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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Picking Through The Bones Of Thomas Piketty

How many people managed to finish reading Thomas Piketty’s CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY, all 665 pages? Assuming a chapter a day it will take someone 17 days to complete reading the book and then add-in one final day for the notes, contents in detail and tables and illustrations.

Those who did finish the book will not be doing so again in a hurry! This book vies with Stephen Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME as something most people start but never finish. Some readers, in desperation, are playing a game 100 uses for Capital in the 21st Century while one web site boasts “How to write a Marxist Critique of Piketty without even reading the Book

Do you really need to publish such a weighty tome to conclude that for the past 200 years world social wealth inequality has increased and is going up? Who is supposed to be the audience? What is Piketty’s political agenda? And why choose this particular title clearly a reference to Marx’s CAPITAL

Does Piketty arrogantly claim to be the new Marx for the new century? Crikey; he does! Move over Marx, here comes Professor Piketty. A “reformist” pretender to Marx writing an economics text-book for enlightened politicians and policy makers. Do they exist? Piketty never tells us.

The book was published in 2013 although Piketty states that he started research some 15 years before. How many researchers and academic assistants he had to help him we are not told. Clearly these are the unnamed “doctoral students and young scholars” (p. vii) cited at the beginning of the book. Perhaps it was one of these students who read up on Marx, who cut out the quotations from Capital and woven in the footnotes of the text.

Although Piketty denies reading Marx, except, perhaps, the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO when an undergraduate, someone clearly has read Marx because there are detailed references to tax data used by Marx in appendix 10 of book 1 of CAPITAL and reference is also made to comments made by Marx about factory accounting and productivity in WAGES PRICE AND PROFIT.

And there is also faint praise by Piketty for Marx in a section running some 5 pages under the heading Marx: The principle of infinite accumulation (pp 7-11), despite Marx devoting “little thought to the question of how society in which private capital had been totally abolished would be organised… (p. 10). But how could Marx describe a socialist society in detail? The level of development in the forces of production and the situation at the time of socialist revolution would be completely unknown to him. The establishment of Socialism and freedom from capital is dependent on the working class, not Marx. It will be for future socialists democratically to determine socialist institutions, socialist affairs, and how and what to produce and for whom. Marx rightly avoided utopian speculation. The best Marx could do was to give generalisations: “from each according to ability, to each according to need” was one of the more useful generalisations he gave of a socialist society. “The abolition of the wages system” is another.

Piketty’s Marx is of course a straw Marx; easy to construct and easy to knock down. Piketty claims, for example, that Marx held a “collapse theory of capitalism” (p. 1):

Marx thought that capitalism would have an “apocalyptic” end but thanks to “modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge” that has been avoided. But there is still the problem of the “deep structure of capital inequality

Marx never held such a theory and said so in THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE. He wrote: “there are no permanent crises” (Volume III, Part II, p. 269). Then there is Piketty’s petty put-down stating that Marx “… decided on his conclusions in 1848, before embarking on the research to justify them” (p.10). In short, Piketty believes Marx forced his theory to support a pre-formulated conclusion. Marx was no scientist, then, unlike the great professor Piketty. But Marx began CAPITAL by investigating the commodity and his scientific research developed from there through the application of a scientifically grounded method of abstraction. Not content with creating a straw Marx, Piketty does a vindictive

Reviewers sympathetic to Marx have already torn to shreds Piketty’s negative comments regarding Marx’s critique of political economy. The question is why Piketty bothers to take Marx on?

Piketty’s claims that Marx said there was a tendency for the rate of profit to fall to zero and that Marx failed to take into account innovation and the efficiency of new machinery when discussing the centralisation and concentration of capital: these were without foundation. Like Keynes before him, Piketty wants to clear Marx out of the way and he does not care how he does it . As Engels remarked at his graveside, Marx was “the best hated and most calumniated man of his time”. He still is.

In any case, Piketty shows his own economic ignorance when he discusses capital. He treats capital as a thing not as a social relationship between people. He ignores capital as a social power and he does not treat the capitalist as “personified capital” as Marx does in CAPITAL.

This was Marx’s comment on the social power of the capitalist through the process of capital accumulation:

Capital comes more and more to the fore as a social power, whose agent is the capitalist. This social power no longer stands in any possible relation to that which the labour of a single individual can create. It becomes an alienated, independent social power, which stands opposed to society as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power.
CAPITAL VOLUME III, p.259

Piketty has got no further in studying capital than those people in the 19th century that Marx described as “vulgar economists” and who after his death morphed into “neoclassical economists” with their supply and demand curves. Whoever it was who read Marx’s CAPITAL for Piketty’s book did not understand either Marx’s method or what he was saying. It really does seem that a naïve research assistant has prepared the notes on Marx for Piketty to use uncritically in the book. That is, if we are to believe Piketty’s claim that he did not read Marx in the first place.

The fundamental political difference between Marx and Piketty is the question of focus. Marx’s focus is on the ownership of the means of production and distribution and the freedom of labour from the tyranny of capital. Piketty is a social democrat distributionist. He wants to retain capitalism but to abolish its inequalities and even this, he believes, is a largely a utopian exercise (chapter 15 A Global Tax on Capital, p. 515).

Here are some of Piketty’s offerings from his reformist menu to be found in part 4 of the book; a global tax on capital, 80% tax on high incomes, financial transparency and the use of inflation to redistribute wealth downwards. These reforms are hardly original and hardly successful; just an example of the monotonous futility of reformism from one generation of social reformers to the next. When will the reformists admit that they have nothing else to offer?

Whereas Marx addressed the working class as the political agency of revolutionary change, Piketty addresses whom? There is just an empty chair facing him. And that is both the question and answer to Piketty’s menu of social reforms. There is no one to progress these reforms; there is no enlightened politician to be found. Capitalist politicians do not exist to serve the interest of all society - just the minority; the so-called one per cent.

Rather than enduring the social power of capital in the 21st century, the way forward for the working class should be the abolition of capital altogether; social revolution not social reform. We need a world-wide socialist revolution rather than just another failed redistributive panacea for the effects of capitalism. We do not need Piketty but rather the formation of a socialist majority to consciously and politically deal with the capitalist cause of the problems facing our class.

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