Capital and Ideology: Chapters 7 through 9

This week, I’m hoping to raise some questions about the remaining three chapters in Part Two of Capital and Ideology.   In a couple of weeks, Chaim will do the same with chapters 10 through 12.  This will move us forward more quickly to the final section of the book, which we expect will be of greater interest and lead to more lively discussion.  As always, I will only discuss a few points that happen to be of particular concern to me; if anyone reading wants to raise other concerns about this section of the book, feel free to do so in the comments.

Clearly the goal in this section of the book is to continue to describe the transition from ternary to proprietarian society, with consideration of the complexity added by various global relations of colonialism, including that in India and Asia.  However, as I read this section I am consistently reminded of Hayden White’s argument that the story we tell is shaped by the goal we want to accomplish now.  Clearly, Piketty’s overarching goal is to present history as a succession of what he calls “inequality regimes,” rather than a series of distinct modes of production.  To the degree that he succeeds in this presentation of history, he can hopefully convince his readers that while inequality is inevitable, the degree of inequality can be reduced by political and ideological means.  His concern is that we need not have any dramatically disruptive transformation, but that we can in a relatively calm and orderly fashion transition to the ideal state of “social-democratic society.”  

Piketty’s project, then, seems to be to convince us that inequality is not a result of capitalism, but an inevitable fact of life. At least, this is what I take to be the force of his consistent mapping of all social formations onto a fixed scheme, in which the 1%, the 10%, the middle 40% and the bottom 50% always turn out to have the same proportion of total wealth.  Further, dramatic or revolutionary transformations always lead it increased inequality, contrary to their stated intent (he explains that this has occurred both in the French Revolution and in the collapse of South Africans apartheid).  The only hope is a moderate political reform that will decrease inequality somewhat, without foolishly hoping to eliminate it.

What I want to do here is just  briefly mention a few of the more significant conceptual blindspots that lead to this conclusion.  I would also suggest that the social-democratic equality Piketty lauds only ever occurs in countries that are participating in brutal economic oppression of the poor in other parts of the globe.   It’s fine to laud the socialism of Sweden, but we must not forget the cost to the rest of the world of the success of their capitalist economy—those working in their lithium mines in Peru don’t share the standard of living provided by their profitable corporations back home.  However, I’m going to set aside the inherent absurdity of thinking that the contradictions of capitalism can be dissolved by socialist policies in first-world countries.  This is clear enough to most readers here.  My concern is to draw out some of the more troubling assumptions which might otherwise go unnoticed. 

Throughout the book, Piketty consistently assumes that the problem of inequality is one of quantity.  That is, he cannot conceive of inequality as a matter of the relation between people, of the roles individuals are interpellated into as subjects.  For instance, he asserts that “the purpose of property is to increase the owner’s ability to consume and accumulate in the future”(284).  But this is not really all there is to it.  The purpose of property is also to establish a certain relation between people, enabling some to dictate what will be done and forcing others to do what they are told or risk starvation and homelessness.  It isn’t merely a matter of enormous consumption—what is at stake is the relations between people.  One could imagine a world in which some people are enormously wealthy but this is insignificant, since the majority are guaranteed a decent standard of living (even with no money in the bank) and so cannot be coerced against their will to do what they are told.  One could also imagine a world in which the wealthiest have only a little more, in material possessions, than the poor, but because of the social formation they have all the say in what projects the group will undertake (certain periods in Ancient Rome seem to have been something like this—the “inequality” could not yet be anything like it is today in a time before coinage, before indoor plumbing and private property; that is, the difference in material wealth was nowhere near what it can be today, but the difference in power was enormous).

As a result of the inability to think in terms of relations rather than quantities, Piketty tends to minimize the role of the repressive state apparatus in enabling inequality.   As a result, he puzzles over why the Ottomans and Chinese did not “follow suit” and drastically increase taxes to support a central government.  He cannot understand that, in a mode of production not yet capitalist, the means of social control were more dispersed and a large army was not necessary to keep people in line.  His discussion of “when the state was too small to be the night watchman” (367 and following) therefore misses the important question: why, under capitalism, did it suddenly become necessary to have a night watchman?  Why do we need a larger RSA to insure stability in a capitalist social relation?  He can’t quite figure this out, because he cannot conceive that the difference is not just one of changes in amounts of wealth, but in social relations.  In capitalism, there is always a deficiency of ideology (in the sense I define it, not in Piketty’s sense); we need a strong RSA to threaten violence or people are not likely to fulfill the role required of them to reproduce the current mode of production.

