Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality
Socialism and capitalism seem like natural antagonists, but their rivalry is Oedipal. To many, the relationship appears straightforward. Capitalism, they would argue, created the modern industrial working class, which supplied the socialist movement with its staunchest recruits. This story, variations of which reach back to Karl Marx, has been repeated so often that it seems intuitive. But it gets the lines of paternity backward. Capitalism did not create socialism; socialists invented capitalism.
The origins of capitalism could be dated to when someone first traded for profit, though most historians prefer a shorter time line. Even so, scholars tend to agree that something usefully described as capitalism had materialized in parts of the world by 1800, at the latest. But the idea of capitalism took longer to emerge. The word wasn’t coined until the middle of the nineteenth century, and it didn’t enter general usage until decades later.
By that point, socialists had been a familiar force in politics for almost a century. Yet socialism’s founders—figures like Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier—did not intend to overthrow capitalism. Their aspirations were, if anything, grander. They planned to launch a new religion grounded in principles revealed by another recent discovery: social science. Each half of the formulation—the social and the scientific—mattered equally. For most of the nineteenth century, socialism’s chief opponent was individualism, not capitalism. According to socialism’s pioneering theorists, society was more than a collection of individuals. It was an organism, and it had a distinctive logic of its own—a singular object that could be understood, and controlled, by a singular science. Socialists claimed to have mastered this science, which entitled them to act in society’s name. One of their first tasks would be to replace Christianity, liberating humanity from antiquated prejudices that had undermined revolution in France and could jeopardize future rebellions in Europe.
Socialism, though, was only the latest attempt to grapple with a deeper problem. With the lonely exception of ancient Greece some 2,000 years prior, democracy had been a marginal concept in political debate throughout history. But it returned to life at the close of the eighteenth century, no time more prominently than when Maximilien de Robespierre announced that “the essence” of revolutionary France’s democratic experiment was “equality”—a leveling spirit that could, in theory, be extended to every sphere of collective life.
One year later, Robespierre was dead, and equality’s proselytizers were in retreat, but they would advance again. Egalitarian impulses took many forms, and some of the most fervent acolytes believed they had altered the original model enough to justify a new title for their utopia: socialism. The details of this evolution were complex, but they were captured in the career of a single pamphlet, scribbled by the radical journalist Sylvain Maréchal in the last days of the French Revolution and tucked away in his papers for decades. After finally seeing daylight in 1828, the work became one of the key texts in socialism’s founding. It was named, appropriately, Manifesto of the Equals.
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Though a descendant of rabbis, Marx never fancied himself the leader of a religion. But the prospect of a social science yoked to a political movement that promised a revolution of the oppressed? That warranted a manifesto of its own. Marx wanted to craft a vision of socialism that responded not just to the French Revolution, but also to what historians would later call the Industrial Revolution. It took time for capitalism to become the center of his critique. The Communist Manifesto doesn’t use the word at all, instead reserving its ire for “bourgeois society.” Capital assumed greater importance for Marx as he read deeper in political economy, but he preferred to speak of a “capitalist mode of production,” his label for a system in which labor power was sold like any other commodity and production for markets at a profit had become the rule. Eventually, though, capitalism would assume the place in Marxist thought that society had occupied for the early socialists. The scientific aspirations of the earlier varieties of socialism carried over, but the object of inquiry had shifted. By Marx’s death in 1883, the word had become popular enough that Wilhelm Liebknecht could eulogize Marx as the originator of the social science that “kills capitalism.”
From the beginning, the idea of capitalism was a weapon. Marxists used it to bludgeon their adversaries on the left, whom they could dismiss as utopian dreamers blind to the realities of life under capital’s rule. As Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue would declare, communists were “men of science, who do not invent societies but who will rescue them from capitalism.” But the Marxist interpretation of capitalism was also the product of a particular way of thinking. “Totality” and “dialectics” were the key words of its philosophy, and its politics concentrated on revolution. Together, they promised a complete overhaul of society. Focusing on capitalism helped guide attacks on a bourgeois status quo that might otherwise have seemed impervious to change. Visions of the cohesive socialism to come nurtured the belief that there was a fixed and antithetical entity in the present to oppose. All that socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.
Marxists were not the only ones convinced that revolution was imminent. A remarkable series of transformations—the corporation’s rise, an unprecedented growth in productive capacity, the knitting together of what a few people had started referring to as a world economy—were redefining social life and what it meant to be a socialist. Restraining monopolies, bolstering labor movements, nationalizing land, instituting progressive taxation, establishing a welfare state—these were no longer the province of a radical fringe. By the end of the nineteenth century, laissez-faire’s obituary had been written so often that William Harcourt, former chancellor of the Exchequer and one of Great Britain’s most influential politicians, could proclaim that “we are all socialists now.”
Harcourt’s socialism was not Marx’s; it was, for example, intended to foil a revolution, not to foment one. At a time when a profusion of competing socialisms vied with each other for prominence, many bore little resemblance to what Marx had sketched (though, with the master dead, what Marx would have preferred also became grounds for dispute). Yet Marx’s successors had at least won an intellectual victory. Talk of a more equitable society had become ubiquitous and, along the way, “capitalism” slipped into the vocabulary, too.
Many, especially on the right, balked at the term. They claimed that “capitalism” was too precise, or not precise enough, or that it put an exaggerated emphasis on the role of capitalists in a system that was larger than any one group, no matter how powerful. Others accepted the word but gave it new meaning. By 1918, one German estimate tallied more than 100 ways of defining capitalism. Even then, it was still a rarity compared with the 1930s, when the Great Depression shoved capitalism—frequently assumed to have entered its final days—into the spotlight.
