Capital and Ideology: Chapters 10-12

The first three chapters of Part III continue Piketty’s history of “inequality regimes,” moving us into the 20th century to what Piketty refers to as “the crisis of ownership societies” and the variety of ways this crisis was addressed. We’ve already established in earlier discussions that Piketty employs an idealist conception of history, and the limitations of his method. Furthermore, as Tom pointed out in his last post on chapters 7-9, Piketty seems to have quite a vague and somewhat contradictory conception of agency and determinism. This leads him to repeatedly insist, on the one hand, that the various historical “trajectories” that were taken did not express any underlying necessity. On the other hand, he talks of the limitations of these trajectories as if they were imposed by nature. We are supposed to believe, that is, that we are free to take any one of an infinite number of possible historical paths, but at the same time we mustn’t dare be so bold as to choose a mode of production other than capitalism, because that is just not possible.

Piketty’s philosophy of agency and determinism appears as a sort of caricature of the kind of dialectical one we actually need in order to solve the problems of global capitalism. On the most superficial level there is unfortunately a fine line between dialectics and sophistry, and academics will often present the latter as an exercise in nuance and flexible thinking, using this as a license to avoid developing a coherent position. A truly dialectical conception of agency, however, is necessary in order to understand how we can move beyond Piketty’s assumptions, which force us to accept the inevitability of capitalism.

A dialectical conception of agency acknowledges the role played by necessity in the historical development of society. It asserts that human beings are free to choose the manner in which they produce indispensable goods and organize their social relations, but also that such production and organization, on the one hand, require a material basis and, on the other, in turn produce materially necessary consequences and internal contradictions, often independently of the will and the consciousness of individuals.

This is all very abstract, so let us examine the difference here a little more concretely.

Piketty seems to imagine that the turn-of-the-century world crisis of capitalism (he doesn’t use that phrase, but that is what it was) was, essentially, homogeneous in character, and that therefore the responses to it, i.e. the various national trajectories discussed, expressed the intentions of the masses in each country. In other words, the entire world was facing one big “crisis of ownership,” and each country, on the basis of a vague combination of cultural, political, and ideological factors, chose to pursue its own historical pathway. Any one of them could have just as well chosen an alternate course, had they simply had the political will to do so. Piketty emphasizes the importance of “political-ideological processes” in the succession of inequality regimes, while stating that

there is no cultural or civilizational essence that disposes some countries to equality and others to inequality . . . there are only conflictual sociopolitical trajectories in which different social groups and people of different sensibilities within each society attempt to develop coherent ideas of social justice based on their own experiences and the events they have witnessed (454).

The assumption here seems to be that the political and economic policies of the 20th century were for the most part the results of reasonable democratic debate among different tendencies, and Piketty imagines that this kind of practice can be replicated in order to deal with the current crisis. The problem is of course that this is not what occurred in the 20th century, and such a political project is not at all possible under capitalism, which is incompatible with actual democracy. The crisis of the interwar period and the political developments throughout the 20th century were rooted in the material conditions of the era of imperialism, and in the final analysis it was the balance of class forces within each country which determined—though not mechanically—these outcomes.

The immense destruction of the first world war placed the agenda of socialism on almost all of the capitalist world. The working classes of Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and many other powerful capitalist countries were moving in the direction of replacing the capitalist mode of production with a new mode of production, one of workers’ control. Throughout the 20th century, the repeated waves of worker-led factory occupations—in many cases involving workers taking direct control of the management of industry—as well as the outright revolutionary eruptions, demonstrate that what was occuring was not, as Piketty presents it, merely a vague struggle for greater equality, that is, for a greater share of surplus wealth. Rather it was a struggle for the creation of an entirely new mode of production, in which the production of material indispensable goods is democratically decided on not by a handful of wealthy capitalists, but by the workers themselves.

