Capital and Ideology: Chapters 10-12

The first three chapters of Part III continue Piketty’s history of “inequality regimes,” moving us into the 20th century to what Piketty refers to as “the crisis of ownership societies” and the variety of ways this crisis was addressed. We’ve already established in earlier discussions that Piketty employs an idealist conception of history, and the limitations of his method. Furthermore, as Tom pointed out in his last post on chapters 7-9, Piketty seems to have quite a vague and somewhat contradictory conception of agency and determinism. This leads him to repeatedly insist, on the one hand, that the various historical “trajectories” that were taken did not express any underlying necessity. On the other hand, he talks of the limitations of these trajectories as if they were imposed by nature. We are supposed to believe, that is, that we are free to take any one of an infinite number of possible historical paths, but at the same time we mustn’t dare be so bold as to choose a mode of production other than capitalism, because that is just not possible.

Piketty’s philosophy of agency and determinism appears as a sort of caricature of the kind of dialectical one we actually need in order to solve the problems of global capitalism. To superficial observation there is unfortunately a fine line between dialectics and sophistry, and academics will often present the latter as an exercise in nuance and flexible thinking, using this as a license to avoid developing a coherent position. A truly dialectical conception of agency, however, is necessary in order to understand how we can move beyond Piketty’s assumptions, which force us to accept the inevitability of capitalism.

A dialectical conception of agency acknowledges the role played by necessity in the historical development of society. It asserts that human beings are free to choose the manner in which they produce indispensable goods and organize their social relations, but also that such production and organization, on the one hand, require a material basis and, on the other, in turn produce materially necessary consequences and internal contradictions, often independently of the will and the consciousness of individuals.

This is all very abstract, so let us examine the difference here a little more concretely.

Piketty seems to imagine that the turn-of-the-century world crisis of capitalism (he doesn’t use that phrase, but that is what it was) was, essentially, homogeneous in character, and that therefore the responses to it, i.e. the various national trajectories discussed, expressed the intentions of the masses in each country. In other words, the entire world was facing one big “crisis of ownership,” and each country, on the basis of a vague combination of cultural, political, and ideological factors, chose to pursue its own historical pathway. Any one of them could have just as well chosen an alternate course, had they simply had the political will to do so. Piketty emphasizes the importance of “political-ideological processes” in the succession of inequality regimes, while stating that

there is no cultural or civilizational essence that disposes some countries to equality and others to inequality . . . there are only conflictual sociopolitical trajectories in which different social groups and people of different sensibilities within each society attempt to develop coherent ideas of social justice based on their own experiences and the events they have witnessed (454).

The assumption here seems to be that the political and economic policies of the 20th century were for the most part the results of reasonable democratic debate among different tendencies, and Piketty imagines that this kind of practice can be replicated in order to deal with the current crisis. The problem is of course that this is not what occurred in the 20th century, and such a political project is not at all possible under capitalism, which is incompatible with actual democracy. The crisis of the interwar period and the political developments throughout the 20th century were rooted in the material conditions of the era of imperialism, and in the final analysis it was the balance of class forces within each country which determined—though not mechanically—these outcomes.

The immense destruction of the first world war placed the agenda of socialism on almost all of the capitalist world. The working classes of Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and many other powerful capitalist countries were moving in the direction of replacing the capitalist mode of production with a new mode of production, one of workers’ control. Throughout the 20th century, the repeated waves of worker-led factory occupations—in many cases involving workers taking direct control of the management of industry—as well as the outright revolutionary eruptions, demonstrate that what was occuring was not, as Piketty presents it, merely a vague struggle for greater equality, that is, for a greater share of surplus wealth. Rather it was a struggle for the creation of an entirely new mode of production, in which the production of material indispensable goods is democratically decided on not by a handful of wealthy capitalists, but by the workers themselves.

In the case of the social democracies, it was not the workers, i.e. the majority of the population, who made the conscious decision to maintain capitalism. Time and again it was the social-democratic leaders, and the emerging labor bureaucrats, which sought to channel the movements of the workers into the safe channels of bourgeois democracy and trade unionism. In some cases, such as in Italy and Germany in the interwar period, the workers were not so lucky, and instead of a “successful” collaboration between the workers and the bourgeoisie (i.e., instead of concessions gained in the form of social democracy), the bourgeoisie resorted to fascist methods to crush the working class organizations, slaughter their leaders, and continue their rule through open use of the violence of the RSA.

The main point here is that Piketty, in focusing only on inequality of wealth and access, and in presenting the class struggle as merely a struggle against such inequality, avoids the fundamental question of which class should be allowed to participate in the running of society, of who gets to make the decisions about what and how we ought to produce for human needs. This is the real question of agency in society.

