Capital and Ideology: Introduction

Looking over my notes and marginal comments on this introduction, I realized I couldn’t possibly raise all the issues that troubled me in reading it. That would require an essay about as long as the introduction itself.  So I’m going to focus on one conceptual problem that seems most troubling to me, because it seems to determine in advance the possible outcome of the research Piketty undertakes.

That problem is raised in the first paragraph.  Right from the start, there is an assumption that we have an “ambient social structure,” and then ideology arises to “makes sense of” or “bolster” this structure in some way.  That is, Piketty assumes that ideology is a set of justifications, of “dominant narratives,” that work to legitimize  or naturalize what somehow already has come into existence outside of discourse.  

My position is that ideology is in fact the “ambient social structure” itself.  That is, the practices in which we produce those “indispensable goods” we need to live are already ideological, because we could produce such goods in any number of ways; ideology then works to maintain this particular manner of production, through material practices in which we structure our relations to one another and to the available resources and means of production.   Throughout the introduction, Piketty tends to assume that what  ideology does is justify these practices, to “impose meaning on a complex social reality”(14), although of course some of this might be done in all sincerity, with a “plausible basis,” and not as an intentional deception.  My concern is that this limited idea of ideology will never go far enough in its analysis, and will mistake some ideological institutions for the “goods” (my term, not Piketty’s) they are working to produce.  

With phrases like “make sense of” and “impose meaning on,” Piketty seems to continue a sort of idealist ontology that could limit his attempt at an “unbiased examination of the available sources” (9).   That is, most of the kinds of discourses Piketty sees as ideological are meant to limit our thinking in such a way that we will be unable to conceive of new kinds of practices in which to produce the goods we need.  They do serve a purpose in trying to stabilize existing ideologies, but we must not mistake them for ideologies.  

This point is difficult to make clear, so I’ll use the example of education.  Piketty’s idea of what would constitute progress sounds troublingly like Jeremy Bentham.  He measures progress primarily by a utilitarian formula: increased “purchasing power,” longer life span with less of it spent in work (especially manual labor), and increased access to education (pp. 16-20).   Quantifiable amounts are the determinant of progress.  More life, it seems, if it is spent not working, is just better, regardless of how pointless and meaningless it might seem to the one living it.

The core problem here, to my mind, involves the failure to see education as itself an ideological practice.  For Piketty, education seems to be a good produced, something we possess and which in turn provided us with higher incomes and the ability to spend less time laboring.  However, our educational system is meant to produce skilled workers, sorted by class background, so that the social formation of global capitalism can be reproduced. In America at least (and reading the recent French novel And Their Children After Them would suggest things aren’t much different in France, where Piketty is writing), the goal of the educational system is at all costs to avoid producing any kind of critical thought about kinds of social systems we might engage in. The goal is to teach the necessary skills, while carefully avoiding any critical thinking.  

The education system, that is, produces something necessary to the maintenance of our social formation, and so necessary to producing the goods we need—mostly food, cars, smartphones, etc.  In our system, education is not a product produced which we then possess, but a practice meant to reproduce capitalist social relations.  What is never produced by this educational system is anything we might call meaning, in any real sense of that term.

“Meaning” is not necessarily something “imposed,” an interpretation of a social structure which  functions to naturalize it.  Another way to understand “meaning” is to see something as meaningful when it gives us the capacity to actively engage in deciding on what social structure we ought to have: on what goods we need to produce and how we will collectively go about producing them. It seems clear to me that the task of the current educational system is exactly to prevent the production of “meaning” in this sense—and instead to convince us that our social structure is not open to change, except by the wealthiest 1%, should a change suit their interests.

What I would suggest is that Piketty’s understanding of ideology as a justification, and his understanding of progress as quantitative gains, would leave us right where we are—unable to really find any way to give our lives meaning.  We are all supposed to think that once we get rich we will suddenly be enormously happy, that more stuff, more purchasing power, more free time, are the goals of “equality.”  It isn’t clear to me that these things alone will give us the sense of meaning we seek—witness the enormous numbers of affluent people in the U.S. on medication for depression or anxiety, the rising rates of addiction and suicide, etc.  

The problem here is related to the concept of equality.  We all think we want a more egalitarian society…but it seems to me we haven’t thought enough about what we mean by the term egalitarian.  Piketty seems to imply the common assumption today, that if everyone had more access to education, if everyone had a college degree, then we would all be making six-figure salaries and living a middle-class lifestyle.  But of course this is absurd (I’m sure I don’t need to point out to the participants here why we can’t all be lawyers and college professors).  Equality seems to mean mostly equal amounts of stuff, with equal freedom from the necessity of work (in the limited sense of unpleasant manual labor).  

What if we redefined “equality” to mean equal participation in the decisions about how we will produce the indispensable goods we need?  Instead of assuming that the how is a given, and we just want an somewhat larger share of the profits, what if equality meant we get to decide what form of transportation we will produce, or what kinds of food and housing, or what we will educate our children to know?  What if equality meant not a larger paycheck, but the ability to vote on things like whether we should put social resources into inventing a new kind of smartphone or into producing better housing?  This kind of equality is inconceivable given Piketty’s utilitarian concept of well being.

Since this is meant to prompt, not end, discussion, I will simply mention a few more problems that this introduction raises for me, and leave them open to discussion over the coming week.