By the twentieth century, capitalism often seemed less the name for a specific mode of production than a more general way of describing a modern world perpetually overturning itself. With society gripped by changes that were routinely characterized as unparalleled in history, capitalism appeared about as faithful a designation for the new order as any. Yet Marxists never relinquished their proprietary claim to the label. As one of Marx’s translators observed in 1898, “It was the Marxists who forced the discussion of the question, and it is they who are most active in keeping it up.” The German economist Werner Sombart reiterated the point a few years later when he noted, “The concept of capitalism and even more clearly the term itself may be traced primarily to the writings of socialist theoreticians. It has in fact remained one of the key concepts of socialism down to the present time.”
Doubts about capitalism’s analytic utility, however, were not confined to the right. As the historian Howard Brick has demonstrated, throughout much of the twentieth century a substantial contingent of thinkers on the left believed that capitalism was either in the process of giving way to a more advanced mode of economic organization, or that the conversion to a postcapitalist order had already taken place. This perspective enjoyed its greatest prominence in the aftermath of World War II, a period viewed today as the golden age of capitalism but that at the time was also portrayed as the dawning of postcapitalism. States endowed with new powers by wartime victories seemed like they might be on the verge of uncovering a course beyond capitalism and socialism, where the good of society would supersede the exigencies of economics. Marxists flirted with speculations along these lines, too, before the onset of the Cold War hardened previously fluid divisions. Academics continued the debate in the 1960s when proponents of convergence theory argued that both sides of the Iron Curtain had moved toward a common model where bureaucratic efficiency trumped clashing ideologies.
With the riddle of prosperity solved, many on the left assumed that the time had come to address loftier questions: eliminating poverty, expanding civil rights, protecting the environment, and more existential concerns like nurturing individuality in a bureaucratized society. No wonder radicals in the 1960s could insist that “capitalism” wasn’t large enough to capture their critique. Paul Potter, former president of Students for a Democratic Society, complained that the word summoned images of an old left mired in archaic battles from the Great Depression. For Potter, “the system” was larger than capitalism, and “rejection of the old terminology” was “part of the new hope for radical change.”
In the 1970s, visions of a society beyond capitalism or socialism melted away, along with the robust growth rates that had made them plausible. Economic questions returned with a ferocity that made the prophets of postcapitalism appear deluded about the impediments they faced, and the once-imposing schema detailed by social theorists like Talcott Parsons came to seem flabby when contrasted with the remorseless clarity offered by an ascendant economics profession and its corps of mathematicians. Capitalism, now stripped of its explicitly socialist connotations, became a staple in the rhetoric of both left and right. By the end of the decade, it was easier to deny the existence of society—as Margaret Thatcher famously would—than to challenge capitalism’s pre-eminence as a category of analysis.
Socialists might have enjoyed watching the triumph of an idea they had concocted if they had not been busy combating growing dissent within their ranks. These difficulties seemed manageable in the 1970s, when Western governments had many fires of their own to put out. Ten years later, capitalists had regained their footing, while the socialist project continued to decay. Francis Fukuyama’s advertisement for history’s denouement was still on the horizon, but the habits of thinking that would undergird his thesis had already sunk deep roots. Marxism was built upon faith in revolution, but in the West revolution seemed more implausible than ever, and in Eastern Europe the continent’s only widespread revolution had Marxism in its sights. The collapse of communist governments that began in 1989 revealed that history had readied one last twist of the knife: nothing did more to entrench the acceptance of capitalism than the demise of the movement that had invented the concept.
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Until recently, that was how the story ended. Not that opposition to capitalism ceased after the fall of the German Democratic Republic and the USSR. There were still governments nominally committed to communism, and non-Marxist left-wing parties continued to win elections. In the United States, the campaign against globalization captured national attention in 1999, when activists clashed with police in Seattle during a meeting of the World Trade Organization. But for large swaths of the left and the right, these seemed like shallow eddies running against the overpowering tide of what was increasingly referred to as “global capitalism.”
Marxists had painted an intimidating picture of the enemy: a totalizing system governed by the iron discipline of free markets, assimilating whatever it could, destroying the rest. When capitalism’s overthrow was excised from their master narrative, the only counsel that Marxists could offer was stoic resistance against despair, and the hope that the contradictions of capital would eventually yield the long-anticipated catastrophe. In the words of Perry Anderson, elder statesman of Anglo-American Marxism, the left required “uncompromising realism” that would never “lend credence to illusions that the system is moving in a steadily progressive direction.” That meant, above all, maintaining an unwavering focus on capitalism. “Only in the evolution of this order,” he maintained, “could lie the secrets of another one.”
The disasters of 2008 were not quite what Marxists had hoped capitalism’s internal logic would supply—the particular form the financial crisis assumed took almost everyone by surprise—but they were close enough. In the scramble for explanations that ensued, the handful of Marxists who had been writing thoughtfully about economics for decades (David Harvey, Robert Brenner and Giovanni Arrighi in particular) gained credibility for having at least declared that a crisis had been brewing. True, they had been issuing these predictions for some time, and many Marxists had been announcing capitalism’s imminent demise for even longer. Yet when contrasted with the pre-crisis consensus of experts who were supposed to know what they were talking about—economists, politicians and other important people in suits—stubborn pessimism seemed like a bracing corrective. A small but serious Marxist renaissance followed. Capitalism was in question again, and the shock of the emergency had jolted its previously moribund antagonist back to life, if not as a political movement, then at least as an intellectual one.
