Let politics attempt to abstract the concepts from the practices, and build for them a home independently of these, and far removed from any dialogue with their object, and then we will have—the theatre of inequality.
Certain readers might recognize these words as a paraphrase/plagiarization of Edward P. Thompson’s classic defense of historical materialism (and for that matter, historical epistemology generally) in his 1978 evisceration of Louis Althusser’s structural Marxism. The global financial crises of 2008, the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, and now the intellectual and cultural phenomenon centered on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century have made clear that inequality has become an explosive political and cultural buzzword as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century. The most striking aspect of this discussion, whether at the juvenile level of most of Occupy or at the highly sophisticated level of Piketty and his growing legion of adherents, is, evoking Althusser, an essential antihistoricisim. Thompson closes his polemic against Althusser by asking his readers to choose between the “idealist irrationalism” of Althusser and “the operative and active reason” of political experience and history. In a way, this is also the choice that is engendered by the growing discourse of economic inequality. The (seeming) politics of inequality, like Althusserian structuralism, has enormous appeal. It allows those who “have not found a medium of practical engagement” to escape into the “secluded observatory” of cathartic witness-bearing or the intellectual exposure of structural inequality. It removes the past of inequality as well as the present, and future, from the ingredients of history — it becomes something to be chastised or exposed, not fought. By so eliding history, the terms of the discussion imagine solutions without politics. In this way it has more than a few qualities of the kabuki.
It’s become increasingly clear in our contemporary political life that how one understands the middle decades of the twentieth century historically says much about one’s contemporary political orientation. After centuries of growing inequality that marked the various spatial and political transitions to capitalist accumulation and social relations across the western world, these trends began to reverse themselves across industrialized North America, the Antipodes, and Western Europe. Was this reversal divided, in disparate ways, across racial and ethnic lines? Absolutely. Did it include marked aspects of gender discrimination? Of course; and as I will note later, these histories are especially responsible for its defeat. In places like the United States, Great Britain, and France, was it propped up by a growing military-industrial complex that visited untold horrors on peoples in places like Vietnam, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Algeria, Iran, and on and on? Undeniably. Were these social states rife with contradiction, always far too piecemeal, and built on utterly tenuous and often self-defeating political and social foundations? Yes, and then some.
Nonetheless, the wealthy nations of the world spent a good portion of the decades around World War II absorbed in an effort to move certain aspects of life outside of the cash nexus and revalue some forms of human labor. Across these nations, for moments that were varying but relatively brief it became policy to try to place housing, health care, tertiary education, old age security, a basic standard of living (either through welfare, collective bargaining agreements, or minimum wages), and food outside of the risk-driven world of capital and the pecuniary values of market culture and turn them into basic rights. These gains often rested on incredibly shaky political, social, and cultural foundations. That is, in many places and in regard to many policies they were frequently susceptible to debilitating countermovements and in some cases, seemed designed with such faults as to encourage and foment opposition.
As Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore have argued in the context of the United States, this was a period of tremendous exceptionality, not easily if at all reproducible in today’s environment. Indeed, to a certain degree, their argument applies across the western industrialized world. I would, though, quibble about the emphasis on replicability. Certainly, the Popular Front and New Deal coalitions of the 1930s and 1940s will not be back anytime soon; and they absolutely cannot be willed into existence by proclamations that this election or financial crisis represents, finally, an end to neoliberal revanchism. That said, understanding the historical logics and contingencies on which these successes were built is a task central to rebuilding a redistributive politics, one that can plausibly pull us out of the current morass. Our continual failure to move beyond the political cul-de-sac of the last forty years suggests that understanding such an anomalous juncture is integral to understanding how we can move beyond the contemporary impasse. The growth of an incomplete but nevertheless ascendant social state in the middle decades of the century, and its subsequent dramatic dismantlement to the point of oblivion over the course of the last forty-years featured certain underlying logics of strategy and theme, all of which are markedly absent from our contemporary world — and just as importantly, alien to the political strategies of what passes for progressive politics and thought these days.
At the strategic level, a relatively cohesive class and workplace politics took shape across the aforementioned nations. This politics, expressed in labor organizations like the CIO in the United States, leveraged point-of-production solidarity and moments of strategic possibility like World War II to frequently make effective demands on employers through various forms of contentious politics, ranging from the picket line to the sit-down strike to the contract negotiation. Just as importantly, to lesser and greater degrees depending on place and moment, these groups were able to make transformative political demands on the state by giving labor and socialist parties — as well as the (now long dead) left wing of the Democratic Party in the U.S. — a coherent and organized base from which to pursue redistributive policies and demand the inscription of labor rights.
