Chapter 14 of “Capital and Ideology”

Being without power for five days last week has delayed this post a bit, but I’m hoping we can continue moving along through Part IV of the book during August.  The final chapter could be a good opportunity for more lively discussion, and on a personal note, I’m scheduled for surgery the first week in September and may not be able to sit at the keyboard and type for a while.  So I’d like to keep going, and possibly get to that final chapter before then.  If not, I’ll keep reading along.

Chapter 14 is quite long, and focused mostly on the situation in France.  Still, I think it does offer some insights into the difficulties we would face in trying to establish socialism in any Western country today.  I’m going to focus, once again, on some of the conceptual impediments that I believe we will need to overcome if we are to convince any large segment of the population to question capitalism.  

Piketty attempts to outline the shifting “electoral cleavages” that have shaped politics in the past century.  He does suggest that many of the “cleavages” are similar in the US, UK, and France.  I want to address some of the assumptions he makes that I believe are common among most educated Americans today, and which we must work to make explicit (and hopefully correct or eliminate) if we hope to have any real progress in the coming decades.

To begin with, Piketty engages in the typical capitalist strategy of dismissing class analysis as reductive and not subtle or complex enough.  This is a key step.  In the US, almost nobody sees themselves as belonging to a “class.”  As Piketty suggests, they see themselves as participating in a particular “worldview” (Piketty’s term, p. 721 ff).  Piketty argues that class is “profoundly multidimensional,” including things like “dietary or sexual orientation.”  He then reduces the concept of class to “less advantaged” and “more advantaged,” with only a vague suggestion as to what that might mean.  This strategy of discussing “class” in the vague ideological sense of the term, and using that very vagueness to dismiss rigorous class analysis as impossible, is classic equivocation.  It is difficult to overcome this kind of sophistry, because the world “class,” in America at least, always carries an offensive connotation.  To be accused of belonging to any class, even the upper class, is always seen as an insult here.  

So he can avoid discussion of serious matters like one’s relation to the means of production.  Clearly it is true, as he suggests, that one might know a plumber who makes a couple hundred thousand a year, while there may be folks living on trust funds whose income amounts to only half that, or less.  But we need to avoid confusing amounts with relations.  We must also avoid the strategy of arguing from exceptions—that is, pointing up an anomaly and using it to dismiss an analysis as not “complex” enough.   Because in fact, in the vast majority of cases, those who are poorest work for hourly wages.

But once he has dismissed rigorous analysis of class, he can move on to talking about how the “left” and “right” have attracted different demographic groups over the decades.  He does specifically say that “‘left’ and ‘right’ have no fixed eternal meaning”(738), however he then goes on to discuss political changes as if, in fact, they do.  He talks about the “left” appealing to different demographic groups as if “left” is a given thing, and the contingent question is which group is persuaded it would serve their interest to support this “leftness.”  Of course, this is absurd.  It should be clear enough that after at least 1980, the wealthy simply bought both political parties in the US and Great Britain, along with most of the parties on other countries.  There is no more “left” in any meaningful sense—parties now are an indication of which particular economic interest within the upper class one aligns with.  To vote democrat in the U.S. is not to vote for the interest of those who are technically “working class,” who own none of the means of production and work for wages.  Rather, it is to vote for the interest, primarily, of the financial sector of capitalist wealth, as opposed to some other group like oil or agricultural production.  That the “democratic” party has aligned itself with interests in things like gay rights and racial equality, while the “republican” party aligns itself with xenophobia and Christian fundamentalism, is merely a matter of strategy—which group of the voting masses do you think is largest?  Appeal to them, and get your economic interests taken care of for the next few years!

This needs to be made clear to voters in all Western countries. The problem is exactly what Piketty is discussing here: that we tend to take these manufactured “cleavages” seriously, and allow the rich to use them to manipulate voters and play a game of gaining political, and so economic, control.  

As Piketty points out (see page 743), when there was a more “classist” split, the parties had to take the interests of the poor into account to some degree to stay in power.  Of course, Piketty suggests that it is the “declining turnout of the less advantaged classes in the period 1990-2020” that allowed all political parties to begin to ignore their interests.  I would suggest that, here in the US at least, it is the other way around.  After 1980, when both parties began to ignore the concerns of the poor and embrace neoliberal ideology, the “less advantaged” stopped voting because they saw no difference between Bush and Clinton, in any sense that was important to them.  