The icons of Marxism’s resurgence had more than their fair share of gray whiskers, but in the United States the most enthusiastic followers sprang from the ranks of the young and bookish. Thus was born one of the most curious features of the contemporary intellectual scene: millennial Marxism. Even among those who remained skeptical about Marxism, or just apathetic (surely the majority), 2008 assumed the status that 1989 had for their elders. Although the financial crisis and its aftermath did not have the same global ramifications as communism’s crack-up, they had a far greater impact in the United States—one whose damage fell disproportionately on the young. The disintegration of the Soviet bloc affected other people far away; the Great Recession happened here. Children of the Clinton years who could recall their parents rhapsodizing about tech booms and a new economy entered the weakest job market since the 1930s, and they did it encumbered with unprecedentedly high levels of student debt. This was an audience primed for lectures on the contradictions of capitalism.
There were other, less obvious sparks to Marxism’s rekindling. Among twentysomethings, the Soviet Union was a distant memory, if it was remembered at all, freeing socialists from the burden of explaining the drab realities of life under communism. Many had just left college, carrying with them fresh memories of an academic world that doubles as Marxism’s heartiest stronghold. Some of the intellectually inclined among them had grown weary of the squabbles about postmodernism and the end of history that had been grinding on for most of their lives. Marxism, which fell into neither of those camps, seemed novel by comparison. Those less disposed toward meditating on the world-historical welcomed the chance to re-emphasize work and labor, topics that had earlier seemed passé. Unions had once been pillars of the New Deal order, making them inviting targets for baby boomers looking to rebel. A half-century of retreat turned them into underdogs in need of allies, and made it easier to see labor not as the province of middle-aged white men attending AFL-CIO meetings but as an issue of universal significance. The commitment was lighter, but easier to share, maybe with a post on Facebook.
Shifts in American politics also provoked a leftward turn. Barack Obama owed his election to support from under-30s, but the visions of his youthful supporters—something like a second Camelot, but with more Beyoncé—were inchoate. Once Timothy Geithner, Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton proved disappointing substitutes, new outlets appeared for the expectations that Obama had aroused. The political itinerary of the archetypal millennial might have started with volunteering for Obama’s 2008 campaign and joining one of the enormous crowds that thronged his swing-state rallies in the run-up to the election; then, jumping ahead two years, attending Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a satirical rendition of “Hope and Change” pitched to much the same demographic; and, finally, in the autumn of 2011, a trip to Zuccotti Park or some other scruffy redoubt of Occupy Wall Street.
The anarchist core of Occupy had not joined the groundswell for Obama, but what the diehards wanted was always less important than what Occupy came to represent for the vastly larger numbers who were attracted to the movement but never set foot in one of its outposts. Discussions of economic inequality had been in retreat for decades until, suddenly, “We are the 99 percent!” became the most popular rallying cry since “Yes we can.” That a few thousand people scattered across the country could become the receptacle of hopes placed three years earlier in a newly elected president of the United States was astounding. It was also, perhaps inevitably, ephemeral.
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Inequality receded from the media’s attention once the protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park. Unaccustomed recognition had energized activists, and tactics associated with Occupy spread far beyond the encampments, but these were only pieces of a grander transformation that had briefly seemed within reach. Yet the protests have had an enduring, and surprising, legacy. The crowds that gathered in Zuccotti Park were not marching to advance the careers of young, ambitious, radical writers, but there were more than a few who fit that description in their number. Cloaked in the moral authority of Occupy and connected by networks stitched together during those hectic days in 2011, a contingent of young journalists speaking through venues both new and old, all of them based in New York City—Jacobin, n+1, Dissent and occasionally this magazine, among others—have begun to make careers as Marxist intellectuals. Since 2008, mainstream journals ranging from Time to Foreign Affairs had been speculating that Marx might have his vengeance (the latter with an article from Fukuyama publicizing the latest revelation bestowed on him after consultation with History’s oracles). Now, it seemed, Marx’s heirs had arrived, and they were naturals with social media.
There’s a hefty dose of irony here, because Marxists were some of Occupy’s greatest early skeptics. But the savvier among them quickly spotted an opportunity and fashioned themselves as spokespeople for the movement. Not the movement as it was, but as they thought it should be: an expression of working-class resentment against capitalism and the ruling class. The positions were radical, but the language was more comprehensible to mainstream observers than most of what was spilling out of Zuccotti.
This new cohort of Marxists has thrived on the peculiarities of the contemporary media ecology. Despite the skepticism of their less technologically besotted elders, they have made the web into an effective mechanism for disseminating their ideas. Thanks to the Internet, little magazines can conjure up a global audience if they know how to get enough clicks. It’s a technology suited to subjects that appeal to passionately devoted followers spread across wide distances, whether it is Marxism or national politics (hence, Politico) or sports (Grantland) or videos of adorable cats (pretty much everything else on the nonporn Internet). And it’s perfect for aspiring institution-builders looking to create their own forums rather than climb to the top of an existing organization; all the better if there’s a radical ideology to distinguish the new crowd from their more senior (and, implicitly, stodgy/troglodyte/dying) counterparts. After such a long exile from public debate, even conventional Marxist tropes seem original, and daring, to those without a background in Marxism, which happens to include the overwhelming majority of American journalists.
Combine all this with some fondness for navel gazing and with the fortunes of geography—politics aside, New York writers are New York writers, and they like to talk about each other—and the pieces are in place for the articles declaring the rebirth of Marxism that have become a minor genre in the last year. Like a puffer fish temporarily ballooning to vastly larger sizes, the Marxist revival can seem more imposing than it is. For a certain type of reader, however, it’s easy to forget the illusion when there are so many withering tweets to skim.