In the case of the social democracies, it was not the workers, i.e. the majority of the population, who made the conscious decision to maintain capitalism. Time and again it was the social-democratic leaders, and the emerging labor bureaucrats, which sought to channel the movements of the workers into the safe channels of bourgeois democracy and trade unionism. In some cases, such as in Italy and Germany in the interwar period, the workers were not so lucky, and instead of a “successful” collaboration between the workers and the bourgeoisie (i.e., instead of concessions gained in the form of social democracy), the bourgeoisie resorted to fascist methods to crush the working class organizations, slaughter their leaders, and continue their rule through open use of the violence of the RSA.

The main point here is that Piketty, in focusing only on inequality of wealth and access, and in presenting the class struggle as merely a struggle against such inequality, avoids the fundamental question of which class should be allowed to participate in the running of society, of who gets to make the decisions about what and how we ought to produce for human needs. This is the real question of agency in society.

A great deal of ink is spent on the later social democratic experiments of and debates around so-called “co-management” or “workers participation.” Once again we should emphasize that despite Piketty’s rhetoric about “transcending capitalism and private property,” these policies were implemented within a fully capitalist mode of production, which meant that they ended up mainly serving the interests of the bosses. Piketty’s touts, for instance, the positive impact of workers’ participation on productivity and hence on profits.

But the real reason why these policies did not and could not ultimately live up to their promise is that, in any society of classes, there must exist a ruling class and an oppressed and exploited class. As long as the bourgeoisie remains the ruling class, no form of workers’ “participation” can ever be stable. As long as the bourgeoisie owns the means of production of the whole world, the superficial “co-management” of workers within isolated firms—which in reality leaves the ultimate control of society in the hands of the capitalist class—does nothing to address the fundamental contradictions of capitalism or to provide the majority of human beings with a meaningful life.

As Ted Grant remarked when these policies were proposed by the Labour Party in Britain in the 1970’s: “[The proposals for workers participation are] based on an acceptance of the continued existence of capitalism. A real programme for workers’ control is a step towards a programme for the abolition of capitalism. For only that can guarantee that every aspect of the working lives of working people is not decided by a handful of plutocratic millionaires.” Under the system capitalism, the vast majority of the world is deprived of the basic human need to be an active and creative participant in the production of the indispensable goods, both biological and intellectual, which are required for human flourishing. Even if some limited form of workers’ co-management does lead to some gains for the workers, for example higher wages or increased bargaining power (though this has not always been the result), the problem remains of workers being deprived of the ability to democratically participate in decisions regarding the kind of society we ought to build overall. This kind of activity is an indispensable good which is impossible to provide under capitalism.

This problem is further illustrated in Piketty’s discussion of inequalities in education. The focus in this discussion is again narrowed to things like inequality of access and investment, and the value of education for social mobility. I would suggest that while these are important sociological problems, what is always left out of such discussions is the question of the very nature and purpose of the education system under capitalism. Piketty assumes that if we just decrease inequalities in access to the existing education system then everyone would be better off. But what if the ideological function of the education system under capitalism is precisely to reproduce a system in which a tiny minority rules society, while the majority toils in misery? What if the inequalities of the capitalist education system exist exactly for the purpose of forming the kinds of subjects necessary to reproduce unequal capitalist social relations? These kinds of questions do not factor into Piketty’s project, which in my view is its greatest limitation.

There is much more to be said about these chapters, and in fact I had written much more, but I decided to post just a few of the more troubling assumptions and conceptual problems that I thought were important to raise. I assume that everyone reading this will already understand that we are living in a completely different era from the post-WWII boom, and so the degree to which we can draw reformist policy conclusions based on post-WWII boom-era nostalgia is less than what Piketty probably imagines. So I need not dwell on that point.