So, when he begins to analyze the change in goals of the left parties, he can only see it as accidental, as a result of the shifting of the attitude of those given access to education and who now have contempt for the uneducated (see p. 756).

In actuality, the left/right split, as even Piketty makes clear, is a struggle between two groups who are both avowedly “pro-market”, and simply want to attract enough poorer people to win majority votes (see p. 788, for instance).   

Two more points, and then I’ll leave it open to discussion.

I think it is essential, if we are going to ever have anything like a socialist party, to help people get a better sense of how capitalist economics actually works.  Look at Piketty’s section on the “self-employed”(p. 769 ff.).  Piketty, like many people in the West, relies on the implicit assumption that the ideal of capitalism is the small business owner, the person with enough drive and ingenuity to go into business for herself, and so become more affluent through her own intelligence and hard work.  Many people in the US who chant the mantra of “socialism punishes success” still believe this is possible.  But of course it no longer is. It was already diminishing by the 1950s, and today is not a realistic possibility. Consider the real estate prices in my home state of Connecticut: nobody could possibly hope to make enough money on any small business to offset the cost of real estate. As a result, the only small businesses left are those that are long-established, often those that own the building they are in (and in my own town, many of those realized that the price of their building was now so great it was better to sell it and make as much on the sale as in twenty years of work).  My point is, we have to overcome the romantic ideal of capitalist enterprise, and realize that new businesses can only be started by huge corporations with enormous resources.  That is just the reality today.  Nobody can start up a new social media platform and hope to compete this the internet giants; nobody can any longer hope to start an internet sales business and not be smothered by Amazon.  We need to drop the economics-class myth of the fellow who invents a widget and sells it for a profit.  In todays global capitalism, such stories are no more than myth.

The second point is one I’ve mentioned before: we need to drop the idea that universal access to education will make us all affluent upper-middle class!  For one thing, not everyone has the natural capacity for higher education, and it should be horrifying to socialists that we have reached a state in which such people can simply be dismissed as less than fully human.  Of course, even if everyone had such intellectual capacities, it wouldn’t matter, because there just needs to be a large class of manual laborers doing the less pleasant jobs.  Somebody needs to work in the meat processing plant, and they shouldn’t necessarily make less money than someone who works as a lawyer or a software engineer (I would suggest that given the difficulty and unpleasantness of the job, they should perhaps make more).

Piketty talks in terms of “the rise of educational opportunity,” as if this is a great forward leap.  In fact, we should think of it as the rise in degree-racing: the need to get ever more, and more costly, degrees in order to qualify for even the simplest of jobs.  In essence, this has become a matter of purchasing the right to even apply for most jobs, at the cost of debts that will take the rest of one’s life to pay off.  

However, as I said earlier, the bulk of this chapter involves the political question of the creation of artificial “cleavages” that ought to be irrelevant to politics.  It ought to be none of the governments business what someone’s sexual orientation is—instead, the right to be other than heterosexual has become dependent on which political party is in power.  We need to begin to convince people that issues of race and gender and sexuality and all other basic human rights are best fought for outside the political apparatus.  The struggle for political control should be a struggle for the economic system we are willing to live under.  

So long as things like the right to abortion is a matter of party politics, we are constantly threatened every couple years with attacks on our basic human rights, in order to distract us from any attempt to address the horrible oppression necessary to keep capitalism running.  We then vote for capitalists like Biden just to avoid losing basic human rights, and don’t demand any economic change, relieved that we have saved rights that should be none of the governments business anyway.  We need to stop falling for these manufactured “cleavages” and simply demand that the government has not right to interfere in anything other than the economic system.

I hope, at least, that this last claim is controversial enough to stir up some discussion!  

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1 Comment

  1. Nicola

     /  August 13, 2020

    I love this post Tom.
    Class as a taboo. While painting over the category by complexifying, blending out the structural stratification of society, derailing the focus on individualizing factors like education thus feeding the meritocratic myth further and splitting the hierarchy in manual and mental laborers he is implementing the class distinction ideologically through the backdoor.

    “We then vote for capitalists like Biden just to avoid losing basic human rights, and don’t demand any economic change”

    I wish you good luck with your surgery.

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