More important, though, are the contours of the understanding of capitalism that have been set in place for decades. Those born in the West since the 1970s are the first generation ever to grow up with capitalism as the natural center of economic debate. The question has been how best to fix what ails capitalism, not whether to ditch it altogether. This fact worked in the status quo’s favor before 2008. Reformist impulses survived, but with curtailed horizons. Even the most admirable pieces of technocratic fiddling, from bolstering the Earned Income Tax Credit to streamlining government, while laudable on their own merits, were hardly visionary.
After the financial crisis, however, it seemed like capitalists had flunked a test they had themselves designed. Marxism might have failed as a political project, but the conditions were set for its recovery as critique, both because of where it diverged from the consensus and what it affirmed. It was easy to swap one kind of economism for another. Like a photographic negative, the Marxist critique took what was light in the capitalist worldview and made it dark. The outlines of the picture were the same, but the shadings reversed. The resulting image was arresting—definitely worth putting on Instagram.
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What are the ideas behind this intellectual reawakening? To some extent, it’s too soon to tell. Stimulating critical engagements can run in the same journal alongside paint-by-numbers Marxism. One early Jacobin editorial announced in 2011 that it had become “clear to all that Obama, and the Democrats generally, have made themselves the instruments of an energized and revanchist ruling class which has seized a moment of economic dislocation and working class disarray to roll back the meager but long-hated social protections of the New Deal and Great Society”—a claim that was, in fact, clear to almost nobody anywhere. But just a few pages over, the Australian economist Mike Beggs dismissed most of Marxist economics as a futile attempt to breathe life into a “Zombie Marx.”
The latest issue of Jacobin carries an even more striking departure from Marxist orthodoxy in the form of an editorial defending “cyborg socialism.” Written by Alyssa Battistoni, a graduate student in political science at Yale who has established herself as the most exciting voice in a crowded field, the piece (along with a companion essay) offers the beginnings of a socialism that faces up to the challenges posed by ecological crisis and distances the journal from what Battistoni calls “sweeping critiques of the ‘it’s capitalism, stupid’ variety.” Her perspective can be reconciled, after enough contortions, with the more traditionally Marxist articles that form the bulk of what the magazine publishes, in print and online. But there’s no reason it needs to be, and it’s just as easy to imagine her work spinning onto altogether different paths.
More internally consistent are the books that have begun to arrive. Cubed, from Nikil Saval, an editor at n+1 and a labor activist in his early 30s, is so far the most formidable of the lot. Saval labels it a “social history” of the office, but that’s a bit of false advertising. At least for scholars, the description suggests detailed statistical research, based on deep immersion in the archives, about those otherwise forgotten to history. Saval’s primary sources, by contrast, are often cultural; novelists, architects, filmmakers, designers and theorists of the office receive as much attention as the workers themselves.
Cubed, however, is less concerned with people than with a promise they were made: that those who spent their careers hunched over desks wrangling paper would have a more dignified laboring life than the traditional working class—that the office, in short, was not just a white-collar factory. Time and again, Saval shows employers breaking that promise. Ultimately, he offers a beautifully rendered exploration of a very old question: Why is there no socialism in the United States? According to Saval, part of the answer turns on the allure of a white-collar lifestyle that trapped its victims in isolated workspaces and stymied union organizing. Cubed is targeted at a mainstream audience, and Saval underplays the radicalism of his thesis, but it’s there for those who know where to look, who can recognize a reference to “homogenous, empty time” as a wink at Walter Benjamin, even though it doesn’t come inside quotation marks.
Like a substantial portion of the writings by millennial Marxists, Cubed breaks little new intellectual ground. In Saval’s hands, the office becomes a site for illustrating shifts in capitalism that many others have already demonstrated, not for writing a history that revises this larger picture. Although sections of the book shine—especially when it discusses gender in the workplace—they never cohere into anything greater. The influence of C. Wright Mills’s 1951 classic White Collar is pervasive, but not always for the better. Even the dichotomy between factory and office, so fundamental to Saval’s analysis, seems more a product of Mills’s time than of ours, when both forms of employment are giving way to a rapidly growing service sector. Saval writes that “the United States is a nation of clerks,” but it will soon be almost as fair to say we are a nation of nurses. After all the caveats have been registered, however, the elegance of his prose and the intensity of his (just barely concealed) moral commitment linger.
For a more full-throated celebration of Marxism, there’s Utopia or Bust, the latest work from Benjamin Kunkel, one of Saval’s senior colleagues at n+1. Kunkel describes himself in the book’s introduction as “a guy with a literary background,” but that undersells the product. Indecision, Kunkel’s first and only novel, is modest but charming and deceptively thoughtful. A kind of socialist coming-of-age story, it charts the growing awareness of Dwight Wilmerding, its ignorant but enthusiastic narrator. As Kunkel notes in Utopia or Bust, Dwight’s “naiveté was meant…to allow him to look at the world—which could only be that of neoliberal globalization—with relatively fresh eyes.” That might seem like a retrospective justification, but it’s an apt summary of a book that ends with Dwight’s only semi-ironic conversion to “democratic socialism.”
