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

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. To superficial observation 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 equivocation 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.