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? 

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  1. David Watson

     /  June 15, 2020

    The king is dead, long live the king!

    Charles I was executed in 1649, Louis XVI in 1793. But these two famous regicides hardly register in Piketty’s rehearsal of the appropriation of “regalian” powers by the consolidating bourgeois state.

    This is especially odd when you consider his use of the term “sacralization” to define the place of private property in the new order. What was sacred in the Ancien Régime? It would be hard to find a topic more central to ideological debates (in PIketty’s limited sense of “justification”) during the 17th and 18th Centuries than the divine authority of kings.

    Monarchs are oddly absent, too, from Piketty’s “trifunctional” schema of nobility, priesthood and peasantry. It hardly suffices to say the king was just the top noble. Clashes between the king and his putative vassals are the motor for half of what history records of the middle ages.

    Probably the explanation is that Piketty locates regalian functions in ternary systems at the local level. “L’état, c’est moi notwithstanding, he (correctly?) views the state, at least in its modern sense, as arising only out of the bourgeois revolutions whose debates concern him.

    My English history, though weak, is better than my French. PIketty does at least address Louis XVI’s period. I admit I was disappointed that he feels no need to look back as far as the English Civil War in explaining the rise of the bourgeoisie in the British Isles. In distinguishing the French and English trajectories (to use another of Piketty’s terms), Marx and Engels in 1850 commented: “The English class of great landowners, allied with the bourgeoisie — which, incidentally, had already developed under Henry VIII — did not find itself in opposition — as did the French feudal landowners in 1789 — but rather in complete harmony with the vital requirements of the bourgeoisie. In fact, their lands were not feudal but bourgeois property.”

    Contrast their treatment of the Reform Bill of 1832 with PIketty’s (p169). He stresses the limits of the extension of the franchise, and the degree to which the House of Lords retained its veto power. Even in 1860 (10 years after Marx and Engels penned their polemic), Piketty says, “the House of Commons was still profoundly aristocratic and oligarchic.”

    But for Marx and Engels, the important transition was already in the rear view mirror. The emerging class “becomes so all-powerful that even before the Reform Bill gives it direct political power, it forces its opponents to enact legislation entirely in conformity with its interest and its needs,” they write. “It wins direct representation in Parliament and uses it for the destruction of the last remnants of real power left to the landowners.”

    But enough quibbles. I learned a lot from this chapter. The prevalence and persistence of what he calls “censitary” regimes (he does have a bit of a fetish for novel terminology) cast new light, for me, on the important issue (for gender politics, a particular interest of mine) of women’s suffrage. As the graph on page 178 makes clear, male suffrage remained sharply limited by property ownership qualifications until the late 19th and even (in Sweden) the early 20th Century, suggesting that marital limitations on control over property (coverture), not the electoral franchise, posed the issue centrally at stake (another bit of clever misdirection from capitalist ideology).

    And let’s give Piketty credit for a rather nice summation of where the bourgeois democracies stood as they approached the long succession of crises from 1917-45 (p199-200). Their watchwords of liberté, égalité, fraternité had been exposed as frauds. Equality had turned out to mean unprecedented concentration of wealth. Liberty had turned out to mean imperialist enslavement and exploitation of the rest of the world. And limits placed on brotherhood by nationalisms were about to plunge Europe, and eventually most of the rest of the world, into unimaginably destructive war.

    And he even gets right the root cause: “individual emancipation through the right of property,” replacing the stable, if inflexible, social roles that had underwritten feudalism with the fantasy of a self-created atomistic individual, connected with others only through voluntaristic contractuality, and charting each his own independent and socially unconstructed path — toward oblivion.

  2. Craig

     /  June 19, 2020

    Reading chapter 5 and scanning the conclusion, I am paralyzed with anger and disbelief. According to Piketty, what we can learn from the ‘extreme inequality’ of slavery is that we need more just forms of capitalism. He actually says that some good institutions were created by ‘the powers that be’ and that sometimes policies were a bit racist.

    De Tocqueville and Piketty’s stupidity and sociopathy has left me feeling absolutely hopeless. I’ve always thought of myself as non-violent and a believer in reconciliation, but the guillotine seems more realistic. Any assets even remotely related to old slave money must be confiscated immediately!

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