Piketty’s Capital

Review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

So this is the book Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman lauds and billionaire apologists decry. No need for such drama, though. This book – a close reading of the historical trajectories of capitalism with special attention to things like growth and inequality – is no call to storm the walls of capitalism. Indeed it is a reformist attempt to save capitalism from its own excesses, to save it from the kind of sweeping revolution that Russell Brand heralds.

Of course, Piketty, unlike Brand, is a professional economist, more wonkish than visionary, and still working in the Adam Smith to Karl Marx tradition of homo economicus, which presents homo sapiens fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations (compare to the dramatic conclusion of my “Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius). But Piketty, with his line graphs and tables, his sorting of economic laws that are mathematically fixed from economic laws that are subject to political intervention, is like a hungry badger digging into the internal mechanics of today’s capitalism. At least he seems a good “inside game” player to liaise with our visionaries when the Aquarian revolution comes.

Indeed, in his appetite for detail, the hungry badger sometimes seems unsure of his audience. He wants to pitch to a general audience, which means high-level narrative instead of “showing your work,” but, always aware of the secondary (academic) audience, he gets bogged down for pages on disclaimers, caveats, apologies for methodological imprecision, etc., that really just bore the general reader. And although the stats and charts are great for the most part, here also he sometimes gets bogged down in the numbers. It reminds me a little of Darwin’s 200-page digression (or so it seemed) on the tail feathers of the rock finch in Origin of Species (a book that was otherwise quite compelling for the average reader).

What the wonkish Piketty can and does give us, however, is a layman’s way into one of the basic problems in the trajectory of capitalism: Since return on capital always outstrips growth (r > g), the tendency is toward greater inequality (the capital/income ratio increasingly favors capital). This inexorable feature of capitalism was temporarily obscured by the shocks of the 20th century (1914-1945 and a recovery period through the 1970s). This period was anomalous in two ways: (1) growth of 2-3% came to seem normal (Piketty’s centuries of data show that 1% is actually robust growth in long run); (2) those shocks and after effects reduced the role of capital/inherited wealth, so it seemed capitalism was on a “natural” track toward increasing meritocracy and diminishing importance of inherited wealth. Now that the shock waves are over, both trajectories have returned to normal – growth is coming down and will probably level out at about 1%, and the role of capital/inherited wealth is concurrently going back up. Some of Piketty’s points are debatable, but the overall argument is compelling and the urgency real.

So how do we check the underlying forces of capitalism now pushing toward a renewed importance for inherited wealth and increased inequality? State expropriation of private property has been tried and failed to deliver on its promises. National taxes on capital won’t work because today it is too easy for the wealthy to relocate resources. Only an annual global tax on capital will do the trick, according to Piketty, and that means greater financial transparency and greater cross-national political collaboration. So he may not see beyond the age of homo economicus, he may not see into a future where self-actualization is detached from purchasing power and from the age-old struggle for resources, but if he develops his thesis with the restraint of a reformer, these final recommendations reveal a little bit of the visionary idealist in Piketty after all.

Aquarian Anarchy

Now for the new political position hinted at in my Russell Brand entries, profusely hyperlinked for your encyclopedic pleasure:

Aquarian Anarchy, or Aquarianarchy

Aquarianarchy (A-kwé-ri-ₔ-nár-kee): Rule by a bunch of idealist, neo-hippie waifs in communal forms of organization, suited to the forthcoming Age of Aquarius, with a little extra “anarchy” thrown in at the end.

Aquarianarchy recapitulates 1960s liberalism into a new political position that is outside the present left-right axis, a third pole if you will, with an eye on the progressive ideal of a society that is post-materialist, open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity and rich in human contact.

Aquarianarchy stands apart from today’s conservative economic and social vision via its critique of capitalism (Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius; Luddites and Technophobes) and of the Republican Party platform (Who’s for the Middle Class).

Aquarianarchy stands apart from conservative conventions in lifestyle and social and professional behavior (Fashion Anarchy, Professionalism and Alienation).

