Sunday, June 21, 2020

Capital and Ideology V

As expected, I finished the book. Part Four includes the chapters "Borders and Property: The Construction of Equality," "Brahmin Left: New Euro-American Cleavages," "Social Nativism: The Postcolonial Identity Trap, and "Elements for a Participatory Socialism for the Twenty-First Century." The latter chapter lays out some of Piketty's ideas regarding the specific structure and goals of future governments. He says:

The study of history has convinced me that it is possible to transcend today's capitalist system and to outline the contours of a new participatory socialism for the twenty-first century—a new universalist egalitarian perspective based on social ownership, education, and shared knowledge and power.

In the short concluding chapter, he writes:

Ultimately, this book has only one goal: to enable citizens to reclaim possession of economic and historical knowledge. Whether or not the reader agrees with my specific conclusions basically does not matter because my purpose is to begin debate, not to end it.

While, on one level, I respect Piketty's idealism, on another level he seems to be a completely naïve academic who, having accessed an international readership, is now freely expressing his childhood fantasies. Looking at his background, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that both of his parents were once Trotskyites. That by itself wouldn't necessarily be bad, but his ideas seem shaky to me, and how he thinks they might be implemented seems completely unrealistic.

As mentioned earlier, Piketty has no interest in psychology and seems to be completely unaware of the problems that one would encounter in educating the public and making them sympathetic to his ideas. For example, although he seems to have some awareness of how Trump supporters think, he conveniently places them in his category of "nativist merchants," who have come to dominate the Republican Party and abhor the "Brahmin left," which includes people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who have come to dominate the Democratic Party. In Piketty's nostalgic version of socialism, there remains the fantasy of a well-educated and intellectually flexible public who are ready to implement enlightened ideas without any help from experts simply by following routine democratic processes. Looking at the electorate in the U.S., this seems like a pipe dream of the highest order. How are voters who don't even know how many branches there are in the federal government suddenly going to become progressive policy wonks?

I'm not going to attempt to summarize Piketty's proposals, because I don't see them going anywhere anytime soon. Perhaps they may get some support in the E.U., but elsewhere, particularly in the U.S., you may at best see some piecemeal versions of them in progressive platforms such as those put forward by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. In order to make any headway in the U.S., Piketty's ideas would have to overcome forty years of conservative propaganda and challenge the corporate mindset in a manner that hasn't succeeded in nearly a century. I should also mention that Piketty seems to have no sense of the future of capitalism: for him it will continue to function much as it has, but with greater taxation on wealth and high incomes. One of his pet projects is to improve educational opportunities for the disadvantaged; while on the surface this seems like a good idea, realistically I don't think it would be of much benefit in a shrinking job market. In fact, Piketty hasn't given a thought to how capitalism itself is likely to evolve over the next few decades. Like more conventional economists, he seems to think that capitalism can be an engine of growth indefinitely, and that it merely has to be regulated better so as to keep it in line with the public interest. He seems to have almost no sense of the cutthroat nature of capitalism, which has historically left winners and losers in its wake. Somehow, he thinks, the democratization of corporate boards will result in enlightened corporate policies – without affecting profitability. From reading this book, you would never know that corporations routinely disrupt democratic processes in order to gain competitive advantages. I don't see that behavior changing significantly until all major corporations are nationalized – which doesn't seem to be looming on the horizon.

From my point of view, Piketty is operating primarily from a pre-scientific schema, and he is willfully ignoring both behavioral economics and a biological understanding of human nature. He would benefit greatly from reading some of the books that I've discussed on this blog. Underlying his ideas is an idealized version of human nature in which everyone has the ability to reason clearly and make good choices. However, scientific research now says quite the opposite. I wish that I could give this book a more positive assessment, but, as it stands, I can hardly recommend it.

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