Thematically, the goals this politics pursued can be understood along two different lines. First, it sought to revalue various kinds of work. Factory and assembly line production, extractive industries, municipal services, and various kinds of “unskilled” manual labor like construction, transportation, and longshore work became, in many locales, avenues to a relatively secure and prosperous life. Without the long vantage of history we forget just how radical this development was. In most of the aforementioned places prior to the middle of the twentieth century, such work was understood culturally and economically to be essentially without value. It was “unskilled” and dirty, fit for those whom bourgeois society would happily discard were a cheaper replacement to come along. Working conditions were atrocious, wages barely enough to get by, job security inexistent, and the notion of advancement a cruel joke. That in a few decades such work could provide a relatively secure life, develop mechanisms to challenge the worst workplace abuses, and gain a certain cultural respect and pride is one of the most dramatic shifts within the long history of economic inequality.
At the same time that class politics forced the revaluation of certain kinds of human labor, it also became the political base for a process of redrawing the moral boundaries of the marketplace. One way to understand the long global history of capitalist social relations is to think about what has, and has not, become saleable over time. At its heart, capitalism is a moral system as well as a system of production: it is a set of political and social relationships that divides the collective fruits of human endeavor, based on certain ideological justifications — “skill,” “initiative,” “intellect,” “usefulness” — while simultaneously relegating much of everyday life to commodity relationships. For most of the last three hundred years, in the wealthiest nations, more and more things have become commodifiable; that is to say that they have come under the moral purview of what can be exchanged in the marketplace. The great exception, of course, is the human body itself. As many of our most sophisticated scholars have pointed out, the commitment to the eradication of unfree labor in various forms was also an ideological precondition for the absolute saleability and commodifiability of doubly free labor itself. What becomes striking, then, about the mid-century interregnum is the policy thrust to move basic human housing, health care, old age security, education, bottom-level nutritional needs, everyday welfare, and even in some places leisure and mass culture outside of the market. This was a political process of disenclosure: of removing some basic human needs from the risks, vagaries, and price fluctuations associated with the profit motive and the market as moral arbiter.
To return to the original point, the backdrop to the growing inequality and dislocation of the last decades is the defeat of a mid-century class politics that provided a political and point-of-production base in which some kinds of work were revalued and the moral boundaries of what was to be produced and distributed through the capitalist market contracted. To be clear, I have no interest in placing this mid-century world on some nostalgic pedestal, to turn it into some Winthropian City on a Hill for us to gaze upon with longing. It was fraught with internal contradictions, it was decidedly more complete in some countries (Scandinavia) than others (the United States), and it frequently found itself in devil’s bargains with capitalism and capitalists while sometimes tacitly and sometimes institutionally, supporting a Cold War that in various locales can only be characterized as genocidal. Yet, it’s also worth pointing out that when it failed, it did so because it moved away from the themes I outlined above. It refused to see the interest of class solidarity with certain people (African Americans, Immigrants, Vietnamese Peasants, Cuban Revolutionaries, Communists of all stripes in various times and places, etc.) and accepted instead an ideological commitment to white supremacy, nationalism, and economic imperialism in its stead. It refused, out of a tendency toward masculine producerism, to engage in the revaluing of certain kinds of human labor, particularly that labor traditionally associated with women’s household production; jobs revolving around cooking, cleaning, and caring, that were to become the central sectoral location of the working class in the last decades of the century. The class politics of midcentury often quietly stood by as housing, welfare, health care, education and multiple other basic aspects of social equality became reenclosed and emerged as locales for tremendous profit and social dislocation. It is this history that we must bear in mind as cultural and political attention increasingly turns to inequality. It is a complicated history, hardly in lockstep across space and time. Nonetheless, it is a history, one marked by the interactions between people and institutions at the quotidian level and over the long durée. It is neither abstract law nor the result of simplistic, single-origin forms of causation such as capital-depletion shocks caused by global war. It is — to borrow from William Sewell’s excellent notion of the theoretical unconscious of history — eventful, contingent, and temporally heterogeneous.