One is the idea that a more egalitarian ideology, in Piketty’s sense of justification, would push people to demand better wages, and to demand that corporate executive take less of the profit.  This seems to me naive.  The examples of periods of greater equality—or higher wages and increasing standard of living, such as the decades after WWII in the U.S. (or the “great thirty years” in France), were not driven by egalitarian ideologies at all.  Piketty does suggest that periods of technological progress are usually not those of high inequality, supposedly because it is a myth that the promise of enormous wealth drives new invention.  And, of course, it is a myth.  Scientific progress requires enormous commitment of social resources, not individual geniuses sitting in their basement working hard at invention—we like this image of Edison only because it fits the myth, not because it is how things really work.  Periods of increased standard of living occur because they are needed by the very rich to enable the production of new and greater wealth.  After WWII, the wealthy needed ways to recoup the fortunes lost in the great depression.  Selling televisions and stations wagons and ranch houses, etc., was a good way to do it—but you need to have a class of people able to buy those things, or at least to go into debt for them.  Periods of “progress” aren’t caused by improved standards of living, rather periods of progress cause increase in wages, temporarily, to enable the extraction of greater wealth.  Once the very wealthy are already enormously wealthy, they don’t need to put that money in circulation to increase it, and so we have periods of stagnation.  This is basic economics, and Piketty should know this, it seems to me. 

Another point Piketty raises, in discussing the division of the rich into two categories (see page 28), is the idea common today that there are those who get their wealth from “unfair appropriation” (like Russian oligarchs) and those who get it by “innovation” (like the tech and internet billionaires).  As Piketty points out, this is a mistaken assumptions, because the tech billionaires also got their wealth by appropriating enormous amounts “resources” produced over long periods at taxpayer expense.  As Balzac once said, every fortune is founded on a crime.  How might we make this clearer to the general public, so that we can defeat the mantra of democratic liberals in America today that progressive tax just “punishes success and hard work”?  

Finally, the issue of method seems to be something Piketty flounders over.  He seems concerned to be seen as “objective” in his treatment of the “available sources,” but at the same time realizes that “‘facts’ are themselves constructs” (9).  This problem of evidence from which to argue seems to trouble him, and to my mind he doesn’t have more than the usual superficial answer that “we must take complexity and reflexivity into account.”  But what is this “taking into account” exactly?  My argument has always been that we need to begin from an intention, not from evidence.  We seek evidence as a way to better accomplish our intention, or to determine if it is really desirable or possible to accomplish it.  It seems to me that Piketty is in fact doing this, but is not being completely explicit about what his intention is.  That is, his intention seems to be to argue that by adjusting our ideology of capitalism (in his sense of this term) we can keep it going longer and make it less destructive and oppressive.  I’m wondering if looking at capitalist ideologies (in both his sense and mine) to prove that capitalist ideology can successfully save capitalist economics is, well, going to be a bit self-fulfilling.  So unless we question the assumption and commitments underlying his argument, it might seem a bit more possible than it actually is in reality.

Of course, this is not to say that the goal here is to simply criticize and dismiss Piketty.  My interest is in trying to learn something from this book.  To once again employ my tired map metaphor, we can take a map meant to show us how to get to the river, and use it to get someplace else in the vicinity as well.  So I think there might be a lot to make use of in Piketty’s map of the route from here to a kinder, gentler capitalism, even if that’s not where we want to get to.  

With that, I’ll leave off before I start preaching to the choir, and simply open it up to discussion. What can we get of use from the introduction to this book? Are the limitations too severe?  Are there important lessons here?  Would the act of reading this book itself perhaps enable the kind of non-job-training education that might allow us to produce meaning in a more fundamental sense?  

Note: I am temporarily turning off comment moderation to facilitate discussion during the “retreat” weeks.

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  1. Thanks, Tom, for a helpful introduction.

    I also found so many of Piketty’s assumptions, commitments, and errors troubling that I had a hard time choosing what to publish in the end—I have written over 3,000 words at this point, so I decided to condense it into a shorter comment on what I thought was most important to make explicit. First, I think that Piketty’s ideological commitment is to reproduce capitalist ideology, but at the same time to make life a little more bearable for workers, so that they don’t complain too much or—God forbid—attempt to replace capitalism with a new dominant ideology that they, the vast majority of the population, would prefer.

    I agree with Tom that Piketty’s conception of equality is extremely limited i.e., to him the only possible meaning of equality is a more equal distribution of wealth and commodities. This is probably owing to the fact that Piketty is, after all, an economist, but ultimately this very idea is the product of capitalist ideology itself. Tom’s idea of “equal participation in the decisions about how we will produce the indispensable goods we need,” is not and cannot ever be an option for Piketty, because that is communism. And as we all know communism is very bad and scary.

    Which brings me to the issue I want to focus on here, and that is the issue of method, which Tom briefly touched on. The problem of method is of enormous importance. It’s quite clear that Piketty starts from the intention to reproduce capitalism. However, he states another intention (and it’s possible to have contradictory intentions), which is to reduce “inequality.” Therefore, his course is first to find a method to analyze “inequality,” and then, based on the facts discovered, determine what we ought to do to achieve this intention. The problem is that the reproduction of capitalism requires delusion, i.e., it requires the use of unscientific methods which prevent us from coming to a correct understanding of our ideologies. Piketty’s method is thus empirical, but it is not scientific. There is a simple reason for this: A scientific understanding of society would show that Piketty’s intention to solve the problems of society is actually impossible to achieve, so long as capitalism remains the dominant mode of production. Given this fact, Piketty must work as hard as possible to avoid any scientific analysis of society. And how does he do this? Well, in exactly the same way all capitalist ideologists do—by first distorting and then rejecting the scientific method itself.