A great deal of ink is spent on the later social democratic experiments of and debates around so-called “co-management” or “workers participation.” Once again we should emphasize that despite Piketty’s rhetoric about “transcending capitalism and private property,” these policies were implemented within a fully capitalist mode of production, which meant that they ended up mainly serving the interests of the bosses. Piketty’s touts, for instance, the positive impact of workers’ participation on productivity and hence on profits.

But the real reason why these policies did not and could not ultimately live up to their promise is that, in any society of classes, there must exist a ruling class and an oppressed and exploited class. As long as the bourgeoisie remains the ruling class, no form of workers’ “participation” can ever be stable. As long as the bourgeoisie owns the means of production of the whole world, the superficial “co-management” of workers within isolated firms—which in reality leaves the ultimate control of society in the hands of the capitalist class—does nothing to address the fundamental contradictions of capitalism or to provide the majority of human beings with a meaningful life.

As Ted Grant remarked when these policies were proposed by the Labour Party in Britain in the 1970’s: “[The proposals for workers participation are] based on an acceptance of the continued existence of capitalism. A real programme for workers’ control is a step towards a programme for the abolition of capitalism. For only that can guarantee that every aspect of the working lives of working people is not decided by a handful of plutocratic millionaires.” Under the system capitalism, the vast majority of the world is deprived of the basic human need to be an active and creative participant in the production of the indispensable goods, both biological and intellectual, which are required for human flourishing. Even if some limited form of workers’ co-management does lead to some gains for the workers, for example higher wages or increased bargaining power (though this has not always been the result), the problem remains of workers being deprived of the ability to democratically participate in decisions regarding the kind of society we ought to build overall. This kind of activity is an indispensable good which is impossible to provide under capitalism.

This problem is further illustrated in Piketty’s discussion of inequalities in education. The focus in this discussion is again narrowed to things like inequality of access and investment, and the value of education for social mobility. I would suggest that while these are important sociological problems, what is always left out of such discussions is the question of the very nature and purpose of the education system under capitalism. Piketty assumes that if we just decrease inequalities in access to the existing education system then everyone would be better off. But what if the ideological function of the education system under capitalism is precisely to reproduce a system in which a tiny minority rules society, while the majority toils in misery? What if the inequalities of the capitalist education system exist exactly for the purpose of forming the kinds of subjects necessary to reproduce unequal capitalist social relations? These kinds of questions do not factor into Piketty’s project, which in my view is its greatest limitation.

There is much more to be said about these chapters, and in fact I had written much more, but I decided to post just a few of the more troubling assumptions and conceptual problems that I thought were important to raise. I assume that everyone reading this will already understand that we are living in a completely different era from the post-WWII boom, and so the degree to which we can draw reformist policy conclusions based on post-WWII boom-era nostalgia is less than what Piketty probably imagines. So I need not dwell on that point.

There is one more important point that I want to briefly draw attention to, which I can’t go into very much, as it would really require an entire post of its own. I am referring to Piketty’s profoundly confused analysis of the Soviet experience. The historical misconceptions and outright laughable falsifications about Bolshevism and the October revolution, combined with the most superficial analysis imaginable of the world’s first workers’ state, made for truly painful reading. It is ironic that immediately after a detailed discussion of the experiments of workers’ participation in the capitalist context, Piketty leaves out the fact that the soviet system was the most democratic form of government in the history of human civilization, in which power, both political and economic, was in the hands of the vast majority of the population, of the working masses and peasants. The mistake Piketty makes is the same one that has been repeated a thousand times: the equivocation of Bolshevism and Stalinism. Piketty practically leaps immediately over from the revolutionary period itself all the way over to the regime of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which had nothing whatsoever in common with the system established by the Bolsheviks in the revolution, as if they were one and the same. He repeats the same old nonsense about a continuous “Soviet communism” lasting from 1917-1991—a figment of bourgeois imagination which has no basis in reality. In reality Stalinism was not a continuation of the revolution, but a triumph of counterrevolution.

It is absolutely impossible to understand the nature of the Soviet Union, without understanding the degeneration of the Russian revolution in the years following the death of Lenin and the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin. Indeed, many of the criticisms Piketty makes of Stalinist policies, which he incorrectly refers to as “communist” policies, were made nearly a century ago by none other than Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Soviet Red Army and the fiercest and most resolute advocate of communism after Lenin’s death. The “catastrophic failure” of the Soviet Union was not a failure of communism, i.e. of workers’ democracy and ownership of the means of production under highly developed forces of production. I will just recommend Trotsky’s book The Revolution Betrayed, which was the first scientific analysis of the degeneration of the Russian revolution ever written. It explains what actually happened in Russia and the reasons for the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

With that obligatory rant, I will end my post for the week. These were long and dense chapters, and I’m quite interested in hearing what others got from it.