There is one more important point that I want to briefly draw attention to, which I can’t go into very much, as it would really require an entire post of its own. I am referring to Piketty’s profoundly confused analysis of the Soviet experience. The historical misconceptions and outright laughable falsifications about Bolshevism and the October revolution, combined with the most superficial analysis imaginable of the world’s first workers’ state, made for truly painful reading. It is ironic that immediately after a detailed discussion of the experiments of workers’ participation in the capitalist context, Piketty leaves out the fact that the soviet system was the most democratic form of government in the history of human civilization, in which power, both political and economic, was in the hands of the vast majority of the population, of the working masses and peasants. The mistake Piketty makes is the same one that has been repeated a thousand times: the equivacation of Bolshevism and Stalinism. Piketty practically leaps immediately over from the revolutionary period itself all the way over to the regime of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which had nothing whatsoever in common with the system established by the Bolsheviks in the revolution, as if they were one and the same. He repeats the same old nonsense about a continuous “Soviet communism” lasting from 1917-1991—a figment of bourgeois imagination which has no basis in reality. In reality Stalinism was not a continuation of the revolution, but a triumph of counterrevolution.

It is absolutely impossible to understand the nature of the Soviet Union, without understanding the degeneration of the Russian revolution in the years following the death of Lenin and the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin. Indeed, many of the criticisms Piketty makes of Stalinist policies, which he incorrectly refers to as “communist” policies, were made nearly a century ago by none other than Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Soviet Red Army and the fiercest and most resolute advocate of communism after Lenin’s death. The “catastrophic failure” of the Soviet Union was not a failure of communism, i.e. of workers’ democracy and ownership of the means of production under highly developed forces of production. I will just recommend Trotsky’s book The Revolution Betrayed, which was the first scientific analysis of the degeneration of the Russian revolution ever written. It explains what actually happened in Russia and the reasons for the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

With that obligatory rant, I will end my post for the week. These were long and dense chapters, and I’m quite interested in hearing what others got from it.

Capital and Ideology: Chapters 3 & 4

Please accept my apologies for the late post, everyone! First I had a busy week, and then that ended in me falling ill. So, just a fair warning: parts of this post were written while sick in bed, so some of it may make even less sense than I usually do.


There is too great an abundance of material in chapters 3 and 4 to adequately cover everything here. For one, I find Piketty’s obsession with “taxes” and “ownership” to be very tedious, because it avoids the kinds of discussions that we really do need to have, while giving off a deceptive veneer of objective empiricism. So, what I am going to try to do here is examine Piketty’s account of the “invention of ownership societies,” drawing out some of the assumptions upon which this account implicitly rests. Rather than spend too much time merely correcting the myriad academic falsifications and over-simplifications of revolutionary periods which Piketty mimics here, I want instead to focus on what I consider to be the most profound mistake Piketty makes in his account of the French Revolution. This one error is reproduced in every textbook account of the period, and I believe it prevents us from producing knowledge of how revolutions happen, why they succeed or fail, and how we can anticipate future ones and be prepared for when they do happen (spoiler alert: they will happen eventually, barring nuclear extinction).

Before I get to that discussion, though, I’ll say that I’ve decided that I don’t think it’s useful to indulge in Piketty’s obsessive focus on “inequality,” because really this book is a symptom of the failures of global capitalism on the whole, and this term limits our possible discourse. So I will try to limit my use of the term as much as possible from here on out. I suspect that Piketty’s favorite term “inequality” is in fact just a symptom (in the Lacanian sense—assuming I understand Lacan correctly). That is, the object of Piketty’s inquiry is not actually “inequality” as such. His project rather serves to produce a certain kind of discourse that aims to grasp something in the world which he can’t quite name. This is, of course, the same kind of mistake that leads all the social sciences to a dead end.

What I mean is that Piketty looks around the world and sees “horror without end,” as Lenin aptly referred to global capitalism. He sees: A tiny minority of the population owns and controls all of the wealth and means of production in society, and they choose to produce only those indispensable goods which are profitable, despite this resulting in immense suffering. Hundreds of millions starve, and yet they are not fed because it is not profitable to feed them. Over a billion people are homeless, and yet they are not housed because it is not profitable to house them. Hundreds of millions are depressed, on drugs, commit suicide, etc, because ideology has failed them, and this itself has been cruelly turned into a profitable business. Countless die as a result of the brutal violence of imperialist wars, and yet this, too, is profitable business.

