Why has there been so little political response or popular resistance to the abrupt turn toward increasing inequality since 1980, particularly in the core capitalist countries? Does the sudden abandonment of neoliberal austerity for unprecedented economic stimulus to counter the effects of the coronavirus herald a belated era of reform?footnote1 Will the end of covid-19 resemble 1945 in the West, when not even a victorious war record could defend societies of privilege from social anger? There are hopeful signs in unexpected places, like the editorial boardroom of the Financial Times and the Alpine resort of Davos. On 3 April last year the ft solemnly declared: ‘Radical reforms are required to forge a society that will work for all’—‘Redistribution will again be on the agenda.’ Meanwhile the founder-director of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, has let it be known that he expects ‘a period of massive redistribution from the rich to the poor and from capital to labour’ after the ‘massive social turmoil’ brought by the pandemic.footnote2

The recent book Clivages politiques et inégalités sociales, edited by Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty, seems well placed to address these concerns.footnote3 In the introductory chapter the authors explicitly raise the first question indicated above, and while their research predates covid-19, we should expect it to make a fundamental contribution to grasping post-pandemic prospects. What for brevity’s sake may be called the Piketty teamfootnote4 is moving the goalposts in social science and opening up new vistas on the world, in a manner comparable in recent times only to the late Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-system analysis. Piketty and Wallerstein are both intellectual spearheads of broader movements—anticolonial revolution and egalitarian enlightenment, respectively—and skilful academic entrepreneurs.footnote5 Both are primarily empirical scholars of great theoretical ambition, but they represent different styles of work. Wallerstein was one of the last real craftsmen of the social sciences, an erudite, boundlessly curious individual artisan in the tradition of the major historians, and for whom Fernand Braudel was an adopted master. Piketty, on the other hand, belongs to a new era of industrial research and Big Data, directing an army of trans-disciplinary collaborators and assistants—not so much a manager as a trail-blazing team leader of a bio-medical science lab.

Like the team’s work on economic inequality, Clivages alights on a hitherto little-used data source, in this case electoral surveys in fifty ‘elective democracies’ over the post-World War Two period. The uncertainty of such data is managed by averaging several surveys, if available, and weighing each non-electoral survey variable by its voting concordance with the official electoral results. The different income and education categories of the surveys are transformed into comparable decile scales. The outcome of the team’s analyses—graphed, tabled and succinctly narrated—is a fascinating, empirically rich global landscape of the sociology of electoral politics. Politically and in a broad sense intellectually, however, the book is a disappointment. The main reason is that the authors do not systematically focus on the relationship between politics and the (re)production of and variation in levels of inequality. They know a lot about the individual dynamics of each, and show us so—Clivages includes some gems of intercontinental comparison, for example the relative economic disadvantage of the lowest castes of India and the Black population of the us footnote6—but they largely abstain from pursuing their connections. They do not attempt to identify which political cleavages have facilitated the current extremes of inequality in the world, nor those that might provide a platform for social transformation. No proper answer is given to the background master question of the whole project, ‘Why have so many democracies allowed socio-economic inequalities to deepen and oriented themselves to discussions of immigration, national identity or integration?’ The main political conclusions to almost 600 pages of tightly packed information fall pretty flat. First, that ‘nostalgia for the class structure of Western electoral competition during the trente glorieuses is a poor guide’. Second, that ‘the post-Communist and post-colonial world . . . bring other cleavages into play and require the construction of new platforms of social and economic transformation’.footnote7

