Tag Archives: inequality

Emotional Politics – Some notes on anger, resentment and compassion

The recent upsurge in interest in the role of emotions in politics is not a coincidence, but linked to our current political situation: We have extreme nationalism in India, authoritarians like Erdoğan and Orbán, as well popular far right political parties like the French National Front in Europe, and right-wing populists[1] like Trump and Bolsonaro in power in the US and Brazil. According to the sociologist Cas Mudde in his book The Far Right Today there is something new in this situation compared to a few decades ago: During most of the postwar era, the far right was seen as a “normal pathology” of western democracy, that is, as essentially a pre-modern fringe phenomenon, ideologically unconnected to modern democracy, and supported by just a small minority of the population (Mudde, 2019, 106-107).

 

The current emotional climate and the populist far right

Today’s situation is different according to Mudde; the far right is no longer a “normal pathology” but a “pathological normalcy”, in that the far right’s talking points about immigrants and minorities to a large degree have been mainstreamed, and mainstream values – support for the nation-state and law-and-order policies– have become radicalized. Drawing on international surveys, Mudde claims that that large part of the population hold a combination of authoritarian, nativist, and populist attitudes, combined with anti-establishment sentiments. Hence, the populist far right differs from the mainstream in degree rather than kind; “the populist radical right does not stand for a fundamentally different world than the political mainstream; rather it takes mainstream ideas and values to an illiberal extreme.” (Mudde, 2019,170-171).

 

Angry White Men?

One emotion that has been at the forefront of the public debate about the current shift in politics is anger. During the presidential race, Trump told CNN: “I’m angry, and a lot of other people are angry, too, at how incompetently our country is being run.” and continued: “As far as I am concerned, anger is okay. Anger and energy is what this country needs.” While most thought that Trump would soon be out of the race, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts who had studied anger as a social phenomenon is reported to have commented the following: “He understands anger,” “and it’s going to make voters feel wonderful.” [2]

The American sociologist Michael Kimmel also links the rise of the populist far right to the anger of a specific demographic, which he explores in Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Based on interviews with members of the American far and extreme right, Kimmel suggests that ”Populism is not a theory, an ideology; it’s an emotion. And the emotion is righteous indignation that the government is screwing ’us.’”[3] (Kimmel 2017, xi.). A rather obvious response is to link this anger to the huge increase in economic inequality in the last decades – both in the west and globally – and as a reaction to an out-of-touch political establishment. This is the view of for example Thomas Piketty who in in The Guardian explained Trumps victory as “primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States over several decades and the inability of successive governments to deal with this”.[4] According to Kimmel, however, it is not the poorest, but white men from the downwardly mobile middle and lower middle class who form the backbone of the far right, and this also holds for the extreme right (i.e. neo-Nazis and white supremacists).[5] Kimmel found that the anger of his informants was driven by a sense of having been duped, that a “tacit contract” had been broken: the understanding that the government was ”for the people” and that if they worked hard they could support their families and retain their self-respect.[6]

Kimmel stresses that while economic inequality has risen dramatically in the US  (”We are more unequal economically than at any time since the Gilded Age”) at the same time as society has become more equal when it comes to race and gender, and these two different processes have somehow fused in the minds of these white men who feel anything even remotely approaching equality as a catastrophic loss. (Kimmel 2017, xi, 281). In Kimmel’s view, it is thus precisely the very belief in the meritocracy of ”The American Dream”, ­and a deep and abiding faith in America, its institutions and its ideals that is the ”tragic flaw” of the angry white men: A rhetoric of masculinity combined with racism, nativism, anti-Semitism and antifeminism serve to resolve the tensions in their worldview and enable them to fix blame for their suffering. They are firm believers in capitalism, the free market and free enterprise but hate corporations, patriots who love America but hate its government. In short, the story Kimmel gives us in Angry White Men is about the misdirected anger of a declassed group: ”America’s angry white men are right to be angry, but they are delivering their mail to the wrong address. That mail is now a letter bomb, and it will take a nation to defuse it.” (Kimmel, 2017, xiv). According to Kimmel, the anger of lower middle-class white men has a specific character; it is a fusion of two sentiments – entitlement and a sense of victimization, what he terms “aggrieved entitlement”. They believe that they are entitled to benefits and a status that have been taken away from them, and it is this sense of entitlement (i.e. their whiteness and maleness) which leads them to identify – socially and politically – with those above, even when they have economically joined the ranks of those who have historically been below them.[7] This aggrieved entitlement gives rise to a sense of lost masculinity:

As they saw it, they’d lost some words that had real meaning to them: honor, integrity, dignity. They’d lost their autonomy, their sense of themselves as “somebody.” And, as I heard them say it, they’d lost their sense of themselves as men. Real men. Men who built this country and who, in their eyes, are this country. (Kimmel 2017, x)

Kimmel does not only stress economic motives for the anger of a downward moving middle class, but explicitly links “aggrieved entitlement” to a traditional notion of masculinity which equals manhood with power and domination. These men feel powerless but still entitled; they have a strong sense that they ought not feel this way, and that fuels anger. As he phrases it: ”they are humiliated—and that humiliation is the source of their rage” (Kimmel 2017, xi). The anger that stems from ”aggrieved entitlement” can mobilize politically – but only in a nostalgic fashion, as attempts to restore that which one feels has been lost. (Kimmel 2017, 24). Angry White Men ends on a note of cautious optimism; the angry white men are a rearguard in a lost fight, since the clock cannot be turned back neither on women’s liberation nor racial equality. As Kimmel sees it, the anger’s address is women and racial minorities, but the ”engine” of the rage is the growing chasm between rich and poor, and the sinking middle class. Kimmel’s ”remedies” are therefore classical social democratic politics of solidarity with one’s economic class, unions, social safety nets, and New Deal.

 

Age of anger?

