Editorials Christmas 2014: Editorials

How 21st century capitalism is failing us

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g7516 (Published 15 December 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7516
  1. Richard Wilkinson, emeritus professor of social epidemiology1,
  2. Kate Pickett, professor of epidemiology 2
  1. 1University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
  2. 2University of York, York, UK
  1. Correspondence to: R Wilkinson Richard{at}RichardWilkinson.net

It requires a thoroughgoing democratic transformation

The popularity of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital1 was perhaps the publishing surprise of the year, but it is paradoxical for three reasons. Firstly, its 700 academic pages are hardly an inviting bedside read. Secondly, its appeal was primarily to people already worried by rising inequality, even though its main argument is that increasing inequality is built into capitalism and will be hard to overcome. And, thirdly, for those of us who regard a combination of low inequality and little or no economic growth as a precondition for environmental sustainability, Piketty’s message is doubly unwelcome: it implies that slower economic growth leads to faster rises in inequality.

So could the attraction of this book—its title echoing Marx’s magnum opus—be that it lays the blame for increasing inequality firmly at the feet of capitalism rather than suggesting that minor reforms would solve the problem?

The popularity of Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything,2 may stem from the same source. Subtitled “Capitalism vs the Climate,” it shows how large corporations, particularly fossil fuel companies, have bought off governments and many environmental groups, watering down policy proposals, legislation, and international environmental agreements. Even the much publicised environmental commitments of several major industrialists have not lived up to their promises. The upshot is that we have frittered away the little time we had …

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