Capital and Ideology: Chapters 7 through 9

This week, I’m hoping to raise some questions about the remaining three chapters in Part Two of Capital and Ideology.   In a couple of weeks, Chaim will do the same with chapters 10 through 12.  This will move us forward more quickly to the final section of the book, which we expect will be of greater interest and lead to more lively discussion.  As always, I will only discuss a few points that happen to be of particular concern to me; if anyone reading wants to raise other concerns about this section of the book, feel free to do so in the comments.

Clearly the goal in this section of the book is to continue to describe the transition from ternary to proprietarian society, with consideration of the complexity added by various global relations of colonialism, including that in India and Asia.  However, as I read this section I am consistently reminded of Hayden White’s argument that the story we tell is shaped by the goal we want to accomplish now.  Clearly, Piketty’s overarching goal is to present history as a succession of what he calls “inequality regimes,” rather than a series of distinct modes of production.  To the degree that he succeeds in this presentation of history, he can hopefully convince his readers that while inequality is inevitable, the degree of inequality can be reduced by political and ideological means.  His concern is that we need not have any dramatically disruptive transformation, but that we can in a relatively calm and orderly fashion transition to the ideal state of “social-democratic society.”  

Piketty’s project, then, seems to be to convince us that inequality is not a result of capitalism, but an inevitable fact of life. At least, this is what I take to be the force of his consistent mapping of all social formations onto a fixed scheme, in which the 1%, the 10%, the middle 40% and the bottom 50% always turn out to have the same proportion of total wealth.  Further, dramatic or revolutionary transformations always lead it increased inequality, contrary to their stated intent (he explains that this has occurred both in the French Revolution and in the collapse of South Africans apartheid).  The only hope is a moderate political reform that will decrease inequality somewhat, without foolishly hoping to eliminate it.

What I want to do here is just  briefly mention a few of the more significant conceptual blindspots that lead to this conclusion.  I would also suggest that the social-democratic equality Piketty lauds only ever occurs in countries that are participating in brutal economic oppression of the poor in other parts of the globe.   It’s fine to laud the socialism of Sweden, but we must not forget the cost to the rest of the world of the success of their capitalist economy—those working in their lithium mines in Peru don’t share the standard of living provided by their profitable corporations back home.  However, I’m going to set aside the inherent absurdity of thinking that the contradictions of capitalism can be dissolved by socialist policies in first-world countries.  This is clear enough to most readers here.  My concern is to draw out some of the more troubling assumptions which might otherwise go unnoticed. 

Throughout the book, Piketty consistently assumes that the problem of inequality is one of quantity.  That is, he cannot conceive of inequality as a matter of the relation between people, of the roles individuals are interpellated into as subjects.  For instance, he asserts that “the purpose of property is to increase the owner’s ability to consume and accumulate in the future”(284).  But this is not really all there is to it.  The purpose of property is also to establish a certain relation between people, enabling some to dictate what will be done and forcing others to do what they are told or risk starvation and homelessness.  It isn’t merely a matter of enormous consumption—what is at stake is the relations between people.  One could imagine a world in which some people are enormously wealthy but this is insignificant, since the majority are guaranteed a decent standard of living (even with no money in the bank) and so cannot be coerced against their will to do what they are told.  One could also imagine a world in which the wealthiest have only a little more, in material possessions, than the poor, but because of the social formation they have all the say in what projects the group will undertake (certain periods in Ancient Rome seem to have been something like this—the “inequality” could not yet be anything like it is today in a time before coinage, before indoor plumbing and private property; that is, the difference in material wealth was nowhere near what it can be today, but the difference in power was enormous).

As a result of the inability to think in terms of relations rather than quantities, Piketty tends to minimize the role of the repressive state apparatus in enabling inequality.   As a result, he puzzles over why the Ottomans and Chinese did not “follow suit” and drastically increase taxes to support a central government.  He cannot understand that, in a mode of production not yet capitalist, the means of social control were more dispersed and a large army was not necessary to keep people in line.  His discussion of “when the state was too small to be the night watchman” (367 and following) therefore misses the important question: why, under capitalism, did it suddenly become necessary to have a night watchman?  Why do we need a larger RSA to insure stability in a capitalist social relation?  He can’t quite figure this out, because he cannot conceive that the difference is not just one of changes in amounts of wealth, but in social relations.  In capitalism, there is always a deficiency of ideology (in the sense I define it, not in Piketty’s sense); we need a strong RSA to threaten violence or people are not likely to fulfill the role required of them to reproduce the current mode of production.