    In the introduction, Piketty openly states that he is rejecting the scientific method of Marxism, and instead will be relying on an idealist conception of history supported by a kind of naive empiricism. But he can never say this quite explicitly, of course, because nobody would ever want to say, or admit, “I am going to reject the scientific method.” And so instead, like most academics, Piketty repeats the tired old formula: he first constructs a false caricature of Marxist science, and then proceeds to disprove his own invention. Two whole paragraphs are spent describing how his method differs, not from genuine Marxism, but from his own caricature thereof. So I just want to set the record straight, if only to show concretely how Piketty avoids the responsibility of doing science.

    Piketty states that according to Marxism, “the state of the economic forces and relations of production determines a society’s ideological ‘superstructure’ in an almost mechanical fashion (7).” In actual fact, this is the precise opposite of the most elementary proposition of Marxism, which is that the development of society is not mechanical, but is the result of the dialectical interaction of living forces at both “levels” of the social structure, including class forces, which are in the final instance the decisive factors. Factors internal to the superstructure itself can and indeed do determine its development as well, and developments within the superstructure even react back upon the economic base.

    Our economist goes on. As if to disprove the Marxist idea that the superstructure in the final instance exists to support the economic mode of production, he points to the obvious fact that “given an economy and a set of productive forces in a certain state of development . . . a range of possible ideological, political, and inequality regimes always exist (8).” Not only is this not denied by Marxists, but indeed it is only the Marxist method which has ever been able to explain this very phenomenon with which Piketty attempts to discredit Marxism! It is certainly true that a mode of production can correspond to a number of different political superstructures. Capitalism is a perfect example, in fact. If we take even a cursory look at its history, we see an amazing variety in the kinds of political forms which capitalism has been able to accommodate. We see regimes that are bourgeois-democratic; Bonapartist; monarchic (both constitutional and hereditary); fascistic; we see military juntas; and so on. But it is not enough merely to state what is; one must be able to explain how what is came to be. Piketty’s definition of ideology does not allow us such an explanation.

    Compare, for example, the political superstructures of France today and that of Russia before the revolutions of 1917. We have here, on the one hand, a bourgeois parliamentary democracy and, on the other, a monarchy. These regimes could not be more different in their political character, and yet they both exist on a capitalist basis, i.e. the dominant mode of production in both countries is a capitalist one. Therefore, it is clear that there is not a direct, schematic, and mechanical determination of the political superstructure by the economic base. If Piketty’s misunderstanding of Marxism had any basis in fact, this would mean that a Marxist would be forced to assert either that not both these regimes are capitalist, and that is how they can have different superstructures, or that indeed they are both capitalist, and they also have the same superstructure. Of course, not a single Marxist has ever made such an absurd claim. But this does not seem to bother Piketty at all.

    The fact is that there is no way to explain these differences other than by looking at the material conditions of each country, and particularly at the class struggle in each country, which in turn must take the development of the productive forces as its starting point. When capitalism developed in France, the ideology (in Althusser’s sense, not Piketty’s) of capitalism came into irreconcilable conflict with the ideology of feudalism. Only one could dominate. We all know who won that one. In Russia, on the other hand, capitalism developed more or less harmoniously with the feudal superstructures. In fact, far from coming into conflict with feudalism, the nascent bourgeoisie in Russia were tied hand-to-foot with the monarchs, the landowners, and foreign imperialism. This is the entire reason why the revolution in Russia took on the character it did, as opposed to the earlier bourgeois revolutions. Trotsky explained that this scenario would also exist for all other countries who had not yet had capitalist revolutions, which was exactly the case in the ex-colonial countries which Piketty cites as proof against Marxism.

    I can’t go into much more detail on this point, because that would more than triple the length of my comment, and also because I know this problem will express itself more concretely in some of the later chapters, when Piketty further develops his theory of “inequality regimes.” The point here is that, in rejecting a scientific, i.e. a dialectical materialist method to analyze society, Piketty ensures that the social problems he intends to resolve will remain inscrutable. Piketty’s only recourse is to try to come up with an “ideology” (as he uses the term) to convince the ruling class that it is in their interest to give the majority a greater share of the wealth, which the workers produce in the first place. This is completely utopian.

    I’ll just highlight a couple of other ways in which Piketty’s “method” leads only to mystical explanations of social development. For example, the statement that “the French Revolution stemmed in part from the injustices and frustrations of the Ancien Régime (10)” is idealist through and through. The cause of the French Revolution was not merely the sudden insight which the rising French bourgeois class had into the eternal laws of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” It was, in the final instance, the fact that the intentions of the two most powerful classes—the bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracy—of the manner in which they sought to organize the production and reproduction of life, came to a head and were irreconcilable except through the violent domination of one over the other. In the final analysis, the ideas of “liberty, equality, fraternity” were not the cause of the revolution; they were its products. The point here is that we do not start out with an idea of justice, and society progresses when we gain a finer insight into what is just.

    Another preposterous idea Pikettys method leads to it the proposition that “what made economic development and human progress possible was the struggle for equality (3).” A classic idealist conclusion, with no basis in reality. Human progress is the result of the development of the productive forces, and the antagonisms of different class interests, i.e., the victory of certain intentions over others.

    Let me end, then, by making my intentions explicit. My intention is to abolish capitalism. I chose this intention, and believe it to be an intention we ought to have, because the only alternative is the suffering of billions of sentient beings and the destruction of the planet for the purpose of producing more profits for a ever-shrinking number of wealthy capitalists. The problem we are facing today is that the majority of the world, in whose objective interest it is to construct socialism, do not have the organization, the power, or the leadership to replace capitalism as the dominant mode of production. The task is not, as Piketty believes, to give the majority nicer cars and bigger houses. The task is to replace capitalism as the dominant mode of production.

