Friday, April 25, 2014

Picketty's Provocation

Post-marxish writer Mike Davis, author of the superlative Ecology of Fear, once remarked at a conference, "Socialists have predicted eleven of the last three recessions."  Self-help philosophical idealism gives rise to similar proclamations of the power of positive thinking.  Recessions, the unstated reasoning goes, are good for "revolutionaries," because when the contradictions of capital are doing their worst, public education by an enlightened vanguard will cause the masses to flock to the banners of the left, and at some point, these flockings will build into the perfect storm that will overthrow the present and unjust order.

Today, over at Commondreams, a lefty news digest/editorial sounding board, Jon Queally, one of the staff writers, has penned a paean to Thomas Piketty's new bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a rehabilitation of Marx's most unread three-volume work.  Piketty's book, which I have not read yet and am reporting on via hearsay, apparently provides a wealth (ha!) of empirical evidence to support the conclusions reached by Marx himself about the macro-dynamics of capitalist development. . . to wit, that capitalist accumulation progressively commodifies more and more aspects of our lives, that capitalist accumulation pulls more and more people into its logics, which result in greater and greater inequality, forcing the have-nots into ever more abject service to the haves.

Piketty seems to have said the same thing many others have said who have actually studied Marx:  that Marx was very accurate in his assessment of capitalism as an existing system, and that he was very wrong in his belief that it would be overturned by "scientific socialism," as he called it, that is, by a mass rebellion of highly class-conscious members of the working class (wage laborers).

In fact, subsequent scholars of Marx have added to and amended marxian theories to include spinning out various descriptions of various definitions of imperialism, expanding on the critical role of "primitive accumulation," that is, plunder, as the wellspring for capital accumulation (Rose Luxemburg was a key thinker in this regard), marxian ecological schemas (John Bellamy Foster), marxian race theory (C.L. R. James, e.g.), even the application of Marx's idea of "fetishization" to machinery using thermodynamic analysis combined with world system theory (Alf Hornborg), Marx-influenced feminist theory (Nancy Hartsock, e.g.), post-marxian radical feminist theory that transfered analytic categories from "workers" to "women" (Catharine MacKinnon, e.g.), and even marxian geographers (David Harvey).

It is unfortunate, in my view, that so few Christian scholars have seriously engaged Marxist thought, but that is a digression.

In the excitable prose of today's piece by Brother Queally at Commondreams, the headline reads "Right Scrambles over Red-Hot Indictment of Inequality and Capitalism" (subheading >> "Krugman: 'The right seems unable to mount any kind of counterattack' to Thomas Piketty's new book".)

The argument is won, by all accounts, by Piketty.  Capitalism creates inequality.  He even provides mountains of evidence to support his conclusion.  Some of us might be thinking, "Duh," but it is true that most people remain unconvinced of this because it runs counter to both official and unofficial propaganda.

The real news, of course, is that this is a bestseller.  What this means is that the book has sold 80,000 translated copies (Piketty is a French fella) in less than three months, and is expected to soar to more than 200,000 copies.  This is very good news for Piketty, Belknap Press, and Amazon.

Citing Richard Eskow and liberal economist Paul Krugman, Queally's article suggests that the high sales numbers and the difficulty that "the right" has had (as if the centrists in the US were not pro-capitalist) in countering the evidence, constitute some kind of turning point.  The final line of the article, quoting Eskow, is "Where we go from here is up to us."

I want to suggest that this is a twelfth prediction of the last three transformative recessions, yet another left-liberal self-delusion of political agency.  Eskow actually refers to a "populist movement."

Excuse me, but where is it?

I made a little pocket money from a landscape job a couple of days ago, and I cashed the check today.  While I was out spending it, on socks without holes, on mulch, and on an oil change and tire rotation, I looked for the populist movement.  I live in one of the worst hit areas in the country by the latest (real) recession, so I figured if there is a populist movement in the US, here is a good place for it.  Of all the people I saw today, it is unlikely more than one will read Piketty's book.  If I'd driven to Ann Arbor, the density might've gone up to two, heck, maybe three.  I saw bumper stickers, and those are about as political as most folks get.  They said things like, "I belong to PETA, people eating tasty animals," and "My son is in the Marine Corps."

