There is no doubt that Thomas Piketty’s best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has done a great deal of good in highlighting the urgency of tackling spiralling levels of global inequality. But could his main policy prescription – an annual global tax on capital – lead to a genuine sharing of wealth within and across societies?

The Guardian columnist George Monbiot is one of the latest commentators to add his voice to the debate, outlining the importance of Piketty’s analysis and conclusions. Central to these conclusions is Piketty’s critique of the Kuznets curve graph, which in the 1950s appeared to show that inequality automatically declines as a society advances through increased economic growth and industrialisation.

Far from creating ‘a rising tide that lifts all boats’, however, Piketty’s update of the Kuznets curve shows that a capitalist economy driven by market forces was not the reason behind the reduction in inequality in the post-war period. Rather, this was due to the peculiar circumstances of the era, such as the destruction of wealth following the great depression and two world wars, alongside strong government intervention in the market and broad-based redistributive policies (including, for example, top income tax rates of well over 90 per cent in both the US and Britain).  

Monbiot argues that this is why “the neoliberals hate Piketty with such a passion” – because he has helped to destroy “the apparatus of justification” that enables the elite to defend and rationalise their seizure of a nation’s wealth. Only by the means of justifications such as trickle-down economics can the obvious lack of sharing in our societies be viewed as inevitable, and perhaps even necessary.

Hence Piketty’s analysis has done a great service for progressives, in that it uses comprehensive data sets to discredit the prevailing economic ideology of our time. It is no longer just common sense to presume that extreme wealth is not good for everyone, and that the invisible hand of the free market will never lead to a fairer sharing of wealth among the population.

So Piketty deserves the accolades and attention that have followed his consummate investigation into the realities of inequality over several centuries. But many questions remain about his blanket solution of a global wealth tax, which Monbiot endorses. While such a tax may constitute a rational response to the continuing upward redistribution of wealth and income in advanced capitalist economies (even if it is a “usefully utopian idea”, as Piketty himself admits), it is by no means the best or only answer for creating a more just and equal world.

Many commentators have pointed out that the surest path to reversing inequality within countries is through strategies that create a better distribution of capital in the first instance, rather than relying on top-down, quick-fix and state-centric strategies afterwards. In other words, it’s more effective to address the distribution of wealth at its source, well before it is already stashed away in the bosses’ bank accounts.

This will inevitably require the collective organisation of labour, the protection of workers’ rights, and new ways for capital to be owned broadly by the populace – such as a dramatic ramping up of participatory ownership through cooperatives. These people-driven solutions point towards the shifts in power, values and personal behaviour that are needed to create truly egalitarian societies, though this is a subject that Piketty leaves largely unaddressed.