If Occupy Wall Street accomplished anything, it brought economic inequality out of a dusty political attic and into mainstream political conversation. The language of the “1%” versus the “99%” has entered into cultural discourse over the last three years through protest, music, art, slogans, bumper stickers, and cable news. That inequality has been on the minds of more than just the small and disorganized Occupy Movement and its aficionados is well-illustrated by the last three World Economic Forum Global Risks reports. Income disparity, apparently not a risk at all before 2012 in the minds of that elite group of bourgeois ideologues, has skyrocketed to top their concerns in 2014. It is in this context that, in the spring of 2014, an unlikely academic text of nearly 600 pages of prose reached the New York Times and Amazon.com bestseller lists and lingered there for weeks. By now it is cliché to call Thomas Piketty and his Capital in the Twenty-First Century a phenomenon. Nevertheless, a whistle-stop tour of the United States, scores of front-page newspaper articles, dozens of television and radio appearances, and a star turn on the Colbert Report certainly make the book the most discussed piece of academic literature in decades. Dubbed by multiple publications the “rock star economist,” Piketty has not denied the role of “the brains behind Occupy Wall Street.”
Such a title is not in fact unfounded. Like the ideology undergirding Occupy Wall Street, Piketty’s book exhibits a marked lack of historical consciousness and complexity. Like Occupy Wall Street, it confuses capitalism with capitalist social relations. And thus both protest and text imagine solutions without politics, lack coherence regarding the necessity for a revaluation of labor and a shrinking of the moral confines of the market, and hope for a better world sans class politics as a mechanism.
By now, it’s not worth rehashing in detail the arguments that Piketty makes regarding the structural tendency of capital to increase inequality over time. It is a fairly simple argument, understood intuitively by many for centuries:
If, moreover, the rate of return on capital remains significantly above the growth rate for an extended period of time…then the risk of divergence in the distribution of wealth is very high. This fundamental inequality, which I will write as r>g…sums up the overall logic of my conclusions.
Put even more simply, if the fundamental law of capitalist production is the greater the rate of return on capital growth vis-à-vis the growth of the economy as a whole or the annual increase in income, then economic inequality and divergence will rise. This is the basic empirical argument of the book, and it is no doubt correct. A second key argument foregrounds the exceptionality of the mid-twentieth-century interregnum. That is, the moment when r’s starkest decline relative to g came, in the middle-decades of the twentieth century—the decades of the ascendant social state that I outlined above.
Nor is it worth rehashing the paean to his research, though I’ll simplify it for those readers who haven’t paid close attention: he went to archives! He collected prodigious amounts of data! He consulted non-traditional sources to be able to make comparisons across space and time! As this is a humanities journal, though, I should inform the reader, in case she or he hasn’t heard, that he’s an economist who’s read Austen, Balzac and watched what apparently is their American equivalent, James Cameron’s Titanic.
It is, however, worth bearing in mind that there are multiple audiences for this book. Within the discipline of economics, the book serves as a crucial corrective. Bearing in mind Philip Miroswki’s excellent study of the triumph of neoliberal thought, it is no accident that what we might understand as the left wing of neoclassicism, its standard-bearerers like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, have showered the book with praise. Piketty has offered an immense service their epistemological perspective. Demolishing the Kuznets curve once and for all, as Piketty does, is worth the price of admission alone. This is by no mean a bad thing, and one might even be able to argue that work in this mode will over time help open up space for the return of heterodox and political economic critiques of neoclassicism to the fold of mainstream economics.
Yet the influence of Capital in the Twenty-First Century on the discipline of economics has very little relationship to the broader phenomenon of its reception in the western world. At a moment of absolute neoliberal revanchism, why it has garnered such attention is the more important question. At the basic thematic level, the stock answer has been, echoing defenses of Occupy Wall Street, that a simple increase in discussion of inequality signals some sort of political paradigm shift. As this explanation goes, a greater empiricist understanding of the devastating divergence of wealth in the contemporary world will naturally birth commitment to a politics of redistribution. At its best, this is wishful thinking. The simple fact is, the majority of humanity understand the tremendous inequality that pervades the world. The problem is not consciousness of material reality; it is the lack of viable ways to shift this consciousness into concerted and self-interested political action. Exposures of inequality, be they shouts of “we are the 99%” or neoclassical treatises on the structural tendencies of capital to increase economic disparity, are supremely unthreatening when untethered to a political mechanism that can imaginably challenge the growing dominance of unfettered capital accumulation. Beyond unthreatening, they are often in fact, demobilizing, as they imagine solutions like a debt jubilee or a global wealth tax as magic bullets that will somehow appear if people shout loud enough or just understand how antidemocratic r>g is. It is especially important to push against this impulse in work like Piketty’s, precisely because it is perhaps the most sophisticated recent example of this tendency.
