Capital and Ideology: Chapters 7 through 9

This week, I’m hoping to raise some questions about the remaining three chapters in Part Two of Capital and Ideology.   In a couple of weeks, Chaim will do the same with chapters 10 through 12.  This will move us forward more quickly to the final section of the book, which we expect will be of greater interest and lead to more lively discussion.  As always, I will only discuss a few points that happen to be of particular concern to me; if anyone reading wants to raise other concerns about this section of the book, feel free to do so in the comments.

Clearly the goal in this section of the book is to continue to describe the transition from ternary to proprietarian society, with consideration of the complexity added by various global relations of colonialism, including that in India and Asia.  However, as I read this section I am consistently reminded of Hayden White’s argument that the story we tell is shaped by the goal we want to accomplish now.  Clearly, Piketty’s overarching goal is to present history as a succession of what he calls “inequality regimes,” rather than a series of distinct modes of production.  To the degree that he succeeds in this presentation of history, he can hopefully convince his readers that while inequality is inevitable, the degree of inequality can be reduced by political and ideological means.  His concern is that we need not have any dramatically disruptive transformation, but that we can in a relatively calm and orderly fashion transition to the ideal state of “social-democratic society.”  

Piketty’s project, then, seems to be to convince us that inequality is not a result of capitalism, but an inevitable fact of life. At least, this is what I take to be the force of his consistent mapping of all social formations onto a fixed scheme, in which the 1%, the 10%, the middle 40% and the bottom 50% always turn out to have the same proportion of total wealth.  Further, dramatic or revolutionary transformations always lead it increased inequality, contrary to their stated intent (he explains that this has occurred both in the French Revolution and in the collapse of South Africans apartheid).  The only hope is a moderate political reform that will decrease inequality somewhat, without foolishly hoping to eliminate it.

What I want to do here is just  briefly mention a few of the more significant conceptual blindspots that lead to this conclusion.  I would also suggest that the social-democratic equality Piketty lauds only ever occurs in countries that are participating in brutal economic oppression of the poor in other parts of the globe.   It’s fine to laud the socialism of Sweden, but we must not forget the cost to the rest of the world of the success of their capitalist economy—those working in their lithium mines in Peru don’t share the standard of living provided by their profitable corporations back home.  However, I’m going to set aside the inherent absurdity of thinking that the contradictions of capitalism can be dissolved by socialist policies in first-world countries.  This is clear enough to most readers here.  My concern is to draw out some of the more troubling assumptions which might otherwise go unnoticed. 

Throughout the book, Piketty consistently assumes that the problem of inequality is one of quantity.  That is, he cannot conceive of inequality as a matter of the relation between people, of the roles individuals are interpellated into as subjects.  For instance, he asserts that “the purpose of property is to increase the owner’s ability to consume and accumulate in the future”(284).  But this is not really all there is to it.  The purpose of property is also to establish a certain relation between people, enabling some to dictate what will be done and forcing others to do what they are told or risk starvation and homelessness.  It isn’t merely a matter of enormous consumption—what is at stake is the relations between people.  One could imagine a world in which some people are enormously wealthy but this is insignificant, since the majority are guaranteed a decent standard of living (even with no money in the bank) and so cannot be coerced against their will to do what they are told.  One could also imagine a world in which the wealthiest have only a little more, in material possessions, than the poor, but because of the social formation they have all the say in what projects the group will undertake (certain periods in Ancient Rome seem to have been something like this—the “inequality” could not yet be anything like it is today in a time before coinage, before indoor plumbing and private property; that is, the difference in material wealth was nowhere near what it can be today, but the difference in power was enormous).

As a result of the inability to think in terms of relations rather than quantities, Piketty tends to minimize the role of the repressive state apparatus in enabling inequality.   As a result, he puzzles over why the Ottomans and Chinese did not “follow suit” and drastically increase taxes to support a central government.  He cannot understand that, in a mode of production not yet capitalist, the means of social control were more dispersed and a large army was not necessary to keep people in line.  His discussion of “when the state was too small to be the night watchman” (367 and following) therefore misses the important question: why, under capitalism, did it suddenly become necessary to have a night watchman?  Why do we need a larger RSA to insure stability in a capitalist social relation?  He can’t quite figure this out, because he cannot conceive that the difference is not just one of changes in amounts of wealth, but in social relations.  In capitalism, there is always a deficiency of ideology (in the sense I define it, not in Piketty’s sense); we need a strong RSA to threaten violence or people are not likely to fulfill the role required of them to reproduce the current mode of production.