Further, because he cannot think in terms of relations between people, Piketty is left with an odd (I would almost say incomprehensible) idea of the boundary between determining and agency.  At the beginning of chapter nine he says: 

[W]e will find that many trajectories were possible, and this leads us to minimize the role of cultural or civilizational determinism and to emphasize instead the importance of sociopolitical developments and the logic of event in the transformation of inequality regimes.

My question here is: what exactly might this vague term “logic of events” be  meant to indicate?  If it is not culture, and not “civilization” (whatever he might mean by that), what exactly counts as “events”?  In what sense to they have a “logic”?  How is “logic” different from “determinism”?  

Clearly, he wants to insist that what counts as “economics” is in no way determining (see, for example, page 399).  Obviously, he also want to represent marxist economic thought as “reducing everything to the question of ownership of the means of production” and the naive belief that all other “problems would solve themselves once private property ceased to exist”(357; that is, I think Piketty agrees with Ambedkar, and means us to agree also).  This leaves us with an odd idea of determinism: he seems to suggest that we have a kind of free will, but only free will to manipulate the existing (inherently capitalist) economy to make it less brutal. My point is that it remains inconceivable that we might have the power to change the relations in which we live, because the only relation existing is that of a person to his private property.  All else is somehow a political “event” that is up to us—but we must stop short of seeing capitalist social relations as themselves being up to us.  He cannot comprehend that the goal of marxism is not to change ownership, not to redistribute wealth, and hope that all other social ills will magically disappeared; instead the goal of marxism is to change relations, such that ownership and inequality will no longer be the source of social power.

As a result, Piketty gets it exactly backwards.  It is his idea that once we have a progressive tax all will be better and problems will solve themselves.  He just imagines that the brutal oppression of the poorest classes, say miners and factory workers in the third world, will just dissolve once the upper class pays more taxes and the “middle forty percent” has a bigger share of wealth.  

I’m not going to go through all of the information in these chapters.  I take it that he’s got the “facts” as right as we can get them—I don’t dispute their correctness, and am not arguing for any kind of anti-realist relativism.   However, we can agree on the facts and make something different of them, depending on the goal we are pursuing.  Piketty’s goal is to use this factual information, and the narrative he constructs from it, to figure out how to save capitalism from what he sees as a serious danger looming.  I don’t doubt that he is right, that capitalism could be saved, or at least prolonged, if enough people got on board with Piketty’s agenda, and followed his argument.  I’m doubtful this will happen, and not disappointed that it won’t.  

Still, I am concerned that we might not see any other solution to the disaster ahead, if we cannot get beyond these conceptual impediments.  Piketty can only see economics as a naturally occurring thing, which may seem deterministic if we fail to discover the kinds of “events,” apparently “sociopolitical” ones, that will give us some limited measure of freedom in the grip of a natural tendency to inequality.  We need, instead, to recognize that economics, the way we collective go about producing and distributing indispensable goods, is itself a humanly created, mind-dependent kind of practice, open to change.  The claim that we are being fatalist when we say that the economy is determinant in the last instance only makes sense if we forget that the economy is also up to us!   That is to say, it is the case that the economy is determinant to some degree of all other social possibilities; but this is not at all fatalist because the economy is itself open to change.

The history of how those social formations that turned early to capitalism were able to brutally oppress those that didn’t is interesting and important—but I’m not so sure that Piketty realizes this is the story he is telling in these chapters.  We need to be aware of the tremendous importance of the RSAs in keeping capitalism alive.  America is unique in imprisoning far more of its population than any other “first-world” country, and this is true largely because America has for so long been the leading edge of global capitalism, which needs the constant threats of imprisonment or death to go on.  (Today, that leading role may have conveniently shifted to China, allowing us here in the states to demonize the very oppressive social practices that have made America so rich and powerful for the last two hundreds years).  

Capitalism is always ideologically weak.  It needs a large RSA do keep its subjects behaving.  Most of them won’t work “all by themselves” (although, since the wealthy “middle forty percent” generally do, we tend to think the capitalist ideology is more robust than it is).  We need to keep this in mind if we want to transform society: the increased progressive taxes that Piketty advocates will only gain popularity, if it does at all, once the richest ten percent realize that the poor majority is likely to get out of their control, and stop doing what they want—that is, it will only ever be used to fortify the RSAs.  

Anyway, I may be rambling a bit from the topic of these chapters, so I’ll leave off here.  As I said, please feel free to raise any other concerns in the comments below!