A more global – as well as more pessimistic – perspective is offered by Pankaj Mishra in Age of Anger: A History of the Present. Mishra describes his project as an exploration of a ”particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger.” (Mishra 2017, 28-29). His starting point is the paradox that while we in today’s global market are more literate, interconnected, healthy and prosperous than any other time in history, we still find ourselves in what he call ”an age of anger”, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the discontent of furious majorities: ”The world at large –from the United States to India – manifests a fierce politics of identity built on historical injuries and fear of internal and external enemies.” (Mishra 2017, 170). Mishra’s intuition (which he, as we shall see, shares with Martha Nussbaum) is that liberal political theory has gravely underestimated the importance of emotions in politics and that the traditional liberal model of the rational citizen  – which focused on material progress alone – is fundamentally wrong; we are in fact less motivated by a rational pursuit of our own interests than by the fear of loosing honor, dignity and status, the distrust of change and the appeal of stability and familiarity, as well as negative emotions such as envy and ressentment:  ”Those who perceive themselves as left behind by or humiliated by a selfish conspiratorial minority can be susceptible to political seducers from any point on the ideological spectrum,  for they are not driven by material inequality alone.” (Mishra, 2017, 114).

Mishra attempts to cast light on a wide range of phenomena from identitarian movements to ISIS and Hindu nationalism by comparing them to nationalism, proto-fascism and nihilism in 19th century Europe through a reading of early modern critics of the Enlightenment, especially Rousseau. In Rousseau (”history’s greatest militant lowbrow”) he sees one of the first to criticize the belief that the interplay of individual interests could produce harmony and civilization; on the contrary, due to our ”amour propre” – a kind of mimetic self-love that always compares oneself to others and seek status and recognition from them – a commercial society will end in envy and hatred (both of ourselves and others). A society based on competition, emulation and the power of money, might promise progress, but is psychologically debilitating for its citizens. (Mishra 2017,113). His main point is that the violent reaction to modernism by those left behind, those who do not feel that they benefit from the promise of progress, prosperity, stability and individual freedom, are not some atavistic remnants of the pre-modern, but rather intimately linked to effects of the modernization-process itself.

The global situation today is thus read as a repetition of the European backlash to the modernization process in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century. This reaction is furthermore not a case of simple opposition between modern and traditional but rather what he with a psychoanalytical twist calls ”mimetic desire”; those gripped by resentment will mimic the very groups they claim to oppose: ”The key to mimic man’s behavior lies not in any clash of opposed civilizations, but, on the contrary, in irresistible mimetic desire: the logic of fascination, emulation and righteous self-assertion that binds the rivals inseparably. It lies in resentment,   the tormented mirror games in which the West as well as its ostensible enemies and indeed all inhabitants of the modern world are trapped.” (Mishra 2017, 161). On the one hand, this story is that of “latecomers” to the globalized modernity, but on the other, it is about inherent contradictions in the modern project itself: Modernization dismantles premodern social structures, beliefs and communities, and urbanization uproots masses of people. While many traditional structures was intensely unequal and deeply unfair, modern society promises equality while its economic system generates inequality:

The ideals of modern democracy – the equality of social conditions and individual empowerment – have never been more popular. But they have become more and more difficult, if not impossible, to actually realize in the grotesquely unequal societies created by our brand of globalized capitalism. (Mishra 2017, 28-29).

In short: The rise of inequality in a world that believes in equality breeds resentment: ”… an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, resentment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.”  (Mishra 2017,14). Unlike righteous anger, resentment is an inhibited and impotent emotion which lacks proper expression, a kind of constant simmering that eventually might build up to an explosion. Ressentiment is thus according to Mishra a distinctly modern phenomenon ”inherent in the structure of societies where formal equality between individuals coexists with massive differences in power, education, status and property ownership.” (Mishra 2017, 336). What held liberal societies together, Mishra claims was the promise of future progress and equality, which they have failed to deliver. When it comes to what to do in our age of anger, Mishra does not give us any answers, but warns us that the neglect of emotions in politics is dangerous, because if we do not acknowledge our need for belonging and identity, this will only be offered by the extreme right in the form of exclusion and persecution of  ”the Others”. Not just inequality, but also a lack of ”spiritual substance” in society is part of the problem, and at the end of his book Mishra refers to Pope Francis and his call for compassion with the poor as an important and hopeful political figure, while in other settings he has argued that socialism must be revived as an ethical project.[8]

Marta Nussbaum on fostering a political culture of compassion

Martha Nussbaum attempts to rectify this lack of focus on the emotions in liberal political theory that Mishra criticizes in Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. We do not only need principles, she claims, we should also think of strategies to actively employ certain kinds of emotions in order to create a more just, redistributive and inclusive society. It is both mistaken and dangerous to suppose that only fascist or aggressive societies are intensely emotional and that only such societies need to focus on the cultivation of emotions: “All political principles, the good as well as the bad, need emotional support to ensure their stability over time, and all decent societies need to guard against division and hierarchy by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love” (Nussbaum 2013, 2–3).

Nussbaum’s vision is a liberal society, that is, one in which there is an overlapping consensus about fundamental principles and constitutional ideals without a common comprehensive view of ”the good life”. So the challenge is how to foster political emotions through leadership, education, government policy and culture without impinging on liberal principles such as pluralism and personal autonomy. Rather than following the idea of civic religion from Rousseau and Comte, she follows a thread through Mozart (sic!) Mill and Tagore with emphasis on aesthetic education: public artworks, monuments, parks, festivals and celebrations, humor and comedy, songs, symbols, official films and photographs, but also the rhetoric of politicians, public education, and even the public role of sports. Liberal democracies should cultivate certain emotions, Nussbaum claims, including love of country in the form of patriotism, although not in a form that romanticizes one’s own country, but loves it – warts and all. She argues that patriotism helps people ”think larger thoughts and recommit themselves to a larger common good” (Nussbaum 2013, 3).