Instead of embarking on a scientific analysis of this social formation, however, Piketty chooses to instead construct a discourse around “inequality,” and this discourse only prevents real knowledge from being produced. The word inequality does not have a strictly scientific correspondence to any of the phenomena mentioned above. The reason for this is because “inequality” is an abstract variable, whereas the problems mentioned above consist of concrete social relations. So here we have an entire book dedicated to “inequality,” which can at most offer a rotation of graphs and superficial legalistic analyses of historical trends.

My argument here is, basically, that when Piketty refers to “inequality” he is not actually pointing to what he thinks he’s pointing to. I get this sense because he seems to hold the illusion that if we simply redistribute humanity’s productive surplus in a manner approaching some “egalitarian” ideal, then that will solve the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, which in the final analysis are what produce all of the above-mentioned horrors. Piketty even imposes this schema in his discussion of the French Revolution. That is, rather than looking at the material basis and class forces which gave rise to this revolutionary period and determined its development, Piketty remains so focused on the concept of “inequality” that he just sees percentages and calculators everywhere he looks, making invisible the real forces which are at work here. It makes for good empiricism, but that is not the same thing as science.

So my focus here will be on Piketty’s account of the Revolutionary period in France. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the comment discussions must focus on this point; I’m merely narrowing down what I found most interesting to try to think about in these chapters.

First, it is absolutely necessary to reject the standard popular bourgeois account of the French Revolution, according to which, guided by Enlightenment ideals, the bourgeoisie and the middle classes, in an alliance with the masses of the peasantry, the semi-proletarians, and the poor, fought for justice against the archaic and unfair French regime. Ultimately this misunderstanding results from a lack of a class analysis. Piketty’s  “trifunctional” order of classes includes the clergy, the nobility, and the “third estate.” The latter is composed of the “common people [who] did the work . . . provided food and clothing that allowed the entire community to thrive (52).” For instance, peasants, artisans, merchants, and so on. While Piketty acknowledges that the third estate was not a monolithic bloc, and was composed of various subgroups, ultimately the lack of a clear class perspective on this point leads to some fatal errors.

Piketty’s analysis of the changes during the Revolution focuses almost entirely on the role of the legal movement occurring at the level of the state apparatus. The Revolution is presented as a sort of “ideological” (in Piketty’s sense) battlefield, in which all parties involved attempted to “define consistent norms of justice acceptable to all (100).” The idea being that the outcomes of the revolution was decided through passionate debates among the Crown, the nobility, and the “third estate” over various definitions of forms of property. The participating gentlemen—some righteous, some not so—came together to negotiate on what shall henceforth be the new “just” social order, who should be required to give up what privileges, and so on.

There are two problems with this. The first is that, in fact, the representatives of the Third Estate had a very complex class nature. Far from representing the masses “in general,” these were composed of the educated middle class and bourgeoisie. In the National Assembly, the French middle classes took it upon themselves to speak for “the people,” although in fact most sections of the people were not represented at all. For example, the peasants were totally absent.

Because of this, the “revolutionary lawmakers” could have only a partial understanding of the tasks facing the revolution—although, as Peter Kroptkin writes in The great French revolution, “[they] knew quite well what steps to take for the conquest of power in favour of the middle classes . . .” In other words, the “representatives of the third estate” were in reality the representatives of the privileged middle classes. However, these privileges could only be consolidated by struggling against feudalism. The middle classes and the revolutionary bourgeois therefore did not carry out the revolution on their own, but actually leaned heavily on the masses, which is where the real revolutionary spirit expressed itself in general.

