Friday, November 14, 2014

Piketty for Progressives -- Part 4

Thomas Riggins

9. The Major Results of Piketty's Study

Piketty says his study has arrived at two major results. First, that economic determinism is not  the answer to why we have inequality in wealth and income between people. But no economist worth his or her salt has ever been an economic determinist, so this is not a very startling conclusion.

Any Marxist would ready agree with this observation by Piketty (it is commonplace in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin): inequality results from the interplay and conflict of forces between people in the economic, political, and social institutions in which they find themselves and the relative power they have at their disposal to enforce their values and choices; inequality "is the joint product of all the relative actors combined." Marxists might be a little more concrete about who these actors are (classes and social strata) and what the power relations rest upon (ownership of the means of production, ability to create surplus value and such) but the first major result of Capital in the 21st Century echoes one of the major results of Capital in the 19th Century.

But, "the heart of the book" Piketty says, is his second major result. This is that there are major forces at work that push both towards increasing inequality (divergence) and decreasing inequality (convergence). I will call these D-forces and C-forces.

What is important, and will be rejected by all apologists of the Ann Rand version of laissez faire capitalist hokum (surely there are no intelligent Randists left after Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence) as well as mainstream bourgeois economists, is Piketty's findings that there is no internal mechanism within capitalism itself that can regulate and control the D-forces and prevent them from increasing "permanently."

Marxists would say the internal contradiction within capitalism between the C- and D-forces is certainly not permanent. Ultimately the build up of the pressure from the D-forces will explode the system (there cannot be infinite inequality). Piketty's language is not the language of Marxism, but in his own way he has restated, in the language of neoclassical economics, the objective reality of Marx's Apocalypse.

The D-forces are heading in that direction and Piketty wants to find a program that can bolster the strength of the C-forces and drag  back the D-forces, if not to a stop, at least to a non-critical mass. This won't be done within the capitalist system qua capitalist so the energy required by the C-forces must come from outside. There's the rub.

The above states the main points of this section. However, Piketty mentions two theories which have been put forth to counter the D-forces from within the system without extraneous help for the C-forces. Both of these theories are logically possible but their practical implementation as a solution to growing inequality is "largely illusory" if the history of capitalism has anything to tell us about them. I will only mention them in passing as Piketty doesn't put much stock in them.

The first is the  "human capital hypothesis." As technology advances workers need more and more skills and hence have to be paid more so capital will be transferred from the money bags to the working class increasing the C-forces and leading to greater democratic control of society. A pipe dream.

The second is that "class warfare" will be replaced by "generational warfare" because science is making people live longer. This type of "warfare" is more benign since all young people will end up old people (all workers won't end up capitalists on the class war model).  Young people will begin saving up for old age so they will have enough to mitigate the effects of the D-forces. The young will be ants and not grasshoppers. Another pipe dream.

It says something about "economics," as taught in bourgeois educational establishments, that capitalism's existential threat (unsustainable D-force pressure) can produce solutions that amount to pipe dreams.

The real counter to the D-forces, Piketty says, as revealed by history has been "the diffusion of knowledge and skills."  This "diffusion" must be an external factor independent of the capitalist system because Pitketty has said capitalism  has no
internal mechanism to prevent run away D-forces, or if it is an internal factor then it cannot prevent the Marxist Apocalypse.

10. Forces of Convergence, Forces of Divergence

Piketty says that while the diffusion of knowledge and skills is the main source for the C-forces, it is nevertheless a fact that the D-forces can overcome it and increase in power. This is because the C-forces need to be reinforced by social policies that are not sufficiently built into the mechanism of capitalism to counter the the D-forces (which are built in) on their own.

Presently there are two major D-forces  independently at work in the world economy. The threat, Piketty says, is that these two forces may merge and become unified thus creating a new and super powerful motor driving inequality.  From what would this Super D-force be composed? From the current D1-force which is the ability of top-earners to “quickly separate themselves from the rest by a wide margin” and the current D2-force which is itself an amalgamation of forces that bring about “an accumulation and concentration of wealth when growth is weak and the return on capital is high.” The D2-force is the “principal threat’’ to income equality.

Piketty uses the example of the United States from 1910 to 2010 to show how the D1-force has been developing. What has happened is an explosion in the income of the top managers of the large capitalist enterprises that dominate the economy. Gigantic inequality gaps separate this capitalist elite from ordinary workers and citizens. Piketty says the most likely explanation of this inequality gap is the power these capitalists have of setting “their own remuneration”  and to do so independently “of their individual productivity.”

This, by the way, this could never have come about in a properly functioning democratic society. It suggests that capitalism is incapable of creating such a society and that the problems of inequality cannot be solved within the parameters of such a society.

Bad as this D1-force is, it is the D2-force that Piketty considers the main threat to equality and the growth of the C-forces under capitalism. It is this second force that we will deal with in the next installment of “Piketty for Progressives.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer: Reflections

Thomas Riggins 

All the recent fuss at the Metropolitan Opera over John Adams' 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer led me get the DVD from Netflix to watch. The DVD gave me the opportunity to start and stop and replay parts of the opera and the subtitles (even though the opera is in English) allowed me to follow the exact wording that was being used to express the ideas and emotions of the singers. The DVD is of the Penny Woolcock film version made for British TV in 2003 and is generally considered faithful to the staged version of the opera.

I think I can safely say there is nothing anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish or pro-terrorist about this opera. I can also say that those who claim that it is so have not seen it, or not understood it, or have a personal agenda to espouse having nothing to do with the merits of the opera.

In our political context in the US the main objection to the opera is that it is not anti-Palestinian either. The objectors seem to be of the opinion that you cannot be against anti-Semitism  unless you are also for anti-Palestinianism. The opera takes a stand against terrorism qua terrorism  and shows the futility and horror of trying to solve social and political problems waging terrorist actions against unarmed civilians.

The opera highlights three species of terrorism-- it sympathizes  with none of them. It highlights the terrorism waged against the Jews of Europe by European Christians who formed the core of the fascist movements in World War II and led to the concentration camps and the Holocaust.

 It also shows the terrorism unleashed against the civilian Arab population in Palestine by the Zionists after the independence of Israel when tens of thousands were driven from their homes and land and had their houses and fields turned over to Jewish settlers without recompense and many Arab men, women, and children were murdered by terrorist groups such as the Irgun led by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin: this was the Nakba.

And it shows the terrorism elicited by the Nakba in which the Palestinians engage. The high jacking of the Italian cruise ship the  Achille Lauro and the cold blooded murder of wheelchair bound senior citizen Leon Klinghoffer is the subject of the opera and it makes no excuse or attempt to glorify the action of the terrorists involved: members of the Palestine Liberation Front.

The Germans and the Israelis have made peace and the Germans have paid reparations to try and make up for the unforgivable and impossible to make up for actions of their terrorist forebears. Perhaps Israel can do the same for those who were the victims of the  Nakba and more recent acts of terrorism such as the killing of over two thousand civilians (including 500 children) in Gaza. Perhaps the Palestinian terrorists would reciprocate by stopping the killing of Israeli civilians including peaceful women and children.

If this opera has any message it is that terrorism breeds terrorism and is never justified as it diminishes the humanity of all who engage in it. The root cause of terrorism (one group's cruel and inhumane treatment of others) must be addressed without evasion and excuses.