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The Discrete Ideology of Thomas Piketty: Successes and Failures of ‘Capital and Ideology’

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Whereas Piketty’s earlier book was often accused of ignoring the role that political doctrines played in naturalizing inequality, he has here devoted an entire text to that very subject.”

Thomas Piketty is a French economist, who currently teaches at the Paris School of Economics. He is also the author of a book published in 2011 entitled Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Expressed schematically, its thesis is that—should we consult a vast array of data sets—we will find that the rate of return on capital invariably exceeds the rate of economic growth. From this, Piketty—whose discontent with the post-Reagan economic status quo is palpable—draws broadly redistributive conclusions.

Indeed, in the introduction to Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty evinces frustration at the historical insensitivity and fetishization of mathematical models favored by the (Anglo-American) neoclassical economic consensus.

These points may seem rudimentary. However, they are, in fact, essential for understanding Piketty’s latest magnum opus, Capital and Ideology (which Matt McManus, something of a wunderkind himself, has recently summarized and responded to for Areo). First, by his own admission, Piketty’s Frenchness and his status as an economist do not always exist at ease. Indeed, in the introduction to Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty evinces frustration at the historical insensitivity and fetishization of mathematical models favored by the (Anglo-American) neoclassical economic consensus. He also positions himself as a successor to the grand lineage of social scientists who taught at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris—among them Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Pierre Bourdieu. And, second, Capital and Ideology must be understood as a supplement (and corrective to) Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Whereas Piketty’s earlier book was often accused of ignoring the role that political doctrines played in naturalizing inequality, he has here devoted an entire text to that very subject. And whereas it was additionally accused of Eurocentrism on account of its disproportionate dependence on data from the United Kingdom, the United States and France, Piketty in Capital and Ideology seeks to contextualize inequality in a number of nations in the developing world, including China, India and Brazil.

Any evaluation of Capital and Ideology’s weaknesses should be couched in a significant disclaimer: that it is a remarkable book and one that easily justifies the Herculean task of wading through its thousand-plus pages. Particularly impressive is the scope of Piketty’s historical analysis. Whereas many economists are content to confine their observations to capitalism, Capital and Ideology offers an ambitious summary of the ideological scaffolding employed by various different societies. This is reflected in the book’s fourfold structure. Its first part deals with “ternary” societies (that is, societies defined by a tripartite class structure of rulers, priests, and workers). Its second addresses slave-owning and colonial societies, and its third concerns itself with the alternatively social-democratic, communist and hypercapitalist states of the twentieth century. Its fourth serves as a survey of present global economic and political conditions, which Piketty characterizes as defined by the conflict between an intellectually chauvinistic “Brahmin left”—attested by the way that social-democratic or centre-left parties such as the British Labour Party or French Parti socialiste have increasingly become the refuge of the highly educated—against an economically chauvinistic “merchant right.” This political dispensation, which pits privilege against privilege, has contributed to the naturalization of a neoliberal consensus in which significant equalizing measures are dismissed out-of-hand as being unaffordable, undesirable, or both. And this is a trend that has enabled the growth of more radical political factions on the Right and Left alike. With this in mind, Piketty—invoking the legacy of the welfare statism that dominated the West in the mid-twentieth century—proposes a number of reforms, which he believes would help make our current society both more equitable and more stable. These include allowing workers to participate in corporate structures through a system of co-management, imposing a substantial tax on personal wealth, cracking down on tax havens, investing more in less privileged students, and so forth.

Piketty’s efforts to address the blind spots of Capital in the Twenty-First Century both with respect to its lack of political focus and its first-world fixation are, often enough, successful. But they also predictably lead him away from the shallower philosophical waters of that tome, and, in turn, into murkier subject matter of which he has less mastery. Piketty is surely aware at this point that the same qualities that made him uncomfortable with the Anglo-American economic establishment during his stint teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the mid-1990’s are—like Eminem’s whiteness boomeranging in his favor—the same ones that have now helped him garner a large audience. Indeed, mathematical models that abstract selectively from reality so as to rationalize the dominant order may suffice in times of prosperity.

However, in times of duress—such as after the economic downturn of 2007-08 (and, perhaps more importantly for Piketty, the Eurocrisis of 2010)—more pressing questions about the way our economy is structured are inevitably thrust to the fore. That Piketty was well-poised to respond to these also relates to his status as a member of the French literati. In France, the notion of a “rockstar economist” is largely an oxymoron, with stardom normally being bestowed upon academics who hail from the humanities. The reasons for this are complex and likely have to do with the ancillary role played by France in both the post-war economic construction of Europe (compared to the United States) and the subsequent formation of the European Community/Union (compared to Germany). But whatever the cause, the proclivity of French public intellectuals for more holistic analyses—while sometimes leading to inexactitude in matters economic—also makes them well-suited to reckon with normative questions that elude tidy mathematical reduction. This was certainly the case for Piketty’s idols: social scientists such as Lefebvre and Bourdieu, who strode like colossi across the (very different) politically-fissured landscape of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