  2. I just want also to quickly answer the question tom raises in the final paragraph of this post. I do in fact think that the limitations in Piketty’s method are too severe. As I see it, we have two options here.

    On the one hand, we can choose to share Piketty’s commitment to reproduce capitalism while just solving the problems of inequality, and then see whether his method actually might achieve this result. However since the contradiction between capital and labor, i.e., since inequality, is fundamental to capitalism, there is no possible way to actually reconcile these two intentions. That is, we cannot hope to solve the contradictions of capitalism so long as capitalism remains the dominant ideology.

    On the other hand, we can choose not to share Piketty’s commitment to reproduce capitalism. In which case I’m not sure just what we can gain by reading this book, other than learning how not to tackle the problems produced by capitalism. Any thoughts on this?

  3. Craig

     /  May 23, 2020


    A quick response to your last comment. Although I maybe shouldn’t have, I found the introduction astounding. Not 10 pages into this large book and it’s clear we’re looking at the ‘better capitalism’ solution. I was thinking, “why should I read this?”. Well, I am going to continue reading as I know it will give my critical thinking skills some good practice and allow me to learn from interacting with some wise folks. In addition, I really need to make friends with the fact that big academic names and books etc. CAN be so clearly lazy and uniformed. I’m socialized to assume these giant books are works of great truth written by great minds that are just far beyond what I could ever understand. The book is big because the issues are complicated, right Of course that’s not true, but already this book is causing a reaction in me that I find troubling. Without intention I find myself thinking that maybe capitalism can be better. Maybe there is an alternative that could keep us from having to constantly argue for socialism and deal with the fear of Communism. Part of me is so caught up in not making stupid rich people mad because I passively assume their views are legitimate. Can’t we all just get along? It’s bullshit, but I still hand them the power to be the deciding factor for any change.

    So maybe I’m going to read out of spite! Or maybe just read to see if there is anything we can glean. Or read because it’s concerned with the most important issue in the world; suffering. I’m definitely going to read to critique from an intentional ideology of abolishing capitalism. Would that be praxis?

    Back to reading!

  4. David Watson

     /  May 23, 2020

    After reading the introduction, and in an effort to interest an anarchist friend in following this project, I told him I found Piketty’s approach “insufferably idealist” and said I expected “that will be the perspective from which it is read.”

    But I also found much promise in his approach. Perhaps that is just because I always tend to be convinced by whatever I have read most recently (Nietzsche, for example, or Thaddeus Russell), but I suspect it is also because I spend a lot of time discussing politics with people who stop listening as soon as you mention Marx, communism, or even capitalism. Sometimes that means you can’t get them to listen to much of anything. But not always.

    Why is it that, as Chaim points out, “the majority of the world, in whose objective interest it is to construct socialism, do not have the organization, the power, or the leadership to replace capitalism as the dominant mode of production”? Trotsky (in 1938!) suggested that the “objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten.” His solution was a “transitional program” of demands that capitalism, if it were what its press clippings contend, ought to be able to provide. Its inability to do so, he thought, could lead the working class toward socialism, even if the demands themselves did not amount to constructing socialism.

    If the “kinder, gentler” capitalism Piketty wants is an impossible fantasy, perhaps it nevertheless has this kind of value. (My go-to example of this kind of thing used to be to ask why the reduction of the work week stopped at 40 hours, though now one could also point out it has actually begun to lengthen.)

    This probably does require that we think there is some importance to the kind of inequality Piketty is trying to measure. I will try to argue that, if need be. But for now, assuming Chaim’s skepticism about the book (which Tom and Craig largely seem to share) has not derailed this project completely, I would like to ask about pace. Can I assume that next week’s discussion will carry us through the first two chapters? That would be up to page 98, or roughly the 50 pages per week initially mentioned. That is fine with me, but that rate of progress does mean we will be at this until sometime in October.

  5. compatty

     /  May 23, 2020

    Hi all,

    I find Chaim’s outrage particularly refreshing, actually because I have had David’s experience that most people stop listening when I when I mention marxism, particularly academics who should know better and have a commitment to truth. Most don’t listen however, and so blinders go on for various reasons that probably have nothing to do with intelligence or ethical commitments. In Piketty’s book, I think we have such an instance. Is it a justification for a gentler capitalism? Well, yes. But I am going to give it a “sympathetic” reading to try an salvage something from it because at least it is trying to provoke some changes in thinking about what would be structurally “different” in terms of economic relationships even if Piketty doesn’t quite succeed doing that from what he says in the introduction. His premises may be wrong, but historical change is a dynamic process in which thinking and imagining—a little at a time—must be made to construct the conditions for real change.