And let's face it, 200,000 out of roughly 320 million people,even if you generously subtract a quarter of them for being minors (240 million remaining), 200,000 -- most of whom are already convinced that capitalism causes something called "inequality" (meaning that everyone is totally dependent on money now, and each of us can be measured then by how much money we can put our hands on) -- that means .0834% of the population will be mobilized by Piketty's book.

If I understand what has been written about the book, Piketty is himself a liberal, and his solution for capitalist inequality is pretty bland.  A few Keynesian policies, raising taxes on the wealthy, etc.  I welcome anything that might dispel the misconceptions about Mr. Marx, because he pointed out some important things, but I'm not seeing the revolutionary catalyst here.  "Where we go from here is up to us"???  Like, does that mean the door is open, and all we have to do is walk through?

Moreover, Piketty is telling us about this shifting signifier called "capitalism" and reducing the problem to money.  If we really want to get to the bottom of this epoch, which began by some reckoning around the mid-thirteenth century, then took off after the Reformation, and which has metastasized into the neoliberal nightmare we are witnessing now, then money has to be understood as one important aspect of this development, not its totality.  If we really want to raise the scary questions about a now-global regime in which life is thoroughly commodified, in which the material bases of life itself are rapidly being used up or poisoned, a regime built on colonial plunder, slavery, exploitation, war, and ecocide, then we need to see two grim realities side by side.

First, the regime is so completely self-organized at this point that no one, not even the most powerful people in the world, have the capacity to alter its operations or its trajectories.  It is bad.  It is cooking the planet.  It is a runaway train of financial policies that cannot be sustained.  It is inevitably going to become more repressive in its administration.  It is destroying thousands of species, topsoil, forests, fisheries, aquifers, rivers, lakes, and even the oceans.  Elections and policies are impervious to popular will, even if such a thing existed (we have had more than six decades of television and consumerism which have completely infantilized modern metropolitan society), because everything runs on money, and those with the most money run things (even though they are themselves the captives of this system).  When it does break down, it will not be an apocalyptic moment (a favorite fantasy of male survivalist gun nuts), but a gradual deterioration in which things just quit "running like they ought to," leaving more and more people behind as a kind of surplus that will be dealt with by disease, helpless poverty, and men with guns.  This will not lead to a revolution, but to an every more desperate attempt by everyone to find a hand hold and hang on. . . we will become even more servile before anyone who offers us a "job."  Our environment will become a hell hole.  Already is in a lot of places.  I have been to the slums in Lima and Port-au-Prince and Little Rock.  Imagine these, and you will have imagined the future.

Second, most of us who live into the coming decades will not escape this. The immiseration begins in the peripheries, where the core ships out its violence, repression, waste, and disorder.  But it creeps into the core as capitalism's magic uses up the peripheries, and the cores are converted into profit. It won't get fixed with policy (or elections); and it won't get fixed with money (which gains and loses value with these other changes, sometimes becoming worthless).

What people will be forced to do is adapt; and this will be terrible because we are such helpless babies.  We don't know how to do anything except push buttons, stare at screens, drive cars, and spend money.  What we do know aside from that is highly specialized.  You might know how to cut up a tree and I might know how to fix a toilet, but most of us -- if we were left without money -- would wither up and die or become the wards of some social agency, where our protectors would have jobs pushing buttons, staring at screens, driving cars, and spending money.

This applies to the left as well as right, because most of them share a belief in the Promethean myth of technological progress and the affinity for Big Systems requiring centralization.  What centralization assures is that the shit always hits a Big Fan and gets thrown back on more people.  But these Big Systems will inevitably degrade, slow down, stutter, then become like the rusting hulks of technological artefacts that will more and more litter the landscape.

