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.”

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6 Comments

  1. David Watson

     /  June 7, 2020

    How the bourgeoisie deified private property as a replacement for feudalism’s expired god. (Chapter 3 summary; all quotes from p123-24.)

    Ideology = justification in Piketty’s sense.

    How can today’s bourgeoisie legitimate its hegemony? The ideologies that emerged from the bourgeoise revolutionary period were “lazy and nihilistic as well as short on optimism regarding human nature.” They were clumsy attempts to update existing justificatory discourses. “On the basis of historical experience, and of the rational knowledge that has been constructed out of that experience, I believe it is possible to do better.” This is demonstrated, Piketty thinks, by the “Trente Glorieuses,” the decades after WWII when capitalism worked and “the social democratic societies of the twentieth century” “showed that the extreme inequality of wealth that existed in the nineteenth century was by no means indispensable for maintaining stability and prosperity.” Piketty is wrong in thinking capitalism has the capacity to do this. But he may be right in describing it as the task at hand. Only socialism can do it. Will it do it by “sacralizing” something else instead? Arguably that was where Stalinism went wrong. Is, then, nothing to be considered sacred? Probably yes, or the revolution fails again.

    Reification is deification. The Marxist half of the concept of ideology that Tom propounds, a concept that moves it beyond justification to a means of acting in the world, comes from Althusser. But the Buddhist half is anatman. Nietzsche was wrong to say God had died, he had just been transmuted into a new atman, the atman of private property. But this sacralization proceeds under a false flag. This is where Piketty proves useful. The discourses of feudalism justified its inequalities. The discourses of capitalism, committed by the rhetoric of liberté, égalité, fraternité to equality as an ideal, are instead devoted to obfuscating them.

  2. Thanks for this post, Chaim.

    You’ve raised most of the concerns I have in my reading notes. In particular, the problem that arises when Piketty reifies property, or ownership, as if that this the determining feature of a mode of production. So he suggests that all economic systems are just different forms of what he calls “proprietarianism,” and as a result can ignore the fundamental differences in relations which property tends to mask.

    For instance, in the beginning of Chapter 3 he points out the difficulty of separating “regalian powers” from “property rights.” But he ignores the fundamental differences in what “ownership” would have meant before capitalism became hegemonic. It was impossible to make this separation because in the feudal system (I will continue to call it this despite historians denying that feudalism ever existed) it was necessary for peasants to live on the land “owned” by the nobles, and for a noble domain to include common land where peasants could raise vegetables and graze some livestock for their own use. The relation between people was different in this situation—with peasant owing a certain number of days of work, and in return expecting a place to live and a minimum supply of staple foods. (This is what led to the food riots Chaim mentions in France—which occurred throughout Europe as capitalism began to take over the production and distribution of food).

    Under capitalism, ownership of land names a very different kind of relation between people—in which the land is “private property” and can be used in any way the “owner” wants, with no need to concern himself with the survival of those he pays a wage to work the land for him.

    I find this obscuring of the real relations between people, by means of focusing on ownership, a serious limitation to understanding what was taking place in this revolutionary period.

    Nevertheless, Piketty’s account does make clear that revolutions were meant not to promote equality, but to find a way to maintain inequality. There seems to have been increasing failure to provide basic necessities for the lower 50%, leading to greater unrest. The revolutions of the late 1700s were, then, an attempt to maintain inequality by altering the relation between people, making the traditional forms of resistance (like the food riot) impossible.

    I would suggest that the failure of the masses to spend some time sitting in a library working out a more egalitarian ideology is exactly why the wealthy bourgeoisie was able to make use of their suffering to change the social relations and get control of the country. That is, far from a simply and non-ideological demand for equality, the food riot was an attempt to maintain the old feudal relations against the new relations of capitalism. That is, the “masses” or peasants were exactly acting on an ideology, and not recognizing it as one—they wanted to restore the old mode of producing and distributing certain indispensable goods (food) while allowing the newer mode of producing and distributing other goods to change. This, on my definition, is way an ideology is—any practice that seeks to reproduce a certain mode of production. Had they been more aware of what was happening, they might have been able to channel their rage and desperation more constructively, instead of allowing it to be used to the advantage of the bourgeoisie.

    There does seem to be a lesson for us here, in the current situation. Maybe we need to listen to thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X, and realize that racism will never end while capitalism exists. As long as we think we can adjust the capitalist repressive state apparatus to eliminate racism, we will continue to fail to make real progress. And the protests just get used form anti-union propaganda: the problem with police forces is that unions prevent adequate punishment of corrupt or violent police, if we could just eliminate unions the “free market” would naturally lead to a just and equal state…

    We continue to respond to capitalist injustice, as the lower 50% did to the injustices of the ancient regime, on the terms laid out for us by the wealthiest 10%. Without more educational action, the current crises is likely to lead to a new social relation which will simply shift how the 10% will continue to oppress the lowest 50%, with the best possible outcome being what Piketty is seeking: a period when his “middle 40%” gets a somewhat larger share of the wealth.

    Most importantly, I think we need to attend to way Piketty is after. He is trying to save capitalism. And yes, it is possible to find ways to “resolve” the contradiction of capitalism so that it will overcome crises—this has been done repeatedly for centuries (it is what the third volume of Capital is about). But it is also possible that the collapse of capitalism could simply lead to a new social relation in which a new form of 1% takes power.

    So I want to continue with this book because I think it does demonstrate how social power is created even out of the worst crises—and does, I think, suggest (not intentionally) what we might need to do to enable the lower 50% to avoid being used as dupes in a new power struggle between factions among the top 10%.