Further, because he cannot think in terms of relations between people, Piketty is left with an odd (I would almost say incomprehensible) idea of the boundary between determining and agency.  At the beginning of chapter nine he says: 

[W]e will find that many trajectories were possible, and this leads us to minimize the role of cultural or civilizational determinism and to emphasize instead the importance of sociopolitical developments and the logic of event in the transformation of inequality regimes.

My question here is: what exactly might this vague term “logic of events” be  meant to indicate?  If it is not culture, and not “civilization” (whatever he might mean by that), what exactly counts as “events”?  In what sense to they have a “logic”?  How is “logic” different from “determinism”?  

Clearly, he wants to insist that what counts as “economics” is in no way determining (see, for example, page 399).  Obviously, he also want to represent marxist economic thought as “reducing everything to the question of ownership of the means of production” and the naive belief that all other “problems would solve themselves once private property ceased to exist”(357; that is, I think Piketty agrees with Ambedkar, and means us to agree also).  This leaves us with an odd idea of determinism: he seems to suggest that we have a kind of free will, but only free will to manipulate the existing (inherently capitalist) economy to make it less brutal. My point is that it remains inconceivable that we might have the power to change the relations in which we live, because the only relation existing is that of a person to his private property.  All else is somehow a political “event” that is up to us—but we must stop short of seeing capitalist social relations as themselves being up to us.  He cannot comprehend that the goal of marxism is not to change ownership, not to redistribute wealth, and hope that all other social ills will magically disappeared; instead the goal of marxism is to change relations, such that ownership and inequality will no longer be the source of social power.

As a result, Piketty gets it exactly backwards.  It is his idea that once we have a progressive tax all will be better and problems will solve themselves.  He just imagines that the brutal oppression of the poorest classes, say miners and factory workers in the third world, will just dissolve once the upper class pays more taxes and the “middle forty percent” has a bigger share of wealth.  

I’m not going to go through all of the information in these chapters.  I take it that he’s got the “facts” as right as we can get them—I don’t dispute their correctness, and am not arguing for any kind of anti-realist relativism.   However, we can agree on the facts and make something different of them, depending on the goal we are pursuing.  Piketty’s goal is to use this factual information, and the narrative he constructs from it, to figure out how to save capitalism from what he sees as a serious danger looming.  I don’t doubt that he is right, that capitalism could be saved, or at least prolonged, if enough people got on board with Piketty’s agenda, and followed his argument.  I’m doubtful this will happen, and not disappointed that it won’t.  

Still, I am concerned that we might not see any other solution to the disaster ahead, if we cannot get beyond these conceptual impediments.  Piketty can only see economics as a naturally occurring thing, which may seem deterministic if we fail to discover the kinds of “events,” apparently “sociopolitical” ones, that will give us some limited measure of freedom in the grip of a natural tendency to inequality.  We need, instead, to recognize that economics, the way we collective go about producing and distributing indispensable goods, is itself a humanly created, mind-dependent kind of practice, open to change.  The claim that we are being fatalist when we say that the economy is determinant in the last instance only makes sense if we forget that the economy is also up to us!   That is to say, it is the case that the economy is determinant to some degree of all other social possibilities; but this is not at all fatalist because the economy is itself open to change.

The history of how those social formations that turned early to capitalism were able to brutally oppress those that didn’t is interesting and important—but I’m not so sure that Piketty realizes this is the story he is telling in these chapters.  We need to be aware of the tremendous importance of the RSAs in keeping capitalism alive.  America is unique in imprisoning far more of its population than any other “first-world” country, and this is true largely because America has for so long been the leading edge of global capitalism, which needs the constant threats of imprisonment or death to go on.  (Today, that leading role may have conveniently shifted to China, allowing us here in the states to demonize the very oppressive social practices that have made America so rich and powerful for the last two hundreds years).  