Since the release of Indecision in 2005, Kunkel has spent much of his time examining neoliberal globalization for himself. While other novelists have turned their attention to radical politics—last year alone, that included Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens—Kunkel has gone further, now styling himself (again, only semi-ironically) a “Marxist public intellectual” and “autodidactic political economist.” Utopia or Bust collects previously published records of this transformation, mostly essays from the London Review of Books examining contemporary Marxism’s canonical figures. The result, in Kunkel’s words, is a brief study of “global capitalism and its theorists.” Playful and unfailingly lucid, even when the theorists in question are neither, the book is one of the most enjoyable pieces of Marxist criticism in many years—imagine a more politically oriented Zadie Smith who can’t wait to explain Fredric Jameson’s interpretation of postmodernism. Kunkel has more than solidified his unofficial role as the smart older brother to all the sad young literary Marxists populating the Internet.
Precisely because of its clarity, however, Utopia or Bust reveals some of the more peculiar aspects of a group that can seem more inclined to recite Marx than to rethink Marxism, or move beyond it. The book is a prelude to a larger work that Kunkel promises will integrate Marxism and ecology, but evidence of that project is largely absent here. Though capable of skewering his subjects, Kunkel goes soft when he turns to the Marxist political economists, generally confining his analysis to exposition and immanent critique.
Then there is the constant affirmation of defeat required by a fixation on what Kunkel calls a “near unchallenged global capitalism.” Power disparities are real, and so too are the injustices perpetrated by those who command the enormous resources available to the world’s economic elite. But Marxists have a weakness for taking capitalists at their word, which distorts their appraisal of the messy way that actually existing capitalism functions. Depictions of a totalizing capitalism were useful to fin-de-siècle socialists trying to convince potential recruits that revolution was looming, and they have been a handy cudgel ever since, even for capitalists eager to declare victory over socialism after 1989. But that’s a polemical virtue, not an analytical one. As Joseph Schumpeter observed many years ago, “the capitalist order not only rests on props made of extra-capitalist material but also derives its energy from extra-capitalist patterns of behavior.” The best Marxist writing recognizes this implicitly, but the insight gets mangled when the theorizing begins. Exceptions to the rule of capital have always been essential: household labor conducted without wages, slavery up through the nineteenth century, and investments gushing in from China today, to name just a few. And that doesn’t include supposedly atavistic holdouts from a pre-capitalist order that have not just endured but thrived in the last century, including conservative variants of Islam that underwrite Middle Eastern governments responsible for mainlining oil into the global economy. Capitalism has never wielded anything like unchecked domination over the globe. If it came close, the system would crack apart in about as much time as it takes to finish this sentence.
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Searching for conceptual breakthroughs in the journals of the newest left, however, misunderstands their project. They aim not just to transform the world of ideas but also to advance a political agenda, a point that’s made especially clear in Jacobin. Here, politics does not mean an endless conversation open to ambiguity, uncertainty and difference. No, politics is a war—specifically, a class war—and the only hope an embattled left has is to organize. The inspiration derives from a mash-up of the greatest hits of European Marxism and the history of the American right from Barry Goldwater to Ted Cruz. Allies will be taken, even sought out, wherever they can be found. But the purpose is to teach (and preach), not to learn.
While the tactics are clear, questions both proximate and distant remain unanswered. Where, for instance, are the troops supposed to come from? Occupy provided cover on this front through 2012. But as the prospects of its return have dwindled, seemingly to nothing, so has the plausibility of a dramatic reordering of politics. That leaves Marxists with the prospective coalition members that beleaguered American socialists have courted for decades: a labor movement that, occasional bright spots aside, seems trapped in perpetual decline; bureaucrats struggling to protect themselves from government cutbacks; and anyone else that can be drawn in from among the marginalized and dispossessed and forced, at last, into class consciousness.
On whether that coalition would push for revolution—a crucial issue in the history of socialism—the next left has so far been ambivalent. The preferred formulation is “revolutionary reformism,” the idea being that appropriate reforms today can lead to more drastic changes tomorrow. This tactically savvy move positions young Marxists as peddlers of gateway drugs to radicalism, the type of revolutionaries who might be recurring panelists on MSNBC. It also leads to mushiness when the discussion turns abstract, encouraging a reliance on vague exhortations to be “both patient and visionary, pragmatic and utopian” (in the words of Jacobin’s founder, Bhaskar Sunkara) that sound borrowed from a commencement address.
In good Marxist tradition, the millennials are best when they’re on the attack. Here, too, they’ve been shrewd, picking as one of their chief targets a group that more than anything resembles slightly older versions of themselves: technocratic liberals like Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, former enfant terrible representatives of the blogger left in the latter days of the Bush administration who have since posted and reposted their way to mainstream respectability. En route, they have ditched their openly liberal politics and youthful provocations—in 2008, Klein could still tweet of Tim Russert: “fuck him with a spiky acid-tipped dick”—to refashion themselves as masters of data and translators of politically relevant scholarship for popular audiences. Left-wing politics are faintly present, but they’re of the “reality has a well-known liberal bias” kind. And they’ve become fainter still in the young technocrats’ latest effort, a website named Vox headed by Klein and Yglesias and advertised as “the world’s first hybrid news site/encyclopedia.”
Their differences with the Marxists are obvious, but there’s a kinship in the shared aspirations to push beyond punditry’s traditional conventions. One hopes to frame debate through data, the other to engage more directly with politics—perhaps, eventually, with a socialist party of their own. More than ambition, however, links these two. They have each picked up halves of a project that reaches back centuries: to know society, and to remake it.
Both groups appear supremely confident, one in its information, the other in its ideology. But cracks have begun to emerge beneath the glossy surfaces. In the wake of the financial crisis, it was easy to predict the closing of a historical parenthesis that would usher in a new politics, heralded either by Obama or Occupy. With those options exhausted, the most astute in both camps are occupying themselves with an unfamiliar challenge: figuring out what to do after the crisis is over.
