Chapter 15

In chapter 15, Piketty discusses the political and economic cleavages of the US and Britain of the late 20th century until today (or the writing of the book), which he says cannot be explained solely by racist views of non-white identities and immigrants to both the US and Britain; in other words, identity politics. Nor can it be explained by what he thinks is an outmoded “class” analysis. Tom has already articulated in his last post on chapter 14, the artificiality of Piketty’s “cleavages” as he misses the point of considering how one’s class position (one’s relationship to the mode of production) might actually give us a clearer, rather than descriptive, analysis of the party system in US and Britain.  It’s clear that the poor (the undereducated and underemployed) are completely invisible to Piketty’s analysis, and he doesn’t seem particularly aware about the real constraints of poverty except as it affects who votes. So, there is nothing surprising in his re-telling of the transformation of US Party system from the Democrats being the party of pro-slavery and segregation to the party of social “liberalism” and the intellectual elite—what he calls the Brahmin Left or what the media might call the “educated middle class.” The educated middle class want to see themselves as distinct from laborers and uneducated workers at all costs, yet keep the illusion of “equality” in the “identity” politics of the day. Or, how the Republican party became in the later 20th century the party of the “merchant right” – as Piketty calls that group—where the racist politics of anti-immigration, small government and smaller social programs, and libertarian and free-trade economics call home.  Piketty discusses “identity cleavages” which have become “electoral cleavages” in the party politics of both the US and Britain, and that have been used to exploit conflicts among the populace of the country for “political purposes.”  Could one possibly add economic purposes?

The fact that Piketty doesn’t add that word—economic—is confounding to me, and it is telling about his blind spots. As Tom mentioned, Piketty assumes the market is natural and inevitable.  Politics then becomes the only malleable institution to reign in the market, redistribute some profit and thereby ameliorate some of its more “unjust” or “unequal” effects.  And he can effectively leave out class as consideration because of this, and replace it with a variety of vague terms like “left” and “right.” Why he assumes that France’s “left” is the same as the US’s “left” is beyond me. However, his unflagging faith in electoral politics (the ability in democracies to self-govern) is undercut by his own analysis of it. Nothing has changed despite different parties being in power throughout the last 40 or so years.  So, for example, Piketty claims (and rightly so) that Reagan, like Thatcher in Britain, “reformed” the tax structure in his now famous “trickle-down economics” which cut the tax rate on wealth from 81% for top earners from 1032-1980 to just 28 % in 1986 in order to boost productivity and economic growth (834). While Piketty mentions that this economic plan was “dubious” at best, he also admits that Clinton and Obama “never made any real attempt to revise the narrative or reverse that policies of the 1980s” and simply “validated and perpetuated” this failed fiscal agenda that saw inequality skyrocket in the 1980s and that has been increasing ever since (835).  So, then, what’s the electoral choice?  Where are the poor in this debate–between which market practice will make the majority more impoverished quicker? Is that the difference between the two parties?  He makes the same claim for Britain after Brexit: “There has been no attempt to develop the told necessary to achieve greater social and fiscal justice” (860).  Is this surprising?  No, but to Piketty it does seem to be.  So, maybe electoral politics in the “democratic west,” at least in its current practices, is a problem not a solution to inequality?  

He then suggests that politics and policies didn’t have to create mass inequality.  Well, but it did over a fairly long period of time.  And he doesn’t really seems to have a convincing alternative path for last 40-50 years, because he admits that both parties have had a “common interest” in perpetuating fiscal policies that support the accumulation of wealth on a grand scale to the detriment of the rest of us.  For example, Piketty mentions the California tax revolt as a “switch point” which created hikes on property taxes regardless of one’s property value.  But his point is that this “revolt” (was it that?) was exploited and appropriated by the conservative right as “anti-tax” sentiment leading to Proposition 13 which has “limited funding for California schools and led to repeated state budget crises” (836).  So the switch point is actually not really a place where something different could have occurred. The political climate made the “revolt” into a law that continued to hurt the very people on the lower side of the economic ladder.

Piketty’s appeal then becomes one of hope: the opening up of political debate about progressive taxes largely due to the fallout from the 2008 economic crisis and increasing wage stagnation that has resulted in a widening of the income gap. He views Bernie Sanders as representing this new articulation of the progressive position and bringing it into the political forum in a way that hasn’t been done before. Maybe. Again, however, Sanders couldn’t win the Democratic nomination from the Democratic establishment.  And we have Biden, Obama’s compatriot, thought to be a more “winnable” candidate.  But really who will win?  And the likelihood that Sanders could have pushed through a more progressive tax if he won the nomination and if he had won the presidency is dubious.  Now, Sanders did attempt to change the “narrative,” but he really didn’t succeed to the extent that it manifested in any real socialist practice.  So, hope is our only consolation.

Piketty’s confuses “identity” cleavages with “class” cleavages, which have served the powerful in politics and wealthy capitalists well throughout history (as Piketty has ironically already argued in Capital and Ideology).  While he makes useful distinctions between other groups that are not based on a racial or ethnic identity because to him these are “used” by political groups to create cleavages or to exploit the one’s that already exist, he refuses even to entertain the idea of “class.” If he did, his analysis would not seem so descriptive of history, but perhaps motivate historical change. What’s Piketty leaves out is labor—writ large. What Piketty seems to think is the educated middle-class democrat and the poorer uneducated Republican actually have more economically in common.  In his discussions, he seems wholly concerned with leaving out labor and its potential.  When he sees labor/or the underclass in the US siding with the “merchant elite” or conservatives, he really hasn’t an answer why that happens.  If we see labor as a continuum that stretches from the least educated to the most educated, and focus on the real economic consequences of capitalism to all workers—manual, service and intellectual—then we might be able to get somewhere on our way to economic fairness and justice. 

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