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!  

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  1. compatty

     /  July 5, 2020

    I’m not quite finished reading chapter 9, but I don’t doubt that Tom is right that an inability to count for relations is a major handicap of Piketty’s study. I am struck of the enormity of the quantitative information that Piketty amasses to understand that “property” ownership by an elite group was relatively stable for hundreds of years despite varying political and economic organizations, some more oppressive and brutal than others. But we should always remember that they are all oppressive and brutal because that is the “logic of events” that make accumulation of property/capital possible. That certainly speaks to Tom’s claim that “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.” I think fundamentally, on symptomatic reading of Piketty, we can understand the connection between capitalist economics and RSA to be exposed in a way that it hasn’t been before, even if the ideas of “relations” that construct capitalist practices are not.

    I do think if we read symptomatically, then, Piketty’s constant emphasis on “property” (to the exclusion of “relations”) exposes the need to find other ways of “owning” something. Even if he gets the relationship backwards, perhaps there’s some value to changing what property means and its materiality that would force a different relationship among people? I got stuck on one passage and I still am not quite clear on it: “one must realize that the purpose of property is to increase the owner’s ability to consume and accumulate in the future….If one wants to get beyond this logic of endless accumulation, one needs to equip oneself with the intellectual and institutional means to transcend the idea of private property—for example, the concept of temporary ownership and permanent redistribution of property” (284-5). I’m curious what you guys think of this statement? I’m trying to look for the positive here.

  2. Great discussion so far. I agree with Tom that a major impediment of Piketty’s is his ignoring of concrete social relations, his tendency to focus his discussion on abstract quantitative categories. The entire swindle of bourgeois economics is precisely this, to obscure the social relations which constitute the capitalist mode of production and to replace them with terms such as “inequality,” “debt,” and so on. While Piketty often does point out some of the mistakes of modern economists, he remains unable to escape their most fundamental flaw. This, I think, is the biggest obstacle to solving the kinds of social problems Piketty himself raises. As long as we refuse to acknowledge that capitalism consists of social relations between concrete human beings—and between classes—then the workings of society will remain mysterious.

    To Patricia’s last point: I’m not sure I quite understand that passage either, but it seems to me that Piketty is attempting to think about new ways of conceiving of ownership, to replace the logic of endless accumulation which inevitably leads to inequality of ownership. The problem is that this still does not address the problem of social relations. You can change property laws and definitions all you want, but the same fundamental questions will always have to be answered: Who owns the means of production? Who decides what is produced, how it is produced, and how much? I assume more will be said about this later, when Piketty presents his idea of “participatory socialism.” But given the method by which he is crawling toward his conclusion, I don’t have much faith that a satisfactory answer to thses questions will be provided.

    There is another assumption which I wanted to draw out here, which is related to the discussion of the RSA. Piketty seems to think that the RSA and the ISAs are somehow independent of each other. For example, he says:

    Regulation can be achieved through union struggles or power-sharing mechanisms within firms, through laws governing wage setting and rent control or limiting the power of landlords . . . or other fiscal and legal devices to facilitate the acquisition of property by new social groups . . .

    This gives the impression that the ISAs—the unions, the justice/legal system, etc.—are somehow there to “mediate” between classes, to facilitate the “negotiation” for a more just distribution of wealth; in short, that the state is a force standing above society, and above classes, as a neutral arbiter. But of course the state is and always has been an instrument not of class mediation, but of class rule. The state, as Engels showed brilliantly in “The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” arose with the division of human society into classes, to act as a tool for the domination of one class by another. This is precisely the reason why the state, in the final analysis, consists of “bodies of armed men,” so that when the ISAs fail to ensure the domination of the ruling class, the RSA can “step in” and settle things cleanly. We know quite well from the 20th century that the capitalist class, when they become unable to resort to “democratic” means to ensure their rule, will happily resort to military methods and even fascism to crush the working class.

    The contradictions of capitalism, in the final analysis, are class contradictions, i.e. the contradiction between capital and labor, between the interests of the workers and the capitalists. As long as these social relations remain in place, so will the contradictions which they produce. No amount of manoeuvring within the ISAs can solve them, especially since the RSA is always lurking behind.

    Lastly, and perhaps more relevant to these chapters, I think that Piketty focuses far too intensely on the structures of inequality within the colonial societies, without at all explaining the process of colonialism itself, i.e. why the social relations between the imperial and colonial powers developed in the way that they did. He seems, to me at least, to present colonialism and imperialism as a kind of historical accident that may or may not have had to happen in the way that they did.

