Capital and Ideology—Chapts 1 & 2

Just helping out a little here to keep things going….

These chapters rely on the “evidence” from various sources in order to get a kind of snapshot of the change from ternary societies to the more modern form of a centralized state.  I’m not going to go through the evidence, but I think the broad point here is to enable readers to think of changes in political, economic, and social structures as historically contingent, and those changes happen very slowly without overt direction from “one group” (the first/second estate) over another (the third).  There may be “inequality” here, but it is not of the same “form” that happens in modernity; it lays the foundation for some structural/ideological changes on which capitalism is based.  One of those things is “ownership of land” or what we would call, in some sense privately owned property.  The other is the beginning of the change in the relationship between that “owner” and the worker; the latter was not free but also no longer a “serf” (54).  And their conditions and state of being, it seemed, changed very little.  But Piketty doesn’t really discuss that. 

What Piketty wants to be concerned with is how the pronounced inequality of this society justifies itself.  He says that “all societies have two essential needs—meaning and security” (59).  But I find that this is not something he really has a lot to say about.  He claims that political leadership always need a “credible theory of the public good or general interest” (60), but he really doesn’t establish how that happens in the ternary society—what is the pubic good or the general interest of whom?  Why is property, or the patterns of ownership necessary to that good or general interest?  These two chapters seem to be largely descriptive of how the upper levels (the clergy and nobles) consolidated their economic/political interests in law, but not really how that was justified, even if we are using Piketty’s definition of ideology. 

So, some discussion points:

  1. Is there a justification of inequality in these societies, or is that just being elided?
  2. Does the sheer quantitative material obscure any real interpretation of the public good?  In other words, is he trying to prove something from data that cannot be proved by data, and thus prevents us from understanding what they thought was the general good? 
  3. Do the chapter serve to highlight a universal justification toward “inequality” in that it has always been historically true, so we should not try to get rid of it, but simply try to ameliorate its more pernicious effects?

I pose these, but feel free to ignore them if there’s others you’d like us to ponder instead. 

Leave a comment


  1. craigrneely

     /  June 1, 2020

    I think I’m having difficulty posting comments. One showed up and then another didn’t. Anyone else having trouble?


    On Sat, May 30, 2020 at 8:31 AM The Faithful Buddhist wrote:

    > compatty posted: ” Just helping out a little here to keep things going…. > These chapters rely on the “evidence” from various sources in order to get > a kind of snapshot of the change from ternary societies to the more modern > form of a centralized state. I’m not goin” >

  2. Looking in the “dashboard” I don’t see any comments that were held up. If anyone has had any trouble posting comments, could you email me and let me know? I had assumed the silence here was just because people had either lost interest already or not kept up with the reading!

  3. These chapters seem to be inspiring little response. I’m not sure if folks are just finding this book less interesting than they expected. Personally, I’m still interested and intend to keep going with this.

    In these chapters particularly, Piketty seems to be establishing the existence of the enormous inequality, so that the capitalist revolution can be described as an ideological demand for greater equality rather than a change in the mode of production.

    For instance, at the end of Chapter 2, he says that one “key point” he wants to “stress” is that the ternary society “developed sophisticated political and ideological constructs whose purpose was to define the conditions of a just inequality, consistent with a certain idea of the general interest.” That is, the idea that this was the best for all people—the “rising tides lift all boats” idea we heard so often in the Reagan era—was supported by a general shared belief about how the world just had to work.

    The problem seems to me to be that this “ideology” was shared only by the top 3.5 to 1.5 percent of the population (Piketty’s figures, pp. 81-82). For instance, consider the peasant uprising he describes at the beginning of Chapter 3, in which Count Raoul responds by taking “the peasants into custody” ‘and having “their hands and feet cut off.” It doesn’t seem that these peasants shared in this definition of a just inequality.

    But more interesting, to me anyway, is the importance of what Althusser would call the repressive state apparatus. There must have been an enormous military force able to keep the peasants in their place with sheer force. It isn’t clear where this “police” force fits into the division into haves and have-nots Piketty describes. Were they recruited from among the commoners they helped to oppress? Surely the “bellatores” making up only about 2% of the population wasn’t sufficient to keep the 95% in line?

    What such incidents highlight is that such highly unequal societies demand a much higher level of pure brute force and threat of extreme violence, when the ideological practices to keep people working “all by themselves” are just inadequate.

