Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Piketty for Progressives 2

Thomas Riggins

“Introduction” to Capital in the Twenty-First Century— Part 2

2. Malthus, Young and the French Revolution

This section is not particularly enlightening as it is mostly just descriptive. We are informed that Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) wrote his 1798 work "Essay on the Principle of Population" based on few sources, one of the most important of which was a travel diary that the British agronomist Arthur Young (1741-1820)  published of his trip to France (1788-89) where the extent of poverty he saw led him to fear a revolution was in the offing. Malthus was led to believe the social troubles facing Europe as a result of the French Revolution and the changing economic conditions of the day were caused by overpopulation. Too many poor people were being born and not enough food could be produced to feed them. His solution was to advocate the end of any kind of welfare aid to the poor (let nature take its course) and to discourage their procreative activities. Piketty says we cannot understand the extreme views of Malthus without understanding the role that fear played in a Europe experiencing revolution, fast economic changes, and the rapid increase of population and poverty occasioned by the Industrial Revolution. He stress that the theoretical work of the time was based on limited sources due to scanty record keeping by modern standards.

3. Ricardo: The Principle of Scarcity

Piketty says in retrospect we might make fun of the dark prophecies the nineteenth century  thinkers made concerning the dire consequences that the development of the class nature of capitalism and the consequent unequal distribution of wealth seemed to indicate.  He seems to think “these prophecies of doom” did not happen  but were justified by the “traumatic” changes the development of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution engendered. David Ricardo (1772-1823) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) “the two most influential economists of the nineteenth century” both had apocalyptic views of the future. Ricardo thought the wealth of society would be monopolized by the owners of land, Marx by the industrial capitalists. In this section Piketty discusses Ricardo’s views.

Ricardo's interests were in the price and rent of land and were expressed in his 1817 book "Principles of Political Economy and Taxation." He had few statistics to work with, Piketty says, but he understood contemporary capitalism and further developed the theories of Malthus. As population grew the demand for land (for agriculture especially) would go up and so would its price and consequently the amount that could be charged as rent.
Eventually the landowners would be getting the lion's share of the wealth expressed as income and the rest of the people would be getting less and less. Unless taxes on land were radically increased to readdress this income imbalance social stability would collapse and the spectre of the French Revolution would arise to haunt Europe.

Piketty points out that Ricardo was wrong because of technological and industrial developments that took place after his time that diminished the role of agriculture in the economy. Nevertheless, Ricardo's views on the role of "scarcity" were insightful as they indicated that the prices of certain commodities (goods and services) could get out of hand and disrupt society, especially in the present age when the global economy is coordinated and kept in balance by an international pricing system.  "The problem is," Piketty says, "the price system knows neither limits nor morality."

Here is a classic example of the problem of reification discussed by Marx in the first volume of Capital in the chapter on the fetishism of commodities. Something created  by human beings takes on an "independent" existence and enthralls its creators who treat it as as some kind of  self-subsistent entity whose laws we are subject to and incapable of changing or abolishing.

Scarcity could still be a problem in our century. But there is a way to contain problems of scarcity-- namely supply and demand. Piketty says if prices get too high because of lack of supply, then people will not buy  and the demand will lessen causing the prices to fall. But what about a problem with the food supply? Not enough food, sky high prices, people can't buy-- but will the demand for food lessen? It would not. It's possible that food purveyors would end with a wholly disproportionate and unequal share of social wealth in their control.  Piketty thinks in this sort of situation a Ricardian Apocalypse is theoretically possible. However, he doesn't think it will ever come to this but will put off further consideration of this problem until later in his book where his treatment "will be more nuanced.”

4. Marx: The Principle of Infinite Accumulation

By the time we get to Marx in the second half of the nineteenth century (Capital Vol. I came out in 1867) the main problem was understanding how industrial capitalism actually worked and what was responsible for the immiseration of the  industrial working class [and not just it alone]—“the most striking fact of the day.”

 During this period, right up to World War I, Piketty says, the evidence indicates that there was growing income inequality with the ruling class expropriating more and more of the social wealth created and leaving less and less for the working people and others in society to share. He says this “endless inegalitarian spiral” only came to  an end due to the shocks of the World War and only these shocks could have halted the growing inequality let loose by the Industrial Revolution. [One of the biggest shocks was, incidentally, the Russian Revolution and the forces of social consciousness it unleashed on the planet— still somewhat reverberating throughout the world.]

Piketty dates the birth of  the “first” movements of socialism and communism to the 1840s (actually there were even earlier movements dating back to at least the seventeenth century) when people began noticing that while capitalism was working for the capitalists, enriching them, the working people were not benefiting from the system and were subjected to the same kind of miserable living conditions as they had in the pre-capitalist past.