    But colonialism and, later, imperialism, are part of the organic process of the development of the capitalist mode of production, and its laws, as Lenin explained. To say that colonialism happened because of the rich nations’ thirst for profit and accumulation is not incorrect, but it is a fatal oversimplification, and neglects the role of the laws of capitalism itself, reducing it simply to individual greed. It is the development of capitalism itself, and its laws, which gave rise to colonialism and imperialism. The crisis of overproduction at home, the inability of the working class to buy back the value of their own labor, the need to expand markets in order to activate capital, and (particularly by the 1900s) the merging of industrial and finance capital—these are all organic components of the development of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism had no other way to continue the development of the productive forces without resorting to the kind barbarism which Piketty does quite a decent job of describing. By focusing obsessively on the juridical and legal expressions of local inequality, Piketty misses the forest for the trees and, as Tom says, does not quite grasp the implications of the story he is telling.

    The world balance of powers which has now obtained from this centuries-long process simply does not allow for the kind of peaceful global cooperation in addressing inequality that Piketty envisions. There are only two ways for global cooperation to happen under capitalism: cooperation between the global capitalist class to continue the exploitation of human labor power, or cooperation between the world working class in the overthrow of the rule of capital and the establishment of socialism.

  3. Yes, ultimately every capitalist ISA works only because of the threat of an RSA behind it. We can only force most people through a school system that fails to even attempt to teach them anything at all because they know that they will need that diploma to be allowed even to work at unpleasant minimum wage jobs, which they will work at only because they need to pay “rent” in some form in order to be permitted space on the planet to live—and enforcing this payment is the ultimate function of the RSA.

    And it is certainly true that the capitalist state was put in place to protect the interests of the wealthy minority—any study of the origins of the US government should make this abundantly clearer. Piketty’s narrative does point out the dramatic growth of the function of the state under capitalism; I don’t think he makes it explicit enough that this growth was not merely an effect of the military competition between European nations. Rather, this growth fo the state was necessary to capitalism, and the enormous increase of military capacity of European states was an effect, not a cause, of economic change.

    The contradiction I had in mind is not so much the one between workers and capitalists, which can clearly be contained forever by various means. I was thinking of the problem of the realization of profit. Piketty seems to ignore the fact that there is an impossibility at the core of capitalism: in order to make profit, all commodities produced must be sold for more than the total cost of producing them, including all wages paid. The periodic crises of capitalism are inevitable, because it isn’t possible to realize the surplus value of commodities as profit when the total wages paid to all workers in an economy is less than the total sale price of all commodities produced. Colonialism and imperialism were necessary to overcome these crises, but could only do so temporarily. Once capitalism is global, the impending crisis would seem to have not further solution—although Piketty’s book is an attempt to suggest one.

    So certainly the only hope, to avoid massive catastrophe both human and environmental, is for the overwhelming majority of oppressed people on the planet to cooperate and change the mode of production in which we live. The problem is how to convince them to act in their own best interest. The men I see on a daily basis are all in difficult situations: they are not the lawyers, doctors, and insurance company executives who live at the north end of my town, but the folks who live in the south end (mostly) or in the next, even poorer, town to the West of us. Carpenters, truck drivers, linemen, mechanics, and several people who work at the Amazon warehouse. They are facing losing their homes in this crisis, losing their healthcare, etc. But they are, for the most part, passionately pro-Trump, and quick to spout neoliberal slogans about the great meritocracy of the US and the rights of the rich to keep the money they have “earned.” Their greatest fear, right now, is not their own impending eviction, but the threat that their idols, professional athletes, might not be paid the millions they are “owed” if they cannot play children’s games on television. The issue for me has always been how to get the oppressed majority to see clearly what their own interest is.

    In particular, I am concerned with why they cannot see that their lives are missing more than just money. That is, that a little infusion of cash would not change their role in the capitalist relation, and so would not end the alienation leaving them miserable. They cannot, that is, see any “indispensable good” beyond money, because as long has they have not got enough of that to survive, they fantasize that having more of it will fulfill all their human needs.

    The big problem, and the reason I see reading a book like this as so crucial, is to try to figure out what assumptions about the world are preventing people from seeing what is in their own best interest. I think Piketty shares the assumptions of these working class men I see in person around me, just on a much more abstract and sophisticated level. I want to try to make these assumptions explicit, but I can’t begin to do this until I am clearer on what they are.

  4. Tom: Certainly Piketty’s project is an attempt to invent new ways of solving capitalist crises, and you’re right that the reason why this book was written now is that capitalism can no longer solves its crises in the old ways. The ruling class has always managed to come up with creative ways to wriggle out of the contradictions of capitalism, but in the last few decades, ever since the euphoria of the post-war boom died down, their ability to do this is being increasingly exhausted.

    But it’s clear that Piketty’s suggestions are not really very new at all. I’m going to talk about this more in my upcoming post (which will be soon, I promise!), but Piketty’s nostalgia for the successes of social democratic and re-distributive policies in decreasing inequality and promoting economic growth does not take into account the fact that capitalism is in a totally different period today, a period of terminal decay of the entire system on a historical scale. The current crisis of capitalism is not merely a classic crisis of overproduction; what we are seeing now also is capitalism’s declining inability to develop the productive forces altogether, even during periods of relative stability. It is of course the case that as long as there is no successful socialist revolution capitalism will continue to crawl along some way or another, but this can happen only at the cost of increasing austerity, misery, and barbarism for the vast majority of the population.

