Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Capital and Ideology

The economist, Thomas Piketty, is praised by his many supporters for being the "Marx of the Twenty First Century. However, there is no comparison except in the length of their respective works.

CAPITALIN THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY is 655 words long while Marx's CAPITAL VOLUME 1, published by Pelican, is 853 pages long. The same applies to Piketty's more recent book, CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY which pans out at 1065 words long compared to the third volume of CAPITAL at 1081 words. There the similarity ends. Whereas Marx has a lot of sound and valid things to say about capitalism still relevant in this century, Piketty has nothing of relevance to offer at all.

This was apparent in an interview on CBC news in which Piketty admitted:

"I am very much in favour of private property and private capitalism...Making people invest in their businesses, making more people capitalists and owners, that is exactly what I am pushing for."

Unlike Marx, Piketty wants to save capitalism. He is a modern Keynes wanting to stop workers reading Marx's CAPITAL. A GENERAL THEORY for the 21st century, if you like.

Piketty claimed not to have read Marx. It shows. Both his recent two books are superficial: "vulgar political economy" Marx would have called it. An apology for class exploitation: the work of a hired gunslinger.

Capital, for Piketty, is the wealth of the wealthy. For Marx, capital is a historical mode of production: it has not existed for all time and can be brought to an end.

Marx's understanding of capital is much deeper and richer than Piketty's own. Marx said that capital was a social relationship masquerading as a thing. Here is Marx on the definition of capital:

"Capital consists of raw materials, instruments of labour, and means of subsistence of all kinds, which are employed in producing new raw materials, new instruments, and new means of subsistence. All these components of capital are created by labour, products of labour, accumulated labour. Accumulated labour that serves as a means to new production is capital.

So say the economists.

What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is worthy of the other. A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave. A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain conditions does it become capital. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold is itself money, or sugar is the price of sugar.

Capital lives and grows by class exploitation based on the private ownership of the means of production. The working class is forced onto the labour market for a wage or salary. Workers are forced to sell their ability to work and in the process of producing commodities generate what Marx calls "surplus value", the source of profit for the capitalist class. The difference between Piketty and Marx account of capitalism is the difference between chalk and cheese.

In his new book, CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY (2020), Piketty sets out to trace the ideas and beliefs which have sustained class inequality allowing the rich to amass vast fortunes with little censure or criticism from politicians and the media, and only, he argues, indifference on part of the working-class majority. Piketty does not rate the working class who he believes are easily bought off with a diet of commercial sport, pop music and celebrity.

Piketty starts his book with inequality in pre-capitalist societies and in part one and two of the book moves through history of inequality to the modern day. He shows that all class systems have had inequality and have shown cruelty towards the poor. Most people in human history have struggled and lived in poverty. Their lives have been largely ugly, brutal and short.

The main focus of Piketty's book is to relate extreme and rising inequality with the disappearance of a class-based politics which existed in the 1960s and 1970s (chapters 11 and 12). This is set out in part three "The Great transformation of the twentieth Century". To Piketty's way of thinking, there is now no working class politics capable of acting as a downward force on rising inequality as, he argues, there was once in the 20th century.

He believes the failure of Bolshevism and Social Democracy has meant a collapse in working class politics and workers becoming unable to resist the encroachments of capital. He points to two negative trends: trade unions and the rise of identity politics. Trade union membership has declined as has strike action. Piketty thinks that "radical politics" draws its members from an increasingly narrow pool which now pursues an identity politics rather than seeing any political agency in the working class.

Piketty is also alarmed at the way politics is moving. The working class now blames immigrants rather than billionaires. Many workers have succumbed to "xenophobic populism" throughout Europe, India, the United States and South America. Such a politics shows indifference to the rich and powerful. These divisive politics place a barrier of a clear understanding of capitalism and the need for the working class to establish socialism.

However, Piketty does not believe the working class are cut-out for socialism. His audience is other academics and other intellectuals.

As with all academics Piketty has to introduce new jargon with buzz-words like "hyper-capitalism" by which to define today's inequality. Piketty is no socialist revolutionary. He does not want to see capitalism abolished and socialism established. He wants the state to be used to prevent the really rich from escaping taxation through the introduction of older forms of redistribution based on income tax and corporation tax. He wants the impossible: capitalism without the effects of capitalism.

This form of redistribution that Piketty favours failed in the past for the simple reason that you cannot construct distribution policies on the private ownership of the means of production. The latter wins out all the time. Capitalists, under pressure of competition, have to exploit the working class. In the process of exploitation, they amass profit which they have to re-invest but hive off enough to live comfortable lives not open to the majority.

Piketty's utopianism is to retain capitalism, reform it and make it fairer: an impossible task, made more impossible by Piketty giving the role to "enlightened politicians" informed by intellectuals like himself. Who is going to make it "fairer"? What about the opposition of capitalists and their politicians? Marx, on the other hand, wanted the end of buying and selling of commodities and the abolition of the wages system. He envisaged workers taking their own democratic and political action along a revolutionary political route dependent upon a socialist majority acting in its own interests.

Piketty's world of "hypercapitalism" is underpinned by a powerful set of ruling class ideas and beliefs; that billionaires are justified in their wealth, the poor are "undeserving" and any form of radical redistribution would lead to economic collapse: hardly novel ideas. Marx was confronting these ideas when he was writing CAPITAL in the 1860s.

Piketty sees history as a struggle of ideas and beliefs in which "justice" wins out in the end through an enlightened politics. Piketty looks at ideas as existing in isolation from the conditions in which people live. This is the type of idealism Marx rejected in the 1840s.

Piketty is an idealist because he looks at ideas as existing in isolation from the conditions in which people live. He ignores the fact the workers produced their own ideas out of the materialist condition in which they existed. Workers were able to form trade unions and struggle for higher wages; to form organisations like the Chartists and to establish political parties such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain. And they thought and acted without the need of enlightened politicians and intellectuals.

Marx replaced political idealism with a materialist conception of history which had at its heart the realisation that all history is "the history of class struggles". There is nothing deterministic in this class struggle, for in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels even entertained the idea that it could lead to the ruination of both classes; capitalists and workers.

It is men and women who change history not the disembodied movement of ideas. If ideas are what change society, where do these ideas come from? You can only explain ideas in relation to the material conditions of society in which they occur. That is why Marx insisted: "It is not consciousness that determines being, but social being that determines consciousness".

Piketty's CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY adds nothing to Marx. In fact it is a reactionary and backwood-looking book. Piketty rejects the key Marxian idea that the working class has political agency. He does not believe socialist ideas are viable. And instead of seeing the state as a coercive class institution, he sees it as the only libetatory force within capitalism [with echoes of Hegel]. He wants to see a state made up of enlightened politicians, who would introduce legislation to heavily tax the billionaires and confiscate their wealth.

However, the state is a class institution. And the politicians who are elected to form capitalist governments have to serve the interests of the rich and powerful. The capitalist state does not and cannot exist to pursue an egalitarian politics of redistribution. The capitalist state is not a charity. The capitalist state has to protect and further the interests of class exploitation and privilege. All governments - of any party - can always be relied on to oppose trade unionists taking strike action. Episodes like the 1871 Paris Commune, the 1926 British General Strike, the 1984 Miners' strike, and so on, are all examples of whose interests the state defends.

We are therefore back to Marx - to the politics of class politics and seeing the working class as political agents who can change society in a revolutionary way. Socialist politics may be unfashionable within universities and newspapers like the GUARDIAN but it is all we have got to end capitalism, inequality and the obscene wealth in private hands which now exists throughout the world today.

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