Enter Karl Marx who sets himself the task of explaining how capitalism works and why it keeps the working people is such miserable conditions (relatively speaking). Piketty says Marx built his system (expressed in Capital ) on two principles he took from Ricardo— the principles of the price of capital and of scarcity. It is true that Marx had great respect for Ricardo but he actually rejected Ricardo’s price theory, and replaced it by his own original theory developed out of his concept of labor power and surplus value based on socially necessary labor time. I don’t see how Ricardo’s views on “scarcity” played any positive role in Marx’s system as Ricardo’s theory was developed in the context of his misconceived theories of agricultural rent.

Pekitty also says that Marx developed a “principle of infinite accumulation” in which he showed “the inexorable tendency for capital to accumulate and become concentrated in ever fewer hands, with no natural limit to the process.” Piketty then says this is the foundation of his “prediction of an apocalyptic end to capitalism.”  Either the capitalists will fall into violent conflicts over their inability to keep accumulating (it isn’t infinite after all) OR the workers will revolt because “capital’s share of national income would increase indefinitely.”

Yes capital must continue to accumulate to survive in Marx’s system, but there are natural limits— namely saturating the market both domestically and eventually world wide. It was these conditions that led to monopolization, colonialism, and imperialism and brought about the apocalyptic twentieth century in which the capitalists managed to set off, two world wars, ignite both the Russian and Chinese revolutions, destroy the lives of hundreds of millions of people and usher us into the present century in which they have instigated violent conflicts in Europe, Africa and Asia anyone of which could set off a more general war. The instability of capitalism is as great as it ever was and poverty is spreading everywhere (except mostly in those countries still maintaining communist governments). Therefore, Piketty’s conclusion that  “Marx’s dark prophecy came no closer to being realized than Ricardo’s” is considerably premature— the game is still afoot.

This introduction has a strange reading, I think, of twentieth century history— it improves later in the book. He doesn’t see World One I as part of Marx’s Apocalypse but admits a communist revolution did break out in Russia “the most backward country in Europe.” However, “fortunately for their citizens” the advanced European countries “explored  other, social democratic, avenues.” I don’t know how advanced Spain and Portugal were after the war (WWI) but I don’t think Franco or Salazar qualify as social democrats, nor do Hitler, Mussolini, or Pétain. By and large I don’t think the citizens of the “advanced” countries had a very fortunate century.

There are two other comments on Marx in this section which are unjustified. The first is that he “neglected the possibility of durable technological progress and steadily increasing productivity” as “counterweights to accumulation and concentration of private capital.” Marx did not “neglect” either technological progress or increased productivity but he saw them not as counterweights but as the results of the accumulation and concentration of capital.

The second unjustified comment is that Marx did not devote much time to speculating about how a post capitalist society would be structured. This is meant to be seen as a failing on Marx’s part but that would be an error. Marx did not think it a good use of his time to engage in utopian speculations on the future but he did study the example of the Paris Commune of 1871 and discussed the economic and political actions that would have to be undertaken in a post capitalist society (“The Civil War in France”) and his ideas were elaborated on later by both Engels and Lenin. There is a Marxist literature on this subject to which Piketty could have referred.

Piketty ends this section by saying Marx is still important to study and that his principle of “infinite accumulation” is still at work in the twenty-first century but not as “apocalyptic” as he thought. But this is faint praise and seems to miss the point of what accumulation is for Marx and why Marx is still important.

Piketty says too much accumulation of wealth when population and productivity growth rates are low can lead to social disequilibrium. But Marx isn’t talking about accumulation as too much private wealth. When Marx says “Accumulate, Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets” [Capital I c. 24, section 3] He means that the wealth accumulated is to be reinvested in production because capital must expand itself continuously or perish. By reinvesting the capital people are put to work the economy expands and more accumulation is generated to do it all over again (until a crisis due to capitalism’s contradictions.) Marx is still important because this movement of capital is still going on and still creating crises (we are in one now) and the spectre haunting Europe has not been exorcized.

Part III of the this introduction will continue with Piketty’s section “From Marx to Kuznets, or Apocalypse to Fairy Tale.”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eleanor Marx: A Life [Book Note]

Thomas Riggins

Rachel Holmes' new biography of Eleanor Marx (1855-1898) is coming out in the US early next year  and can be pre- ordered at Amazon.  Here I am posting some notes from "Troubles of Tussy" by Elaine Showalter (TLS August 22 & 29 2014). "Tussy" was the Marx family's nickname for Eleanor.

Ms. Holmes calls EM "the foremother of socialist feminism." EM was the fourth child of Karl and Jenny Marx and thus a member of the world's original set of red diaper babies. She was home schooled by her father and could quote passages from Shakespeare when she was three years old. She became a avid socialist at a young age (hanging out with Marx "one of the greatest minds in Europe" and Engels her "second father" may have unduly influenced her!) At sixteen she became her father's private secretary and he took her with him to meetings and congresses both at home and in Europe.