    That being said, I find it extremely odd that for a book entitled Capital and ideology, Piketty didn’t bother to read Althusser. If he had, he might have had a better understanding of marxist notions of both capitalism and ideology—then again, I think there’s often a willful misreading of Althusser’s theory of ideology, save for Tom who gives it the time and sympathy that it deserves in his book. I think the issue is that Piketty, like many others who use the term, want to see “ideology” as the realm of ideas that people “choose” to follow and use to construct social, political and economic system. Thus he claims that “inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political” (7). What kind of twisted logic is this? Later, in that same incoherent paragraph, he claims that “People choose to adopt the conceptual definitions they choose to work with.” Do they? Freewill? Do we really choose to think in terms of “market and competition,” “profits and wages,” “capital and debt,” etc, as concepts to work with? Maybe Piketty chooses to think of economics in these terms, but not the rest of us (and he doesn’t really either—that’s what capitalist discourse is all about). Or, do these concepts organize and structure that ways in which have to perceive our lives: do they not structure the very material relationships and systems that we are coerced to live with every day? They do “exist as such.” And let us not forget that the concept of “freewill” as “choice” is in itself an ideology that is born of capitalism – at least in the way Piketty is discussing it here. In a sympathetic reading, perhaps Piketty is being rhetorically provocative with the work “choice” because it has the connotation of giving readers some agency by a limited questioning of the “laws” of capitalism. But it is also a misunderstanding of the notion of ideology (and oddly capitalism)—at least as I understand it. Ideology always has a material existence; Althusser is very clear on this point. So, it structures the very things that Piketty wants to separate in this weirdly convoluted paragraph. Ideology is not separate from the social, political and economic systems in which we live; it organizes these systems. Piketty makes the same conceptual mistake about ideology that many others do, leaving ideology at the level of ideas, of justifications, of representations, of rationales of a system that is somehow separate from its material conditions. If he had read Reading Capital, for example, he would understand the concept of relative autonomy of the traditional marxist model of base/superstructure and understand that while “ideas” can arise separately from modes and relations of production (we would not be able to have this conversation if it didn’t), it happens unevenly and dialectically (which is also left out of Piketty’s vocabulary here). Justification may be ideological, but it is not what an ideology is. So, I give him kudos for taking “ideology seriously,” but I also kind that his notion of ideology is idealist. He would make a lot more progress if he would take blinders off, and see ideology as materialist.

    However, Piketty is very good at comparing capitalist economic structures in history, and I think here is where the strength of the book may lie, albeit perhaps in a more limited way than we might like. And this is what I find interesting and hopeful about the book. His intention in the book is to find “what a better political, economic, and social organization might look like” and these will no doubt depend on “the very limited state of our present knowledge” and apparently his misconceptions about ideology. While Piketty thinks he must find different models of organization first, and create “narratives” for them later, that is just not the way it works in reality. If it was, then we could just lobby for change now; but we are not in an ideological position to do so. What I find hopeful is that he is thinking about alternative systems at all, in quite specific economic terms: “progressive taxation, temporary ownership, circulation of ownership…power sharing in firms…democratic budgeting, and public ownership…” (41). Now, I understand that these are already delimited by the capitalist concepts that he is working with, the most obvious is that all of them concern “ownership” of capital or means of production. But they do attempt to make fissures in the mode of production. Some may see this as an accommodation of the capitalism mode of production, and it probably is. I’ll take that criticism, because at this time in my life I’m willing to hang on to anything that seems remotely progressive. But I do think that the left has largely devolved to “critique” rather than an active productive program of imaging what kind of changes or what kind of society could arise from within the structures we currently have. I see Tom’s book as a step in the right direction, and in this more faulty but much more influential book, I see something similar. Do I think everything should come down to “income equality”? No, but it’s a place to start rethinking economic practices as Tom does ideological ones.

    I could go on, but this might be a place to stop.

  6. It’s been barely 24 hours, and already we have such a great discussion starting to brew! I do want to wait for others to chime in, but also there are a few points I wanted to respond to really quickly.

    Craig: This all becomes clearer once you accept that the function of academics is precisely to avoid talking about the real workings of capitalism. And this is not just the case for the clearly pro-capitalist academics (which covers most economists). It’s true also of ostensibly anti-capitalist “radical” theorists. Show me an academic Marxist and I’ll show you, the final analysis, a reformist. I absolutely do agree that it’s good to read works like this, though. The practice of making the assumptions and commitments explicit within a work takes a lot of, well, practice. Tom is very good at it. I still need a lot of work, and that is why I still think it’s worth reading this book. It’s kind of pointless to read only things one already agrees with (though it does feel better). What’s most helpful is reading a book like this that requires critical thinking.

    David: I’m 100% with Trotsky on the transitional program. However, it is my understanding that Trotsky’s argument was that it is the task of a revolutionary Marxist organization to raise such demands, and not reformist academics. The purpose of the transitional demand is, as you say, to raise demands that workers will get behind, but which are impossible for capitalism to deliver. However, and this is crucial, these demands must be consciously and explicitly linked to the prospect of socialism, i.e., the task of the revolutionary is to fight alongside the worker for her demands, while explaining, at every step of the way, precisely why they can’t be won under capitalism. In this way the worker learns from experience the necessity of overthrowing capitalism. In a way this is a kind of ideology, in that it produces the intention to overthrow capitalism, or at least makes certain intentions explicit.

    compatty: I’m also very interested in seeing how Piketty compares different societies, or “inequality regimes,” as he calls it. Unfortunately I don’t have much hope that he will be capable of providing a scientific analysis of them. For one, Piketty likes to use the term, so in vogue among economists and sociologists today, of “social class.” But “social class” is not a scientific but an ideological concept. The way to explain society scientifically is by talking about class in the Marxist sense, i.e. the relationship on has to the mode of production. As you point out, Piketty’s superficial (or rather incorrect) use of the term ideology means that he likely only be able to compare societies by comparing, in the final analysis, their political character. This is because the assumptions and the method he starts out with only allow him to do that. But I haven’t read that far, so maybe I’m wrong here!

  7. Nicola

     /  May 23, 2020

    While the introduction gave me some informative numbers and graphs the critic here is much more interesting and makes it almost worth reading the book (together), as just a beginner in this specific kind of thinking, I can learn a lot from the critic!

    I recognize the idealist conception of ideology, although one could almost be deceived:
    “ideas and ideologies count in history, but ­ unless they are set against the logic of events, with due attention to historical experimentation and concrete institutional practices (to say nothing of potentially violent crises), they are useless.” (41)
    Ideology is not understood as immediately part and consequence of practice, but set against it as if it was something seperate.
    Thank you compatty for making that clearer to me, I made the same mistake in my little review for Tom to say “choosing ideology”, whereas I should have said choosing practice as it is only in an indirect manner we can choose ideology (correct me if I’m wrong).