Worthy projects require effort and sacrifice, and among such worthy causes Nussbaum mentions national defense, economic redistribution, inclusion of previously excluded or marginalized groups and protection of the environment. I am not going to discuss patriotism and its problems here, but only mention that while a form of patriotism might function “progressively” in the US (She refers here to Luther King’s speeches and Roosevelt’s New Deal) playing up patriotism would probably only exacerbate xenophobia in European nation states. Nussbaum defends patriotism for liberal societies generally, however, not merely as a tool for a specific society. However, as her own example of Finland shows, while a country with a strong sense of interconnection between citizens and wide support for social security, can also be very reluctant to take in refugees, and the normalization of far right nativism that Mudde talks about has also happened in countries with more social cohesion and far better social security than the US.

According to Nussbaum, the most promising, “positive and helpful” emotion for establishing “decent” societies and political systems is compassion, and she envisions the good society as one where we cultivate a “public culture of compassion” (Nussbaum 2013,157). An interesting point to notice here is that while compassion also was the prime virtue for Rousseau, his “Spartan” vision of the good society was extremely “masculine”, and its emotions (shame, honor etc.) as Nussbaum points out, resembled those of the ancién regime. Nussbaum’s “love and compassion” offers an alternative, more “feminine” register of positive political emotions as well as discouraging emotions such as fear, envy, shame, and disgust that can erode support for what she deems good political causes.

Nussbaum defines compassion as ”a painful emotion directed at the serious suffering of another creature” and distinguishes it from empathy – the ability to imagine the situation of the other, taking the other’s perspective (Nussbaum 2013,142).  For Nussbaum, compassion is not only a private emotion but also a collective one, and she claims that although our compassion is often partial and narrow, we are able to widen our circle of concern up to the national level – and beyond – through education (ibid). Hence, compassion should be practiced in schools and other institutions with the help of literature and role-play (Nussbaum 2013, 276–279). As sympathetic as I find Nussbaum’s vision of a compassionate society (and it is certainly hard to dislike) I would like to problematize this idea of a political culture of compassion and ask if there are some points in Arendt’s rather infamous criticism of compassion and pity in On Revolution that may cause us to approach this strategy of making society better by fostering ”a culture of compassion” with some restraint. [9]

 

Arendt: Compassion as a-political

Arendt’s view of compassion as a visceral basic emotion is comparable to Nussbaum’s, but unlike Nussbaum she does not think that compassion could ever be a public sentiment. Compassion is being “touched in the flesh” – it is a literal “passion”, something we suffer – and hence a direct reaction to individual and concrete suffering that relates to persons in their singularity. (Arendt 2006 b, 80). In compassion, we suffer with another person as a response to the suffering one perceives in them, and as such, compassion is limited to a personal connection between individuals. Compassion is therefore essentially an apolitical emotion according to Arendt. Like love, it abolishes distance, “the worldly space between men were political matters, the whole realm of human affairs, are located” (Arendt, 2006 b, 76). Political interaction on the other hand, involves a certain distance according to Arendt, because it consists of speech “in which someone talks to somebody about something that is of interest to both because it inter-ests, it is between them.

This relation is reminiscent of what the Norwegian philosopher Skjervheim calls a “triangular relation” which characterizes a genuine intersubjective dialogue. In a triangular relation, I respond to an utterance by directing my attention to the same subject matter in such a way that we share a common object as participants (Skjervheim, 1996). The alternative relation is that of the spectator, to merely register the other’s utterances, or infer his/her motives and thus make the other into my object. According to Arendt, this “triangular” relation is alien to compassion, which is directed only at the suffering person. In so far as compassion actually sets out to change the world, it tends to claim swift and even violent action, rather than persuasion, negotiation and compromise, which Arendt sees as the very substance of political life (Arendt 2006b, 77).

A further complication with evoking compassion as a political emotion is what Arendt refers to as “the darkness of the human heart” which she contrasts to the “light” of the public sphere.  This notion of “the darkness of the human heart” points to the fact that we are never fully transparent to ourselves. The reason for her skepticism towards emotions in politics is not that the devalues them, but as Degerman points out, that we cannot truly know ourselves, nor fully trust ourselves either, since our emotional life is radically subjective, ambivalent, conflictual and changeable. (Degerman 2019, 156). Arendt has a radically relational view of selfhood and reality, our very sense of ourselves as “someone” is dependent on our appearing to others through ”words and deeds”, and our capacity to make and keep promises, which likewise depends on others (Arendt, 1958, 237). Likewise, our sense of the reality and objectivity of the world is provided by the presence of others who see what we see and relate to the same objects. According to Arendt, what does not appear in a common world remains dream-like and without reality.

For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance. (Arendt 1958, 50)

The expression or representation of an emotion transforms something subjective and involuntary – the experienced emotion – into something communicable. What is intersubjectively “real” and objective is therefore not my emotion, but an appearance, it is my representation of the emotion that can be seen, heard and evaluated by others. And in the political sphere appearances are all there is (Arendt 1958,179-80, 193). Arendt’s contention is that when compassion “goes public” as it where, it stops being an emotion and changes into something else – the sentiment of pity; being sorry without being “stricken in the flesh”: “Pity, because it is not stricken in the flesh and keeps its sentimental distance, can succeed where compassion always will fail; it can reach out to the multitude and therefore, like solidarity, enter the market-place” (Arendt 2006b, 79).

A sentiment is a feeling evoked by and directed at an abstract depersonalized mage of “suffering masses” rather than immediately perceived particular persons (Arendt 2006b, 75, 80), and it is without limits –“boundless”– and leads to an insensitivity to reality, which in the case of the French revolutionaries turned into cruelty: “…it has been the boundlessness of their sentiments that made revolutionaries so curiously insensitive to reality in general and to the reality of persons in particular, whom they felt no compunctions in sacrificing to their ‘principles’” (Arendt 2006b, p. 80).

