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. 

Chapter 5

I begin with the most obvious question one could ask about chapter 5: what’s up with Jane Austen? I do think Austen belongs in a study about ideology and capital.  As a literary scholar whose area is British Romanticism, I know very well that she does. But Piketty’s account of her writing as a kind of “evidence” of proprietarianism as if it is some kind of ledger that reveals the truth of this kind of economic logic is very problematic.  Yes, of course, her novels “illustrate to perfection the diversity of the British gentry” and how their wealth was equally “diversified” including foreign assets and slaves (though Austen only hints at this in one novel).  And yes if illustration were the only issue here, I’d have to agree. This is true, and Austen’s obsession with money and where it comes from as well as lineage, titles, and upper class intraclass relations is all very apparent from the first few pages of any of her novels. Austen is astute, or as astute as a relatively witty, home-educated woman from the gentry can be in the 1810s, of her and others’ social and economic experience in England.  However, Austen is writing a novel, and Pikitty takes at face value what Austen’s ideological (in our sense) project is: to make the laborers around her who do the domestic work of the household seem irrelevant and invisible, as well as to make the bucolic countryside the universal of ordinary life at a time of great economic/social/political upheaval in England.  This is the same project in which Piketty is engaged.  Austen’s novels have done their job well for over two hundred years. And Piketty is not interested in interrogating the “truths” they posit, or the ideological function they have.   

Thus, literature cannot be simple “evidence” in any way that Pikitty means it because as a discourse it has a different function from the other kinds of evidence he uses to prove inequality. Literature tends to intensify ideologies that are already inherent in a culture, though they might have the potential in a representation of culture to question or swift an ideology—what one might call ideological distanciation. Althusser in a “Letter on Art” calls this the function of true Literature as opposed to other kinds of imaginary writing—what used to be seen as pop literature. Ideology is not a representation, but ideologies can be represented in such a way that naturalizes them so we do not question them: we simply see, feel, believe in them.  In Tom’s terms, it “maps” our consciousness, giving us a narrative as a way to make our way in the world.  This is what Austen has done for Piketty: it gives him a convenient narrative to base his argument about the “diversity” of the gentry as central to how society (the centralized economic/social/political structure) works at this historical moment. 

And so we come to Piketty’s analysis of Austen’s (and Balzac’s—with which I am much less familiar): that in the grand narrative of ownership societies “there is no clear relation between the size of one’s fortune and one’s functional abilities or aptitudes. Some people own considerable wealth while others have modest incomes or work as servants. In fact, little is said about the latter, their lives are too dull. At no time, however, do the novelists suggest that they are in any way less deserving or less useful than their employers” (174-5). Gasp! One wonders at this point if he paid attention to Mansfield Park or Sense and Sensibility. Since I may be the only one in the group who has read Austen critically, I will answer: no. In that “little is said” about the servants is the telling phrase. Little is said by Austen because she does perceive them as dull, unimportant and less deserving of the kinds of pleasures that Austen and the gentry take part in; the kinds of pleasures that Austen depicts as being “truly” meaningful, and labor is not one of them. It is not, as Piketty claims, that the novel doesn’t produce “heroes” or has “no clear relation” between the size of one’s fortune and one’s abilities or aptitudes: it already assumes there is and every reader (since the 1810s) knows that the only “real” people in an Austen novel are the gentry.  They are the “heroes” of the novel form because they are the ones who really can “feel” intensely, and manage the moral, economic and political relationships on which their fortunes rely. Literary history has “universalized” this experience of reading her (and others) novels as Literature’s necessary ideological function. To use it, as Piketty does, as evidence of an historical truth about how people really acted or even to construct a grand narrative about individuals relative “equality” that readers can understand, hides or elides Austen’s novels’ real purpose and power.  Whenever a student of mine reads Sense and Sensibility, s/he imagines herself as Marianne or Elinor—not the servant sent to fetch the food or the cook who makes the Dashwood’s dinner.  And this is the point of an Austen novel, then and now. The depiction of this “imaginary relation” is extremely important to maintain and perpetuate the narrative that inequality is justifiable, and these diverse gentry are really only maintaining the common good because they are the only “good” that really matters.  And with this Pikitty seems to be in full agreement.

Sorry if I went on a little long about this particular part of chapter 5.  It is that this part is just so striking to me.  I’m wondering what you all thought about it? 

Capital and Ideology—Chapts 1 & 2

Just helping out a little here to keep things going….

These chapters rely on the “evidence” from various sources in order to get a kind of snapshot of the change from ternary societies to the more modern form of a centralized state.  I’m not going to go through the evidence, but I think the broad point here is to enable readers to think of changes in political, economic, and social structures as historically contingent, and those changes happen very slowly without overt direction from “one group” (the first/second estate) over another (the third).  There may be “inequality” here, but it is not of the same “form” that happens in modernity; it lays the foundation for some structural/ideological changes on which capitalism is based.  One of those things is “ownership of land” or what we would call, in some sense privately owned property.  The other is the beginning of the change in the relationship between that “owner” and the worker; the latter was not free but also no longer a “serf” (54).  And their conditions and state of being, it seemed, changed very little.  But Piketty doesn’t really discuss that. 

What Piketty wants to be concerned with is how the pronounced inequality of this society justifies itself.  He says that “all societies have two essential needs—meaning and security” (59).  But I find that this is not something he really has a lot to say about.  He claims that political leadership always need a “credible theory of the public good or general interest” (60), but he really doesn’t establish how that happens in the ternary society—what is the pubic good or the general interest of whom?  Why is property, or the patterns of ownership necessary to that good or general interest?  These two chapters seem to be largely descriptive of how the upper levels (the clergy and nobles) consolidated their economic/political interests in law, but not really how that was justified, even if we are using Piketty’s definition of ideology. 

So, some discussion points:

  1. Is there a justification of inequality in these societies, or is that just being elided?
  2. Does the sheer quantitative material obscure any real interpretation of the public good?  In other words, is he trying to prove something from data that cannot be proved by data, and thus prevents us from understanding what they thought was the general good? 
  3. Do the chapter serve to highlight a universal justification toward “inequality” in that it has always been historically true, so we should not try to get rid of it, but simply try to ameliorate its more pernicious effects?

I pose these, but feel free to ignore them if there’s others you’d like us to ponder instead.