No, our forced adaptation will require us to become generalists.  We will have to learn how to grow food, preserve food, repair our shelters, capture and clean water, treat ourselves medically, make and repair clothing, stay warm in the cold and cool in the heat . . . all without our current reliance on money-mediated grids.  Most will hang on to the money-mediated grid until the last moment, and many will despair as these changes force themselves on us over the next few decades.

I wonder why churches are not anticipating these changes and finding ways as communities to begin these transitions now, gradually but intentionally, as a way of being of service to the world, of being proactive in the healing, clothing, feeding, and peacemaking that will be required to preserve human dignity in the interstices of this slow-motion calamity. . . even apart from it.  Why aren't churches trying to figure out how make the transition off the failing grid now, before it becomes more of an emergency?

Because that is what we can do, what some can do.  There will be no salvation-by-policy or salvation-by-election or salvation-by-revolution.  How people adapt to these inevitable and often terrible changes will be practical.  We won't become revolutionaries, but bricoleurs.


  1. Well, if Piketty's book is repetition, so be it. Maybe some more people will "get" the message and start exploring alternatives. Maybe some will read Marx. Maybe some will network with what's left of the internet----no internet in 400-600 AD, when the Romans went down in slo-mo.

    Speaking as one who's staked his life on electric music; two things I will miss---the sound of a well-played electric jazz guitar, and the sound of a Hammond B-3. Hard to think about it.

  2. Another thing about the transition to a bricolage type of life---life expectancy will go down, healthy lifestyle or not. Some years ago, I wandered through a Catholic pioneer cemetery that was open for Easter in a rural town I lived in some miles from Eugene (Monroe, OR). I noticed how many people died in their 30's, 40's & 50's, and how much child and infant mortality there was. This, in an area that was, in the late 1800's, blessed with excellent (still) agricultural land.

    It made me wonder sometimes, given all the technological hoopla and buncombe about extending life spans for the human race, that seem to go with our advanced (!) civilization, that maybe 60 years is enough time.

  3. Here's another aspect:

    If We Remain Predators, the Planet Will Cast Us Off - Lawrence Wilkerson on Reality Asserts Itself (3/3)

    Col. Wilkerson says the United States and China must stop the arms buildup and solve the climate change crisis or humans may not have a future on this planet.

  4. A long time ago on Feral you made mention of Fascism being a disease of the disenfranchised middle class, and you made mention here about the bumper stickers you've seen locally & the infantilism of our culture. Here's a concise link to Fascist reasoning, with a nasty caveat:

    The last paragraph:

    "There is, however, one kind of adult whose interest lies in remaining infantile: businessmen, or corporates. There is no greater infantile passion than the passion for profit. So corporates are the natural allies of fascism. Fascism needs corporates to create huge spectacles of profit and prosperity for the elite majority, which will obliterate the ghettoes of butchered minorities. The willing fools of fascism, the avaricious middle class, will donate its money to these spectacles and feel enriched. Glossy temples, roads and malls will become the pleasure zones of progress. The pious cattle of devotees, smelling of burgers, spewing disgust against beggars and minorities while discussing cricket and corruption inside obese cars, become the fascist-corporate world's most envied citizens. These people wake up only when there is a bomb blast or a terrorist attack, severe economic depression, or war, and the balloon of paradise is pricked. Infantile slumbers die hard."

    Friends, Romans, countrymen....lend me your ears.

  5. This looks like it might be a good historical companion to Piketty's book:

    The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times

    "The Long Twentieth Century traces the relationship between capital accumulation and state formation over a 700-year period. Arrighi argues that capitalism has unfolded as a succession of “long centuries,” each of which produced a new world power that secured control over an expanding world-economic space. Examining the changing fortunes of Florentine, Venetian, Genoese, Dutch, English and finally American capitalism, Arrighi concludes with an examination of the forces that have shaped and are now poised to undermine America’s world dominance...."