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The answer might involve confronting an issue older than the feud between socialism and capitalism. Economic inequality, after fading from attention post-Occupy, has in recent months roared back to prominence. Obama’s announcement in December that income inequality constitutes “the defining challenge of our time” is perhaps the most memorable line of his second term. Pope Francis has pronounced inequality “the root of social ills” and called for a campaign against its “structural causes.” Even the hosts of the annual World Economic Forum at Davos singled out inequality as one of today’s most pressing “global risks.” It has also become something of a cottage industry among Washington’s liberal wonks thanks to Democratic power broker John Podesta, who launched a research center devoted to the subject last fall.
Good timing, then, for the French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a newly translated book that stands a fair chance of becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young century. It is the most important study of inequality in over fifty years, synthesizing conclusions that Piketty and a team of other researchers have reached over more than a decade of investigation. It is also the kind of sweeping theoretical inquiry that Marxists sometimes pretend is their exclusive preserve. Not coincidentally, Piketty adopts the same label for his project that Marxists often claim for themselves. Dismissing the pretensions of “economic science,” he writes, “I much prefer the expression ‘political economy.’”
Piketty’s name has long been familiar to economists, who know him as one of the world’s leading experts on inequality. He owes his reputation not to mathematical dexterity, the typical entry to prestige within the dismal science, but to his prodigious skills as a researcher. Before Piketty, economists had typically relied on household surveys to map inequality. But his sources—chiefly, tax and estate records—have a distinct advantage over the standard practice: they illuminate shifts among the wealthiest that household surveys obscure. Piketty discovered a way of tracking the fortunes of the 1 percent years before Occupy introduced the phrase. Not coincidentally, charts produced by Piketty and his longtime collaborator Emmanuel Saez became ubiquitous in Occupy’s heyday.
From the outset of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty situates himself in a dialogue with Marx. Even the title gestures at this ambition, with its nod to an earlier Capital, presumably for the nineteenth century. But he adds another name to the conversation. Simon Kuznets was arguably the greatest empirical economist the discipline has ever seen, and he is Piketty’s most significant predecessor in the study of economic inequality. Capital in the Twenty-First Century shuttles between Marx and Kuznets, trying to match the former’s monumental scale and the latter’s meticulous empirics. Sometimes he stumbles, but the audacity of the effort, and his many successes, command admiration. Piketty’s goal is nothing less than to revive the ideal of an integrated social science that treats other disciplines not as rivals to be colonized (as is often the case when economists go peeking across departmental fences) but as colleagues in a shared project.
Hopes of unifying the social sciences were prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century, but they have an especially lengthy genealogy in France. In the nineteenth century, self-described “social economists,” like the first socialists, claimed to speak on behalf of society as a whole and issued repeated calls for a cohesive social science. At the time, economic training prepared future leaders to deal with the challenges of policy-making, not to master recondite theories. Most economists were educated either in classics or law and had little grasp of mathematics. That resistance to mathematicization endured well into the twentieth century. As Piketty notes, the legacy of this tradition has carried into the present. In France, he observes, somewhat hyperbolically, “economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites,” and therefore “must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy.” Tapping into a resonant vocabulary, he recently told an interviewer, “I regard myself as a social scientist as much as an economist.” If the methodological aspiration sounds reminiscent of earlier generations of postcapitalist thinkers, so do the politics. Though not a Marxist, Piketty is firmly of the left. A supporter of France’s Socialist Party, he has said that he “dream[s] of a rational and peaceful overcoming of capitalism.”
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Chest-pounding about methodology and decrees on capitalism would be of little interest if they were not joined to substantive intellectual discoveries. Piketty’s contributions on this front come in three interlocking clusters: historical, theoretical and political. Relying chiefly on data from Britain, the United States and France, he casts his gaze over what the French historian Fernand Braudel, cited by Piketty as one of his inspirations, termed the longue durée. Much of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is, essentially, a history of the modern world viewed through the relationship between two factors: economic growth, with all its promises, and the return on capital, a reward that goes to the small fraction of the population that has mastered what Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock referred to as “that thing that rich people do where they turn money into more money.”
The rich perfected that art a long time ago. According to Piketty, the average return on capital, after adjusting for inflation, has hovered around 5 percent throughout history, with a slight decline after World War II. Whatever problems capitalists will face in the future, he suggests, a crisis generated by falling profits is not likely to be among them. Economic growth, by contrast, has a far more abbreviated chronology. According to the most reliable estimates—sketchy, but better than nothing—for most of human history, economic growth was on the order of 0.1 percent a year, provided there were no famines, plagues or natural disasters. This gloomy record began to change for part of the world during the Industrial Revolution. Judged by later standards, “revolution” might seem too generous a phrase for growth rates in per capita output that ran to under 1.5 percent in both Western Europe and the United States; but compared with the entire earlier history of human existence, those rates were astonishing.
More impressive developments were in store. The twentieth century, Piketty writes, was the moment when “economic growth became a tangible, unmistakable reality for everyone.” In the United States, which had benefited earlier from high growth rates, per capita output ticked up to just under 2 percent between 1950 and 1970. In the same period, growth in Europe doubled that; Asian countries averaged just a step behind Europe; and many African nations reached numbers closer to—but ahead of—the United States.
Piketty is less concerned with this global story, however, than with a concurrent development in Europe. In the nineteenth century, growth had done nothing to reduce income inequality. This was the world Marx diagnosed in Capital, and in crucial respects, Piketty thinks he got it right. Not that the entire apparatus of Marxist political economy holds, if it ever did. On the key issue of the tendency for wealth to accumulate in fewer hands, though, Piketty believes Marx arrived at a profound insight.
