The Weekend Read
Marx’s Heirs

Marxism is back, and Thomas Piketty’s new book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” might be its new Bible. But both Piketty and the Marxist movement miss the real danger of inequality.

Published on: April 19, 2014
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  • Andrew Allison

    Shouldn’t the question be how much better off the workers are than they would be absent capitalism?

    • Jim__L

      That’s certainly one valid question.

      However, life is about more than material well-being… and in some cases, the offer of material well-being has attracted a crushing burden of rent-collecting parasites and dead-end cultural expectations. (Try paying for housing and raising a family in Silicon Valley, for example.)

      Living under totalitarian technocrats incapable of keeping the peace is another risk that we seem to have realized.

      I’m not much for Marxist analysis of history, but in America the fight of the philosopher kings / robber barons against the yeomanry has been getting steadily worse in the last five years or so.

  • Anthony

    Firstly, I have not read Thomas Piketty’s book; thus, I cautiously go forward. Piketty’s general argument is that capital accumulates faster than growth – r > g, process by which capital is both organized and used therein inducing inequality – and facilitates inequality. Moreover, (though without having read book, this remains tentative observation on my part) Piketty correlates (indirectly) inequality and potential social discord; which perhaps brings subject directly to realm of politics.

    Meanwhile, essay brings to mind several questions. Can premise that “increasing inequality is inevitable within capitalism” be disproved – any system (economic organization) is humanly troublesome,requiring revision and tinkering. Is inequality really a bad thing and does idea of proportionate availability of goods and services mitigate real inequality – what is unique about capitalism is its perpetual dynamic of capital accumulation and expansion (a central theme of Piketty’s book). I think Peketty may be challenging ideas, views, positions, beliefs, theorems, etc. that have allowed many who want to aspire or work their way within social hierarchy of capitalism to revisit such statistical probability – maybe not be unquestioningly committed to system’s delivering the aspiration.

    Lastly as to “no candidate who cannot raise money from the wealthy (United Citizens and McCutcheon) has a real chance of winning, monied influence and money availability have been central to U.S. politics/elections and United Citizens nor McCutcheon disfigure functional contour of system – government and politics have more than a little to do with increasing inequality gap (which I presume is an important point in Piketty’s book) and one thing for sure it (politics/government) has not prevented whatever is the present case.

  • Boritz

    I will look forward to reading this book, but I’m going to wait until Amazon Marketplace offers it used for under a dollar (p < 1).

  • AndrewL

    For decades, we thought China’s capitalistic authoritarianism is self-contradictory and unsustainable. But if capitalism drives inequality, perhaps it’s the capitalistic democracy that’s the oxymoron?

  • Joe Eagar

    If the wealthy controlled American politics, comprehensive immigration reform would have passed in 2007. The poor would not have been dropped off the tax rolls, and the middle class would be paying more.

    Somehow, none of these things have happened. Frankly, I think anyone who thinks the wealthy have captured out political system is insane. I rather think the upper-middle-class is the culprit here.

  • AllanDale

    Capitalism, derived from the Indo-European word for movable property (e.g., cattle), is merely not feudalism, which is based on fixed and frozen property relationships such that wars or marriages are required to rearrange them. But Marx’s observation that under postfeudal regimes, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face
    with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind,” almost sounds like an evangelical right-winger’s lament, not a modernist’s embrace of bleak existential reality. And therein lies the problem: Once the bonds and frame of feudalism are removed, where’s a person to turn for the so-called meaning in life, the People’s Committee for Public Welfare? As Franz Kafta noted, “The meaning of life is that it ends.”

  • Breif2

    “His main contention is that over the centuries since the emergence of capitalism, return on capital has tended to be [significantly] greater than the growth of the economy. ”

    Unless we accept the ridiculous proposition that the none-rich have been growing steadily poorer in absolute terms, I don’t understand how this can be true.

  • Gary Hemminger

    Well what if you have it exactly wrong. What if limits to campaign contributions were skewing the electoral market to the far left and far right and that now without such limits it is possible for more organizations to contribute to the electoral process…thereby bringing moderation to the process. YOur statement that “politics is captured by those with money and largely seen as inaccessible to those without” is an opinion, not a fact. It is a statement of what might happen. In addition your statement that “This is a new political experiment because for most of the history of the United States—with exception of the period at the very end of the 19th century—the dollars of the wealthy could not and did not dominate our democratic system” actually makes me laugh. How many non-elites would actually agree with this statement. Are you living in a fantasy world, because the fact is that I am 53 years old and I have always believed that “politics is captured by those with money and largely seen as inaccessible to those without.” IIf not money, then populism is used to gain advantage. Either way the political process has been and always will be corrupted by money and/or power. Wake up and smell the coffee. It is what it is.

    All those people in “poverty” with heat, air-conditioning, cell phones, big screen TVs, and fat carbohydrate bellies aren’t in danger of starving anytime soon. If you want to see real inequality go to Haiti.

    • Richard T

      I remember in the late 1960s reading a book that said all US Presidents thenceforward would be “the rich or the pawns of the rich.” Campaign finance has attracted much attention since then, to little real effect.

  • commonwealth

    Fresh perspective means that we get the opportunity to see the cliches by which we live and recognize that, rather than arising from reality and describing it, arise from within our own prejudices and describe them. Prejudice and reality are not the same, though they often can be. We have prejudiced ourselves in favor of capital for so long, that we could never imagine there could be a better way. Capitalism as bedrock has become the cliche of American democracy, though probably mainly for democrats and idealistic republicans. Capitalism– especially the rapacious, imbalanced capitalism which has become the norm in the United States over the last 40 years– is no bedrock. It is a foundation of shifting sands. Or, perhaps in a more apt analogy for our time, it proving itself to have been a foundation of shale which is now being “fracked” to squeeze out drops of wealth without regard to the welfare of the people.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    As noted sociologist Peter Berger has stated on this website, the only current unfettered example of Capitalism today is China where something like 1 billion people have been lifted out of poverty. Piketty’s study seems to be an analytical diversion away from one of the largest historical economic facts in recent history.

    In California the same holds true. California lost something like 1 million jobs during the Recession despite it sits atop one of the largest oil and gas formations in the world. Texas gained about 1 million jobs since the Recession mainly in oil and gas drilling but also in high tech jobs near Austin.

    California depends on a managed economy for economy recovery through high speed train and water projects that have stalled out. Man made water shortages have compounded California’s recent drought. Gov. has proposed a $53 billion water project to re-engineer the Sacramento Delta but has no financing plan for it yet.

    Texas has depended on a market economy and already has started implementing a $53 billion long term plan to increase water storage and water conservation to endure the next drought.

    From a purely empirical and historical perspective, Piketty’s analysis of rates of return on capital is nothing but a diversion. But Piketty’s view is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Belgium, there are news reports now of anonymous murders of bankers and their families. Marxism is gaining ground as a legitimacy for murder and revolutionary violence, as it always has. In the U.S., “knockout” attacks especially on elderly Jewish women and others is becoming contagious, as are anti-semitic murders. This is the consequence of a growing but amorphous form of Marxism.

  • Fat_Man

    The “revival” of Marxism proves that old Karl was absolutely correct when he said that history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce.

    Of course the “revival” is largely confined to the campuses of American and West European Universities, which are the only places that Marxism has settled in like mold in a wet basement. In the rest of the world the stench of the hundreds of millions of corpses left by the tragic phase has not sufficiently dissipated to allow us to see Marxism as anything other than a pestilence.

    IMHO, this “revival” is another strong reason to go Henry VIII on the Universities.

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