Compassion and the specter of hypocrisy

According to Arendt, Robespierre and the revolutionaries –Inspired by Rousseau– saw compassion as a universal and natural basis for human relations and politics (Arendt 2006b, 71). Their conception of compassion’s goodness stemmed from the idea that the subjective experience of compassion was – in itself – good. However since this emotion only exists within “the darkness of an individual’s heart”, we can never know for sure that a person actually harbors this emotion. Of course, there are actions associated with compassion, but it is also a subjective emotional experience that cannot appear to others directly as such. As Degerman points out, “The French revolutionaries developed a veritable repertoire of pityconspicuous crying at public events, calculated simplicity of dress, etc. – to demonstrate their pity to others. They quickly realized, however, that a show of pity could simply mask the absence of feeling within”. (Degerman 2019, 166).

Arendt’s simple point here is that that words and deeds can never unambiguously prove the presence of authentic emotions in the political sphere. If compassion is seen as a political virtue, the impossibility of confirming the authenticity of another person’s feelings (and our own for that matter) becomes an insoluble problem since every expression can be seen as potentially hypocritical: “…the search for motives, the demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation, since it is actually impossible, transforms all actors into hypocrites; the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human relations.” (Arendt 2006 b, 88). According to Arendt, the obsession with unmasking appearances in a field where only appearances exist lead Robespierre and his followers to an endless hunt for hypocrites and traitors that transformed Robespierre’s dictatorship into the Reign of Terror (Arendt 2006b, 89). While I certainly do not think that Nussbaum’s “public culture of compassion” would lead anyone to the guillotine, I would argue that a public culture of compassion faces risks of its own.

 

The pitfalls of pity

Central for Nussbaum’s vision is the idea of human equality, that all human beings are worthy of equal respect or regard, just in virtue of their humanity. If we are to believe Pankaj Mishra however, it is precisely this same belief in equality that breeds resentment; the problem is not that we do not value equality sufficiently, but that our societies fail to deliver it. In her article ”The Pitfalls of ‘Love and Kindness’: On the Challenges to Compassion/Pity as a Political Emotion” Anne-Kathrin Weber points to another inherent tension in Nussbaum’s emphasis on compassion/pity and equality. Pity, she argues, involves a ”dual-level hierarchisation” between a) those who are miserable and those who ought to pity them, and b) between the virtuous (those who pity) and those who do not pity. Pity establishes a hierarchy between the subject and the object of pity; with the result that we feel an immediate urge to help others, to rescue them, as Weber puts it: “making politics for them, and not with them” (Weber 2018, 56). In other words, pity does not encourage the triangular relation (me-you-our common object) but tends to objectify the ones that are pitied.

Nussbaum suggests that by teaching citizens to love equality, freedom, liberal democratic institutions and other people, we could create a more just society; the hope is, in other words, that we can instill citizens with particular emotions in order to improve our societies. While I have no argument whatsoever with Nussbaum’s view that art and poetry can teach us valuable emotional lessons that might have political relevance, I think that to explicitly cultivate compassion as a political sentiment faces some challenges. One of the worries expressed by Weber is connected to the second hierarchy of pity, namely that an “emotion programme” such as Nussbaum’s “might potentially clash with the pluralistic and diverse (political) interests of each individual” and hence resemble an attempt to inflict a single political “popular will” in the shape of “rules of feeling” onto citizens (Weber 2018, 57). Or to put it a different way: If Müller is correct in diagnosing populism as a particular moralistic imagination of politics that sets an (imagined) morally pure and fully united people against corrupt and immoral elites (Müller 2006,19-20) and that populism’s threat to democracy consists in its suppression of pluralism, would not a political culture of compassion only risk to increase the tendency of moralizing political debates? How we frame a political conflict matters; to frame it is moral or cultural terms rather than in terms of economy or a conflict of interests strengthens populism according to Müller, and populists will attempt to moralize political conflicts as much as possible (Müller 2006, 42, 92).

A public culture where emotions such as love and compassion are considered essential political virtues­ would certainly give political actors strong incentives to appear loving and compassionate notwithstanding how they actually feel. Moreover, such a public culture would also demand strong expressions of these emotions in order for the speaker to appear as authentically loving and compassionate. [10]  We do not need any punishment for appearing “unloving”– sheer peer-pressure (which Nussbaum also is aware of as a problem) would suffice. A public culture of love and compassion risks being haunted by the old specter of hypocrisy, since, as Arendt reminds us:  “…however heartfelt a motive might be, once it is brought out and exposed for public inspection it becomes an object of suspicion rather than insight.” (Arendt 2006b, 86). If our emotions, rather than what we want to change or preserve in the world, take center place, authenticity of appearance becomes paramount with the result that being emotionally honest can easily trump (pun intended) being factually truthful. As Harry Frankfurt points out in his book On Bullshit, the bullshitter is – like the hypocrite – concerned with the impression he makes, but while the hypocrite misrepresents his feelings and character rather than facts, the bullshitter – who simply does not care about the facts– might very well provide a honest representations of himself  (Frankfurt, 2005, 67).

As Arendt often reminds us, human affairs are fundamentally unpredictable; since political action always takes place within a ‘web of relationships’ among plural individuals. This web is itself active and reactive, and new players and new ways of playing the game enter the scene continuously, and what an action finally amounts to in the public sphere, is not under the agent’s control (Arendt, 1958, 190). The outcome of an action might be completely different from what we counted on, and we never quite know what we are doing when we act “into the web of interrelationships and mutual dependencies that constitute the field of action” (Arendt 2005, 56). A fairly obvious problem in this context is that if a political culture of compassion is seen as compulsory and mandated “from above” it might just as well backfire and create more resentment towards the progressive social changes that Nussbaum supports. I think this is actually something we see pretty clearly today in American (and internet) debates in which alt-right memes such as “PC-culture”, “snowflakery”, “victim-culture”, “virtue-signaling” and “oppression Olympics” have become common catchphrases. In short, I suspect that institutionalizing compassion only risks deepening resentment, rather than defusing the “letter bomb” described by Kimmel.