  8. compatty

     /  May 23, 2020

    No, I think you’re right Nicola. I think that Piketty vacillates between a strange, unexamined blend of “history of ideas” and a Foucauldian notion of discourse (though he doesn’t say that) as being the cause of history and its outcome at the same time. It isn’t dialectic, and as Chaim has noted, I think that will be a real problem in any historical analysis. I agree, Chaim, that “social” class is not the same thing as “class” in a marxist sense: the first is an ideological category; the second is a relationship within economic/political/social structures. Very problematic.

  9. So many important issues raised already here. I’ll start with the last—Nicola’s comment. This is the important question, for me. How exactly do we change our ideology? We cannot just “choose” an ideology in the sense that Piketty means ideology—pick an ideal to pursue divorced from our actual practices. Such ideals or ideas just don’t exist. But we do in a sense “choose our ideology” when we choose a practice—since the practice just is the ideology. So what motivates us to choose a practice?

    I suppose we would have to say an intention—some idea of something we want to do. And since our intentions come from our existing ideology, the question for me is always how do we manage to ameliorate them? Mostly because we are capable of gaining knowledge of how things actually are in the world.

    Still, we have to begin from some intention. And I’m not sure if it is the case, as Piketty assumes, that we mostly desire equality—not even in the sense he means it. I don’t think that human progress is driven by a demand for equality; it seems mostly to be driven by a desire to enslave and oppress others to have them do the unpleasant manual labor. And when people push for change, it is not equality they want, but a greater share of the surplus for themselves—and less manual labor, usually. This seems to be true even in Piketty’s examples—the third estate in France was, as he points out, mostly made up of affluent merchants and professionals wanting more wealth for themselves, not the “commoners.” So that all three “estates” actually made up only about 10% of the population.

    If we want to encourage people to challenge capitalism, we need to begin from where they are now, from their current desires, constructed in their current ideologies. I think a book like Piketty’s can help us think about what most people do assume, and think that they want, in the world. They assume that, as Piketty says, once the get more purchasing power and more leisure time they will be happy. But they don’t seem to want equality—they in fact want to be less equal to those around them. They want to have enough money, and enough poor people, to hire workers to do whatever they want done.

    I wonder how, beginning from these assumption and desires, we could possibly shift people’s intentions enough to get them engaged in a different ideological practice?

  10. I will say, also, that I understand the exasperation with Piketty’s total ignorance of marxism. But I wasn’t surprised by it. This is universal in academic work. Particularly if one is advocating some kind of socialist agenda, on must disassociate oneself from marxism to be listened to. The easiest way to do this is to trot out the old potted version of marxism from the undergraduate economics textbook, and dismiss it as naive or just plain evil. This is standard. I’ve never met an economics professor, business professor, or political scientist who has actually read marx—but they all have the standard account. Just like the psychologists all have the standard account of Freud, but have never read him. When I was in grad school, or just starting out teaching, I would always hear “marxist literary criticism just reduces everything to class.” I would always make the mistake of asking “really, what marxist critic are you thinking of exactly?” I was never popular…

    Overall, I do think the limitations of Piketty’s method don’t mean the reading of the book is useless. He raises a number of important concerns about how we might go about producing an ideology that changes things, instead of just reproducing the status quo. One that seems evident to me is the need for a practice in which serious discussion of these exact issues (what is ideology, how does capitalism really work, what drives changes in social formations) can be carried out. For most Americans, a discussion like this would lead them quickly to roll their eyes in exasperation and turn to their Instagram feed. I’m not even sure how to produce the practice of reading texts we don’t agree with and discussing them—this is certainly what universities train people never to do.

  11. Thanks, Tom, for this introduction and to everyone so far for the smart and stimulating comments. They are very helpful to me as I plow my way into this heavy text! This type of study, historical analysis of pre-modern societies, etc., is new ground for me so it is a rather slow read right now. I have to sort of read it straight up a time or two before I can begin to engage it critically.
    As Patricia says, I am a bit surprised by Piketty’s superficial and idealist take on ideology with no mention of Althusser (but not so much after just reading Tom’s last comment) and how he insists “that the realm of ideas, the political-ideological sphere, is truly autonomous.” (7). To think beyond capital relations it would seem essential to first get Althusser right.
    Tom’s map metaphor is helpful–Picketty may not take us where we need to go but perhaps he can get us closer to our destination. And it is good to see so much effort put into a turn toward a kinder and gentler capitalism. Onward ho!

  12. Tom: I would push back a little bit on the idea that “when people push for change, it is not equality they want, but a greater share of the surplus for themselves—and less manual labor, usually.” There is certainly a large degree of truth to this. Especially under capitalism, the working class mostly struggles for things like higher wages, better conditions, more holiday, etc. But this is not always the case. The class struggle has ebbs and flows, and the degree of consciousness and the demands of the working class change with them.

    As the class struggle progresses and intensifies, workers will often raise demands that go beyond merely a greater share of the surplus or better conditions. Not only that, but they will begin creating new ideologies that precisely aim at “equal participation in the decisions about how we will produce the indispensable goods we need.” This is exactly what the soviets were in Russia. The ideology of the soviets ultimately came into conflict with the ideology of capitalism, creating a situation of dual power, i.e. a revolutionary situation.