    Isn’t this what we are seeing every day on the new now? A drastic failure of ideology combined with a high level of inequality requires the use of a category of paid violent police, usually recruited from the class they are meant to oppress, or else from the class of those who are afraid of falling into the very lowest socioeconomic levels themselves (so that most police today are recruited from children of the former working classes). What Piketty’s idea that ideology is a “justification” misses is just this problem—such “justifications” are only a (very small) part of the ideology of one class—usually not shared by the other classes. What is lacking is ideology in the Althusserian sense, in which there would be practices which people could participate in that would give them a sense of meaning in their lives and allow them to reproduce their conditions of existence. The peasants who had their hands and feet cut off likely didn’t feel they were able to live in any meaningful way—that the practices they were forced to participate in didn’t give them a life worth living, so they were willing to risk everything.

    Surely we can see how this failure of ideology is playing out in today’s level of extreme inequality? The problem seems to me not an ideology OF inequality, but a failure to have any adequate ideological practice in which people can live a bearable life.

  4. I’ve been slacking on the comments in part because much of what I have to say is more relevant, I think, to the next two chapters—plus the fact that there is so much going on right now that just keeping up with current events has become almost a full-time job on its own. I definitely have not lost interest and intend to continue through the book.

    The main thing I struggled with in these chapters is something similar to Tom’s criticism of Piketty’s conception of ideology—that somehow this thing called “discourse” is what keeps inequality going. But I’m going to quickly point out a few assumptions that Piketty makes that I find troubling.

    First of all, Piketty’s claim that the “social groups” of ternary societies each “fulfilled an essential function of service to the community (51),” seems to me to be totally unsubstantiated… unless Piketty considers violent repression and the exploitation of the majority of the population a “service to the community.”

    Related to this, Piketty appears to view the development of the state as aiming toward some kind of “balance of power” between the different classes, when in fact the state is an instrument for the domination of one class over another. In the final analysis this consists of armed bodies of men who cut off the hands of peasant rebels. But Piketty talks as if the nobility and the clergy each fulfilled a truly useful function in society; for example, that the clergy provided the masses with “spiritual guidance.” Again this is the idealism we pointed out in the discussion of the introduction seeping through, similarly to how Piketty speaks of classes as being “complex social and political constructs,” rather than class being an objective relationship to the mode of production.

    My thoughts are probably scattered here, but basically the problem boils down here to the fact that Piketty thinks that what makes society run is effective “narratives,” “discourses,” etc, which he refers to as “ideology.” But this explains very little, and relies on an incorrect understanding of many things. For one, assuming all that Piketty assumes, how are we to explain why some “ideology” in Piketty’s sense ceases to convince people? Is it because some other discourse arises that calls the current dominant ideology unfair? And how does this arise exactly? The point here is that Piketty really is only able to provide a surface level analysis of society consisting of statistics. He is not explaining the processes underlying the movement of society.

  5. compatty

     /  June 2, 2020

    I agree Chaim–very helpful. I don’t think Piketty makes an argument at all for what he call an effective narrative or discourse –that’s just an assumption at the level of a nostalgic fantasy. His analysis is descriptive of what he can quantify, but that’s why it obscures things like military might–as Tom has pointed out–and disables us from understanding an ideology that calls for massive inequality (ternary) and one that pretends equality but still institutes massive inequality (as in the modern state).

    What we are witnessing now is a failure of that latter ideology, but with the same consequences, a RSA. But the question I keep coming back to now is how do we get from where we are in this historical moment to a place where “there would be practices which people could participate in that would give them a sense of meaning in their lives and allow them to reproduce their conditions of existence.” I am just in despair over that right now.

  6. Craig

     /  June 3, 2020

    I’m working on a response to many of the issues brought up here and under the intro. But I have to say that I am in despair too. I usually run from apathy to rage to despair and back to apathy. I am kind of hopeful about the unrest going on. There seems to be a bit of momentum. Alas, the anti-fascists are being scapegoated by the fascists!

    Regarding Piketty, I keep wondering why there needs to be this huge analysis of inequality and then use it as evidence for needed change. I maybe misunderstanding his process. His idea of ideology is such a slippery slope that he could choose any sort of narrative to interpret this or that society. To him societies have just kind of popped up through history and describing the inequality in each is supposed to lead to his idea of equality. Which seems to be everyone getting to be the ideal capitalist subject. That’s impossible though. There has to be people to do the manual labor etc. that equal people won’t do. That’s the ultimate capitalist idea, right, to not have to work anymore?

  7. Nicola

     /  June 3, 2020

    I had difficulity reading as I find the style kind of flat and boring, too many numbers and statistics for my taste, my mind wandering off…maybe I should try reading it in the morning. The comments is where I am learning. Some thoughts, where I try to get a clearer picture of Piketty’s intention.

    Like in the century before the French Revolution and now after four neoliberal decades increasing inequality has been installed. Piketty stated in the beginning of the introduction inequality raises the question of legitimacy – ideology as justification (like Tom already said) as point of departure of the book and probably answer to craig`s question why Piketty thinks there “needs to be this huge analysis of inequality and then use it as evidence for needed change” (because you cannot really justify it). Even if ideology has a deeper meaning in our understanding, to talk about a alternative better world, meaning of life, human nature is not his point, he is not a philosopher, it’s about the question what INITIATES change.
    “The problem seems to me not an ideology OF inequality, but a failure to have any adequate ideological practice in which people can live a bearable life.” With Piketty I could ask, but why now? This failure has been going on since decades. Is saying, the uprising of protests is expression of a legtimacy crisis, claiming that the justification function of ideology is failing and that the revelation of the illegitimacy of power empowers the powerless and creates the momentum?
    What I’m trying to say, maybe the legitimacy failure is a necessary condition to shift the sense of empowerment from establishment to the masses…inequality as a big piece of the failure and insofar Piketty might have a point.

    A protestor said how much this will change people, like they are being radicalized in front of her eyes. I would claim, that protesting itself is already such a practice that leads to another ideology. Experiencing the power of solidarity, fighting for freedom and a better future, paricipating….The future leading practice of the hour. I hope for this protest to endure the repression to finally succeed in seizing the means of production…

  8. David Watson

     /  June 4, 2020

    Apologies for playing the age card, but if you were alive in 1968 you can’t believe that the current situation promises change. It testifies to lack of change.

    And I am thinking that this is Piketty’s point. Despite his focus on moments of rupture like 1789, and his promise to characterize the difference between ternary and ownership models, his narrative seems to emphasize how the more things change, the more they remain the same. After all, he already told us in the introduction that he will show how the social roles of the ternary elites, priests and warriors, evolved into those of today’s political Brahmin left (the intellectual and cultural elite) and merchant right (the commercial and financial elite) (p39). And he concludes Chapter 2 with a lengthy explanation of how feudal church property rules (institutional rather than hereditary because the Catholic priesthood was nominally celibate) provided the model for “economic law and capitalism” (p95), drawing his evidence in part from Innocent IV’s 1254 ruling on usury, which he finds worthy of a “central banker determined to stimulate investment in the real economy.”

    Perhaps when he comes to address the nature of ownership societies in Chapter 4 he will prove me wrong. But if his goal is to demonstrate that as it ever has been, thus it always will be, it isn’t at all surprising that, as Chaim put it, he “is not explaining the processes underlying the movement of society.” There is no movement. There is only tinkering around the edges, replacing old with new terminology, and debating just how much inequality the vast majority will tolerate before the pitchforks come out.

    If Tom is right that the oppressed in the US (and by extension Europe and the Anglophone West?) can no longer aim to seize the means of production, because these have by and large been moved elsewhere, and we must instead focus on “organizing the chronically unemployed and underemployed” (see his May 28 comment to the Introduction), might this perspective of Piketty’s, that today’s capitalism is just feudalism with different hats, prove useful? Capitalism’s difference from feudalism was important for Marx because it created an industrial working class with the historic task of creating socialism. If the historic task has changed, maybe the continuities, not the differences, are what now deserve more emphasis.

  9. Nicola

     /  June 4, 2020

    Thank you David, that debunks my naivety quite well. And ah I forgot about Tom’s comment, I will look into it.

  10. David Watson

     /  June 4, 2020

    Not debunked, just a different perspective. Not naivety, just optimism. The Bolsheviks were the optimists. Don’t let my Menshevism bring you down. Tom’s comment is well worth a second look. It has been on my mind a lot this week, but I am probably misinterpreting it.

    Piketty, on the other hand, is imho misinterpreting the Trente Glorieuses, in part by eliding the events of 1968, which were as tumultuous in France as they were in the US, if not more so. He thinks it was a period of stability (and relatively moderate inequality) to which capitalism can return. I think it brought capitalism closer to collapse than at any time since the German revolution failed in 1919.

    Piketty, like many enlightened defenders of capitalism who sit in the passenger seats, thinks the answer to pitchforks is appeasement. The ones in the driver seat have learned the lesson of 1968, and instead ask: Why were they able to afford pitchforks?

  11. Nicola

     /  June 5, 2020

    Well, you played the age card 🙂
    I nonetheless think that (the) protests can change a lot, radicalize people for one thing. Even without a telos I sympathize with this…riot language…after trying many things, even a Bernie, past the point of talking, cooperating and negotiating; something radical or mad, where for a moment maybe even the future does not matter anymore and the danger the body is put in, out-rage, but also simply looting stuff (back).

    I don’t insist on my first approach to Piketty’s intention as I don’t feel comfortable with the text or close enough to the text, so your reading gives me a welcome alternative, that I can test as we move on. Having this reading theses beforehand might help me stay with the text.

    Your last paragraph is bleak: I am just wondering who is less innocent, the driver or the passenger of Capitalism, the one showing the true face of its brutality or the one hiding it.

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