 

Solidarity vs. Pity – The role of principles

Fortunately, Arendt has an alternative to pity – namely the principle of solidarity. While the abstract sentiment of pity tends to lead us to see others as an abstract mass of sufferers, solidarity responds to suffering by deliberately establishing a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited (Arendt 2006b, 79). Solidarity may be aroused by suffering, but not guided by it, and might appear “colder” than love, because it is committed to ideas like the “ ‘the grandeur of man’, or the honor of the human race’, or the dignity of man” (ibid.). Solidarity is a principle, and thus not the same as an emotion, feeling or inner motivation, it is not located in the “darkness of the human heart” but appears and “shines” in public, that is, it is made manifest in the performance of the act itself and does not require people to infer the agent’s motive or feelings (Arendt 2006, 88). Political principles vary with different polities and periods in history, and a part from Montesquieu’s honor, virtue and fear she mentions freedom, justice, equality – and solidarity (Arendt 2005,195).

A principle is not ”in” the subject but “inspire from without” as she comments in ’What is Freedom?’ A principle is more general than particular goals, but the goals of an action might be judged in light of its principle. While political action is notoriously unpredictable, even a “failed” action that does not reach its goal can exhibit its principle and thus inspire further action, since the principle of an action can be manifested again and again. (Arendt 2006a, 151). The appeal of principles are also emotional, and Arendt is not as dismissive of emotions as she is often portrayed, and she is quite clear that absence of emotion does not promote rationality:  “In order to respond reasonably one must first of all be ‘moved’, and the opposite of emotional is not ‘rational,’ whatever that may mean, but either the inability to be moved, usually a pathological phenomenon, or sentimentality which is a perversion of feeling” (Arendt 1972, 161).

Arendt actually shares Mishra and Nussbaum’s criticism of the notion of ”enlightened self-interest” as the basis for interest in the common good. A public good cannot be equaled with self-interest, however “enlightened” it might be, in that it has a different temporal character; a common good belongs to the world, which outlasts the lifespan of the individual (Arendt 1972, 78). The ”public good” – the concerns we share as citizens– are and quite frequently antagonistic to whatever we may deem good to ourselves in our private existence.[11] What is central to Arendt is that the common good is a public ”thing”– it is something in-between us that unites and separates us at the same time. Institutions, material structures, artworks and infrastructure are things that make up an objective in-between, that can be seen and approached from different viewpoints. Principles share in this “objective” quality due to their visibility and repeatability, while our inner feelings or attitudes can never be public objects in a similar way.

Arendt’s insistence on the separation of the moral and the political is tied to her view that politics is always about the world we share; moral considerations always turns towards the self and our conscience, while political considerations are directed towards the good of the world (Arendt, 2003, 153). Political evils demand political answers, and these must be found in the space in-between, and not within the moral life of the individual. From the perspective of the world, our inner motives (be it anger or compassion) are of little relevance, what matters is that a wrong has been done in the world (Arendt 1972, 62 and 2005, 106). The danger of making emotions explicitly political is that our focus becomes individualized – either by focusing on “our own hearts” or as various form of unmasking, diagnosing or pathologizing the other – rather than being about the world, a situation Arendt compares to the “weirdness” of a spiritual séance:

What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not primarily, but the fact that the world be­tween them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely un­related to each other by anything tangible.  (Arendt 1958, 53)

 

Conclusion

When it comes to the question of how Kimmel’s ”letter bomb” can be defused, answers varies with how the problem is understood – whether it is framed in economic, political, psychological or cultural terms. Is it anger or resentment itself that is the problem, or is it, as Kimmel suggests rather that it has the wrong address? Kimmel, Piketty and Müller all points to neoliberalism, downward social mobility and inequality as driving the populist right, while others – like Mudde and Norris– see the rise of authoritarian populism as first and foremost an expression of a social and cultural conflict.[12] Müller, who is wary of psychologizing the rise of populism in terms of ”fear”, “anger” and ”resentment” (which he sees as patronizing and condescending) in addition points to political – rather than economical– reasons for the upsurge of populism, namely the weakening of the party system. Populism is strong in places with weak party systems, and where populism claims to represent ”the people” as a whole, oppositional parties precisely represents ”parts” of the people, and hence have an antipopulist meaning (Müller, 2016, p. 79). Müller suggests that a technocratic view of politics has paved the way for populism – in fact, they mirror each other: In a technocratic politics there is only one correct policy, in populism there is only one authentic will of the people– in neither case is there a need for democratic debate.[13]

If the rule of experts has played a part in ushering in authoritarian populism, it is not likely that the threat to liberal democracy that it represents can be solved by experts – if we value our institutions we must engage in them as citizens. The resiliency of institutions, laws and political principles is not something that can be simply decided by politicians or professional policy makers or taught to school children (for example) but depend on citizens’ active engagement. There appears to be a curiously non-conflictual backdrop to the picture Nussbaum paints; I would suspect that organizing for political power (in the form of organized labor for example) would be rather more effective in pushing progressive politics than making the wealthy more compassionate?

Arendt muses in The Promise of Politics that the sociological and psychological gaze is profoundly unpolitical in fixing upon man rather than the world, since we cannot “change the world by changing the people in it” (Arendt 2005, 105-106). Mishra and Nussbaum are undoubtedly right, however, in claiming that the political is not just about rational interests but also always about emotions, and that the liberal tradition’s ”rational subject” is a simplified fiction is even supported by findings in neurology and cognitive science. However, I think there are reasons to be skeptical of singling out specific subjective emotions as inherently ”good” or ”bad” for politics independent of context. One would be hard pressed to find anything constructive in Mishras ”ressentment”, but I am not convinced that anger and fear are always ”bad” and compassion always an unadulterated good in political life. [14] ”Negative” emotions like fear and anger can prompt us to political action in order avoid disasters and correct injustices – like taking to the streets in indignation and solidarity when the principle of justice is violated.[15]

Compassion – being touched by the suffering of others– is undoubtedly a morally good emotion, and perhaps even the most essential one –but as I have tried to argue here, if it is always a beneficial political sentiment is more dubious. One lesson we can take from Arendt is her insistence that political deliberation and action must be about the world and not about our ”hearts”. Referring to Rousseau, Arendt comments: ”while the plight of others aroused his heart, he became involved in his heart rather than in the sufferings of others (…)” (Arendt 2006, 78). Moral considerations tends to be directed towards ourselves, our conscience, emotions and what kind of person we want to be, but this involvement in ”the darkness of our own hearts” can also easily become a kind of entanglement, since we cannot truly know ourselves.