    I would argue that even unions are to some degree such a proletarian ideology. Of course, trade unions today are mostly just an apparatus of the state. But they contains the germs of an entirely new ideology (for example, the practice of democratic centralism when voting whether to go on strike). The reason why most trade unions today are puppets of the bourgeois class is historical, and has to do with the fact that, although most were founded by socialists, the leadership of the trade unions have degenerated into a bureaucracy (sort of like the Soviet Union degenerated into one, although for different reasons).

    You speak of “the need for a practice in which serious discussion of these exact issues (what is ideology, how does capitalism really work, what drives changes in social formations) can be carried out.” That should be the practice of a revolutionary organization, whose task it is to clarify theory and tactics and then intervene in the class struggle. This is why I think it’s important to study the history of Bolshevism and continually restate the ABCs of Marxism. Academics like Piketty, after all his 15 minutes of book deals and interviews, will never be able to solve the contradictions of capitalism. The circle cannot be squared, it must be smashed. And for this reason part of these kinds of discussions should include discussions on tactics vis-a-vis relating to the working class struggle today.

  13. David Watson

     /  May 25, 2020

    Chaim, I had an almost opposite reaction to that phrase, thinking perhaps Tom had neatly deconstructed something Piketty seems to assume without arguing for it, that equality is some kind of universal human goal. But I admit I felt challenged to grasp the sentence that precedes it: “I don’t think that human progress is driven by a demand for equality; it seems mostly to be driven by a desire to enslave and oppress others to have them do the unpleasant manual labor.” Tom Sawyer and his fence are an exemplar of some human truth, but Twain was above all a humorist and I am not sure it was that truth.

    Objections to inequality, however, are not necessarily demands for equality. An Amazon worker can easily, without feeling he should be paid what Jeff Bezos makes, feel the gap is unconscionable.

    I suspect Piketty hopes to justify his focus on inequality based on his claim that inequality regimes invariably feel called upon to defend the inequalities they embody, suggesting a consensus that any inequality requires justification. We may wish to provisionally grant the possibility that he can do this, however skeptical we may be. It’s a question that seems certain to occupy us throughout our reading of the book.

    In fairness to Piketty, I feel bound to point out that at the bottom of page 7 he dismisses, not Marxism, but “approaches sometimes characterized as ‘Marxist,’ according to which the state of the economic forces and relations of production determines a society’s ideological ‘superstructure’ in an almost mechanical fashion.” I think I have often encountered this variety of Marxism. I associate it with Stalinism and therefore with the poor reputation Marxism currently enjoys, not only among academics, but among what you called “the majority of the world, in whose objective interest it is to construct socialism.” I certainly did not come to this book in the hope that Piketty would rehabilitate Marxism from the damage inflicted on it by Stalin and the Soviet experience. That is not his task. It would be exciting if it could become ours, and if the evidence Piketty provides were to prove in any way helpful toward that end.

  14. compatty

     /  May 25, 2020

    It’s been my experience that when I read academic as well as popular discourse on “inequality” there are usually two kinds: one that assumes identity politics is the cause of inequality and just accepting “difference” lawfully will create equality; and the other is that capitalism has gone amuck and that things like greater unionization, access to education, etc, can remedy that “inequality.” Both discourses assume that “income” or “opportunity” is the problem, as does Piketty, but the intention is never to truly “equalize” but make sure the race is run fairly so that everyone is at the same starting point, and then one “rises” to the level of his/her own capabilities. This is obviously an old bourgeois notion since the late 18c. Current discourse tend to discuss the problem in terms of “levels” and once you’re at levels, you are not talking about “equality.” The Amazon worker doesn’t see “equality” as a real possibility, as a demand for anything other than good working conditions and an increase in wages, health, and perhaps unionization in order to get those things as a real possibility. S/he will put it in terms of “fairness” or “justice” but not in terms of Bezos not “deserving” his wealth, because as Piketty sees it, the negative ideology is that Bezos is an innovator and thus a good capitalist (my students see him as such anyway). It is in this way, that Tom’s phrasing makes sense, because inequality is basically acceptable in/to our culture. I don’t know if the demand that Chaim speaks about in terms of proletarian ideology reaches more than that; I would hope so, but I’m not sure, unless we can get beyond the idea of “deserving” wealth or “fairness.” I’m not even sure that “equality” is really the right word here because it’s enmeshed with the idea of wealth and income.

  15. What I had in mind in the comment about “progress” was the kinds of things Piketty would mean by progress. We don’t invent the steam engine or the radio, or promote rural electrification or the development of new antibiotics, out of a desire for “greater equality”. Even the interest in universal education was driven by a need for more skilled labor…to maximize profit and so increase inequality. We may not all consider the forced participation in the current educational system, or the ubiquity of the automobile, as “progress,” but I think that’s what Piketty has in mind by the term. Even increased democracy was a strategy for the capitalist class to take a greater share of the wealth from the ancient regime…the motivation for this particular “progress” wasn’t equality, or the vote wouldn’t have been limited to white, property owning men.

    Chaim: I think unions arise mostly out of the demands for basic necessities. It gets hard to survive, sometimes, when the sixty-hour week doesn’t pay a week’s rent, and there’s no health case or sick leave. So, unions derive from a more basic demand. The goal, for me, is to figure out how to get people to shift from basic demands to an increased demand for participation in the decisions about what kind of world we want to have—that is, how we should go about producing and distributing basic necessities, but also what kinds of leisure we should participate in, etc. I do think it is possible to get people to shift their intention from the demand for more purchasing power and less work to something like a demand for less need to purchase basic necessities and more meaningful lives…

    The question is how we ought to do this, how we can do this.