Capitalism is always ideologically weak.  It needs a large RSA do keep its subjects behaving.  Most of them won’t work “all by themselves” (although, since the wealthy “middle forty percent” generally do, we tend to think the capitalist ideology is more robust than it is).  We need to keep this in mind if we want to transform society: the increased progressive taxes that Piketty advocates will only gain popularity, if it does at all, once the richest ten percent realize that the poor majority is likely to get out of their control, and stop doing what they want—that is, it will only ever be used to fortify the RSAs.  

Anyway, I may be rambling a bit from the topic of these chapters, so I’ll leave off here.  As I said, please feel free to raise any other concerns in the comments below!  

Capital and Ideology: Introduction

Looking over my notes and marginal comments on this introduction, I realized I couldn’t possibly raise all the issues that troubled me in reading it. That would require an essay about as long as the introduction itself.  So I’m going to focus on one conceptual problem that seems most troubling to me, because it seems to determine in advance the possible outcome of the research Piketty undertakes.

That problem is raised in the first paragraph.  Right from the start, there is an assumption that we have an “ambient social structure,” and then ideology arises to “makes sense of” or “bolster” this structure in some way.  That is, Piketty assumes that ideology is a set of justifications, of “dominant narratives,” that work to legitimize  or naturalize what somehow already has come into existence outside of discourse.  

My position is that ideology is in fact the “ambient social structure” itself.  That is, the practices in which we produce those “indispensable goods” we need to live are already ideological, because we could produce such goods in any number of ways; ideology then works to maintain this particular manner of production, through material practices in which we structure our relations to one another and to the available resources and means of production.   Throughout the introduction, Piketty tends to assume that what  ideology does is justify these practices, to “impose meaning on a complex social reality”(14), although of course some of this might be done in all sincerity, with a “plausible basis,” and not as an intentional deception.  My concern is that this limited idea of ideology will never go far enough in its analysis, and will mistake some ideological institutions for the “goods” (my term, not Piketty’s) they are working to produce.  

With phrases like “make sense of” and “impose meaning on,” Piketty seems to continue a sort of idealist ontology that could limit his attempt at an “unbiased examination of the available sources” (9).   That is, most of the kinds of discourses Piketty sees as ideological are meant to limit our thinking in such a way that we will be unable to conceive of new kinds of practices in which to produce the goods we need.  They do serve a purpose in trying to stabilize existing ideologies, but we must not mistake them for ideologies.  

This point is difficult to make clear, so I’ll use the example of education.  Piketty’s idea of what would constitute progress sounds troublingly like Jeremy Bentham.  He measures progress primarily by a utilitarian formula: increased “purchasing power,” longer life span with less of it spent in work (especially manual labor), and increased access to education (pp. 16-20).   Quantifiable amounts are the determinant of progress.  More life, it seems, if it is spent not working, is just better, regardless of how pointless and meaningless it might seem to the one living it.

The core problem here, to my mind, involves the failure to see education as itself an ideological practice.  For Piketty, education seems to be a good produced, something we possess and which in turn provided us with higher incomes and the ability to spend less time laboring.  However, our educational system is meant to produce skilled workers, sorted by class background, so that the social formation of global capitalism can be reproduced. In America at least (and reading the recent French novel And Their Children After Them would suggest things aren’t much different in France, where Piketty is writing), the goal of the educational system is at all costs to avoid producing any kind of critical thought about kinds of social systems we might engage in. The goal is to teach the necessary skills, while carefully avoiding any critical thinking.  

The education system, that is, produces something necessary to the maintenance of our social formation, and so necessary to producing the goods we need—mostly food, cars, smartphones, etc.  In our system, education is not a product produced which we then possess, but a practice meant to reproduce capitalist social relations.  What is never produced by this educational system is anything we might call meaning, in any real sense of that term.