  3. compatty

     /  June 10, 2020

    Don’t know that I have much to add here, but I’d like to echo Chaim’s comment on the limitations of Piketty’s study on the French Revolution and the Third Estate. By leaving out that group as a “class” enables him to focus his analysis of the movement after the revolution toward a “propertarian” economic structure which lead to an inegalitarian society. But who didn’t already know this? It seems that concentrating only on “property” writ large, Piketty isn’t really offering any new analysis of an economic system let alone an ideology or state apparatus, but rather confirming a reality with empirical data. Maybe that’s a good thing in itself since it seems to be not something that perhaps has been shown as clearly as Piketty has done, as Tom claims. It makes clear that the revolution created further inequity–in economic and political terms. This is way those two terms “property” and “equity” as the two main concepts that Piketty is using fall short of producing any other kind of analysis. These are bourgeois terms, of course, and the limits of using them are apparent even in just these few chapters. The invisibility of the Third Estate is these chapters speaks volumes. And it’s not that there isn’t any “data” about them. As Chaim notes, he would have to look at other kinds of things like the food riots and other radical movements from the laborers.

  4. David Watson

     /  June 11, 2020

    “Pay no attention,” the Wizard tells Dorothy, “to the little man behind the curtain!”

    Capitalism, Piketty tells us at the end of Chapter 4, is a subspecies of proprietarianism (all quotes p154-55). Confusingly, he at first characterizes it as the proprietarianism of heavy industry and international finance in the period 1880-1914. This is the meaning he gives it in closing the chapter, saying that as Balzac and Austen give way to Zola proprietarianism “has become capitalism; the end is near.” But it was apparently a temporary sort of end, as immediately after the earlier characterization Piketty expands his notion of capitalism to include “the globalized digital hypercapitalism that began around 1990 and continues to this day.”

    Be that as it may, he identifies two tendencies of capitalism. The first is expanding “the limits of private property and asset accumulation beyond traditional forms of ownership and existing state boundaries,” about which we may well exclaim, as Compatty does, “Who didn’t already know this?” But the second is more interesting: misdirection.

    “At a still more fundamental level, it depends on the development of an increasingly sophisticated and globalized legal system, which ‘codifies’ different forms of material and immaterial property so as to protect ownership claims as long as possible while concealing its activities from those who might wish to challenge those claims,” including not just those who “own nothing” but also “states and national courts” (my emphasis).

    So while proprietarianism sacralizes private property, substituting it for the deceased God in the public imagination, capitalism secretly, surreptitiously infiltrates this new deity into every corner of social life. For God, after all, is manifest in all things.

    It seems that Piketty’s strategy for exposing this sleight of hand (if, indeed, exposing it, rather than facilitating it, is actually his objective) is going to be tax policy. So I am afraid that if we want to get something useful out of this big and (so far, to me at least) fascinatingly unpredictable book, we are going to have to take his obsession with taxes quite seriously. As one whose largely second-hand Marxism was absorbed from the 1970s New Left, I have no problem with this. “Soak the rich” was our motto, and often enough the extent of our analysis. My previous efforts to look into inequality studies (one of Branko Milanovic’s small volumes) made me more skeptical though. The numbers don’t work out, do they? Even on a national basis in the developed countries? And most Americans intuit that there are enough people in the world living in huts without running water that equality by universal redistribution would leave them with a standard of living they have no desire to contemplate, much less organize to demand.

    Maybe I am misreading where Piketty is heading with this, We will see. But if this book will become the new orthodoxy for reformism, for achieving a user-friendly capitalism through tweaking tax structure, it behooves us to have better counterarguments at hand than “it’s un-Marxist.”

  5. David: Yes, surely redistribution is never meant seriously. It is the dream of the middle 40%, who want a slightly larger share of the enormous wealth of the 1%. Surely, in America, where we are less than 5% of the world population, we could all be a bit richer—provided we don’t pay too much attention to the folks in Africa and Asia who manufacture our clothes and cell phones. Redistribution through progressive taxation is a capitalist strategy to produce a larger upper-middle class as a buffer against the rage of the poor.

    Anyway, it assumes that money is a thing, not a relation. Marx went to great lengths to try to explain that money simply masks a relation between people—it is not a container of value, but a fetish hiding the relations of capitalism. If we gave a million dollars to everyone on the planet, would they all be rich? Would they all now be able to hire servants to to their manual labour, and never have to work again? The task is not redistribution, but a dramatic change in social relations, which would require elimination of the commodity form of money.

  6. Craig

     /  June 12, 2020

    Piketty assumes private property as a progressive development. He doesn’t get into how this came about much less criticize it. Private property is essential, in his view, for any sort of survival or advancement in capitalism. One has to have private property in order to do what one wants. Don’t tread on me. But who got the private property and how? Of course theft and murder. No discussion of who controls the modes of production. It is interesting to me to see how ‘revolutions’ result in a few more folks getting a bit more of the wealth and any talk of ‘dealing’ with inequality was lip service. Piketty seems surprised by all of this. How could a movement toward equality result in more inequality? As Chaim indicates above Piketty says we need better narratives which is in contrast to intentionally ‘doing’ ideology.

    I find it almost impossible to think outside of the rules of revolution that capitalism has laid out for us. This is a new point for me and I think this book is helping me see more insights into the pervasive machinations of capitalism that could inform future change.

    Four chapters in and I’m still a little unsure about Piketty’s main thesis. He is studying how Western societies have explained their inequality hoping to find some wisdom on how to better explain the inequality of our current society? Thanks for any clarification and thanks for everyone’s input and hard work.

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