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.

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  1. David Watson

     /  June 27, 2020

    I continue to see in this chapter a focus by Piketty on the misdirections of capitalism, a focus I mentioned in my comment on Chapter 4 (June 11; on page 154, Piketty identifies as a key tendency of capitalism “concealing its activities from those who might wish to challenge” its claims, including “states and national courts”).

    That the debt extorted from Haiti as “compensation” for the end of slavery – an end which the Haitians were able to bring about only by force of arms, and compensation for which France was able to extort likewise only by force of arms – could eventually find its way into the hands of US banks, where efforts to collect it were still being maintained as late as 1950 (p226), is testimony to the effectiveness of this misdirection. That this fact is so little known (unless it is just me) is further testimony.

    At this moment in US race politics, it is impossible not to consider the implications of this for the current discourse. Why is the Haitian example, or even the facts surrounding the end of US slavery and the subsequent Great Migration of blacks to the north in the early 20th Century, not prominent in this discourse? Because both factions of the American uniparty prefer that the focus be on racism, not economics, so that nothing is required but empty promises that hearts and minds have changed, or at least will change, and underlying conditions – which capitalism lacks the resources to address – can remain unaltered. Why, for example, is the notion of compensation to slaves for their slavery stigmatized as “reparations”? Isn’t disgorgement of the fruits of extortion usually termed restitution?

    (Piketty addresses the Great Migration only briefly in this chapter, on page 245, and uses the term “social racialism” in connection with the US Democratic Party’s simultaneous support of European immigrants in the North and Jim Crow policies in the South that limited the political and economic opportunities of blacks. He fails to note the widespread use of the term “black” in connection with those European immigrants, especially the Irish and Italians, which highlights still more sharply the contradiction between the party’s Northern and Southern strategies in the second half of the 19th Century.)

    Often discourse that focuses on the underlying causes of the black underclass being left behind while European immigrant groups assimilated is itself stigmatized as racist. Indeed, any reminders of slavery whatsoever seem likely to be stigmatized in the rush to promote politically correct discourse as the ultimate solution to deeply economic disparities. (My thinking on this topic has recently been influenced by John Clegg and Adaner Usmani’s paper “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration,” available here.)

    That racism is not the problem, and ending racism not the solution, is something Piketty strongly (and correctly?) suggests by ending this chapter with a discussion of the abolition of serfdom in Russia (pp259-51).

    Tom provides an analysis of the limitations of identity politics in Indispensable Goods (pp121-22):

    If a social formation is going [to] produce subjects with these desires [getting approval and validation from others] and capacities, then it ought to also provide for the fulfillment of such desire, for the exercise of such capacities. Unfortunately, this rarely turns out to be the case in our current social formation, in which we are produced to desire things that it is possible only for a small percentage of people to have. The capitalist system requires that most people cannot have wealth and power, that most people must be sufficiently impoverished to need to resort to selling their labor power by the hour for wages that will never afford them any kind of comfort or security. As a result, we begin to turn to other ways of demanding that our desires be met. We insist that we get “recognition” because of our status as a victim of some kind of oppression, or because of our uniqueness and special qualities. We demand, that is, that because of our unique position as part of some special group we should be given the wealth and freedom of expression that we desire without having to necessarily succeed in the capitalist competition for control of resources. That is, we insist that we should get to fully live the form of subjectivity produced in us by our social system without necessarily needing to engage in the ruthless exploitation of others, the instrumental pursuit of wealth at all costs, the levels of brutality, greed, and corruption necessary to succeed in a capitalist society. Many of the “bourgeois feminists” of the 1970s, for instance, were essentially making this demand – some successfully. And surely it is important to grant some people these demands, if only to prevent them from noticing that the real cause of their dissatisfaction is not the failure of the society to recognize their true selves, but is our social formation creating selves whose desires cannot be fulfilled, whose capacities must remain unused.

    As we work through this large book, I am reminded of two other fat volumes that have influenced my thinking through compilation of evidence even though I found their analyses ultimately unsatisfying: David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, and Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.

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