The main searchlight of Clivages is trained on the social differentiation, by income and by education, of political sympathies and voting behaviour. This is what its conceptualization of a political cleavage amounts to—a much looser sense than is usual in the best political science, the implications of which will be discussed below. Most of the emphasis falls on a reversal of the political articulation of (relatively) high education within Western democracies. From party systems in which high-income and highly educated people historically voted right while low-income and less well educated citizens voted left, a different pattern is developing in which the right is instead supported by high-income voters with low education, and the left sustained by those with low incomes and high education. The new system, for opaque mathematical reasons classified as one of ‘multiple elites’, therefore harbours two distinct elites: a high-education, low-income ‘Brahmin Left’ and a high-income, low-education ‘Merchant Right’. The notion of a ‘multiple elite system’ is invoked several times, always as an ongoing tendency of great significance. But none of its components—multipleness, elite character, systematicity—is clarified. The only thing we learn is that it is an effect or expression of the new tendency for the more highly educated to vote left. The abrupt hailing of multiplicity fits uneasily with the basically binary analytical framework of the book’s analysis of parties and party systems. It is often formulated by the authors as left–right, but is not defined in ideological terms. The parties in focus, in comparison with others, are parties which (historically) have (had) more of their support among the poorer half of the population than among the richer. This format, however, more or less precludes the possibility of studying political elite structures and their evolution.

The change in the political colouration of educational background has been a long time coming, beginning in at least the second half of the 1960s and reaching its global-average tipping-point in the 1990s. The preference of lower-income voters for left-of-centre parties, on the other hand, they find to be relatively stable, save in the us and the uk. In the us presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, the Democratic candidate won among both the bottom half and the top ten per cent of the income earners. In 2016 Trump won the middle 40 per cent, who in 2020 divided their support equally.footnote8 In the 2019 British election, low-income voters preferred the Conservatives to Labour, 45 to 30 per cent. The Tories got slightly more support from low than from high income voters—45 to 40 per cent—while Labour support was equally modest among the two income categories. In France, Germany and Italy, on the other hand, low-income alignment with the left is stronger now than in the 1950s.footnote9

How significant are the new political orientations of different levels of education? Clivages defines ‘high’ and ‘low’ education in a particular way. ‘High’ means the most educated 10 per cent of the population, ‘low’ the remaining 90 per cent. The ‘low’ education of Merchant Right voters in rich countries simply means that there are fewer PhDs, completed master degrees, graduate students, and in some countries, shorter academic degrees among their number than among left-of-centre voters. The new political meaning of higher education is an important historical change which the Piketty team has brought into focus, but the finding is devalued by its not seldom frivolous deployment. The mocking designation ‘Brahmin Left’ actually largely refers to distinctly non-elite university lecturers, post-docs, graduate students, high-school teachers, social-work professionals and librarians. Their electoral realignment derives from the expansion of higher education and the social professions, and from the long 1968—the political upheavals of university systems in the late 1960s and early 70s, which left an enduring cultural legacy, including a number of new or re-founded left parties. The ‘Brahmin’ label on the left is exaggerated by the inclusion of new Green parties, whose electoral base is very much academically educated, but which represent a novel ideological current, and are in some cases—for example the current German Greens—increasingly distancing themselves from the left.

There is a noteworthy difference among centre-left parties with respect to the educational backgrounds of their supporters. Those parties nowadays receiving their strongest support from people with a tertiary education are the us Democrats, the British Labour Party, the Canadian Liberals and ndp, the New Zealand Labour Party, French and Swiss Socialists, and Italian Democrats. Those most strongly supported by people without tertiary education are the social democracies of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Support for the Australian Labor Party is not differentiated at all by level of education. The classical European social democracies—to which Labour, the ps and the pd do not really belong—have so far retained the popular character, in education and income, of their (shrinking) base although they no longer dominate working-class politics. In the 2018 elections the Swedish Social Democrats gained the support of no more than a third of the working class, and together with the Left Party garnered only 40 per cent. Nevertheless, this was enough to make them the main current, with the rest divided between old bourgeois parties and a new xenophobic party. On the other hand, by the 1950s and 60s, the French, Italian and Swiss left already received the majority of their support from non-workers.footnote10 The British Labour Party was once the party of the working class, but in the general elections of 2017 and 2019 it was surpassed by the Conservatives by 9 and 21 percentage points, respectively.footnote11