    I do believe that increasing our understanding of how the world works is part of the indispensable goods we need to fulfill our human nature. We won’t get this from the existing social system—but something like the communist party you describe, Chaim, is meant to do exactly this. The issue for me is how to get more people interested in such self-education. Because sure we need to eliminate capitalism not reform it, but we cannot do so until we have enough people who see this need!

  16. The more I think about this introduction, the more I am bothered by the assumptions that less manual labor plus more purchasing power equal happiness. This seems to me the assumption we must overcome. It seems somehow connected to the idea that ideology is not what give us purpose and agency, but what robs us of them. So we see ideology as an evil, and the illusion of some space free from ideology as the good.

  17. I agree that we need to move beyond the demand for a greater share of the surplus value produced. Such a demand limits the conception of indispensable goods just to those that are necessary for bare existence.

    I do wonder, though, to what degree the “basic demands” such as the kind trade unions are meant to produce can be separated from the “demand for participation in the decisions about what kind of world we want to have.” It seems to me that in order to be capable of participating in such latter decisions, we must first to some degree free ourselves from manual labor, to ensure that everyone can have their bare needs such as food and shelter met, without having to work sixty-hour weeks. In this sense the problem of constructing a truly democratic social formation, where everyone is able to participate in the decisions about what kind of society we ought to produce in the first place, is dependent on everyone’s basic survival needs being met, and also on a certain level of culture.

    The issue, as I see it, is that as long as capitalism remains the dominant mode of production for things like housing and food, it will remain impossible for most people to participate in ideologies that produce the other kinds of indispensable goods which they need to fulfill their nature, because most of their time will be spent working simply to reproduce their existence. Some of us who understand that there are indispensable goods other that those necessary for bare existence might be able to participate in the creation of ideologies that produce these other indispensable goods, but this will continue to depend on the inability of the vast majority of the world to do so.

    If this is the case, then the first task must be to nationalize the industries that produce the goods necessary for bare existence, and to place them under democratic worker’s control. This would allow for a dramatic reduction in the working day while ensuring that everyone’s bare needs are met. Once this is complete, the question of producing other indispensable goods arises out of the material conditions as a practical necessity. But the former task, of placing industry under democratic control, can only be carried out by the proletariat, because of their objective relationship to the means of production, their knowledge of industry, and so on.

    Therefore the question arises as to what exactly the task of Marxists should be, which I think in a way becomes a question of tactics. Should Marxists attempt to create new ideologies that produce the kinds of indispensable goods which capitalism can’t provide? Should they intervene in the workers’ movements—both inside and outside of the trade unions—in order to agitate for a dictatorship of the proletariat, like the Bolsheviks did? And while we’re at it, what exactly is the relationship between these two practices?

  18. Chaim:
    My problem with this approach is that the strategy of global capitalism has been to move the “industries that produce goods necessary for bare existence” into other countries, making it impossible to nationalize them. There is not old-fashioned proletariat with knowledge of industry in America (or, there is some, but very little, at this point). Also, technological progress has drastically reduced the number of worker required in industry. About twenty years ago, for instance, I remember the Winchester factory in New Haven spending tens of millions of dollars on machines, to cut its workforce from about 300 to about 20. These 20 have to be trained to use the machines, but they need nowhere near the skill that was previously required to make a rifle. When you try to unionize manufacturing these days, it becomes too easy to just move the whole factory to another country. This puts too much of the onus of revolutionary activity on “third world” countries, and leaves Americans with little to do.

    I would suggest instead that we need to organize the precariat class, and the permanently unemployed. The Amazon warehouse in the town next to mine has a massive turnover rate—hiring upwards of 50 people a week, as workers tend to last no more than a few months in the brutal conditions there. Amazon is the second largest employer in the county, I’m told. They won’t be unionized (they would just move their warehouse if a union movement ever gained any traction). But we might make progress by organizing the chronically unemployed and underemployed—especially in the aftermath of the current shutdown, when they are the majority in many towns.

    So, sure, it is hard to convince people to participate in any other kind of activity while so much of their time needs to be spent just getting enough money to pay rent and buy food and keep their car on the road. But then, even the poorest people today will spend many hours a day playing video games and watching YouTube videos. Perhaps this time could be better spent, if they could see some more meaningful thing to do?

  19. Craig

     /  May 29, 2020

    Patricia wrote:
    “It’s been my experience that when I read academic as well as popular discourse on “inequality” there are usually two kinds: one that assumes identity politics is the cause of inequality and just accepting “difference” lawfully will create equality; and the other is that capitalism has gone amuck and that things like greater unionization, access to education, etc, can remedy that “inequality.” Both discourses assume that “income” or “opportunity” is the problem, as does Piketty, but the intention is never to truly “equalize” but make sure the race is run fairly so that everyone is at the same starting point, and then one “rises” to the level of his/her own capabilities.”

    What these folks are saying is that if we just accept everyone, end racism etc. then we’ll be equal, right? That seems to be the democrat/liberal view in this country. Lots of talk of acceptance, but zero awareness of systemic causes of economic inequality. And again, more access to education and unions is just trying to make capitalism better. This will never, ever happen. It’s like trying to make water not wet. Capitalism is based on profit at all costs. Any sort of ‘making it better’ will ultimately fail. And if we do see stronger unions, for example, it will be a constant uphill battle to keep them alive. This is not to mention that capitalism requires a certain amount of unequals to do the dirty work, be unemployed, buy the crap. What do these academics and Piketty have to say in response to these arguments? I guess Piketty would say that all the aspects of capitalism are social constructs and can thus be changed. However, these constructs have causal power and are part of a larger system that seems to be immune to any sort of ‘reconstruction’.

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