Further, because he cannot think in terms of relations between people, Piketty is left with an odd (I would almost say incomprehensible) idea of the boundary between determining and agency.  At the beginning of chapter nine he says: 

[W]e will find that many trajectories were possible, and this leads us to minimize the role of cultural or civilizational determinism and to emphasize instead the importance of sociopolitical developments and the logic of event in the transformation of inequality regimes.

My question here is: what exactly might this vague term “logic of events” be  meant to indicate?  If it is not culture, and not “civilization” (whatever he might mean by that), what exactly counts as “events”?  In what sense to they have a “logic”?  How is “logic” different from “determinism”?  

Clearly, he wants to insist that what counts as “economics” is in no way determining (see, for example, page 399).  Obviously, he also want to represent marxist economic thought as “reducing everything to the question of ownership of the means of production” and the naive belief that all other “problems would solve themselves once private property ceased to exist”(357; that is, I think Piketty agrees with Ambedkar, and means us to agree also).  This leaves us with an odd idea of determinism: he seems to suggest that we have a kind of free will, but only free will to manipulate the existing (inherently capitalist) economy to make it less brutal. My point is that it remains inconceivable that we might have the power to change the relations in which we live, because the only relation existing is that of a person to his private property.  All else is somehow a political “event” that is up to us—but we must stop short of seeing capitalist social relations as themselves being up to us.  He cannot comprehend that the goal of marxism is not to change ownership, not to redistribute wealth, and hope that all other social ills will magically disappeared; instead the goal of marxism is to change relations, such that ownership and inequality will no longer be the source of social power.

As a result, Piketty gets it exactly backwards.  It is his idea that once we have a progressive tax all will be better and problems will solve themselves.  He just imagines that the brutal oppression of the poorest classes, say miners and factory workers in the third world, will just dissolve once the upper class pays more taxes and the “middle forty percent” has a bigger share of wealth.  

I’m not going to go through all of the information in these chapters.  I take it that he’s got the “facts” as right as we can get them—I don’t dispute their correctness, and am not arguing for any kind of anti-realist relativism.   However, we can agree on the facts and make something different of them, depending on the goal we are pursuing.  Piketty’s goal is to use this factual information, and the narrative he constructs from it, to figure out how to save capitalism from what he sees as a serious danger looming.  I don’t doubt that he is right, that capitalism could be saved, or at least prolonged, if enough people got on board with Piketty’s agenda, and followed his argument.  I’m doubtful this will happen, and not disappointed that it won’t.  

Still, I am concerned that we might not see any other solution to the disaster ahead, if we cannot get beyond these conceptual impediments.  Piketty can only see economics as a naturally occurring thing, which may seem deterministic if we fail to discover the kinds of “events,” apparently “sociopolitical” ones, that will give us some limited measure of freedom in the grip of a natural tendency to inequality.  We need, instead, to recognize that economics, the way we collective go about producing and distributing indispensable goods, is itself a humanly created, mind-dependent kind of practice, open to change.  The claim that we are being fatalist when we say that the economy is determinant in the last instance only makes sense if we forget that the economy is also up to us!   That is to say, it is the case that the economy is determinant to some degree of all other social possibilities; but this is not at all fatalist because the economy is itself open to change.

The history of how those social formations that turned early to capitalism were able to brutally oppress those that didn’t is interesting and important—but I’m not so sure that Piketty realizes this is the story he is telling in these chapters.  We need to be aware of the tremendous importance of the RSAs in keeping capitalism alive.  America is unique in imprisoning far more of its population than any other “first-world” country, and this is true largely because America has for so long been the leading edge of global capitalism, which needs the constant threats of imprisonment or death to go on.  (Today, that leading role may have conveniently shifted to China, allowing us here in the states to demonize the very oppressive social practices that have made America so rich and powerful for the last two hundreds years).  

Capitalism is always ideologically weak.  It needs a large RSA do keep its subjects behaving.  Most of them won’t work “all by themselves” (although, since the wealthy “middle forty percent” generally do, we tend to think the capitalist ideology is more robust than it is).  We need to keep this in mind if we want to transform society: the increased progressive taxes that Piketty advocates will only gain popularity, if it does at all, once the richest ten percent realize that the poor majority is likely to get out of their control, and stop doing what they want—that is, it will only ever be used to fortify the RSAs.  

Anyway, I may be rambling a bit from the topic of these chapters, so I’ll leave off here.  As I said, please feel free to raise any other concerns in the comments below!  

Piketty: Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is basically a summary of various slave inequality regimes which Piketty calls “extreme inequality”. Piketty sticks with pure description here, but makes some comments on the morality of slavery. Calling it “extreme inequality” being one. I’ll highlight a few of those attempts below as well as describe some of the more extreme examples of these regimes.