But not a timeless one. Wages for workers had begun to rise around the time Capital was published, a significant but not fatal complication to Marx’s analysis. The real challenge came with World War I. Piketty uses a simple formula to illuminate the dynamics at work. Inequality tends to rise, he argues, when the average rate of return on capital exceeds the economy’s growth rate (or, as he puts it, when r > g). That ratio worked in capital’s favor throughout the nineteenth century, and at the dawn of the twentieth, there was little reason to believe it would change without a revolution by the proletariat. Then 1914 inaugurated three decades of catastrophe.
The wealth of Europe’s elite was one of the era’s casualties: outright destruction, high inflation, confiscatory taxation, and governments that began catering to labor’s demands all combined to obliterate vast swaths of capital. By 1950, economic inequality had plummeted, not because of the welfare state’s rational evolution, but through some of history’s greatest tragedies. What amounted to the collective suicide of capitalist Europe coincided with astounding growth rates produced by recovery from the war. With capital reeling and growth rocketing ahead, the conditions were set for unprecedented egalitarian advances, including the birth of a property-owning middle class, all because of an extraordinary inversion: for the first time, g > r.
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Seen from Piketty’s vantage point, thousands of feet above the rubble, the fragility of this moment becomes clear. Economic growth was a recent invention, major reductions to income inequality more recent still. Yet the aftermath of World War II was filled with prophets forecasting this union into eternity. Kuznets offered the most sophisticated expression of this cheerful projection. Extrapolating from the history of the United States between 1913 and 1948, he concluded that economic growth automatically reduced income inequality. This was the moment when, as Piketty observes with both regret and nostalgia, “the illusion that capitalism had been overcome” secured widespread acceptance.
Time soon deflated this optimism. Although the growth of global GDP has accelerated—billions of people across Asia are now catching up to their rivals, a position analogous to Europe after World War II—the best available evidence suggests that these levels are impossible to sustain at the technological frontier. Europe’s per capita growth dropped to just below 2 percent from 1980 to 2012; the United States’ was even slower, coming in at 1.3 percent. Meanwhile, the link between rising GDP and falling inequality was severed, with the largest gains from diminished growth flowing to the richest of the rich—not even to the 1 percent, but to the one-tenth of 1 percent and higher.
Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory, demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, given the tendency for the returns on capital to outpace growth. Unfortunately for us, he concludes, “the inequality r > g has clearly been true throughout most of human history, right up to the eve of World War I, and it will probably be true again in the twenty-first century.”
Like any major work of scholarship, Capital in the Twenty-First Century will be subjected to numerous critiques. Many lines of attack are already obvious. Specialists will challenge individual interpretations and note that there are not nearly as much data as investigators would like, especially before the twentieth century. Piketty does the best with what is available, but the best simply might not be enough to verify his claims, and even his sympathizers might cringe at the readiness with which he uses a largely European—to be more precise, largely French—history to ground proclamations about the universal dynamics of capitalism. The mechanics of how Europe and the United States achieved such notable egalitarian successes require far more scrutiny than they receive here, where the causal story can veer into a martial determinism portraying inequality’s decline as a natural byproduct of war. He has a weakness for grand decrees pitting democracy against capitalism that, while rhetorically effective, muddy the analysis. Ideal types of both can be constructed and contrasted, but these histories are so entangled that any serious inquiry would soon confront insuperable obstacles. Piketty knows this—“economic and political changes are inextricably intertwined,” he writes, “and must be studied together”—but the critical perspective turns goopy when the rhapsodies to democracy commence.
Then there is the question of style. Piketty’s writing is straightforward, but the book is mammoth, often repetitive, and padded with forays into cultural criticism that are not nearly as edifying as he thinks. Discussions of Balzac and Jane Austen are mildly helpful as demonstrations of the attitudes toward capital in the nineteenth century, but they offer rapidly diminishing returns and do little to substantiate Piketty’s strange contention that novelists have lost interest in the details of money, a claim plausible only to someone who has never heard of Tom Wolfe or Martin Amis. Other references—Mad Men, Django Unchained, Damages and, repeatedly, Titanic—add even less. Though perhaps they address other concerns: judging from a footnote, Piketty still harbors a grudge about the plotlines in Desperate Housewives.
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Despite the lengthy historical surveys, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as its title implies, is as much about the future as it is about the past. Per capita growth for developed economies, Piketty believes, has settled at approximately its maximum sustainable rate, around 1 percent annually. That was enough to make people in the nineteenth century feel they were caught in perpetual revolution, but judged by the best of the twentieth century, or China and India today, it seems positively anemic. With growth reduced, escalating income inequality is all but inevitable without aggressive policy intervention. Piketty’s demand for a global progressive tax on capital has garnered the most attention, usually from commentators eager to dismiss it as utopian. But the global tax is more of a rhetorical gambit than a substantive proposal. It is designed to make Piketty’s real aspiration—the same tax, but confined to the European Union—seem more attainable. When the alternative requires obtaining planetary consent, making one continent sign on to a policy becomes a reasonable reach. Countries as large as the United States, he believes, could go it alone with considerable success.
Progressive taxation of capital is one part of a larger project that Piketty calls building “a social state for the twenty-first century.” This economist is no revolutionary: the major arguments over the structure of government, he believes, have already been settled. The twentieth century bequeathed a vision of government responsible for the education, health and pensions of its citizens, and those obligations will be upheld in the twenty-first. For Piketty, the most urgent task is not raising the general welfare but clawing back the advances of the 1 percent. Much needs to be done, he writes, “to regain control over a financial capitalism that has run amok.”
