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Piketty is obsessed by inequality

In “Capital and Ideology” (2020), Piketty continues to see inequality as the evil to be fought. While sometimes it’s about extreme or increasing inequality, what degree of inequality is acceptable isn’t clear. The picture emerges that the only acceptable world for Piketty is an equal world, in which everyone participates and lives roughly in the same material circumstances.

He says he has paid more attention to words and less to numbers, but quantification still dominates this work. Doing so makes income and wealth, measured in money, the center of his arguments. A society without money would be completely disregarded this way, whereas those people might be just as happy as the wealthy. It could be a primitive tribe that is exposed to the dangers of wild nature.

Then, even a minimal income in one region can result in the same conditions in another region where the costs of living are higher and thus the minimal income. In a highly developed society in the north, more income is needed for a minimum existence. I don’t know whether the statistics or the way in which he uses them are in order in this respect. One could question if the (very) rich really live a much happier life than the less well-off or even those with only an acceptable minimal income.

In short, economic inequality doesn’t seem appropriate to express the optimal, average or minimally acceptable human well-being. Moreover, the idea that the well-being of others can and should be determined is somewhat authoritarian. It presupposes a superior position. This applies to any perception and debate about society, and is inevitable and necessary, but one must remain critical of it.

While his earlier book is only about capital — but in fact about wealth — now ideology has been added to it. That would be positive if he paints a less confusing picture of ideology. I cite page 7 of the Introduction here to make this clear.:

Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political. This is no doubt the most striking conclusion to emerge from the historical approach I take in this book. In other words, the market and competition, profits and wages, capital and debt, skilled and unskilled workers, natives and aliens, tax havens and competitiveness—none of these things exist as such. All are social and historical constructs, which depend entirely on the legal, fiscal, educational, and political systems that people choose to adopt and the conceptual definitions they choose to work with. These choices are shaped by each society’s conception of social justice and economic fairness and by the relative political and ideological power of contending groups and discourses. Importantly, this relative power is not exclusively material; it is also intellectual and ideological. In other words, ideas and ideologies count in history. They enable us to imagine new worlds and different types of society. Many paths are possible.

Because he doesn’t begin to delineate what “ideology” is, the above is very problematic. It seems to me that capital … political systems etc. do exist as such. They are social practices that are very perceptible. The same applies to ideology itself. The fact that it is all language (concepts, ideas, words) does not change that. These are concrete arrangements, usually also recorded in writing or another substance. They evoke a perceptible behavior in human interaction. The best example is a simple market, where a pumpkin is exchanged for a Euro: a very physical, observable action that can only be understood if one understands and shares the agreements that are implicitly or explicitly underlying them. So the title “Capital and Ideology” should perhaps be “Capital is Ideology”, which, by the way, will make us none the wiser. Even the most exalted and shaky religion exists as such: there are social practices — rituals for example — that have a perceptible effect. The entire human existence is “ideological” in the sense that it takes place in the linguistic, symbolic domain. The effects and practices are physical, but also the symbolic itself is material: spoken, written or otherwise produced expressions that are then transferred through one medium to the other and are understood, observed (Niklas Luhmann).

Distinguishing well ideological practices from other linguistic and symbolic activities, such as market-exchange, is the prerequisite for a coherent argument. It seems that the moral value that inequality is bad is Piketty’s ideological premise. Now every perception, including that in physics, has an ideological component. For science, it’s necessary to minimize this as much as possible and to be fully aware of it and make it explicit.

Piketty clearly shows his bias when he is after All are social and historical constructs,  … systems that people choose to adopt and the conceptual definitions they choose to work with. believes that  These choices are shaped by each society’s conception of social justice and economic fairness and by the relative political and ideological power of contending groups and discourses. The people do not choose, but classes, organized or cohesive groups use historically available ideological material to continue their rule or to challenge that of the other group. Class struggle is the engine of history and society is not a conscious entity that has an opinion. “Economic and social justice” are preconceived and non-neutral moral values: society could also “opt” for human dignity or slavery.

This approach runs counter to the common conservative argument that inequality has a basis in “nature.” It is hardly surprising that the elites of many societies, in all periods and climes, have sought to “naturalize” inequality. They argue that existing social disparities benefit not only the poor but also society as a whole and that any attempt to alter the existing order of things will cause great pain. History proves the opposite: inequality varies widely in time and space, in structure as well as magnitude. Changes have occurred rapidly in ways that contemporaries could not have imagined only a short while before they came about. Misfortune did sometimes follow. Broadly speaking, however, political processes, including revolutionary transformations, that led to a reduction of inequality proved to be immensely successful. From them came our most precious institutions — those that have made human progress a reality, including universal suffrage, free and compulsory public schools, universal health insurance, and progressive taxation. In all likelihood the future will be no different. The inequalities and institutions that exist today are not the only ones possible, whatever conservatives may say to the contrary. Change is permanent and inevitable.

There is a difference between inequality having a basis in nature (“nature”?) (yes) and whether that justifies every difference in prosperity (no). Indeed, inequality (wealth, income) varies throughout history and can change, but there certainly is a natural basis for inequality. Even Marx wrote “to each according to his needs”. There could be justifiable differences of income. No argument is given as to why “from the study of history” is to be learned that it goes against the usual conservative argument. Based on the picture outlined here, I won’t search for arguments in the book itself.

It seems very much that for him human progress can only be expressed as a process of increasing equality, preferably irreversible. In doing so, he ignores the role of capitalism as an engine for increased control of human and non-human nature, which has increased the prosperity of large groups. A role that Marx, for example, acknowledges!

Nevertheless, the approach taken in this book—based on ideologies, institutions, and the possibility of alternative pathways—also differs from approaches sometimes characterized as “Marxist,” according to which the state of the economic forces and relations of production determines a society’s ideological “superstructure” in an almost mechanical fashion. In contrast, I insist that the realm of ideas, the political-ideological sphere, is truly autonomous.

This shows Piketty has understood little of Marx and certainly of the interpretation that his ideas have undergone over the course of 150 years. The mechanical evolution of the superstructure from the economic underpinnings has long been a dominant but erroneous direction in Marxism. The two spheres develop independently, but are in an asymmetric relationship. Brecht: The fodder comes first, the morals afterwards; without the production of material necessities, there can be no ideology at all. However, that doesn’t mean this condition ‘prescribes’ the ideology. The dominant ideology does everything it can to suggest disparities in income are natural and inevitable. Thus, it’s  an indispensable part of keeping people happy as wage-slaves, but the fact remains that the relationship of production is the requirement for the establishment of that ideology.

Piketty misses the point that (for Marx) foremost, capital is power, so a large amount of capital stands for great might. Power is, by its nature unevenly distributed. This is a necessary condition for any kind of large scale division of labor, and in a worldwide capitalist division of labor power has to be concentrated in some way. In present-day capitalism power is organized around the goal of ever enlarging itself, ever having to grow and concentrate. That is the problem of Capital that should be addressed. The main part of the gigantic income of the rich is profit, supposed to be reinvested to realize the growth of capital and not personal income for consumption. In any case, Piketty’s constant moral excitement about inequality is not a good starting point for a serious analysis of the world order.

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