Aquarianarchy incorporates some long-term tenets of libertarianism while acknowledging their short-term impracticality (From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism).

Aquarianarchy stands apart from those post-1980s liberal strategies that divide rather than unify. This means rethinking the liberal framing of race and gender (White Privilege and a Third Way on Race, How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground, Female Chauvinist Pigs), the liberal acceptance of double standards for underdog groups (Ban Bossy), and a policing instinct that stifles expression by encouraging self-censorship and shaming for every perceived offence (Is “Where Are You From” Offensive, How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground).

Aquarianarchy also begins to articulate ethical parameters for a post-capitalist age (Regifting and Post-Technological Ethics).

Overall, Aquarianarchy draws most on the pre-1980s liberals of the hippie and post-hippie era. Remove all conventional chains on speech, self-expression, and modes of social organization. Basically, if it breaks down binaries and demographic walls and foregrounds our shared humanness, if it encourages unfiltered free expression without fear of faux pas or shaming, if it welcomes those who disagree as well as those who agree with us to the table, if it promotes a vision that steers our tottering planet away from “jittery materialism” (Brand, p. 106) toward a sustainable ecology and human values, it’s part of the general plan.

And that “little extra anarchy” I promised comes at the expense (superficially at least) of some of my liberal brothers and sisters. I.e., against current liberal trends that subtly reinforce a “separate but equal” ideology, Aquarianarchy re-seizes the full integrationist torch of the 60s with an anarchist vigor, advocating every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Think of it as the cultural correlative of private property. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Distrust any form of liberalism (or conservatism) that says we need to respect walls of separation. Bust the whole thing wide open.  I think that little bit of anarchy is prerequisite to the revolutionary change we need when the current age collapses.

A final note on process: It bears repeating that this revolution must begin in the subjective arena of human sensibility, with restructuring in the political arena as a consequence. People must (1) take time for meditation and practices of self-reflection, if possible read things by Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, visualize your inner values shifting toward something commensurate with a post-materialist age; (2) begin to express these inner changes locally, in everyday choices, from supporting others in fashion anarchy to regifting; (3) then comes the political restructuring based on planetary sustainability and post-materialist values of human fulfillment. If during this process Arc #1 gets ahead of Arc #2, or Arc #2 gets ahead of Arc #3, not a problem. But if the political restructuring of Arc #3 gets out ahead, we’ll need to stop and revisit those cautionary checks from Gandhi (Chauri Chaura incident) and from The Beatles and The Who, as per my letter to Russell Brand. Let’s do this right and not get fooled again. After all, what with those “ecological imperatives” of which Russell speaks, we might not have another chance.

Russell Brand and Me

Dear Russell,

I meant what I said in my recent kudo review of Revolution. If you’ll permit a near-certain misuse of a UK idiom, balls up to your social vision, politics, and witty delivery. I agree with you that late capitalism is nearing its end, as the exponential growth of consumption upon which it depends is now hitting its ecological limits. I’d like to play devil’s advocate though, if only to diversity our intellectual resources for the coming paradigm shift. I’ll start with your pet peeve, voting. I hate to bring up the voting thing, since it really is a small part of your overall vision, and the media has magnified it as if it were your core point and not just a corollary, but I can’t help it. It’s an interesting nugget. I understand your rationale for not voting – Establishment “democracies,” which serve only their corporate masters, are rapidly destroying social and ecological equilibrium, and voting only gives them the mass “buy-in” they need to extend their program of annihilating planetary resources to serve the 1%. Good point, but I can think of three pressures pushing me the opposite way, toward voting.