 

Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 1958. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism. 1966. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Arendt, Hannah. Crises of the Republic. 1972. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Arendt, Hannah. Essays in Understanding 1930-1954. Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism. Ed. Jerome Kohn 1994. New York: Schocken Books.

Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and Judgment. 2003. New York: Schocken Books.

Arendt, H. The Promise of Politics. 2005. Ed. Jerome Kohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. 2006a. London: Penguin Books,

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. 2006b [1963]. New York: Penguin Books.

Arendt, Hannah. Public Rights and Private Interests” 1977. In Small Comforts in Hard Times New York:Colombia University Press.

Clinton, Hillary: “Love and Kindness”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHp69F7vrLU

Degerman, Dan. 219. “Within the heart’s darkness: The role of emotions in Arendt’s political thought”. European Journal of Political Theory Vol. 18(2) 153–173. DOI: 10.1177/1474885116647850.

Duhigg, Charles. ”The Real Roots of American Rage. The untold story of how anger became the dominant emotion in our political and personal lives– and what we can do about it”. The Atlantic, January/February 2019.

Frankfurt, Harry. 2005. On Bullshit.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Mishra, Pankaj. 2017. Age of Anger. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Mudde, Cas. 2019. The Far Right Today. Cambridge and Medford: Polity Press. Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Norris, Pippa. “It’s Not Just Trump”. Washington Post, March 11, 2016.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/11/its-not-just-trump-authoritarian-populism-is-rising-across-the-west-heres-why

Piketty, Thomas. 2016. “We must rethink globalization, or Trumpism will prevail”. The Guardian 16 Nov. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/16/globalization-trump-inequality-thomas-piketty

Skjervheim, Hans. 1996. Deltakar og tilskodar og andre essays. Oslo: Aschehoug.

Srinivasan, Amia. 2017. “The Aptness of Anger”. Journal of Political Philosophy 2018-06, Vol.26 (2), p.123-144. DOI:10.1111/jopp.12130.

Weber, Anne-Kathrin. 2018. ”The Pitfalls of ‘Love and Kindness’: On the Challenges to Compassion/Pity as a Political Emotion”. Politics and Governance Vol. 6, Issue 4, 53–61. DOI: 10.17645/pag.v6i4.1393.

 

Endnotes

[1] There has been a lot of discussion on how precisely to define the widely used label ”populism”. I will here use the term in accordance with Jan-Werner Müller who defines populism as containing several interrelated features, all of which must be present: Anti-pluralism, moralization of the political, anti-elitism and exclusion. While not being anything like a unified doctrine, populism has its own ”inner logic; it is always a form of identity politics (although the reverse does not hold) where the populist party, leader or movement identifies as the true representative of an –imagined, and ultimately purely symbolic– homogenous, unified people (in the singular) against a corrupt elite, and where opponens are seen as enemies of  ”the people”.  The core claim of populism is that ”only some of the people are really the people”.  See Müller, What is Populism? (2016, p 19-20, 21, 29).

[2] The psychology professor in question was James Averill, and the anecdote is from Charles Duhigg: ”The Real Roots of American Rage–The untold story of how anger became the dominant emotion in our politics and personal lives — and what we can do about it” in The Atlantic, January/February 2019.

[3] Kimmel thus has a rather vaguer and much wider notion of populism than Müller, which allows him to classify Bernie Sanders as a left-wing populist, which Müller emphaticly does not.

[4] Thomas Piketty, ”We must rethink globalization, or Trumpism will prevail”, The Guardian, Nov, 16, 2016.

[5] The angry right is thus an intersection of race, class and gender; about 80 percent of all the jobs lost in the aftermath of the economic crisis in 2008 in the US were jobs held by men, (Kimmel 2017,15) and  the lower middle class; independent farmers, small shopkeepers, craft and highly skilled workers, and small-scale entrepreneurs has been hit hardest by globalization. (ibid., 245).

[6] “They believed that there was a contract between themselves, and guys like them, and the government “of the people” that is supposed to represent us. They believed in the corporations that they worked for, confident in the knowledge that they could support a family, enjoy a secure retirement, and provide for their families. That contract was the stable foundation for several generations of America’s working men—an implied but inviolable understanding between businesses and workers, between government and employers. They had kept the faith, fulfilled their part of the bargain. And somehow their share had been snatched away by faceless, feckless hands. They had played by all the rules, only to find the game was rigged from the start.” (Kimmel 2017, 202).

[7] “It’s not that their path upward is blocked; it’s that the downward pressure from above is pushing them downward into the ranks of the marginalized. “They” might deserve to be down there, but “we” do not. Their revolt is, therefore, nostalgic, pessimistic, reactionary.” (Kimmel 2017, xiii).

[8] See Mishra 2017, 327, 333 and H-Diplo Roundtable Review Volume XX, No. 44, 2 July 2019.

[9] My presentation here owes much to Dan Degerman  (2019)Within the heart’s darkness:  The role of emotions in Arendt’s political thought” and Anne-Kathrin Weber (2018) “The Pitfalls of ‘Love and Kindness’: On the Challenges to Compassion/Pity as a Political Emotion”.

[10] Weber uses Hillary Clintons campaign video titled: “Love and Kindness” as an example example of the hierarchization and the “magic feeling” involved in compassion, and I would add, the stress on emotion in the video combined with vagueness regarding concrete policies also makes it a prime target for a suspicion of hypocrisy.