A good first step would involve hiking tax rates for the wealthy to “confiscatory” levels—about 80 percent for those earning over half a million dollars a year, according to Piketty’s admittedly rough estimates. Boosting taxation on the rich would not only enlarge the state’s coffers; it would help restore sanity to a culture of executive compensation deranged by low marginal rates. The aim is not so much to tax millionaires but to push rates high enough to deter people from pursuing a millionaire’s salary in the first place, a goal he asserts, with ample evidence, that can be achieved without damaging long-term growth.
There are, however, limits to what Piketty thinks democracy can achieve. Political economy, after all, has two halves. Politics constitute a sphere of choice in which people come together and decide their fates. But there are certain laws that not even the unanimous will of the people can repeal, and that’s when the economists arrive. According to Piketty, the tendency for inequality to rise when the return on capital exceeds growth is one of those laws. Though democracies can manage the challenges this poses, the fundamental condition will persist. The disease is chronic; the question is whether it will prove fatal.
Piketty offers little ground for optimism. The only forces capable of substantially reversing the march toward inequality that he uncovers are war and economic depression—even then, war seems like a surer tonic—and he could have been grimmer. Capital in the Twenty-First Century is permeated with an idealistic vocabulary taken from the eighteenth century. Claims to France’s revolutionary legacy wind through the book, starting with the introduction, which opens with a quotation from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Yet democracy has shown another face in its subsequent career. Democratic ideals have inspired countless egalitarian movements, but liberal democracy has triumphed across so much of the world because of its success as counterrevolutionary reform: no other political system has done a better job defanging social resentment and fostering acceptance of vast inequalities. The ability to dismiss elected officials when they prove disappointing might seem like a feeble vestige of what democracy promised, especially after tabulating the paltry fraction of the population that bothers to engage in the process, but it has proved remarkably effective at the baser task of protecting the powerful.
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A skeptical technocrat would caution that our data set is too small to justify despair. There are few examples of successful efforts to rewind inequality at the national level, but just a century ago there were even fewer, violent or otherwise. The contemporary political scene, with its bulky welfare states and army of experts, is more novel than foreshortened historical memories allow. In this setting, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, though dubious as a work of democratic theory, might achieve more in the world of democratic practice.
But if that occurs, it will owe much to Piketty’s affinities with two startling predecessors. More than fifty years have passed since the appearance of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States, but it remains the most influential work of economics in the last century not written by John Maynard Keynes. Like Piketty, Friedman and Schwartz grounded their theorizing on a command of vast stores of data. It was a ruthlessly academic text, yet it entranced a rising generation of economists, including the young Ben Bernanke, who credited it with inspiring his specialization in monetary theory. When stagflation seemed to undermine the pillars of Keynesian economics in the 1970s, desperate policy-makers clutched at policies legitimized by Friedman and Schwartz (the former, as it happens, a protégé of Simon Kuznets). Political debate can swerve in unexpected directions, and though it helps to have the powerful on your side, the opposition of weighty interests is not always decisive. Economists were at the vanguard of the turn against the postwar order decades ago, predictably enough, because no other social science wields comparable influence over governance. Piketty’s career shows that at least some economists are ready to help repair the damage their colleagues have inflicted.
They might be helped along the way by a reinvigorated radical, even Marxist, left. But it would be over Piketty’s objections. Early on, he locates himself firmly in a generation defined by communism’s breakdown. “I was vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism,” he writes, “some of which simply ignored the historic failure of Communism and much of which turned its back on the intellectual means necessary to push beyond it.” Though he is a more generous reader of Marx, Piketty falls into the same harsh tone whenever he turns to Marx’s successors. The hostility matches the temper among French intellectuals after their widespread turn against Marxism in the 1970s, but it is troubling to watch him snarling at prospective allies when the scale of the challenge facing advocates of equality is so daunting. It also runs against a more ecumenical disposition evinced in the book’s concluding paragraphs, in which he announces that the “bipolar confrontations of the period 1917–1989 are now clearly behind us” and declares that the time has come to abandon intellectual terrain shaped by Cold War conflicts.
Piketty’s rhetoric isn’t new. Variations of his theme date back at least to 1917, and paler imitations of it were ubiquitous in the “third way” manifestos of the 1990s. But it resonates in a different way today. Though it was easy to treat 1989 as the culmination of liberal capitalism’s majestic ascent, 2008 is harder to interpret, especially when so many of the predictions issued at the zenith of the financial crisis have failed to materialize: no second coming of the New Deal, no breakdown of the European Union, no fundamental recasting of geopolitics. After all this time, 2008 still seems like a violent rending of history’s fabric. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to weave a tapestry out of so many shreds.
That is probably for the best. The notion that history could have an end was always a delusion, an excuse to dress up passing preferences as dictates of a higher authority barely short of the divine. Determining history’s conclusion requires mastery of its entire arc, and that is a knowledge nobody can claim. What looks permanent can vanish in an instant, while the seemingly archaic can revive just as swiftly. Calling a stop to the game wards off the more troubling proposition that history has its jaws fastened around us, and isn’t ready to let go. The future will always surprise; that is our burden, and our privilege. Reflexive grasping at the language of the past, vividly displayed in the Marxist resurgence, brings a sense of order to what would seem like chaos. But a more promising alternative might be on the way. Marxism is one kind of socialism, but history suggests a much richer set of possibilities, along with some grounds for hope. So does a work like Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a sign that another lost tradition, the postcapitalist visions in abeyance since the 1970s, could be poised for a return; or, even better, that we might put aside old pieties and chart our own path.