“Meaning” is not necessarily something “imposed,” an interpretation of a social structure which  functions to naturalize it.  Another way to understand “meaning” is to see something as meaningful when it gives us the capacity to actively engage in deciding on what social structure we ought to have: on what goods we need to produce and how we will collectively go about producing them. It seems clear to me that the task of the current educational system is exactly to prevent the production of “meaning” in this sense—and instead to convince us that our social structure is not open to change, except by the wealthiest 1%, should a change suit their interests.

What I would suggest is that Piketty’s understanding of ideology as a justification, and his understanding of progress as quantitative gains, would leave us right where we are—unable to really find any way to give our lives meaning.  We are all supposed to think that once we get rich we will suddenly be enormously happy, that more stuff, more purchasing power, more free time, are the goals of “equality.”  It isn’t clear to me that these things alone will give us the sense of meaning we seek—witness the enormous numbers of affluent people in the U.S. on medication for depression or anxiety, the rising rates of addiction and suicide, etc.  

The problem here is related to the concept of equality.  We all think we want a more egalitarian society…but it seems to me we haven’t thought enough about what we mean by the term egalitarian.  Piketty seems to imply the common assumption today, that if everyone had more access to education, if everyone had a college degree, then we would all be making six-figure salaries and living a middle-class lifestyle.  But of course this is absurd (I’m sure I don’t need to point out to the participants here why we can’t all be lawyers and college professors).  Equality seems to mean mostly equal amounts of stuff, with equal freedom from the necessity of work (in the limited sense of unpleasant manual labor).  

What if we redefined “equality” to mean equal participation in the decisions about how we will produce the indispensable goods we need?  Instead of assuming that the how is a given, and we just want an somewhat larger share of the profits, what if equality meant we get to decide what form of transportation we will produce, or what kinds of food and housing, or what we will educate our children to know?  What if equality meant not a larger paycheck, but the ability to vote on things like whether we should put social resources into inventing a new kind of smartphone or into producing better housing?  This kind of equality is inconceivable given Piketty’s utilitarian concept of well being.

Since this is meant to prompt, not end, discussion, I will simply mention a few more problems that this introduction raises for me, and leave them open to discussion over the coming week.

One is the idea that a more egalitarian ideology, in Piketty’s sense of justification, would push people to demand better wages, and to demand that corporate executive take less of the profit.  This seems to me naive.  The examples of periods of greater equality—or higher wages and increasing standard of living, such as the decades after WWII in the U.S. (or the “great thirty years” in France), were not driven by egalitarian ideologies at all.  Piketty does suggest that periods of technological progress are usually not those of high inequality, supposedly because it is a myth that the promise of enormous wealth drives new invention.  And, of course, it is a myth.  Scientific progress requires enormous commitment of social resources, not individual geniuses sitting in their basement working hard at invention—we like this image of Edison only because it fits the myth, not because it is how things really work.  Periods of increased standard of living occur because they are needed by the very rich to enable the production of new and greater wealth.  After WWII, the wealthy needed ways to recoup the fortunes lost in the great depression.  Selling televisions and stations wagons and ranch houses, etc., was a good way to do it—but you need to have a class of people able to buy those things, or at least to go into debt for them.  Periods of “progress” aren’t caused by improved standards of living, rather periods of progress cause increase in wages, temporarily, to enable the extraction of greater wealth.  Once the very wealthy are already enormously wealthy, they don’t need to put that money in circulation to increase it, and so we have periods of stagnation.  This is basic economics, and Piketty should know this, it seems to me. 

Another point Piketty raises, in discussing the division of the rich into two categories (see page 28), is the idea common today that there are those who get their wealth from “unfair appropriation” (like Russian oligarchs) and those who get it by “innovation” (like the tech and internet billionaires).  As Piketty points out, this is a mistaken assumptions, because the tech billionaires also got their wealth by appropriating enormous amounts “resources” produced over long periods at taxpayer expense.  As Balzac once said, every fortune is founded on a crime.  How might we make this clearer to the general public, so that we can defeat the mantra of democratic liberals in America today that progressive tax just “punishes success and hard work”?  