[11] See Arendt 1977, Public Rights and Private interests” from: Small comforts in hard times, p.105. This text is also one of the few instances where Arendt appears to soften the political/social divide in that she explicitly states that equality demands getting people out of poverty: ”Before we ask the poor for idealim, we must first make them citizens: and ths involves so changing the circumstances of their private lives that they can become capable of enjoying ’the public’”. (ibid., 106- 107).

[12] See Mudde, p 101. Comparative political scientist Pippa Norris has also argued that income level is not a reliable predictor of support for authoritarian parties, which is better understood as a cultural backlash against social change. In her view, economic conditions and material insecurity are not the ”motor” but rather the accelerant of the ”authoritarian reflex”. See Pippa Norris, “It’s Not Just Trump,” Washington Post, March 11, 2016.

[13] Here he has more in common with conflictual political theorists such as Chantal Mouffe who claims that the convergence of political parties, as well as the compulsion to reach consensus has provoked antiliberal countermovements. See Müller 2016, 53 and 97.

[14] Nussbaum tends to focus on the counterprodutiveness of anger but as Srinivasan (2018) has argued, justified anger can be apt even though it is counterproductive, as a way of appreciating injustice, and that the situation of oppressed groups who must choose between getting aptly angry or acting prudentially suffers what she calls ”affective injustice”.

[15] As is happening now in the US while I am writing this (June 2020). When it comes to fear, Nussbaum sees it as a ”narrowing” and centrifugal emotion that it dissipates a people’s potentially united energy for a common project (Nussbaum 2013, 323) but the younger generation’s activism against global warming is driven by a very reasonable fear for the future; in the face of ecological disaster one cannot ”save oneself” alone. The relative swiftness of the concrete policies established in most European countries facing the Covid 19 pandemic, compared to the tardy response to climate change is telling. In the latter case we are obviously not sufficiently scared.

Democracy Put to the Test of Age: A Case Study Concerning the Dysfunction of Modern Democracy

« Il y a deux sortes de maladies. L’une est produite par une cause étrangère qui apporte le désordre, l’autre par une partie trop vigoureuse qui jette le trouble dans la machine, c’est un citoyen trop puissant dans la démocratie. La matrice est saine, mais son action est trop forte pour le reste ».

Diderot D., Éléments de physiologie, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2004, p. 349.

 

A dysfunction is not only something that goes wrong. It is not just about not knowing how to implement rules, misusing them or enforcing them wrongly. It is not about contravening the rules; it is rather about how the function of rules provokes a deadlock and impossibilities, such as the jamming of a mechanism in accordance with its own rules. So technical objects dysfunction when they fight against themselves and each other, and they do this as long as they have not reached their equilibrium point; as long as the crisis of these struggling principles is not yet resolved. There are illnesses where the organism of the patient fights against itself and obstructs its own life while working according to the principle or the principles that sustain its life processes. The same is the case in states considered as  societies, though in accordance with the analyses of Stuart Mill, these can be taken neither as machines nor as living beings.[1]

My aim in this paper is to consider the dysfunction of democracy in relation to the generation gap. I will do that with a case, abstractedly singled out, that is really interlinked with all sorts of phenomena and which has – to use a causalist vocabulary, which is not necessarily accurate – sundry effects. Democracies are sensitive to what is often called the generation gap and this makes them vulnerable, perhaps they will be more and more vulnerable. Here we encounter a difficulty: what do we mean when we speak about generations? Do we point to a reality or are we faced with a sort of illusion that makes us consider older people as an indistinct mass we are neither close to nor anxious to join one day? The other way around, when we become old, it is the turn of the younger people to be considered as a mass on which we depend for our livelihood, particularly when we are no longer working, and they are not supposed to be hostile, but at least an uncertain and precarious support. It may, of course, be said that democracy, because of its political structure, evens out such dissensions: is there not a tacit underlying contract in which everybody promises to contribute to the life and well-being of others when they are unable to do so by themselves, since they have contributed to the conditions of life and well-being of those who could not – or which society esteemed could not – provide for themselves? This contract draws its value from the principle and the fact that, in a democracy every vote or every opinion counts as one vote or as one opinion; and it draws its chances of being accepted from exactly this fact or this principle. But, as we shall see, it might be just this contractual ideology, through which we envisage democracy and believe it to be effective, that constitutes the very difficulty making the older generations fear the younger and the younger generations envy the older while feeling at the same time a hatred or anger that is not necessarily ill-founded.

 

I.

David Hume was the first to demonstrate in a very subtle way a relative incompatibility between a contractual conception of democracy and the demographic realities. In his famous essay, The Original Contract, he showed that generations of butterflies may draw up contractual relations, because all the full-grown butterflies come out of their chrysalises practically at the same time, and that, if these insects had to contract forms of government, they could do so in committing themselves to the others, without contradictorily constraining those who could not negotiate the contract before entering into it; whereas human beings, entering diffusely into mixed generations, are forced, by the very structure of their birth, to negotiate with everyone what they enforce the younger generations to recognize, on pain of being obliged, every day, to renegotiate the contract. Hume drew the consequence that a state can neither be thought nor lived in a contractual way and that, for this reason, democracy is nothing but an illusion. It is not possible, in his opinion, that political links may be thought of or lived as a game between freedom (understood as autonomy) and equality. Mutatis mutandis, our societies have made the reverse ideological choice and they believe or pretend to believe in the possibility of democracy and in its reality; but they cannot escape the problem they will thus encounter.

