Za tiste, ki še niste kupili dolgo pričakovanega angleškega prevoda zadnje knjige Thomasa Pikettya “Capital and Ideology” (izšel je 10. marca letos), je spodaj dobro napisan povzetek. Izvrstna recenzija v avtorstvu odličnega Marshalla Steinbauma v Boston Review.
Vsak Pikettyja seveda bere in razume na svoj način. Meni pa so se v tej knjigi najbolj usedle naslednje štiri stvari.
Prvič, kapitalizem je ideologija, pa čeprav so to ideologijo po sredini 1970. let poskušali zakriti prek koncepta meritokracije tako na politični kot na teoretski ravni.
Drugič, Piketty dobro opiše, kako je socialdemokracija zapustila delavski razred in postala zastopnik družbene intelektualne elite. Socialdemokratski politiki so ta prehod naredili tako, da so osebne ekonomske usode vezali na izobraževanje in s tem omogočili krivdo za neuspeh prenesti na posameznike. Pri tem pa pozabili, da nimajo vsi enakega dostopa do izobraževanja in da tudi izobrazba, čeprav še tako visoka, ne more preseči fundamentalnih družbenih in socialnih razlik, ki izhajajo iz razlik v premoženju. Kaj nekomu pomaga visoka izobrazba ali celo doktorat znanosti, če dela kot kot učitelj ali raziskovalec in je deležen mizerije plač v javnem sektorju?
Tretjič, ekonomisti so v zadnjih petih desetletjih veselo pripomogli k temu “meritokratskemu pogledu” z razvojem teoretskih konceptov, ki naj bi bili apolitični in absolutno neideološki. Pri tem pa je ideologija tako globoko vgrajena v vsak teoretski model in vsako enačbo slehernega modela, da se je ekonomisti sploh ne zavedajo. Stavim, da se 95% ekonomistov ne zaveda, kako globoko ideološki je vsak koncept, na katerega oni gledajo povsem tehnično kot optimizacijski, mehanski problem. Od tega, kako analiziramo trg dela kot običajen trg kateregakoli produkta, kako neenakost izvedemo na “meritokratsko” delitev na podlagi naše individualne mejne produktivnosti in jo s tem družbeno upravičimo. Malokateri ekonomist se zaveda globoke ideologije, vgrajene že v najbolj elementarno enačbo glede oblikovanja plač: w = MP ( plača je enaka mejni produktivnosti dela). Enačba je predpostavka vseh ekonomskih modelov, o kateri se nihče ne sprašuje več. Pri tem pa spregledajo, da se mejne produktivnosti dela ne da izmeriti in da je plača stvar družbenega dogovora glede delitve ustvarjene vrednosti. Da njeno raven torej določajo družbena razmerja (politična struktura, regulacija trga dela, moč sindikatov, moč kapitalskih lobijev, globalizacija itd.).
In četrtič, ker je kapitalizem ideološki, se je za bolj pravični družbeni sistem za večino prebivalstva treba boriti ideološko. To pomeni, da je kapitalizem potrebno demitologizirati, tako na proizvodni kot na delitveni strani, potrebno je analizirati družbena razmerja in kapitalizem reformirati na socialdemokratski način: (1) z regulacijo trgov, (2) z davčno reformo, (3) s socialnimi in redistribucijskimi politikami, (4) z zagotavljanjem enakih možnosti prek krepitve zagotavljanja vseh osnovnih storitev kot javnih storitev (šolstvo, zdravstvo, infrastruktura, dolgotrajna oskrba itd.). Vse skupaj pa ponekod reformirati tudi na lastniški ravni.
Piketty je – kot sodobni Marx, ki pa ni sovražen do kapitalizma – dober začetek zavedanja in analize problema kapitalizma kot sistema.
“Every human society must justify its inequalities,” the book begins. What follows is a comprehensive investigation of how different societies have done precisely that, ranging through what the book terms various “inequality regimes.”
What explains Piketty’s turn to the political? Brexit and the election of Donald Trump appear to have significantly influenced the trajectory of his scholarship toward greater engagement with the political science of inequality. The hallmark of his and his collaborators’ scholarship is exactly this fearlessness in looking wherever they have to for answers to the questions they pose: tax returns, probate records, wealth surveys, the Forbes 400 list, international financial flows, and, now, data more frequently examined by political scientists, namely, public opinion and voting behavior in democratic elections. Few economists are as methodologically curious and versatile, much less as adept.
When it comes to contemporary politics, Piketty’s central puzzle is why social democracy failed after the end of the Cold War. Did elitist politics exclude the working class from representation, undermining mass left politics from above? Or did the working class itself defect from the social democratic (and in the United States, the New Deal) consensus for identitarian reasons, in a racist-nativist backlash to the civil rights movement? Piketty argues for the former—elite alienation from the top rather than defection from below.
