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 14 of “Capital and Ideology”

Being without power for five days last week has delayed this post a bit, but I’m hoping we can continue moving along through Part IV of the book during August.  The final chapter could be a good opportunity for more lively discussion, and on a personal note, I’m scheduled for surgery the first week in September and may not be able to sit at the keyboard and type for a while.  So I’d like to keep going, and possibly get to that final chapter before then.  If not, I’ll keep reading along.

Chapter 14 is quite long, and focused mostly on the situation in France.  Still, I think it does offer some insights into the difficulties we would face in trying to establish socialism in any Western country today.  I’m going to focus, once again, on some of the conceptual impediments that I believe we will need to overcome if we are to convince any large segment of the population to question capitalism.  

Piketty attempts to outline the shifting “electoral cleavages” that have shaped politics in the past century.  He does suggest that many of the “cleavages” are similar in the US, UK, and France.  I want to address some of the assumptions he makes that I believe are common among most educated Americans today, and which we must work to make explicit (and hopefully correct or eliminate) if we hope to have any real progress in the coming decades.

To begin with, Piketty engages in the typical capitalist strategy of dismissing class analysis as reductive and not subtle or complex enough.  This is a key step.  In the US, almost nobody sees themselves as belonging to a “class.”  As Piketty suggests, they see themselves as participating in a particular “worldview” (Piketty’s term, p. 721 ff).  Piketty argues that class is “profoundly multidimensional,” including things like “dietary or sexual orientation.”  He then reduces the concept of class to “less advantaged” and “more advantaged,” with only a vague suggestion as to what that might mean.  This strategy of discussing “class” in the vague ideological sense of the term, and using that very vagueness to dismiss rigorous class analysis as impossible, is classic equivocation.  It is difficult to overcome this kind of sophistry, because the world “class,” in America at least, always carries an offensive connotation.  To be accused of belonging to any class, even the upper class, is always seen as an insult here.  

So he can avoid discussion of serious matters like one’s relation to the means of production.  Clearly it is true, as he suggests, that one might know a plumber who makes a couple hundred thousand a year, while there may be folks living on trust funds whose income amounts to only half that, or less.  But we need to avoid confusing amounts with relations.  We must also avoid the strategy of arguing from exceptions—that is, pointing up an anomaly and using it to dismiss an analysis as not “complex” enough.   Because in fact, in the vast majority of cases, those who are poorest work for hourly wages.

But once he has dismissed rigorous analysis of class, he can move on to talking about how the “left” and “right” have attracted different demographic groups over the decades.  He does specifically say that “‘left’ and ‘right’ have no fixed eternal meaning”(738), however he then goes on to discuss political changes as if, in fact, they do.  He talks about the “left” appealing to different demographic groups as if “left” is a given thing, and the contingent question is which group is persuaded it would serve their interest to support this “leftness.”  Of course, this is absurd.  It should be clear enough that after at least 1980, the wealthy simply bought both political parties in the US and Great Britain, along with most of the parties on other countries.  There is no more “left” in any meaningful sense—parties now are an indication of which particular economic interest within the upper class one aligns with.  To vote democrat in the U.S. is not to vote for the interest of those who are technically “working class,” who own none of the means of production and work for wages.  Rather, it is to vote for the interest, primarily, of the financial sector of capitalist wealth, as opposed to some other group like oil or agricultural production.  That the “democratic” party has aligned itself with interests in things like gay rights and racial equality, while the “republican” party aligns itself with xenophobia and Christian fundamentalism, is merely a matter of strategy—which group of the voting masses do you think is largest?  Appeal to them, and get your economic interests taken care of for the next few years!

This needs to be made clear to voters in all Western countries. The problem is exactly what Piketty is discussing here: that we tend to take these manufactured “cleavages” seriously, and allow the rich to use them to manipulate voters and play a game of gaining political, and so economic, control.  

As Piketty points out (see page 743), when there was a more “classist” split, the parties had to take the interests of the poor into account to some degree to stay in power.  Of course, Piketty suggests that it is the “declining turnout of the less advantaged classes in the period 1990-2020” that allowed all political parties to begin to ignore their interests.  I would suggest that, here in the US at least, it is the other way around.  After 1980, when both parties began to ignore the concerns of the poor and embrace neoliberal ideology, the “less advantaged” stopped voting because they saw no difference between Bush and Clinton, in any sense that was important to them.  

So, when he begins to analyze the change in goals of the left parties, he can only see it as accidental, as a result of the shifting of the attitude of those given access to education and who now have contempt for the uneducated (see p. 756).

In actuality, the left/right split, as even Piketty makes clear, is a struggle between two groups who are both avowedly “pro-market”, and simply want to attract enough poorer people to win majority votes (see p. 788, for instance).   

Two more points, and then I’ll leave it open to discussion.