The most striking examples of the slavery inequality regimes are Britain and France both of which were part of the African slave trade that involved the kidnapping and selling of 20 million human beings from 1500-1900. Piketty brazenly states that this caused a “significant demographic drain on Sub Saharan Africa” (p. 205). This statement might be one of his attempts at addressing the moral context here. Britain began to abolish slavery with British Slavery Abolition Act of 1843. As expected and appalling at the same time, a major concern about this act was how to compensate slave owners for their liberated property. In total, slave owners were paid what today would be 120 billion euros. Of course the working class paid for this debt through raised taxes. These slave owners were already rich in property and political power and these payouts added to these family fortunes that still exist today as finance and real estate assets. Liberated slaves were forced to sign long-term work contracts in order to assist in paying for the slave owner indemnity.

A similar abolition scheme played out in France. The most egregious being in Haiti. Most of France’s slaves were on their island colonies and when the slave population reached a certain majority France feared revolts. Haiti revolted and claimed its independence in name only. France recognized Haiti as independent in 1825 only because slave owners would be paid, in today’s numbers, 40 billion euros for the loss of their property. Of course, Haiti had to foot the bill which led to over 100 years of debt payments to France. Haiti became a debt slave to France which led to impoverishment up to the present day. Haiti paid 5% of its GDP every year to cover the payments to slave owners. Piketty makes a good point in stating that public debt goes on and is inherited by subsequent generations. Public debt doesn’t go away.

Similar to Britain, emancipated slaves in France had to sign long term work agreements in order to pay their slaveholders for their freedom. Former slaves would work at least 10 years and their wages were garnished for these payments. Since free workers couldn’t be beaten, they were punished by longer work contracts if their performance was not what employers wanted. The legal system ensured these contracts and punishments the former slaves endured. Piketty emphasizes that this type regime is “hard on workers” (p. 224)!

The flow of events laid out in this chapter about slavery is incredible. Human beings were violently taken from their family and homeland and transported to other countries where humans with a different skin color bought them and forced them to work to death under constant threat of beatings. The wealth of the West was built by unpaid slave labor. When finally slaves were emancipated they were forced to work to pay their former owners for the property, the slaves, that they had lost. From slave to wage slave. The whole story is mind boggling.

Piketty does not discuss why slavery was abolished. I believe it became more profitable and easier for rich landowners to pay low wages than buying and dealing with slaves. Wages could be ridiculously low because former slaves had to work by law and to survive. They had no bargaining power. The landowners also retrieved a large amount of what they paid in wages through the indemnity payments to them. This system also instilled the myth of workers having freedom to make choices related to their lives. It was genius and insidious. Slaves, and everyone else who was not rich, were now free to work. In reality, they are forced to sell their labor for capitalist profit in order to just survive.

Personally, I was taken aback by this chapter. A friend went to Ghana for the Year of Return to commemorate the 400 years since the first slaves were brought to what would be the United States. The pictures he brought back, his stories of the squalor these humans endured and his continued reverence to the ancestors has forced me to really reflect on the unspeakable nightmare the slave trade was. I can no longer casually read about or discuss slavery. I feel like I have to let the agony sink in order for me to really come to some small understanding of the human-made slave experience and the subsequent trauma passed on through generations. Even as I write this I think I might not be saying the ‘right thing’. I’m a racist and for whatever reason I’m aware of it. I’ve found that it’s my place to shut up and listen, but also engage in rigorous critique of any Anglo commentary or history of slavery, much like we are doing here.

In reading this chapter I kept returning to the introduction in order to figure out what Piketty was trying to say here. I’m still confused as to what his objective is in this book. If I understand correctly, Piketty is presenting a study of inequality in history and how each society has explained said equality. Piketty’s definition of ideology is more of an interpretive device to create narratives. Accordingly, his assumption is that history has just rolled along and we can use ideology to interpret it. I’m not sure what ideology Piketty thinks he is using and I don’t think he is either. Obviously it concerns creating a narrative of how societies have explained inequality and concluding that we need to look critically at how we currently explain equality in our society and then come up with better ways of addressing it. Is this correct?

In focusing only on inequality Piketty ignores the actual causes of inequality. He arbitrarily defines equality as access to education and property and power. He concludes that history has moved via the vacillating ways societies have explained away inequality. Coming from an Allthuserian conception of ideology, Piketty’s stance is useless. Piketty is constantly making ideological assumptions and statements. His intentional focus on inequality is ideological. His assumption that equality is access to education and power is capitalist ideology. His statement that inequality is not economic, but ideological is fraught with ideological assumptions. Clearly, Piketty is working within a capitalist ideological framework. He intentionally dismisses Marx and mentions the failure of communism which I find to be lazy scholarship or just towing the party line. Class struggle has no place in Piketty’s study despite the fact that any cursory look at inequality throughout history can be explained by class struggle! It’s not who controls what for Piketty, it’s the slippery idea of inequality. According to Piketty, capitalism won and we just need to make it less hyper and more equal.