Part of his evidence is declining voter turnout among the working class during the same period that a nationalistic backlash has taken shape in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. Rather than flock to the nativist banner, many working-class voters, it appears, simply withdraw altogether from a political system they perceive to be dominated by elites. This analysis runs contrary to the beliefs of many mainstream economists. (Krugman, for example, casts suspicion on Piketty’s account by alleging that “most political scientists” in the United States “stress the importance of race and social issues in driving the white working class away from Democrats, and doubt that a renewed focus on equality would bring those voters back.”) But one of the reasons Piketty remains such a vital public voice is that he is willing to take sides, in public, on controversial issues both inside and outside his home academic discipline. This gives the book both an outsider’s sensibility as well as the reassurance that an intellectual giant has put his vast resources to work on behalf of those who aren’t used to hearing their story told and validated.
The mechanics of the alienation of the working class forms a central thread of the book’s second half. Piketty traces the rise of an elite consensus between what he terms the “Brahmin Left” and the “Merchant Right.” By the Merchant Right, he means a financial and business elite that has typically supported the deregulation of markets, the slashing of public budgets, and the disempowerment of organized labor. By the Brahmin Left, he means the highly educated professionals who have come to form the voting base of mainstream left political parties across major developed economies, forsaking the earlier affiliation of the left with the poorly educated working class. In the United States in 1948, for example, support for the Democratic presidential candidate was highest among voters with less than a high school education and declined as you moved up the educational hierarchy. The reverse was true in 2016: the more education a voter had, the more likely he or she was to vote Democratic. Generally lower levels of educational attainment among Black and immigrant voters mitigated this trend for a while, but that effect has ebbed with the diffusion of higher education across the population.
Piketty attaches a great deal of significance to this conversion. “Like left-wing parties in France,” he writes, “the Democratic Party in the United States transitioned over half a century from the workers’ party to the party of the highly educated.” Elites’ distance from working-class interest, he contends, led the Democratic party and its ideological counterparts abroad to accede to a policy program betraying the values of social democracy: regressive taxation, elite domination of higher education systems, and forms of globalization that enabled the wealthy to hide their assets from tax authorities and trade agreements that facilitated outsourcing. The culmination of this trend, Piketty argues, is especially apparent in the “progressive” coalition of Brahmin Left and Merchant Right underwriting the French presidency of Emmanuel Macron, with both groups united against what they perceive as a nationalist opposition comprising the mass of economic losers. The danger is that this nationalist opposition might be able win elections by reconstituting itself as politically populistic, reaping rich electoral and political returns among the very voters on whom elites have pinned labels like “racist” and “unskilled,” and who well understand the contempt with which they are disdained by those interested in rationalizing their own power.
Piketty calls the ideology of the Brahmin Left distinctively “meritocratic,” founded on the idea that higher education determines social worth. Capital and Ideology takes pains to historicize and denaturalize this notion, distinguishing it from the guiding ideology of earlier societies. “In previous inequality regimes,” he writes, “the poor were not blamed for their own poverty, or at any rate not to the same extent.” Instead earlier narratives of social organization “stressed instead the functional complementarity of different social groups.” And the meritocratic emphasis on the importance of education had real effects. Many countries, including the United States, expanded higher education on a seemingly egalitarian basis in the mid-twentieth century. The United States started to do so at more or less the same time that secondary education became universal, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education and the postwar economic boom—the high water mark of the social democratic era as Piketty conceptualizes it. The California Master Plan—like its equivalents in other states, culminating in the federal Higher Education Act of 1965—was enacted as a public good on the theory that higher education was the “next” universal benefit that affluent societies should provide.
After the civil rights backlash of the late 1960s and 1970s, however, institutional funding gave way to individual-level financing and the ideology of “human capital.” Because higher education provided individual students with increased lifetime earnings, the reasoning went, it could be financed individually through subsidized loans to pay tuition. That reasoning led to the dramatic expansion of higher education we have seen since the 1970s, and other developed countries have done likewise. But, as Piketty notes, in Britain, France, and the United States, spending on students in the lower reaches of the higher education system significantly trailed the resources available at the richest and most elite institutions—those with admissions policies intended to keep out all but a tiny, largely hereditary few.
This story of higher education crystallizes Piketty’s interpretation of the failure of postwar social democracy. If access to the best higher education is the sole determinant of social status, and if it is available only to a tiny elite, then our ideology of meritocracy is even more politically dangerous than it would be in a traditional aristocracy, where entitlement by birth is openly acknowledged rather than obscured under layers of pretense. Political elites believe their status has been “validated” by the higher education they have obtained—in turn fueling the resentment of those at the bottom, who have been excluded from economic security and political influence thanks to having failed to attend the right institutions. “Nearly everywhere a gaping chasm divides the official meritocratic discourse,” Piketty stridently sums up,
from the reality of access to education and wealth for society’s least favored classes. The discourse of meritocracy and entrepreneurship often seems to serve primarily as a way for the winners in today’s economy to justify any level of inequality whatsoever while peremptorily blaming the losers for lacking talent, virtue, and diligence.
One upshot of Piketty’s argument about the Brahmin Left—that elites are to blame for alienating working-class voters—is a sense of opportunity: it is meant to combat the fatalism that presumes they are permanently lost to the nativist right. A renewed politics of social democracy, he suggests, might draw those voters back to the left. “The problem” with the story of a bottom-up defection “is not just that it depends on the notion that the disadvantaged classes are by their very essence permanently racist. . . . More importantly, the theory is unconvincing because it fails to account for the observed facts.” Piketty goes on to point to the trans-regional, transnational, and trans-racial universality of the educational reshuffling of the electorate, as well as the fact that it played out over a longer period of time than the civil rights movement, even under the most generous possible dating.
