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Piketty 2: ideology and property

The great liberal story revolves around the idea of ​​"meritocracy" and its most modern version: "equal opportunities." According to Thomas Piketty, that story is false and an alternative one needs to be rewritten. Español

Eduardo Febbro
2 October 2019
03 March 2019, Hessen, Frankfurt: The wealth clock in the window of the DGB building shows the net wealth of private households in Germany (top), how much of it belongs to the richest tenth (middle) and the poorest tenth (bottom).
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Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

“All men are born and remain free and equal,” states the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Citizens signed in 1789 and ratified by the United Nations in 1948.

French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the famous The Capital the XXI Century (with two and a half million copies sold worldwide) delivers a thorough and devastating exploration of the egalitarian illusion in his last book just published in France: Capital et idéologie [Capital and ideology].

As his previous, this work consists of 1,200 pages, it is based on the history of the world and a renewed way of using statistics to offer a dizzying journey from the present to the origins of inequalities. Wherever you look, whatever the time and the political regime, inequality is a constant throughout human history whose principle or justification responds, according to Thomas Piketty, to an "ideology."

That is the central reflection in which the whole book revolves, "inequality is ideological and political." There is no case where it is an 'economic or technological' question’, and even less from “natural causes” as alleged for decades by the liberal right,.

Whether it is the Chinese model of development, the caste in India, Roosevelt’s New Deal, divisions like nobility or clergy people, working class or bourgeoisie, all inequalities are organized. Piketty writes: “every unequal regime rests, deep down, on a theory of justice. Inequalities must be justified and supported on a plausible and coherent vision of social organization and political ideals.” Inequality is, in this context, a society management instrument that ideologies makes necessary.

“Every human society must justify its inequalities – Piketty notes -: you have to find reasons for them without which all political and social edifice is threatened to collapse. Thus, each era produces a set of discourses and contradictory ideologies that point to legitimize inequality.”

Capital and ideology dismantles one after another the narratives that liberal right established around the globe. No, Piketty argues, "fundamental laws" don’t exist, much less "natural" roots of inequality, nor are them "necessary injustices" to make the system work.

The great liberal story was assembled since the nineteenth century with the idea of ​​the famous "meritocracy" and its modern version, "equal opportunities.” That story is false, and it is imperative, notes the author, " to rewrite an alternative story."

Inequalities must be justified and supported on a plausible and coherent vision of social organization and political ideals

Piketty defines the dominant story as “propietrist, entrepreneurial and meritocratic,” whose theme is the claim that “modern inequality is fair because it emerges from a process chosen freely in which everyone has the same opportunities to access the market and property where everyone benefits spontaneously from the accumulations of the richest, who are also the entrepreneurs, those who deserve most and the most useful.”

The French economist demonstrates the fragility of that great liberal narrative and its abysmal contradictions, especially as the principle of necessary inequality can no longer “ be justified on behalf of the public interest.” Piketty explains that meritocracy that expanded as the exclusive model since the 80s is equivalent to a kind of magic card that allows its promoters to justify any level of inequality without having to examine and, incidentally, stigmatize the losers for their lack of merit, virtue and diligence.”

Economic modernity is thus characterized by "blaming the poor" and by a “set of discriminatory practices and inequalities of status and ethno-religious.”

Piketty sets the beginning of the most powerful cycle of inequality at the end of World War I (1914-1918), when "the very unequal trade and financial globalization that was underway in the Belle Époque” was destroyed and redefined. From then until our twenty-first century there is a trail of social destruction, which is the threat that presides over all conditions.

The economist warns: "If the current economic system is not profoundly transformed to render it less unequal, more equitable and more sustainable, both between countries and within them, then the xenophobic 'populism' and its possible electoral successes to come could quickly start the of destruction movement of the hyper-capitalist and digital globalization of the years 1990-2020."

This strong and in no part pessimistic work is part of a culture of reconstruction and reformulation and not a mere catalog of calamities or diagnoses on the harmfulness of liberalism. It is far from that production presented as progressive and committed to describe inequality with no alternative but to accept it or succumb. Piketty designs various horizons.

It is not a book to rupture but to restate. It does not propose the destruction of the system but rather its historical understanding, rethinking and, above all, the deconstruction of the liberal rhetoric that has so far justified all inequalities based on imaginary “natural root causes and objectives.”