  • Long-term/short-term goals. In my favorite slave autobiography, that of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah’s first move after gaining his freedom is to go into a plantation venture with one of his former masters, on the condition that he be assigned the task of picking slaves from the slave ships. Although his long-term goal was abolition, his short-term goal was to guarantee that some of these unfortunates – and especially his own countrymen – would be treated well. Perhaps I too would not want my long-term vision, remarkably like yours, to scuttle my short-term goals. I’m not as confident as you that the past six years under Obama are no different than they would have been under another George W. Bush. I think that lives are being affected presently and that something is to be gained short term. And I’m not willing to sacrifice that for a still far-from-certain mirage of revolution. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condemn your position. I think you should hold to your position and I to mine. We have to acknowledge – even celebrate – our differences openly, knowing that in the big picture we’re all on this ride together.
  • Maybe I’m just older than you, which makes me (for better or for worse) more patient. You note that the revolution must begin subjectively, as a revolution in human sensibility. I agree and am perhaps even more concerned than you that if the objective forces of revolution get ahead of the subjective changes, we are in danger of a hijacking by less than idealistic factions (something The Beatles and The Who sang of during our archival hippie revolution). I believe it is this fear – that the objective forces of revolution outstrip the inner revolution – that caused Gandhi to go on a fast and call off the non-cooperation movement when his own supporters responded to violence with violence in the Chauri Chaura incident.
  • Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, argues that if we opt out, the big corporations and lobbyists will not, which means their influence will be even more unfettered, creating damage that even the Russell Revolution might not be able to reverse. I’m torn because I see your point, Russell, but Robert Reich’s position does give me pause before I forego voting.

I suppose I should be forthright and lay my vision of what may come past the next horizon line against yours for comparison/contrast. OK, since you asked, I will do so in a forthcoming piece. Like your vision, mine combines Age of Aquarius thinking with a little extra anarchy, so watch for the manifesto on this exciting and newly minted socio-political order, Aquarianarchy.

Your post-nationalist countryman,


Russell Brand, Punk Rock Ram Dass

(I posted a version on of this entry as an amazon review of Russell Brand’s Revolution.)

A Poli Sci dissertation by a Punk Rock Ram Dass, a mash-up of anarchy and idealism, Revolution is the perfect book for the next generation of hippie waifs. Russell Brand, self-identified “professional weirdo” (169), touches on all the key points. Late capitalism and the culture of consumption are dying. The top dogs are as “lost” as the rest of us (232). “Ecological imperatives” (207) spell radical change coming, but whether that change is utopic or dystopic is up to us. Either we have a revolution that reinforces human values for all, or we have “something more draconian than we have ever dared to consider” (224). To seize the utopic track, we must initiate the revolution not in the objective arena of politics but in the subjective arena of human sensibility. Internalize the non-violent way, change our inner values, and then we can more surely change the political superstructure with less risk of someone hijacking the revolution.

And best to be ready, ‘cause when it comes it will come quickly. For one thing, those ecological imperatives come with a time limit. As it approaches, we can use new communication technologies to harness rapid change without the need for a centralized power structure.  Or we can use them to escalate the death spiral of “jittery materialism” (106). Russell, bless his heart, is ready to give up his Dior boots and lead the charge.

The book has its imperfections – Russell is occasionally too earnest too long and scores best when he scores with hilarity, I wish there were more arc and less repetition as the chapters go by, and there’s a persistent low-level tone of belligerence that gives me pause before nominating Russell as cult leader of the commune. Actually, Russell grants me that last one when he opens a modern equivalent of Haight-Ashbury’s “free store” and his tyrannical interference leads him to conclude, with typical comic aplomb, that “the only thing the experiment proved is that I should never be allowed to run a shop” (203). But that very flaw leads him to think seriously about the principles that must take precedence over personalities if this is going to work (and if it doesn’t work, we will fairly quickly burn through the world’s remaining resources, so it won’t matter anyway). Yes, I said “to think seriously.” This book quite seriously thinks over our options for the planet. I can’t agree with every local strategy and assessment, but anyone who dismisses Russell Brand as a lightweight on issues of the social order is either making a mistake or buying into the idea that the only proper way to speak of such things is the Establishment way. Skinny yes, lightweight no.  Everyone needs a vision, or multiple visions, of where to go from here (and we have to go somewhere – those “ecological imperatives,” you know), and this is a good big-vision, page-turner book delivered with the quirky, English, Monty Python wit of Russell Brand.

See also Russell Brand and Me.