Chapter 5

I begin with the most obvious question one could ask about chapter 5: what’s up with Jane Austen? I do think Austen belongs in a study about ideology and capital.  As a literary scholar whose area is British Romanticism, I know very well that she does. But Piketty’s account of her writing as a kind of “evidence” of proprietarianism as if it is some kind of ledger that reveals the truth of this kind of economic logic is very problematic.  Yes, of course, her novels “illustrate to perfection the diversity of the British gentry” and how their wealth was equally “diversified” including foreign assets and slaves (though Austen only hints at this in one novel).  And yes if illustration were the only issue here, I’d have to agree. This is true, and Austen’s obsession with money and where it comes from as well as lineage, titles, and upper class intraclass relations is all very apparent from the first few pages of any of her novels. Austen is astute, or as astute as a relatively witty, home-educated woman from the gentry can be in the 1810s, of her and others’ social and economic experience in England.  However, Austen is writing a novel, and Pikitty takes at face value what Austen’s ideological (in our sense) project is: to make the laborers around her who do the domestic work of the household seem irrelevant and invisible, as well as to make the bucolic countryside the universal of ordinary life at a time of great economic/social/political upheaval in England.  This is the same project in which Piketty is engaged.  Austen’s novels have done their job well for over two hundred years. And Piketty is not interested in interrogating the “truths” they posit, or the ideological function they have.   

Thus, literature cannot be simple “evidence” in any way that Pikitty means it because as a discourse it has a different function from the other kinds of evidence he uses to prove inequality. Literature tends to intensify ideologies that are already inherent in a culture, though they might have the potential in a representation of culture to question or swift an ideology—what one might call ideological distanciation. Althusser in a “Letter on Art” calls this the function of true Literature as opposed to other kinds of imaginary writing—what used to be seen as pop literature. Ideology is not a representation, but ideologies can be represented in such a way that naturalizes them so we do not question them: we simply see, feel, believe in them.  In Tom’s terms, it “maps” our consciousness, giving us a narrative as a way to make our way in the world.  This is what Austen has done for Piketty: it gives him a convenient narrative to base his argument about the “diversity” of the gentry as central to how society (the centralized economic/social/political structure) works at this historical moment. 

And so we come to Piketty’s analysis of Austen’s (and Balzac’s—with which I am much less familiar): that in the grand narrative of ownership societies “there is no clear relation between the size of one’s fortune and one’s functional abilities or aptitudes. Some people own considerable wealth while others have modest incomes or work as servants. In fact, little is said about the latter, their lives are too dull. At no time, however, do the novelists suggest that they are in any way less deserving or less useful than their employers” (174-5). Gasp! One wonders at this point if he paid attention to Mansfield Park or Sense and Sensibility. Since I may be the only one in the group who has read Austen critically, I will answer: no. In that “little is said” about the servants is the telling phrase. Little is said by Austen because she does perceive them as dull, unimportant and less deserving of the kinds of pleasures that Austen and the gentry take part in; the kinds of pleasures that Austen depicts as being “truly” meaningful, and labor is not one of them. It is not, as Piketty claims, that the novel doesn’t produce “heroes” or has “no clear relation” between the size of one’s fortune and one’s abilities or aptitudes: it already assumes there is and every reader (since the 1810s) knows that the only “real” people in an Austen novel are the gentry.  They are the “heroes” of the novel form because they are the ones who really can “feel” intensely, and manage the moral, economic and political relationships on which their fortunes rely. Literary history has “universalized” this experience of reading her (and others) novels as Literature’s necessary ideological function. To use it, as Piketty does, as evidence of an historical truth about how people really acted or even to construct a grand narrative about individuals relative “equality” that readers can understand, hides or elides Austen’s novels’ real purpose and power.  Whenever a student of mine reads Sense and Sensibility, s/he imagines herself as Marianne or Elinor—not the servant sent to fetch the food or the cook who makes the Dashwood’s dinner.  And this is the point of an Austen novel, then and now. The depiction of this “imaginary relation” is extremely important to maintain and perpetuate the narrative that inequality is justifiable, and these diverse gentry are really only maintaining the common good because they are the only “good” that really matters.  And with this Pikitty seems to be in full agreement.

Sorry if I went on a little long about this particular part of chapter 5.  It is that this part is just so striking to me.  I’m wondering what you all thought about it?