That Piketty should seek to avoid succumbing to the ideological excesses of economics by appealing to the methodology of the social sciences is not, in and of itself, a problem. But if one is going to play the social scientist, he also must contend with the problems of social science. A bit of historical context will help here. Social science emerged from the fertile German intellectual milieu of the nineteenth century, a milieu dominated by the dual philosophic spectres of Immanuel Kant and G.F.W. Hegel. In the philosophy of the former, questions of both morality and logic are—in what amounted to a revolutionary gesture—portrayed as having a psychological origin (that is, as deriving from the possible conditions of experience). Kant, himself, steadfastly avoided embracing the relativist implications of this thesis, instead attempting to show how reason was capable of furnishing us with solutions to these conundrums. It, thus, fell to G.F.W. Hegel to subordinate questions of morality and logic to a relativistic matrix: one in which the “pure” objectivity that motivates and structures much of Kant’s account is declared null and void. Social science is, broadly, more influenced by the Kantian tradition than the Hegelian one. But it also takes its impetus, as Gillian Rose has observed, from a particular interpretation of Kant’s work—namely, that of the neo-Kantian Hermann Lotze. Where Lotze diverges from Kant is in his claim that the question of “validity” (logic) can be assessed independently of the psychological constitution of individuals. This position, in contradistinction to that of Kant, sets up a “hard” binary: between a “validity” (logic or science) that can objectively ascertain what is, and “values” (morality, but also questions of meaning more generally) that aspires to but cannot ultimately tell us the reason behind what is. This binary was, in turn, recapitulated by classical sociological theory, which asserts that culture is the basis of the validity of facts or values. However, this theme is taken up differently by Durkheim and Weber; for Durkheim, the structure of society grounds values, whereas for Weber, values ground the structure of society.

The distinction between validity and values plays an important role in Capital and Ideology. Generally, Piketty’s method seems to be this: that should we use data to take stock of the “facts” of different economic structures (validity); we’ll realize that inequality is not natural; and that it is only ideology (values) that generates this impression. Reassuringly, what this proves is that we can change how our economy functions; that its structuration is ultimately contingent. Yet elided here by Piketty is a significant ambiguity in the notion of contingency. It is one thing  to consult the historical record and conclude that—because the level of wealth inequality is variable throughout past societies—it can be greatly reduced. Were I to try and act on this belief, however, I would surely encounter significant backlash: professional marginalization, legal sanction, and so on. This is because the fact that wealth inequality is contingent in broad historical terms does not change the pressures that it exerts in the present: pressures which are very real in the sense that they are supported by both direct, legal force (such as the armed forces and police) and indirect, social force (such as the norms one must submit to in order to participate in educational or professional structures). The point is stressed in the philosophy of Hegel, based as it is on the co-determination of mind and world: that what we define as unalterable is the consequence of a social rationality that manifests across the spectrum of reality (a view that sidesteps the privileging of either validity or values as socially constitutive). This agrees with Piketty’s argument, that inegalitarian formations can be overturned. But what it does not agree with—particularly in its more radical, Marxist incarnation—is the de facto reformist conclusion he derives from this: that because anything is possible, all we need to do is find the right set of policies so as to insure a harmonious, equitable society. 

To make this critique, it has been necessary to somewhat oversimplify Piketty’s actual position. In fact, what is arguably most interesting about Capital and Ideology is the way that its author’s reformist bona fides clash with his actual analysis. This tension emerges relatively early in the text, when Piketty discusses the efforts of the National Assembly after the French Revolution to differentiate as to whether the privileges—such as taxational exemptions and control of property—afforded to the upper class were  “contractual” or “noncontractual,” in the efforts of abolishing the latter. The details of this are highly complicated, and they involve policy changes implemented over several phases. Piketty’s point, however, is clear: that it is extremely difficult to distinguish between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” conceptions of property in a society defined by chronic inequality. What is never addressed, however, is how this problematizes his own reformist approach, which attempts something similar. Of course, one might object that because our current society is less unequal than that of the French ancien régime, it is  more feasible to make such a distinction—between illegitimate and legitimate wealth and/or property—today. But which society is he talking about? Sweden? India? The United States? And given that Piketty’s entire book is predicated on the notion that the current concentration of wealth is both overweening and indefensible, could this even be said?