Piketty not only affirms that there are many lives outside the system, but also, that every time it has been attempted to change it has improved human existence. In the foreword to the book, Piketty highlights “of this historical analysis emerges an important conclusion: it was the fight for equality and education that enabled economic development and human progress, not the sacredness of property, stability and inequality.”

The processes that challenged inequality by civil society have been, in this sense, key to changing direction: "as a whole, the various ruptures, revolutionary and political processes that reduced and transformed the inequalities of the past were a huge success while they lead to the creation of our most valuable institutions, precisely those that allowed the idea of human progress to become a reality.”

There is, in fact, no determinism, i.e.: no condemnation to the life imprisonment of inequality. Alternatives exist and will exist. "At all levels of development, there are many ways to structure an economic, social and political system, to define property relations, organize a tax or educational system, manage a public or private debt crisis, regulate relations between different human communities (...)

There are several possible paths capable of organizing a society, power relations and property within it." These possibilities are latent and more open in our time, "where some roads can become an overcoming of capitalism much more real than the path that promises its destruction without worrying about what will follow."

Understanding the joint history of capital and ideology/inequality is equivalent to "developing a more balanced narrative and trace the contours of a participatory socialism in the XXI Century; i.e.: imagine a new egalitarian universal horizon, a new ideology of equality of social ownership, education and the sharing of knowledge and power, more optimistic about human nature."

Capital and ideology proposes opening the box, starting with a task that requires thinking back to different forms of ownership, domination and emancipation.

This wide reading of history invites to a rewrite of the facts. For example, with the idea of ​​a "participatory socialism" Piketty has a number of ideas and proposals in order to refute the frozen trend that "existing inequalities and institutions are not the only possible, despite what conservatives may think: both are also called to transform and reinvent themselves permanently."

Just as there is no 'determinist' or ‘natural’ cause of inequality it is not conceivable that its eradication is automatic. “Human progress is not linear” - Piketty writes -. It would be a mistake to assume that everything will always be better, that free competition of state power and economic actors is enough to lead us miraculously to social and universal harmony."

"Human progress exists, but it's a fight," he stresses. It should "rely on a reasoned analysis of historical evolutions, with their positives and negatives.”

Piketty unties knots, disarms narratives, runs the curtain of cynicism embedded in the ideology of the Wall Street Journal, dismantled piece by piece the criminalization of social protest and discredits the imposture of the submission on behalf of the social balance.

Where the people stand up to demand equity and social justice, the ideology of inequality rants that any revolt means the disorder, which leads “directly to political instability and continuous chaos, which will eventually turn around against the more modest.”

Piketty calls this counter offensive of fear the "propietrist uncompromising response,” whose principle of action "is not to take that risk, that Pandora's box of the redistribution of property must never be opened."

Capital and ideology proposes opening the box, starting with a task that requires thinking back to different forms of ownership, domination and emancipation. A historical rereading of the conventions of inequality is also proposed to find clues to emancipation from a regime that degrades the human condition.

The academic and French economist anticipates a flow of ideas or tracks that include "social ownership" and “co-management of enterprises” (employees would have 50% within the boards of directors), “temporary ownership” (progressive tax applied to assets), "the heritage for all" (rely by the age of 25 with a universal capital), "educational justice" (balance of education expenditure for the benefit of disadvantaged areas), “individual carbon tax” (self-consumption-based ecological levy), “financing of political life” (citizens would receive bonds for “democratic equality” from the state which they would then hand over to the party of their preference), “insertion of mandatory fiscal and ecological objectives in trade agreements and international treaties,” “creation of an international financial census” (so that administrations know who is detaining what).

There will be many critics from both the left and the liberal. The former will impugn Capital et idéologie because its proposal is not a revolution, the latter will destroy it because its 1,200 pages are unobjectionable argument about the mechanisms that built the depredation of human societies.

The “propietrist” ideology precedes, at this time in our history, all key dominant rhetorics, with the consequent sense of globalized asphyxia, the near certainty that without this unequal modern, human life is not possible. In his voluminous, exhaustive and original way, the French economist’s essay opens horizons, breathes and proves that there is no single story, but, there are others, what is presented to us as more modern is nothing more than a narrative as flawed as stuck in the past.

His meta confession is to: “convince the reader that we can rely on the lessons of history to define the norms of justice and equality that are needed regarding regulation, distribution of property, further that just sacralization of the past.”

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This article is published within the framework of our alliance with Nueva Sociedad. See the original here.

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