The second problem is that actually the reforms which most benefited the masses were won not because of the middle class heroes in the Assembly, who fought for greater freedom and equality for all. Rather, it was the direct action of the masses themselves moving onto the streets and taking matters into their own hands, which was the primary driving force of the revolution. It was the masses first, and then the Assembly, which abolished feudal rights. It was the poorer classes and suffering peasants who, <em>in practice</em>, fought directly against oppression, while the politicians—Piketty’s “ideologists”—lagged behind at every step of the way. Kroptkin vividly describes some of the radical actions of the poor masses during this time:

Often they broke open the granaries belonging to religious communities and merchant monopolists, or even those belonging to private persons, and provided the bakers with flour. Moreover, from this time, too, dated the formation of bands composed of peasants, wood-cutters, sometimes even of contrabandists, who went from village to village seizing the corn. By degrees they began also to burn the land registers and to force the landlords to abdicate their feudal rights — these were the same bands which gave the middle classes the pretext for arming their militias in 1789. [My emphasis]

Here we see that the masses did not wait to appoint representatives to go and “compromise” politically with the ruling class for their demands. They did not sit in the library, carefully working out what Piketty might call a more “egalitarian ideology” that would be more convincing than the ideology of the feudal monarchy. They did not even bother with the tedious tasks of establishing a legal basis upon which to justify fighting back against their oppressors:

Here and there the mob pillaged the houses of officials whose duty was to levy the taxes on flour, hides, butcher’s meat, etc. The prices of provisions were reduced and a maximum established for all provisions, and when the gentlemen of the upper middle classes protested, the mob replied by stoning them, or else a trench was dug before their eyes which might serve for their grave. Sometimes even a coffin was brought out the better to impress the refractory who apparently hastened to comply.

It was these early uprisings leading up to the “official” start of the French Revolution which forced the nobility and the clergy to make their first concessions. Although the National Assembly “announced” the abolition of feudalism on August 4, 1789, the masses had already in effect started the process on their own, months before the kind permission of the rulers were granted—not to mention that the decree to “abolish” feudalism was not at all straightforward, that it was followed by counter-revolutions, and that it was only through a continued class struggle that feudalism was finally laid to rest in its historical grave.

The French Revolution was not a struggle between, on the one hand, the newly enlightened bourgeois’ ideals of equality and, on the other, an inegalitarian feudal monarchy. At every step of the way, it was the plebeian and semi-proletarian masses who won concessions from below, and in the end overthrew the monarchy, while the bourgeoisie maneuvered and compromised with the rotten monarchy at every step of the way. And once the revolution was finally consolidated, the whip of reaction was immediately raised. Those who privileged from the gains of the revolution feared that the masses would make further demands, which would inevitably challenge capitalism itself. Thus, as Piketty himself demonstrates through chapter 4, the Revolution ultimately “led to the development of an extremely inegalitarian form of ownership regime (126).”

Our author is thus left wondering why the “egalitarian” promises of the Revolution ultimately failed. “The fact,” Piketty writes, “that the concentration of wealth could rise so rapidly and to such a high level in the period 1880-1914, a century after the abolition of privileges in 1789, is an arresting result (139).” But there is nothing strange about this at all. The point here is that the French Revolution was not ever about some abstract struggle for egalitarianism. On the contrary it was, in the final analysis, a process of the transfer of wealth from one small minority to another. In particular, the transfer was made to the capitalists as a class. And as we all know, it is a fundamental law of capitalism that it tends toward a greater concentration of wealth into a smaller minority of private hands.

This undermines Piketty’s naive hope that all we need are new “egalitarian narratives,” or maybe some progressive taxation, or any other changes to the political superstructure. In every class society the State is an instrument of class rule. It cannot be reformed, which is why it was the masses, not the governments or the politicians, who overthrew the feudal monarchy. The bourgeois state is an instrument for the rule of a small minority of capitalists. Only a mass revolutionary movement from below will ever be able to actually end the “horror without end.”