Yet Piketty’s narrative does seem to be missing something about educational attainment and politics. As higher education has expanded, more of it has filtered “down” to the traditional working class. This happened precisely because higher education expansion was re-conceived as a labor market policy, a scheme for promoting “human capital”—but one whose cost could safely be transferred onto the backs of its beneficiaries, at least those of them excluded from the best-resourced institutions. This fact complicates the empirical picture. By catering to those with education, parties of the left are not simply abandoning the working class, because the working class is getting more educated.
A related complication for his Brahmin Left thesis is that age polarization in voting behavior has accompanied education polarization: left parties are simultaneously parties of the young and parties of the educated. But the significance of higher education is very different in successive age cohorts: among older voters, it signifies elite status, but among young voters, some experience of higher education is becoming universal (and thus elite status attaches to higher and higher levels of educational attainment, amounting to a credentialization rat race). Because of this filtering down and widening of education, we cannot conclude from the fact that they are parties of the educated that left political parties are not parties of the working class.
Thus the true elites of the Brahmin Left should be differentiated from the working-class members that comprise what we might call the Credentialized Left. There is a stark divide between those who view their elite education as constitutive of their professional status and those who view higher education as a necessary evil to preserve any semblance of labor market status (or alternatively, as having failed to fulfill its promise in the labor market) and who experience the debt they take on thereby as deeply burdensome and unfair. Within a generational cohort who might all report having a college degree, that divide is probably the salient electoral cleavage distinguishing supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016, or supporters of Macron in France and those to his left. Moreover, the striking losses of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the December 2019 UK general election—failing to unite an international, multi-cultural young left and an older core of traditional, less-educated Labour voters outside metropolitan areas—casts doubt on Piketty’s optimism regarding a renewed left internationalism.
Even if it misses these nuances, Capital and Ideology still makes clear that a political and ideological revolution is necessary in order to achieve a new era of economic justice. “The broadly social-democratic redistributive coalitions that arose in the mid-twentieth century,” he writes, “were not just electoral or institutional or party coalitions but also intellectual and ideological. The battle was fought and won above all on the battleground of ideas.” Unfortunately, saying, and even proving, that such a revolution is urgently necessary is not the same thing as making one happen, and on the latter count, there is little to be optimistic about.
One battleground where such revolution is badly needed is the economics profession itself. Indeed, Piketty’s new book shows that polarization is as rampant in academia as in society writ large, and his insights are often the most cutting when they are directed at the subject he knows best of all. One can see the prevailing ideology at work in responses to Piketty’s last book (which foretell a negative reception of this new one, too). As I wrote in 2017, Capital in the Twenty-First Century received a largely negative reception among economists, who sought to dismantle its conclusion that economic resources have been unjustly distributed, even if that was done according to “economic laws.” For such critics—who deploy many of the same meritocratic premises Piketty criticizes in the new book—the Amazons of the world are actually policy successes, and worker exploitation is actually just technological progress. All get their just deserts.
This reflexive tendency to defuse the critical force of the new scholarship on inequality has serious political ramifications. It is especially pernicious, not to mention hypocritical, because the economics discipline has worked very hard to be seen as above politics. Indeed, the American Economic Association was founded in 1885—amidst the excesses of the Gilded Age—precisely in order to portray the views and pronouncements of its members as authoritative and politically unmotivated.
Today the privileged status of the dispensations of mainstream economics looks increasingly suspect to many observers. The title of the economic historian Robert Skidelsky’s forthcoming book What’s Wrong with Economics?ž succinctly captures the popular mood. In the face of such criticism, many members of the profession resort to self-defense, denying or rationalizing popular dissatisfaction with both the nostrums of economic scholarship and the reality of economic outcomes. Indeed the self-image in much of the profession right now is that it has put to bed its past sins and ascended to a higher plain of scholarly rigor and fearlessness. As the book itself explains—in its careful analysis of the way political regimes are tied to ideological justifications—all this is likely to keep Capital and Ideology, along with similar scholarship, from getting the serious hearing it deserves, at least among Piketty’s own colleagues.
Ultimately, though, economists cannot be allowed to be the arbiters of the intensely political concerns Piketty takes up in the book, and the good news is that there is reason to believe they won’t be. The public is intensely dissatisfied with the alternatives on offer from the formal political system and most of what goes on in academia. In a crisis atmosphere like the current one, the transnational egalitarianism Piketty espouses will gain a hearing if only because it is the thing contemporary neoliberalism so clearly and ostentatiously defined itself against and sought to expunge completely from polite company. In that sense, at least, an ideological regime like hyper-capitalism does sow the seeds of its own destruction. In the meantime, as Antonio Gramsci observed, the old is dying but the new struggles to be born. Piketty is as good a midwife as we could want, and much better than we deserve.
Vir: Marshall Steinbaum, Boston Review