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.