This contradiction—between Piketty’s reformist stance and the empirical contents of his study—creates problems later in the book, when he discusses ideology and wealth inequality in the former communist bloc. One might expect that, given his awareness of the difficulties of maintaining a propertarian dispensation while reforming it, Piketty would be sympathetic to the exigencies which drove the formation of the Soviet Union. Instead, Piketty adopts a highly condemnatory tone, declaring it repeatedly to be a bloody, failed experiment. Few would deny that there is truth in this: Certainly, the Soviet Union committed atrocities of immense scale. But what is underrepresented here is an account of what motivated those atrocities, other than pure malice. Indeed, for Piketty the fact that other societies such as Sweden were similarly unequal to those of Eastern Europe prior to their social democratic turn suggests that different “trajectories” were available to the latter. This is to say that totalitarianism (to borrow from Piketty’s lexicon) was not inevitable. At the same time, in the twelfth chapter of the book he notes that the “painful experience” of Soviet military dominion was the only context in which “Eastern Europe was not owned by Western investors.” This point is not dwelt upon; Piketty instead passes on quickly into an analysis of the normalization of neoliberal governance within the European Union. But it is hardly a trivial one, considering that many of the draconian actions undertaken by the Soviet Union were carried out with the express goal of mitigating Western—and, in particular, German—domination of the region (including, most obviously, during World War II).

Piketty’s equation of historical contingency with reformism also engenders difficulties when he takes on the subject of the developing world. Capital and Ideology’s eighth chapter is devoted solely to India, and includes a superlative examination of how post-independence India retained the caste system and other forms of identitarian stratification, while simultaneously attempting to neutralize them through an ambitious program of “affirmative action.” Piketty’s verdict on these efforts is decidedly equivocal. On one hand, he notes the guaranteeing of placements in schools did have the effect of significantly alleviating inequality between social groups. But, on the other, they also served to entrench preexisting social fissures and spur resentment, contributing to the rise of groups such as Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (which, as Piketty points out, is disproportionately supported by Indians who hail from more senior castes). Ultimately, Piketty argues, India likely would have been better served by setting up a “high-quality universal system of public education and health”—something that can be seen in the way that nations which did so, such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, have outperformed it “in the areas of economic development and basic social welfare.” Passages such as these suggest that Piketty has an understanding of the obstacles that hobble development in countries such as these, as well as the extent of the overhaul that is required to address them. But he never addresses the dissonance between his reformist bent and the fact that the three nations he references here—China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh—all had to engage in violent armed struggles in order to generate the conditions whereby these successes were possible. And, tellingly, when he puts forth his own propositions for reform at the end of the book, it is the Indian model he appeals to: the way that its use of “legal tools to overcome [a] heavy inegaliarian legacy” is “instructive” for “Western democracies.”

The self-undermining reformism of Capital and Ideology raises another question: Just who is this book for?

That the triptych of nations Piketty cites as having outperformed India in Capital and Ideology had to resort to extreme measures in order to achieve this should clue us into something: that political structures may not be as contingent (and, therefore, as amenable to reform) as Piketty seems to think. Of course, it is easy to cite isolated counterexamples to overarching historical trends. Piketty, for instance, draws on the way that the Meiji restoration in Japan paved the way for that nation’s rapid development as proof that even the threat posed by colonialism could be seamlessly navigated with the correct policies (though this is questionable, given that the Boshin War, which Piketty glosses over, was hardly bloodless). This is one way of looking at things. Another would be to note, as John Ralston Saul does in Voltaire’s Bastards, that the ensemble of global powers was comprised of the same countries at the beginning of the twentieth century (the United States, Japan, Russia, and so on) as its end. Excepting one: China, which not only fought a protracted war to install a communist regime but was also the world’s most powerful nation for seventeen of the past twenty centuries.

The self-undermining reformism of Capital and Ideology raises another question: Just who is this book for? The party to which Piketty belongs, the French Parti socialiste, has vaporized in the past few years, having met its Waterloo in the student-led opposition to its liberalization of France’s labor laws (a move which openly demonstrated how far it had progressed towards embracing the elitist, “Brahmin left”-style of governance Piketty decries in his book). In its stead has emerged a consolidated center, led by Emmanuel Macron, paired with increasingly insurgent Left and Right extremes led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine le Pen respectively. Supporters of any of these factions (or their international equivalents) could benefit from exposing themselves to Capital and Ideology, which expertly marshals data in support of its historical research. However, it is unlikely that Piketty’s urging of the improbable—the imposition of major structural changes as reforms—will resonate with either those cleaving to the neoliberal status quo or those who wish to overturn it. With Capital and Ideology, Piketty gives us a brilliant account of the relationship between, per its title, capital and ideology. But he also gives his own ideology—one that, given the scale of global challenges faced today, already seems outdated.

Conrad Bongard Hamilton is a doctoral student at Paris 8 University pursuing research on the relationship between agency and the value-form in the work of Karl Marx. He is a co-author, with Matt McManus, of the forthcoming text Myth & Mayhem: A Left-Wing Critique of Jordan Peterson.

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D Iversen
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D Iversen

“Piketty’s point, however, is clear: that it is extremely difficult to distinguish between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” conceptions of property in a society defined by chronic inequality.”
I find it impossible to imagine that Piketty is unaware of the classical liberal/georgist argument here, it is quite straightforward – legitimate property arises from labour thus rent not wages should be taxed and doing so would fix systemic inequality. If he knows this theory, why doesn’t he write about it?