Finally, the issue of method seems to be something Piketty flounders over.  He seems concerned to be seen as “objective” in his treatment of the “available sources,” but at the same time realizes that “‘facts’ are themselves constructs” (9).  This problem of evidence from which to argue seems to trouble him, and to my mind he doesn’t have more than the usual superficial answer that “we must take complexity and reflexivity into account.”  But what is this “taking into account” exactly?  My argument has always been that we need to begin from an intention, not from evidence.  We seek evidence as a way to better accomplish our intention, or to determine if it is really desirable or possible to accomplish it.  It seems to me that Piketty is in fact doing this, but is not being completely explicit about what his intention is.  That is, his intention seems to be to argue that by adjusting our ideology of capitalism (in his sense of this term) we can keep it going longer and make it less destructive and oppressive.  I’m wondering if looking at capitalist ideologies (in both his sense and mine) to prove that capitalist ideology can successfully save capitalist economics is, well, going to be a bit self-fulfilling.  So unless we question the assumption and commitments underlying his argument, it might seem a bit more possible than it actually is in reality.

Of course, this is not to say that the goal here is to simply criticize and dismiss Piketty.  My interest is in trying to learn something from this book.  To once again employ my tired map metaphor, we can take a map meant to show us how to get to the river, and use it to get someplace else in the vicinity as well.  So I think there might be a lot to make use of in Piketty’s map of the route from here to a kinder, gentler capitalism, even if that’s not where we want to get to.  

With that, I’ll leave off before I start preaching to the choir, and simply open it up to discussion. What can we get of use from the introduction to this book? Are the limitations too severe?  Are there important lessons here?  Would the act of reading this book itself perhaps enable the kind of non-job-training education that might allow us to produce meaning in a more fundamental sense?  

Note: I am temporarily turning off comment moderation to facilitate discussion during the “retreat” weeks.

Marxist/Buddhist Retreat during the Pandemic

It’s time to start thinking about the second Marxist/Buddhist Retreat! 

But due to the current global shutdown, we won’t be able to do it in-person this year.  So, we’re going to conduct a sort of online retreat right here.  It will take the form of an extended reading and discussion of a single (very long) text: Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital and Ideology.  We’ll be posting responses weekly, meant to prompt some discussion of chapters of the book.  The posting of responses is limited to the retreat participants (five of us so far), but anyone should feel free to join in the discussion in the comment section.  

I will, as always, moderate comments to limit interference from trolls and reactionary morons (see my definition of that term here: On Being and Imbecile).  We want to limit discussion to those of us attempting to remain imbeciles (again, see my definition of that term in the post just linked).  

I think of this as an endeavor in line with my (admittedly peculiar) understanding of being a faithful buddhist.  Our goal will be, in large part, to try to make explicit the assumptions and commitments at work in Piketty’s analysis of, and proposed solution to, the crisis of global capitalism.  Making an assumption or commitment explicit, of course, doesn’t mean we cannot choose to share it—although it might mean that.  The typical academic response to this book has been largely hostile (although not universally so), and in Western academic thought to point out that someone has some assumptions or commitments it taken to be a “debunking,” a proof he or she has failed at the academic goal of pure objectivity.  The Buddhist approach, at least on my understanding, does not pretend to any such objectivity.  The goal of reducing the suffering of sentient beings is not at all “objective.”  Rather, our goal will be to become aware of the commitments we choose and the assumptions we accept—without this awareness causing them to lose their motivating power.

To facilitate this retreat, I’ve put my addiction project on hold for now.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I was not sure anyway that such a project would ever be of much use to those who would need it most.  My hope is that this retreat will be of more benefit to the participants as well as to the silent readers.

We will begin a week from today, with discussion of the introduction to the book.  If you want to follow along, get a copy and start reading!  We plan, at this point, to discuss about 50 pages every week.  My hope is that this will allow for serious and in-depth discussion of the argument being made, and give us all a chance to keep our minds alive during these dreary times of Netflix binges and obsessive Instagram scrolling.  

Anyone interested in joining the retreat in a more formal fashion, please email me.  If you simply want to join the conversation, post a comment at any time!