Conversations on Capital


Everyday there is a new review of Piketty one just has to read. Unless the recommendation is coming from JWMason I assume I actually do not.

I believe I’m violating a rule of the internet by commenting on something from last month, but Mike Konczal’s review of the right and left responses to Piketty has been on my mind. There are two related points I want to make with respect to the left response.

His examples of left responses are Dean Baker, James Galbraith, and Suresh Naidu. The first two are thoroughly Keynesian responses. I’m not entirely sure how to place the latter, but there is not a single Marxianish perspective in the bunch. And no, I do not mean someone who religiously subscribes to every sentence scribbled by the prophet. I just mean someone broadly working within the tradition. This is not an attack on any of the three, all of whom are really smart and wonderful economists I respect in various ways. It is hard, however, in the context of a revived interest in Marx, not to note that lefty-progressive wonk-friendly thought is perhaps the place where Marxian influences are least apparent. Forbes is probably less hostile to Marxist political economy than Jacobin is. I’m torn on whether this matters.

My second point is a response to the repeated claim that whatever one thinks about Piketty’s argument, he has started an important conversation about inequality so we need to be really happy. Maybe this second point is a thousand-fold. I’ll try to keep it contained. First, it is hard to see how this is a new conversation. The idea that conversations about inequality are taboo in capitalist-dominated societies does not seem obvious to me. Were the debates about globalization that long ago? Do we not have reality TV and social media for the privileges to broadcast their privileges?I’m not suggesting that the conversation is always ideal, but even the insistence that you can pull yourself up out of poverty suggests the an already existing critical recognition of inequality. (Also, it is not like the current conversation is ideal either.) No, it is not taboo to talk about inequality. Capitalism is not afraid of “national conversations.” It is just taboo, except in exceptional circumstances and in half-assed ways, to do anything about it.

Second, inequality is really obvious to most people. If you’re ordering a pizza to be delivered via your iphone at 3am you might have the luxury of commodity fetishism, but the person delivering pizzas in the middle of the night knows what’s up. The person in the iphone factory knows what’s up. This has become a cliche, but anyone who keeps tabs on Santa Claus during Christmas knows what’s up. I believe I was in 3rd grade when I joined the Boy Scouts. We had a Christmas party where Santa showed up and gave out gifts to the kids. The problem was that the gifts were obviously brought by the parents, so some wealthier kids would get super cool $100 remote control cars and other kids would get a shitty $5 sled or a note saying a Nintendo is on layaway at Zares – if dad gets a new job we’ll totally finish paying for your gift![1] At that young age I remember being deeply embarrassed at adults for thinking we’d swallow this shit uncritically. I never believed in Santa, but for those that did the only possible conclusion was that Santa hated poor (even lower middle class!) people.

Finally, despite the obviousness of the existence of inequality, there are important aspects that are far from obvious. In my opinion, exactly how much inequality there is really isn’t one of them. But questions about what increases or decreases inequality are not obvious. What exactly should be done about inequality? What types of equality are realistically achievable in different economic systems? These are all big questions. Despite the limitations of Piketty’s theoretical analysis, which is important for addressing these questions, I must say I was quite pleased initially to see that Piketty’s contribution to this “new” conversation about inequality was to reframe the discussion amongst cultural-academic elites from one about a particular period of capitalism (i.e. neoliberalism) to one about capitalism. Unfortunately, as Konczal’s review in part documents, it was precisely this argument that was first rejected by liberal-progressives. The problem isn’t capitalism, it is politics. Part of me doesn’t care about trending topics amongst people that might end up on MSNBC. Part of me actually does. And the part of me that does was certainly willing to overlook the horrific interpretation of the original Capital and all the measurement without theory, if it meant that the discussion of inequality (in fancy newspapers and think pieces) would start questioning the anti-Neoliberal/Golden Age nostalgia discourse. Once that potentially more radical and anti-capitalist critique was exorcised, it became more difficult to stomach the new Capital’s weaknesses.

I wish we were still talking about Debt.


[1] I might be embellishing a bit here.

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