




[1] Piketty, T., (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 23, 206 – 234, 353 – 429.

[2] Savage, M., (2000) Class Analysis and Social Transformation, Buckingham, U.K. ; Philadelphia, Pa: Open University Press; Savage, M., (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century, London: Pelican.

[3] Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 32.

[4] Ibid., 23 – 24.

[5] Thanks to Courtney Fleming for introducing me to the importance of this phenomenon in Edwardian England.

[6] Buzan, B., and Lawson G., (2015) The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 68 – 94.

[7] Horn, P., (1991) Ladies of the Manor: How Wives & Daughters Really Lived in Country House Society Over a Century Ago Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 71.

[8] Cannadine, D., (1990) The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, London: Penguin, 342.

[9] For more discussion on this see van der Pijl, K., (2012) The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class, 2nd Revised edition, London, Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books.

[10] My own position on these questions has been shaped by an engagement with Justin Rosenberg’s work on the ‘theory of uneven and combined development’. See Cooper, L., (2013) “Can Contingency Be ‘internalised’ into the Bounds of Theory? Critical Realism, the Philosophy of Internal Relations, and the Solution of ‘uneven and Combined Development,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 26, no. 3; Cooper, L., (2015) “The International Relations of the ‘imagined Community’: Explaining the Late Nineteenth-Century Genesis of the Chinese Nation,” Review of International Studies 41, no. 03: 477–501; Rosenberg, J., (2006) “Why Is There No International Historical Sociology?,” European Journal of International Relations 12, no. 3: 307–40; Rosenberg, J., (2010) “Basic Problems in the Theory of Uneven and Combined Development. Part II: Unevenness and Political Multiplicity,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23, no. 1: 165–189.



See the Piketty/Savage interviews on the TCS blog: