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? 

Capital and Ideology: Chapters 3 & 4

Please accept my apologies for the late post, everyone! First I had a busy week, and then that ended in me falling ill. So, just a fair warning: parts of this post were written while sick in bed, so some of it may make even less sense than I usually do.

There is too great an abundance of material in chapters 3 and 4 to adequately cover everything here. For one, I find Piketty’s obsession with “taxes” and “ownership” to be very tedious, because it avoids the kinds of discussions that we really do need to have, while giving off a deceptive veneer of objective empiricism. So, what I am going to try to do here is examine Piketty’s account of the “invention of ownership societies,” drawing out some of the assumptions upon which this account implicitly rests. Rather than spend too much time merely correcting the myriad academic falsifications and over-simplifications of revolutionary periods which Piketty mimics here, I want instead to focus on what I consider to be the most profound mistake Piketty makes in his account of the French Revolution. This one error is reproduced in every textbook account of the period, and I believe it prevents us from producing knowledge of how revolutions happen, why they succeed or fail, and how we can anticipate future ones and be prepared for when they do happen (spoiler alert: they will happen eventually, barring nuclear extinction).

Before I get to that discussion, though, I’ll say that I’ve decided that I don’t think it’s useful to indulge in Piketty’s obsessive focus on “inequality,” because really this book is a symptom of the failures of global capitalism on the whole, and this term limits our possible discourse. So I will try to limit my use of the term as much as possible from here on out. I suspect that Piketty’s favorite term “inequality” is in fact just a symptom (in the Lacanian sense—assuming I understand Lacan correctly). That is, the object of Piketty’s inquiry is not actually “inequality” as such. His project rather serves to produce a certain kind of discourse that aims to grasp something in the world which he can’t quite name. This is, of course, the same kind of mistake that leads all the social sciences to a dead end.

What I mean is that Piketty looks around the world and sees “horror without end,” as Lenin aptly referred to global capitalism. He sees: A tiny minority of the population owns and controls all of the wealth and means of production in society, and they choose to produce only those indispensable goods which are profitable, despite this resulting in immense suffering. Hundreds of millions starve, and yet they are not fed because it is not profitable to feed them. Over a billion people are homeless, and yet they are not housed because it is not profitable to house them. Hundreds of millions are depressed, on drugs, commit suicide, etc, because ideology has failed them, and this itself has been cruelly turned into a profitable business. Countless die as a result of the brutal violence of imperialist wars, and yet this, too, is profitable business.

Instead of embarking on a scientific analysis of this social formation, however, Piketty chooses to instead construct a discourse around “inequality,” and this discourse only prevents real knowledge from being produced. The word inequality does not have a strictly scientific correspondence to any of the phenomena mentioned above. The reason for this is because “inequality” is an abstract variable, whereas the problems mentioned above consist of concrete social relations. So here we have an entire book dedicated to “inequality,” which can at most offer a rotation of graphs and superficial legalistic analyses of historical trends.

My argument here is, basically, that when Piketty refers to “inequality” he is not actually pointing to what he thinks he’s pointing to. I get this sense because he seems to hold the illusion that if we simply redistribute humanity’s productive surplus in a manner approaching some “egalitarian” ideal, then that will solve the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, which in the final analysis are what produce all of the above-mentioned horrors. Piketty even imposes this schema in his discussion of the French Revolution. That is, rather than looking at the material basis and class forces which gave rise to this revolutionary period and determined its development, Piketty remains so focused on the concept of “inequality” that he just sees percentages and calculators everywhere he looks, making invisible the real forces which are at work here. It makes for good empiricism, but that is not the same thing as science.

So my focus here will be on Piketty’s account of the Revolutionary period in France. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the comment discussions must focus on this point; I’m merely narrowing down what I found most interesting to try to think about in these chapters.

First, it is absolutely necessary to reject the standard popular bourgeois account of the French Revolution, according to which, guided by Enlightenment ideals, the bourgeoisie and the middle classes, in an alliance with the masses of the peasantry, the semi-proletarians, and the poor, fought for justice against the archaic and unfair French regime. Ultimately this misunderstanding results from a lack of a class analysis. Piketty’s  “trifunctional” order of classes includes the clergy, the nobility, and the “third estate.” The latter is composed of the “common people [who] did the work . . . provided food and clothing that allowed the entire community to thrive (52).” For instance, peasants, artisans, merchants, and so on. While Piketty acknowledges that the third estate was not a monolithic bloc, and was composed of various subgroups, ultimately the lack of a clear class perspective on this point leads to some fatal errors.

Piketty’s analysis of the changes during the Revolution focuses almost entirely on the role of the legal movement occurring at the level of the state apparatus. The Revolution is presented as a sort of “ideological” (in Piketty’s sense) battlefield, in which all parties involved attempted to “define consistent norms of justice acceptable to all (100).” The idea being that the outcomes of the revolution was decided through passionate debates among the Crown, the nobility, and the “third estate” over various definitions of forms of property. The participating gentlemen—some righteous, some not so—came together to negotiate on what shall henceforth be the new “just” social order, who should be required to give up what privileges, and so on.

There are two problems with this. The first is that, in fact, the representatives of the Third Estate had a very complex class nature. Far from representing the masses “in general,” these were composed of the educated middle class and bourgeoisie. In the National Assembly, the French middle classes took it upon themselves to speak for “the people,” although in fact most sections of the people were not represented at all. For example, the peasants were totally absent.

Because of this, the “revolutionary lawmakers” could have only a partial understanding of the tasks facing the revolution—although, as Peter Kroptkin writes in The great French revolution, “[they] knew quite well what steps to take for the conquest of power in favour of the middle classes . . .” In other words, the “representatives of the third estate” were in reality the representatives of the privileged middle classes. However, these privileges could only be consolidated by struggling against feudalism. The middle classes and the revolutionary bourgeois therefore did not carry out the revolution on their own, but actually leaned heavily on the masses, which is where the real revolutionary spirit expressed itself in general.

The second problem is that actually the reforms which most benefited the masses were won not because of the middle class heroes in the Assembly, who fought for greater freedom and equality for all. Rather, it was the direct action of the masses themselves moving onto the streets and taking matters into their own hands, which was the primary driving force of the revolution. It was the masses first, and then the Assembly, which abolished feudal rights. It was the poorer classes and suffering peasants who, <em>in practice</em>, fought directly against oppression, while the politicians—Piketty’s “ideologists”—lagged behind at every step of the way. Kroptkin vividly describes some of the radical actions of the poor masses during this time:

Often they broke open the granaries belonging to religious communities and merchant monopolists, or even those belonging to private persons, and provided the bakers with flour. Moreover, from this time, too, dated the formation of bands composed of peasants, wood-cutters, sometimes even of contrabandists, who went from village to village seizing the corn. By degrees they began also to burn the land registers and to force the landlords to abdicate their feudal rights — these were the same bands which gave the middle classes the pretext for arming their militias in 1789. [My emphasis]

Here we see that the masses did not wait to appoint representatives to go and “compromise” politically with the ruling class for their demands. They did not sit in the library, carefully working out what Piketty might call a more “egalitarian ideology” that would be more convincing than the ideology of the feudal monarchy. They did not even bother with the tedious tasks of establishing a legal basis upon which to justify fighting back against their oppressors:

Here and there the mob pillaged the houses of officials whose duty was to levy the taxes on flour, hides, butcher’s meat, etc. The prices of provisions were reduced and a maximum established for all provisions, and when the gentlemen of the upper middle classes protested, the mob replied by stoning them, or else a trench was dug before their eyes which might serve for their grave. Sometimes even a coffin was brought out the better to impress the refractory who apparently hastened to comply.

It was these early uprisings leading up to the “official” start of the French Revolution which forced the nobility and the clergy to make their first concessions. Although the National Assembly “announced” the abolition of feudalism on August 4, 1789, the masses had already in effect started the process on their own, months before the kind permission of the rulers were granted—not to mention that the decree to “abolish” feudalism was not at all straightforward, that it was followed by counter-revolutions, and that it was only through a continued class struggle that feudalism was finally laid to rest in its historical grave.

The French Revolution was not a struggle between, on the one hand, the newly enlightened bourgeois’ ideals of equality and, on the other, an inegalitarian feudal monarchy. At every step of the way, it was the plebeian and semi-proletarian masses who won concessions from below, and in the end overthrew the monarchy, while the bourgeoisie maneuvered and compromised with the rotten monarchy at every step of the way. And once the revolution was finally consolidated, the whip of reaction was immediately raised. Those who privileged from the gains of the revolution feared that the masses would make further demands, which would inevitably challenge capitalism itself. Thus, as Piketty himself demonstrates through chapter 4, the Revolution ultimately “led to the development of an extremely inegalitarian form of ownership regime (126).”

Our author is thus left wondering why the “egalitarian” promises of the Revolution ultimately failed. “The fact,” Piketty writes, “that the concentration of wealth could rise so rapidly and to such a high level in the period 1880-1914, a century after the abolition of privileges in 1789, is an arresting result (139).” But there is nothing strange about this at all. The point here is that the French Revolution was not ever about some abstract struggle for egalitarianism. On the contrary it was, in the final analysis, a process of the transfer of wealth from one small minority to another. In particular, the transfer was made to the capitalists as a class. And as we all know, it is a fundamental law of capitalism that it tends toward a greater concentration of wealth into a smaller minority of private hands.

This undermines Piketty’s naive hope that all we need are new “egalitarian narratives,” or maybe some progressive taxation, or any other changes to the political superstructure. In every class society the State is an instrument of class rule. It cannot be reformed, which is why it was the masses, not the governments or the politicians, who overthrew the feudal monarchy. The bourgeois state is an instrument for the rule of a small minority of capitalists. Only a mass revolutionary movement from below will ever be able to actually end the “horror without end.”