It has been suggested that Piketty acknowledges class politics with his sporadic references to various strikes and labor conflicts. He indeed opens the first substantive chapter of the book with a brief recounting of the 2012 Marikana mine massacre: “(h)ow should the income from production be divided between labor and Capital? — has always been at the heart of the distributional conflict.” So far, so good. Quickly, though, things begin to fall apart. At the beginning of his analysis, Piketty introduces his argument in a manner that subtly though ineluctably produces both its trendiness and marketability and in the end, its essential conservatism. He tells the reader that he is embarking upon a six-hundred-page discussion of the growing divergence between wealth and income (r>g), a divergence that is structurally built into capitalism. In actuality, Piketty does something else entirely. He spends the next 600 pages exhaustively detailing the (usually) growing divergence between spoils awarded to capital and labor in a variety of different contexts — that is to say, the product of capitalist social relations. Now, if this were simply a marketing ploy to distance himself and the book from a certain nineteenth-century German political economist, it would not necessarily be a problem. But, whether intentional or not, substituting wealth for capital and income for labor means analytically, the category of class falls out of the equation. Capital, labor, and what goes to each become stark and abstracted numbers, as opposed to social relations and products of history.
To understand this in more detail, it’s worth examining his explanation for the convergence of r and g in the middle of the twentieth-century, as well as his suggestions for mechanisms to overcome the more recent rapid divergence. These are not arbitrary choices for examination and critique. They represent in regard to the former the key moment of change over time — that is, the key subject of both history and contentious politics. In regards to the latter, we can then see how Piketty’s oversimplification of historical change leads to a future solution in the deus ex machina style of political mobilization. The treatment for the problem that Piketty has described is not incidental to his analysis, as some have suggested, but is, rather, derived from its facile historical understanding. That treatment’s unimaginability is thus related to the broader argument’s antihistoricism. Of course, Piketty is not alone in this regard. Ideas of social change embraced by groups like Occupy, the Seattle anti-globalization movement, Democratic Party apologists in the United States, Labor Party apologists in places like Great Britain and Australia, and countless other groups exhibit the same antihistoricism. In the end, the problem is neither specific to Piketty nor to any one movement but is in fact at the heart of contemporary political demobilization.
That r>g is a law of capitalist accumulation is at once undeniable, circular, and meaningless. It is undeniable in the sense that in the imagined world of an utterly free market with perfect information the returns on capital investment will always rise relative to the returns on labor. This is, in fact, the essential nature of the difference between wealth (returns on capital) and income (returns on labor). Thus, it is both undeniable and circular. Finally though, such a law is historically meaningless. It is not simply the truism that free markets with perfect information never have and never will exist outside of a Milton Friedman wet dream. Rather, the manner in which markets become “unfree” or regulated, especially how they become regulated in such a way as to reverse this trend is the historically and politically meaningful point.
As an example, take Piketty’s discussion of the decline in private capital relative to income in the United States, from roughly 500% in 1930 to a little more than 300% in 1970. This represents the most striking decline in economic inequality in American history. The reasons that are given for this decline include: declining value of U.S. fortunes as a result of the World Wars and Great Depression; Roosevelt era policies designed to “reduce the influence of private capital such as rent control”; increase of progressive taxation; and major public investments in infrastructure. Not bad, not nearly complete, but not horrible either. We move on to a discussion of dynamics in Canada, Japan, and elsewhere, as well as an interesting analysis of capital in human beings in the antebellum South (a discussion that imagines chattel slavery as the only form of bonded labor in the nineteenth century, an idea conjured by someone who likes to makes odes to history but not actually read it).
At this point, the reader might ask herself: we have now established another excellent (amongst many others) measurement of the mid-twentieth-century interregnum. But how did we get there then? How did we get here now? But like a Nazi refugee in wartime Casablanca, she will wait — and wait — and wait. If one wishes, as Piketty seems to, to overcome the gross inequality of the contemporary world and its likely future expansion, these are the questions that must be asked and answered. Let us return then, to the ever so brief answers that Piketty gives in regard to the United States.
The commonality in all these answers — declining fortunes, curbed influence of capital, progressive taxation, and infrastructural investment—is their essential removal from history and social relations. They are mentioned, and to be sure, inter alia, did lead to this decline in inequality. But the pertinent question and in many ways, the only question, is the question that only historical epistemology can provide answers for. The Glass-Steagall Act, the Securities and Exchange Commission, World War II price controls, rising marginal tax rates, a variety of federal and state public works programs, new federal and state regulation of multiple industries, the establishment of social security and (later) public housing, state minimum wage laws and (later) a federal one, the right to join a union and the subsequent massive unionization of American industrial workers, rural electrification, regulated and in some cases federally owned power, housing subsidies, growing investment in public primary, secondary, and tertiary education; the list goes on and on — these were the policies that contributed to the dramatic decline in inequality during this period. And why did this plethora of policies take root? Historians have debated these questions for decades, but the general logic of the most accepted arguments mirrors the brief schema I laid out earlier. During the Great Depression and World War II Americans increasingly came to recognize common goals. They did so as members of industrial and craft unions and through the Democratic Party. They established and cemented various cultural tendencies toward solidarity. Through such institutional tendencies they accepted and encouraged state regulation and redistribution. They turned the meaning of patriotism into sacrifice for the common good. They fought and succeeded in revaluing some labor. They favored narrowing the moral boundaries of the market through the establishment of Social Security, price controls during World War II, federally subsidized public housing and later welfare, Medicare and Medicaid. In short, they wielded a broadly construed class politics in their general interest and against those of capitalist accumulation.