Eleanor also became a leading proponent of feminism. It seems that even Marx and Engels, who were champions of women's rights had difficulty putting into practice what they preached-- the nineteenth century was not noted for being very open to the rights of women.  Jenny Marx,  AKA Mrs. Karl Marx , once wrote, as quoted by Showalter,  regarding the activities of the male socialists that "in all these battles we women have to bare the hardest, i.e., pettiest parts. In the battle with the world the man gets stronger ... we sit at home and darn socks."

But EM did not stay home and darn socks. She became super-educated for her time and helped her father in the researching and writing of Das Kapital. She also organized workers and gave speeches to large crowds: "Karl Marx was the theory," Holmes says, "Eleanor Marx was the practice."

Some of noted accomplishments: she translated the first English edition of "Madame Bovary" as well as several plays by Ibsen-- and performed the first staged reading of his "A Doll's House" playing Nora. She also translated Edward Berstein's book on Lassalle from German into English (she was, naturally, fluent in French, German and English among other languages-- Ibsen wrote in Norwegian). She also translated a history of the Paris Commune from French to English, as well as Georgi Plekhanov's Anarchism and Socialism.

Unfortunately she hooked up with a genuine cad in the form of Edward Aveling (he co-authored with her the very important Marxist work "The Women Question") ["the founding text of socialist feminism"]who, after many years of living together, secretly married a young actress of 22 [typical male menopausal action] which made her so despondent she killed herself at the age of 43. Aveling died four months later of kidney disease (aged 49). This very last action of hers was unMarxist but her biographer still thinks her life was inspiring and indeed exemplary. The reviewer concurs, writing that "With the infectious conviction of her narrative, Rachel Holmes has restored her to history." Personally, however, I don't think EM was ever lost to history.

One caveat: the portrait of Eleanor Marx at eighteen published in the TLS along with this article is actually a portrait of her sister Laura Marx (who also committed suicide!). At least it appears as such in the book Marx's General and also on the internet as Laura.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review of “Color Facture Art & Design: Artistic Technique and the Precisions of Human Perception”, a book by Iona Singh

In the first place, this is a book written by a writer, it is 'writerly'. When Singh refers to paints and materials you can almost smell them, the concatenation of the sentences is fluid, enjoyable, prose. And this is not an easy subject, it is in fact a new approach to art, to understanding art, one that does not come from the art as narrative or art 'tells a story' side of the fence, a side of the fence that is also, superficially at least, Marxist, in the sense of social realist interpretations of art. And yet this author constantly refers to dialectical materialism as the bedrock of her development, not the one that is usually vilified and strangled-off, or ossified, but a living breathing version of the Marxist philosophy as it collides into a new context. It is, on this count, small wonder that the mainstream press has studiously ignored it and offered absolutely no reviews. Thus my intervention here. Zero books, a great new publisher, does not provide any publicity or advertising until a certain limit is reached in sales, and so for this reason things can also go unnoticed. On the other hand, the provenance of these chapters is from peer reviewed journals, the work has been tested in the field, so to speak, in “Rethinking Marxism” and in “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism” it has its scientific pedigree.

On the other hand, this book does not ignore or set aside social history or context, or resort to mere formalism, it is Marxist, which means it is materialist. The chapters on Vermeer and Turner are remarkable in their evocative uniting of the materials and techniques of the artist, the artist as a producer, with the social history of their times, they place the materials and techniques of the artist into this maelstrom of politics and reveal their effect, and affects, their sensual reasons for being that way in their time and space, and, what is more important, their agency. This is unlike almost all art historians and critics hitherto, who are divided into the standard camps: those who set art history as a history of formal structure hermetically sealed-off from social struggle, and those who regard art (anachronistically) as always realist, a mirror or reflection of the social times.

Iona Singh herself is an artist, and has grappled with materials and gone through the U.K. art education system, her work is also unusual that someone with this experience nevertheless is able to articulate what they have learned in those institutions, I mean in words that have a scientific resonance and validity. Often there is also a reluctance from these quarters to disclose the secrets known here, and instead we get a playing to the gallery, the well known professional artists' obfuscatory and elusive self aggrandizement and posture as a transcendental being. Yet there is no blaming of the artist here for this, she exposes the economic productive contradictions at work and always refers to the bedrock of theory in her references. This is a solid work, but it sometimes betrays the origins of the struggle she must have had to get this 'out there' into the world, noticeable at times in the text. It is a book that should be in every art college, university art department, department of design and art history faculty, but it should also appeal to the layperson who appreciates art, is mot a philistine, but finds the current 'art world' mystifying. This 'world' is meant to be mystifying, and this book explains why, among many other things.