I think it is essential, if we are going to ever have anything like a socialist party, to help people get a better sense of how capitalist economics actually works.  Look at Piketty’s section on the “self-employed”(p. 769 ff.).  Piketty, like many people in the West, relies on the implicit assumption that the ideal of capitalism is the small business owner, the person with enough drive and ingenuity to go into business for herself, and so become more affluent through her own intelligence and hard work.  Many people in the US who chant the mantra of “socialism punishes success” still believe this is possible.  But of course it no longer is. It was already diminishing by the 1950s, and today is not a realistic possibility. Consider the real estate prices in my home state of Connecticut: nobody could possibly hope to make enough money on any small business to offset the cost of real estate. As a result, the only small businesses left are those that are long-established, often those that own the building they are in (and in my own town, many of those realized that the price of their building was now so great it was better to sell it and make as much on the sale as in twenty years of work).  My point is, we have to overcome the romantic ideal of capitalist enterprise, and realize that new businesses can only be started by huge corporations with enormous resources.  That is just the reality today.  Nobody can start up a new social media platform and hope to compete this the internet giants; nobody can any longer hope to start an internet sales business and not be smothered by Amazon.  We need to drop the economics-class myth of the fellow who invents a widget and sells it for a profit.  In todays global capitalism, such stories are no more than myth.

The second point is one I’ve mentioned before: we need to drop the idea that universal access to education will make us all affluent upper-middle class!  For one thing, not everyone has the natural capacity for higher education, and it should be horrifying to socialists that we have reached a state in which such people can simply be dismissed as less than fully human.  Of course, even if everyone had such intellectual capacities, it wouldn’t matter, because there just needs to be a large class of manual laborers doing the less pleasant jobs.  Somebody needs to work in the meat processing plant, and they shouldn’t necessarily make less money than someone who works as a lawyer or a software engineer (I would suggest that given the difficulty and unpleasantness of the job, they should perhaps make more).

Piketty talks in terms of “the rise of educational opportunity,” as if this is a great forward leap.  In fact, we should think of it as the rise in degree-racing: the need to get ever more, and more costly, degrees in order to qualify for even the simplest of jobs.  In essence, this has become a matter of purchasing the right to even apply for most jobs, at the cost of debts that will take the rest of one’s life to pay off.  

However, as I said earlier, the bulk of this chapter involves the political question of the creation of artificial “cleavages” that ought to be irrelevant to politics.  It ought to be none of the governments business what someone’s sexual orientation is—instead, the right to be other than heterosexual has become dependent on which political party is in power.  We need to begin to convince people that issues of race and gender and sexuality and all other basic human rights are best fought for outside the political apparatus.  The struggle for political control should be a struggle for the economic system we are willing to live under.  

So long as things like the right to abortion is a matter of party politics, we are constantly threatened every couple years with attacks on our basic human rights, in order to distract us from any attempt to address the horrible oppression necessary to keep capitalism running.  We then vote for capitalists like Biden just to avoid losing basic human rights, and don’t demand any economic change, relieved that we have saved rights that should be none of the governments business anyway.  We need to stop falling for these manufactured “cleavages” and simply demand that the government has not right to interfere in anything other than the economic system.

I hope, at least, that this last claim is controversial enough to stir up some discussion!  

Capital and Ideology: Chapter 13

In chapter 13 Piketty focuses on our current inequality regime he calls hypercapitalism and neo-proprietarian. According to Piketty, the neo-liberal movement to deregulate the financial markets, privatize public/government services and lower taxes on the wealthy directly led to this new inequality regime. Neo-proprietarian describes the resurgence of the importance of private property (did it ever leave?) and the commodification of knowledge and information. Hypercapitalism refers to the new billionaire class and the reverence we have for them as wealth creators.

In this inequality regime proprietary property becomes private property. Piketty claims that this commodification of knowledge is illegitimate because much of it was created on the foundation of government funded research and collective knowledge. Tied into this is the current myth of meritocracy where these billionaires are rich precisely because of legal and tax laws that sanction this commodification. The wealthy property owners essentially control the government through funding campaigns and owning the media makes any sort of democracy impossible. Another part of the current inequality regime is the obfuscation of financial data. Obscured financial data is always skewed to favor the rich.

I don’t see Piketty bringing up anything new here. Piketty sees the property regime as the main cause of inequality in our current state. I assume how this occurs will be the focus of the next part of the book. Ironically, I think Piketty has already disproven this argument precisely by the information he has laid out. The property regime will never be changed because they have all the power to control the political system. I think Piketty, up to this point, has done a good job at describing the history of inequality up to the present. So what? Piketty has hinted at his answer; inequality will be eliminated through more access to education and the political process. Piketty hasn’t shown how the history of inequality regimes have ‘evolved’. He takes inequality and capitalism as a given.

The force of historical change has been class struggle. Inequality is part of these struggles, but not the last word. Relationships between all people are determined by the dominant ideology. In a capitalist society the capitalist owns the modes of production and the workers forced to work. Capitalism IS the cause of inequality. More education, better policies etc. will not be an ultimate solution. Inequality will only be destroyed by destroying the system that it is built on. This point eludes Piketty. This may be reductionist, but up to this point Piketty’s book has just been another report on how shitty things are in our world. We hear about this nightmare everyday. At the outset Piketty dismisses Marxism and maintains the old tropes of the failure of communism. His solution was determined before his research project, even though he claimed the opposite. Capitalism is pure evil genius. We can have so much detailed information about how miserable most of earth’s population is and even know why, but we literally cannot see the cause. So we’ll see where Piketty goes after his fairly exhaustive history of inequality. I think we all have a pretty good idea where. Thoughts