Piketty’s Capital And Ideology: some notes

See voir.piketty.pse.ens.fr/ideologie/pdf/G0.6.pdf


Let me begin with some intellectual autobiography. I myself was one of those who more or less thought that inequality was a natural phenomenon, not because it benefited me (I have a PhD in philosophy (and no inheritance), with all the earning power that implies), but because it seemed always there. In particular, the message I thought I took from like Piketty’s previous book (I didn’t finish it, I confess), but also Robert Gordon’s Rise and Fall Of American Growth is that the equality of the post- and maybe a bit pre- war period (which I’ll henceforth call, to save typing, the circum-war period) was the result of a series of unpredictable exogenous shocks to the economic system the natural state of which was to be inequal. In a very naive picture: bombs came and blew up all the rich people’s stuff, things were fair for a bit, but the dastardly capitalists somehow managed to regain their wealth and regain the unfair equilabrium.

Source: http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/ideologie/pdf/G10.8.pdf


The rise of inequality has been capped off, it seems, by a turn towards nationalism\nativism\xenophobia\anti-immigration-sentiment\racism all across the world. I want to talk a bit about what Piketty has to say about this because, as always, he brings to bear some interesting facts, but also because his explanation seems a bit unsatisfying, and perhaps points to inadequacies in his theory of ideology, which I will focus on in the next section.


So what is an ideology? I found what Piketty had to say somewhat lacking. Here’s a quotation from the start of the book, possibly mistranslated (I don’t really know exactly how to translate ‘frontière’ in this context in a way that makes sense):

Participatory Socialism

Let me end by considering Piketty’s positive suggestion for a ‘participatory socialism in the 21st century’. He has two main ideas, two ways of rethinking the central concept of property or capital for the 21st century: social property, and temporary property.

The cover of an issue of Time in 1969. Cover credit: Milton Glaser, http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19691219,00.html

Conclusion, ideology redux

To end, let’s go back forty years. It’s the start of the 1980s and inflation has been kicking everyone’s ass: it has been in the double digits for the last couple of years; the government is telling you to economize by eating entrails. The rockstar economist of the time, the one whose face you recognize, Milton Friedman, tells you that the pain can end if only the government keeps its nose out of the economy. And there’s reason to trust him: he seemed to have predicted the ‘stagflation’ you’re suffering from ten years before it happened.You trust him; entrat Reagan.



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