Saturday, August 2, 2014

Reading Capital... in the 21st Century (part 4 of x)

Important point from Piketty:
"The concentration of wealth is actually nearly as great within each age cohort as it is for the population as a whole. In other words, and contrary to a widespread belief, intergenerational warfare has not replaced class warfare." (245-6)

So if a commentator with a reputation for being somewhere on the left nonetheless throws around terms like "Baby Boomer" and "Millennial," that commentator has something to hide. Most likely: A trust fund.

If for nothing else, we should be glad that Piketty has provided data and conceptual tools for thinking clearly about the difference between inequality of income and inequality of ownership, as well as the difference between income from compensation and income from capital ownership. An example of such service:

"The most striking fact is no doubt that in all these societies [i.e., the various European & North American countries for which he has gathered data], half of the population own virtually nothing: the poorest 50 percent invariably own less than 10 percent of national wealth, and generally less than 5 percent." (257)

Even in comparatively egalitarian Scandinavia.

So much for that outdated, 19th century concept of the proletariat.

A key part of the significance of Piketty's economic historiography becomes clear in the subsection entitled 'From a "Society of Rentiers" to a "Society of Managers"' What he demonstrates with the data is that, even for the top 1 percent of the income distribution, managerial compensation remains a significant portion of income as compared to profits on capital. It is only the top tenth of a percent that consists primarily of the classic rentier. This is a major change: "In 1932, this social group was 5 times larger; in the Belle Epoque it was 10 times larger."

How did this come about? The tremendous destruction of capital values in the period of 1914-1950, through war (2 world wars), revolution (especially the Russian), economic depression, decolonization, and a series of social-democratic reforms that saved capital from itself while cutting sharply into its profitability. The thirty years afterward--what some left economic theorists in the U.S. have called "the postwar boom," and is popularly known in France as the Trente Gloriouses--were an historically anomalous period of reconstruction.

Reading Piketty and looking at his charts from a communist perspective, one cannot help but think that for about a generation, the capitalist class was on its knees, no longer able to rule in the old way. But instead of a proletarian revolution (on a global scale), what we got were a series of managerial (counter-)revolutions, the rise of bureaucratic regencies that would maintain the fundamental conditions in place for an eventual capitalist resurgence--the resurgence through which we are now living.

To think about class it is not sufficient just to speak of the 1%, but also of the 0.1%--the surviving kernel of classic rentierism--the 9% (well-compensated managers and specialists in the rest of the top 10%, who might have some hope of rising into the 1%), and the 40% (those wedged between the 10% and the classic proletariat, the labor aristocracy and small-time middle class of whom it cannot be said anymore, or yet, that they have nothing to lose but their chains).

What the last 60+ years show is that, politically, this is a far more tenable distribution than the steep Pareto curves of the Belle Epoque. But the logic of accumulation means that it will soon be a thing of the past, as more members of the 1% join the 0.1% in rentierism, while the 40% loses grip on its tenuous remaining assets. (Full disclosure: By Piketty's statistics, I am part of the 9% in the U.s.)

When Piketty isn't bastardizing Marx, there are moments when he sounds like he's plagiarizing him:

"We are free to imagine an ideal society in which all other tasks are almost totally automated and each individual has as much freedom as possible to pursue the goods of education, culture, and health for the benefit of herself and others. Everyone would be by turns teacher or student, writer or reader, actor or spectator, doctor or patient."

Now where have I read that before...?

For the "fascism is good for business" file:

"Interestingly, the top centile's share of German national income increased rapidly between 1933 and 1938, totall out of phase with other countries: this reflects the revival of industrial profits (boosted by demand for armaments), as well as a general reestablishment of income hierarchies in the Nazi era." (325)

Interesting, indeed.

Also for that file: "Colombia... is one of the most inegalitarian societies in the [world]: the top centile's share stood at about 20 percent of national income throughout the period 1990-2010...." (327)

Given what I've already said about Piketty's misreadings of U.S. history and politics, it's little wonder that he is on weak ground when he tries to divine in his statistics the reasons for the differences between U.S. and European political discourse. It is to the relative weakness of the U.S.'s postwar boom as compared to Europe's--due to the obvious fact that the world wars were not fought on its territory, and thus the destruction of capital values in the first half of the 20th century not as great--that he attributes the weakness of statist forms of anti-capitalism in the U.S.:

"In a sense, a (white) patrimonial middle class already existed in the nineteenth century. It suffered a setback during the Gilded Age, regained its health in the middle of the twentieth century, and then suffered another setback after 1980.... In the United States, the twentieth century is not synonymous with a great leap forward in social justice.... Hence the lost US paradise is associated with the country's beginnings: there is nostalgia for the era of the Boston Tea Party...." (350)

There is at least one error of analysis in each of the sentences above, and each of them have to do with race and mass immigration. Identifying them is left as an exercise for the reader.

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