Gary Tedman

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Piketty for Progressives

Thomas Riggins

"Introduction" to Capital in the Twenty-First Century-- Part 1

Piketty opens his book by telling us the questions he wants to answer are two diametrically opposed queries stemming from the works of Karl Marx on the one hand and Simon Kuznets on the other. From Marx-- does capitalism inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands ?  From Kuznets -- does the later development of capitalism lead to less inequality and more social harmony between the classes? A third question is what lessons can we learn and apply to our present century from a study of wealth development since the eighteenth century?

Piketty admits that the answers he gives to these questions are "imperfect and incomplete." Now if you write a book whose conclusions are imperfect and incomplete you are inviting a lot critical commentary not only from the Left but  from the Right as well. In this respect the reception of his book has not been disappointing.  He thinks however his research provides a "new" way to understand the inner workings of capitalism. We shall see.

He believes that current bourgeois economic "science" has become so sophisticated  that the "Marxist Apocalypse" can be avoided. This is, however, an article of faith and no argument is advanced to substantiate this claim. He doesn't exactly say what the "Apocalypse" is but I rather think it refers to the collapse of the capitalist system and its replacement with a socialist economic order. Marx did give an argument for this outcome based on his analysis of the inner contradictions of the capitalist system. This analysis is in his work Capital which book Piketty mentions in passing only three times in his own book (according to the index, but I counted more) giving no indication that he read Marx's work.

Piketty admits that if/when capitalism provides a greater return on capital than it does on income and economic growth "then it automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based." This is quite a statement. It assumes we live in democratic societies where a person's social condition is based on merit. This is I think demonstrably false for the politically corrupt oligarchical societies of the West with which Piketty is concerned. Race, ethnicity, family background, wealth, availability of opportunities are the actual factors that determine the social conditions of people living in capitalist democracies not "merit." To say our societies are based on "values" that are plainly non-operative beyond the verbal level is no way to go about understanding reality as if effects most people.

He thinks there are ways democracy can "regain" its power over capitalism. He says "regain" because he thinks these negative features of capitalism were operant in the nineteenth century but were not so dominant in the twentieth (!) but seem "likely" to come into force in the twenty-first century. There are few, if any, people on the Left, I think, who view the twentieth century as a success story for meritocratic democracy (except maybe in a few isolated pockets).

Well, I don't want to jump to conclusions so let’s look more closely at the introduction to his book:

A Debate Without Data?

In this section Piketty points out that previous  theories about wealth and inequality have been based on a narrow set of facts that have been appealed to support many different interpretations. He is going to explain his sources and how he and his associates have expanded the amount of data available to researchers.

He also makes some comments in this section that reveal an interesting set of subtextual assumptions of which progressives  (especially Marxists) should be aware.  For instance, inequality is, he says, visible to many kinds of people and many different theories as to its causes flourish due to inadequate data. He tells us peasants and nobles, capitalists and workers, and bankers and non-bankers  [and we might add “slaves and masters” to the mix as well-tr] all see the world differently. Each group sees different “aspects” of reality and this conditions their outlook on justice and injustice. “Hence there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate.”

One of the purposes of Marx’s Capital was to show just what nonsense this is and that class struggle and exploitation have objective roots in external reality and can be scientifically understood. Political conflicts between workers and capitalists (just as slave rebellions and peasant uprisings) are not the result of subjective psychological problems due to feelings of oppression because the “oppressed” group only sees its own “aspect” of reality. They are objective historical facts that can be scientifically studied and remedied by a correct understanding of the relations of production and distribution and the mode of value creation within a given society and Marx presents arguments to support his conclusions rather than just stating them as matters of fact.

All sides are represented in [bourgeois] democracy, Piketty thinks, and since there is no scientific explanation for the resolution of the political problems engendered by the subjective psychological reactions of different groups to their experiences of inequality we can conclude “Democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts— and that is a very good thing.” Piketty’s value judgment is, of course, a subjective psychological reaction to his understanding of the nature of inequality.

Piketty does see an important role, however, for the class of “experts” to which he himself belongs. While, he maintains, they cannot provide a solution to the  violent  political conflicts that inequality naturally engenders, they can do research which “will inform democratic debate and focus attention on the right questions.” Piketty says intellectuals such as himself “have the good fortune to have more time than others to devote themselves to study (and even to be paid for it— a signal privilege).” Yes, but who is the paymaster?

Before going into detail on his new methods he wants to present an historical review of how the problems of inequality were dealt with in the past, and so we move on to Part 2 of this review and will resume with the section entitled:

Malthus, Young, and the French Revolution