    The fact that there exists a significant backward layer of the working class in the US is undeniable, but of course this, like everything, has a material basis. The fact that Americans are not taught history, or how to think critically, is of course a major factor. I just don’t think I’m convinced that these backward layers make up the significant majority of workers. Several recent polls indicate that the majority of people in the US, especially younger workers, say that they are either hostile or ambivalent toward capitalism. This is the demographic that we need to reach—the advanced layers of the workers and youth, rather than the most backward. We need to find those who are already beginning to wake up to the reality of capitalism, and provide them with clear ideas and a perspective for the way forward. Otherwise, there is always the risk that this genuinely radical mood will degenerate on the basis of confused and reactionary ideas, which as a law tend to eventually dominate all progressive movements in the absence of a strong Marxist tendency.

    It’s also worth noting that people’s consciousness can radically change on the basis of events. I met a middle-aged gentleman at a Bernie Sanders rally in February, who told me he voted for Trump in 2016 and once believed that Obama was a communist. In a matter of three years he ended up at a Bernie event telling me he wants to learn more about socialism, because the current system is bad for workers. Surely this isn’t likely to happen to most Trump voters, but the point is that your energy would be better spent on those who’ve already decided that something needs to fundamentally change, but are unsure of how to think through the implications of such a conclusion.

  5. Nicola

     /  July 13, 2020

    I remember Adorno said somewhere in the “The Authoritarian Personality” something along the lines `they subjugate to power in order for it to protect them or to take part in it`.
    An example of New Age I had to think about, when I listened to some “esoteric spirituals” who find that it is a matter of “frequency” if you are poor or rich and the task is to break out of frequencies to tune into more fortunate waves. Related to that the whole therapy/self-help culture that individualizes the econcomic and personal fate that buries a social conscience deep in the capitalist (neoliberal) ideology and blocks the sight to systemic relations. Within the ideological frame of meritocracy the blame falls on the isolated atomized individual, that, if white, maybe only finds a social belonging in a white racist identity holding on to whatever reactionary representation is assuring them this identity, this rest of “pride” and self worth. Maybe also a cliché by now or just stubbornly old news still working.
    Tom, do I get this right: we live from the beginning with a consciousness that is shot through with ideology, that itself is rooted in the economic relations, the mode of production. So the innermost, seemingly deeply psychological is caused by the outermost materialistic conditions. Marx says we have to change those outer materialistic conditions in order to become the humans as a genre we are meant to be. Now if you ask, why do they support conditions that harm them, isn`t it not just a matter of not knowing the true causes but also being too sick and broken at this point by the very false consciousness Marx is talking about to even start to think about breaking out of the miserable conditions? I too am brooding about this question but in the form of a oscillation between wanting to study psychology, work with the individual (and on myself), and seeing psychology as part of the problem, because it is working on the “symptoms” – and yet without those individuals and their right intention, no revolution will take place…

  6. Nicola,

    I would like to avoid the metaphor of “shot through with ideology” myself. My position is that “consciousness” is inherently and ideological thing. I want to avoid the idea that we can remove the ideology, and then our “consciousness” will think more clearly.

    But yes, the problem is very much that we don’t have social practices in which it is possible to think correctly about causes and conditions. The educational system tries its best to prevent such thought, the realm of rhetoric has been eliminated from “democratic” society, and fields like psychology are powerfully anti-intellectual and devoted to producing good subjects of capitalism. So what do we do?

    We need a social practice (i.e., an ideology) in which such critical thought can take place—but how to build such a practice when everyone is so enamored of the promise of money? I try to hold out a hope that younger generations, for whom it is much more obvious than it is for mine that doing what is expected of you will get you exactly nothing (no job, no house, no future), will be better able to embrace some new kind of critical practice, and produce more productive, and liberating ideologies. For the most part, I’m not seeing that response among young people, though that may be a feature of where I live and the kind of young people I see around me. I hope so, anyway.

    The first thing to learn is that there is not now, and cannot ever be under capitalism, anything like a meritocracy. That at least is fairly evident even from the pro-capitalist narrative Piketty presents.

  7. Nicola

     /  July 14, 2020

    (Just to rephrase): not a consciousness furnished with ideological contents but the subject is itself constituted by ideology like Lacan’s unconscious that is structured like a language….oh that happens so quickly to think, “I want to get clarity” and then somehow imagine to be outside of ideology from the standpoint of nowhere. But Glenn Wallis said somewhere about we don`t have to answer the call, the hail, we can disidentify, detach (?) – you`d say with critical thinking, no freedom of ideology, only better ones…(?) Maybe it would be easier to avoid the word consciousness altogether and just speak of the subject (and its ideological components)…
    Practices of critical thinking, I like that, autonomous reading circles as a form of alternative education.

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