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.”

Capital and Ideology—Chapts 1 & 2

Just helping out a little here to keep things going….

These chapters rely on the “evidence” from various sources in order to get a kind of snapshot of the change from ternary societies to the more modern form of a centralized state.  I’m not going to go through the evidence, but I think the broad point here is to enable readers to think of changes in political, economic, and social structures as historically contingent, and those changes happen very slowly without overt direction from “one group” (the first/second estate) over another (the third).  There may be “inequality” here, but it is not of the same “form” that happens in modernity; it lays the foundation for some structural/ideological changes on which capitalism is based.  One of those things is “ownership of land” or what we would call, in some sense privately owned property.  The other is the beginning of the change in the relationship between that “owner” and the worker; the latter was not free but also no longer a “serf” (54).  And their conditions and state of being, it seemed, changed very little.  But Piketty doesn’t really discuss that. 

What Piketty wants to be concerned with is how the pronounced inequality of this society justifies itself.  He says that “all societies have two essential needs—meaning and security” (59).  But I find that this is not something he really has a lot to say about.  He claims that political leadership always need a “credible theory of the public good or general interest” (60), but he really doesn’t establish how that happens in the ternary society—what is the pubic good or the general interest of whom?  Why is property, or the patterns of ownership necessary to that good or general interest?  These two chapters seem to be largely descriptive of how the upper levels (the clergy and nobles) consolidated their economic/political interests in law, but not really how that was justified, even if we are using Piketty’s definition of ideology. 

So, some discussion points:

  1. Is there a justification of inequality in these societies, or is that just being elided?
  2. Does the sheer quantitative material obscure any real interpretation of the public good?  In other words, is he trying to prove something from data that cannot be proved by data, and thus prevents us from understanding what they thought was the general good? 
  3. Do the chapter serve to highlight a universal justification toward “inequality” in that it has always been historically true, so we should not try to get rid of it, but simply try to ameliorate its more pernicious effects?

I pose these, but feel free to ignore them if there’s others you’d like us to ponder instead. 

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.