This class politics grounded the abstract law of r>g in the context of the regulation of a host of prices (ranging from labor to milk) and subsidized and removed scores of human goods from the profit motive. And it was eventful: that is to say, things that happened as a result of political and social relations mattered in its development and defeat. It required big events, like the mobilization for World War II and the passage of the Wagner Act, as well as more quotidian shifts, such as a growing labor cultural aesthetic and the everyday sacrifices of Americans during World War II. These events happened contingently: war mobilization, the Wagner Act, a laborite cultural aesthetic, and everyday behavior for the common good all happened as the result of a variety of social and political relations that occurred over variegated stretches of time. Finally, midcentury class politics were temporally and causally heterogeneous. The order and the context in which these countless events happened, and their contingent relationship to each other mattered in the way in which this politics took shape. To understand the greatest moment when r began to shrink relative to g, to understand how inequality has been overcome in the past, we must understand it historically or not understand the nature of r>g at all.
The troublesome political implications stemming from Piketty’s facile history, as well as those of broader political discussions of inequality, become apparent when we look at their proposed solutions. Piketty begins his musings on a (supposedly novel) progressive global tax on capital with a consolidating trope of neoliberal political thought. He notes that the social state and progressive income tax must assume a greater role, but “if democracy is to regain control over the globalized financial capitalism of this century, it must invent new tools, adapted to today’s challenge.” While certainly not within my scope here, there is something about the assertion of a need for novelty that seems particularly endemic to our age. His progressive global tax on capital is a perfectly solid piece of policy. It would absolutely do wonders to shrink global inequality, although, like all taxation policies suggested as high-order solutions, there is something of the flavor of panacea to it as well. What is bordering on absurd is the notion, or its lack, of how we get from here to there in this plan. In the book’s introduction Piketty chastises and thus dismisses Marx for his vision of an apocalyptic end to capitalism through violent revolution. Say what you will about Marx’s political predictions (and I am certainly no defender), at least they included an essentially historical — a contingent, eventful and causally and temporally heterogeneous — vision of their own becoming. If you believe that groups like the European Union and IMF will slowly move toward progressive capital taxes and growing cooperation between regions, as exemplified by contemporary U.S. and E.U. bank information sharing, then by all means, step into my office; I’d like to discuss a time-share opportunity in Tuvalu with you.
A progressive global tax is an imaginary tool that can only take form on the shoulders of political action. It is imaginable as a solution to contemporary inequality only if one has displaced previous reductions in inequality from the logics of history. It is of a piece with Occupy Wall Street and with the call of that movement’s other prophet, David Graeber, for a debt jubilee. Progressive global taxes and debt jubilees are both tools that are inconceivable in our political and historic context. Politics and policy tools are not synonymous, and the assertion of the latter without the former is effectually demobilizing. The approach is both cause and condition of our political atrophy in the contemporary neoliberal moment. It is also a condition, not unrelated to neoliberalism, of a debilitating antihistoricism in social and political thought. Social and political change comes through complex interactions between individuals and institutions, in multiple temporal scales. The growth of g relative to r has historically been a process whereby a politics of class simultaneously has revalued labor and narrowed the moral boundaries of the market through workplace and state intervention. A global wealth tax, debt jubilee, and other such tools could certainly be ways in which such a politics might achieve its goals; but positing solutions and imagining that a global governing class will somehow institute them sans contentious and institutional class politics is politically debilitating and symptomatic of our cultural antihistoricism. Capitalist social relations are lived, reproduced, experienced, and challenged in a messy world rife with contradiction and contingency. To paraphrase Thompson once again, the concepts cannot be abstracted from the practices. With the reduction of capitalist social relations into quantities and abstractions via an elision of history, Piketty, like Occupy and so much of what passes for contemporary left politics and thought, performs the theatre of inequality, a kabuki spectacle for which the forces of capital in the twenty-first century will only be too happy to grab a front row seat.