Indeed, the constant and diffuse transition from one age to another blurs for every individual any contractual relation between one age bracket and another. For greater convenience, these age brackets are called generations. A state may decide, at a given moment, by law, that everyone has the right to retire or even the obligation to cease to work at a definite age that may be fixed by mutual consent, as it is proper in a democracy. In other words, a middle generation may and must accept to take care of other generations; both, the younger generation that has not yet worked, but is learning trades, and the older generation that has already worked and that is no longer fit to work or is considered unfit to work, and having, in any case, no longer the duty to do so. This middle generation accepts this caretaking because its members know that they will be treated in the same way afterwards by the upcoming generation and because they also know that the older generation they are committed to support has already supported a generation older than itself. If the law is sufficiently precise and definite, and if no disaster erupts and massively kills a great part of the population, whatever be this part, one may predict the number of transitions in the category of those who will be supported after having supported others and being helped by themselves by paying a contribution to a pension fund. But what is difficult to insert into a law, what is difficult to foresee and to take into account – because that would amount to making the contract too vague and volatile – is, for instance, the increase in human life expectancy.  Thanks to medical progress, for which everyone may be delighted, though not without reservation[2], women’s and men’s life expectancy has become longer and has increased rapidly, more rapidly for women (whose life expectancy is about 85in France and, more generally, in most of European countries) than for men (nearly 80) – and this phenomenon inevitably increases the responsibility on the part of those working compared to what it was for previous generations who are now under their care. Furthermore, the members of our hedonist or eudemonist societies – at least ideologically hedonist or eudemonist, but this ideology is not of little consequence – know that it is better, in order to be happy, that a family should not have too many children. Thus the population pyramid in many societies looks like a sort of ace of diamonds whose base is narrower and narrower, the middle stages more and more filled and the summit higher and slender. In other words, the basis of those who have the responsibility – and moreover, of those who will have the responsibility – of the generations that do not work, or that will not work, is more and more narrow, while the responsibility they assume becomes heavier. The hedonism of some might be painful for others.

We can see where the dysfunction is: contracts, even drawn up with full legitimacy between generations, quickly lapse because of the obstinacy of facts themselves (the increase of life expectancy, for instance). The observance of drawn up contracts, the fulfilment by the state of its commitments, may be the reason for an aggravation of this phenomenon. Indeed, a generation may negotiate with another regarding its members’ comfortable pensions in order for them to lose no advantage compared with the salaries received when they were actively employed; it may regard as justified, when the time comes, that the contract should be honoured, because of the promise given in the past. However, the reality itself may invalidate the fulfilment of contracts when a generation becomes crushed by taxation, by other burdens (payment for old people’s homes, payment for the education of children that stay a longer time in the family because of the increase in time of study) or when obliged to give up what constituted its reasons for working. When a generation claims its happiness, another is pressured to pay the price for it.

Here I notice – and this is the point where Hume was right when he criticized a pure cultivation of equality to the detriment of all other considerations – that the best principle may, purely and solely cultivated, become the worst in certain circumstances, if it is not limited by other principles. But, on the one hand, by which principles? And, on the other hand, in what way? By Rawlsian lexicality? By a vector product? Furthermore: even if the principles were rightly bound together, there would remain a gap between this synthesis and the fact that it happens in circumstances which are always different.[3]

 

II.

It may be said, however, and to a certain extent with good reason, that the benefit and strength of democracies are precisely their capacity for posing these problems and attempting to solve them through negotiations between citizens that unceasingly envisage the questions and deal with them in the best interest of everyone as equals. I agree, but they might very well encounter the difficulty well highlighted by Hume in his challenge of democracy.

If, in a democracy, every citizen has one vote and if no vote counts more than another, it is clear that the majority of elderly people in comparison with the working generations may crush the ballot of those working generations and reduce to nothing the well-founded will to renegotiate contracts,[4]particularly when we know that non-voters are recruited from young people. Those who support the heavier charges, because they are of an age to work, may have most difficulty in being heard in the cacophony of interests. They may even have the feeling that democracies, because of their majority vote, are nothing but authoritarian machines that silence them, preventing them from participating in the happiness they mainly contribute to producing for others by their efforts. They feel it like an unjust sacrifice that constrains them without the least hope of benefiting from the same advantages they give to others because they are not encouraged to have children; so they despair of politics. The only place where they could have found a solution is spoiled by the problem itself.

This is a concrete place where a well-grounded distinction may be found that, abstractly considered, would seem pointless. It is well known that Rousseau distinguished between the will of alland the general will; the former being the addition of everybody’s interests and of the group’s interests (families, churches, corporations, companies, trade unions, syndicates, parties), while the latter is supposed to associate the thoughts that everyone has conceived, not in his own interest, but in the interest of the whole collectivity. So laws are valuable only when they are laid down from that latter point of view. A bundle of interests – be it the majority – can never lead but to a disaster. A decision may engage the collectivity, not only when it is the majority decision, but also when it is made by every citizen with full knowledge of the matter. In democracy, in order to be valuable for the entire collectivity, a decision must be understood by everyone and discussed among its members; it must not merely be the effect of the weight of the greater number.[5]Such a ballot is dangerous and only feigns democracy when it replaces discussion. This is perhaps the specific contribution of Stuart Mill to the distinction Rousseau drew between the two types of will. It is only through discussion among well-informed people that an acceptable position may be arrived at, provided everyone agrees that what seemed to be well-balanced at the moment might be changed when it becomes unbalanced.

Moreover, I shall here sketch a proposal that perhaps will be taxed with egalitarianism. Of course, many people admit that unequal working conditions are scandalous, even though most democracies suffer from too large a disparity in wages or from other social inequalities. But these inequalities become more flagrant and unacceptable, where they are imposed by a majority consisting of non-workers on retirement. How could one accept that some people should work for others who, although they do not do anything anymore that could be assimilated to paid work on the marketplace, receive sums of money which are much higher than the former’s wages? How could one accept that the non-work of some be better paid than the non-work of others? It is as if a sort of inertia principle is absurdly at work where the inequalities of the time when men were working pass on to the time when they have ceased to work.

Objections will be raised that the issue here is not one of inertia, but a contract formed by the will of the parties; that the forecasting of this time of non-work is included in the wages or salaries paid to those still at work, and that, consequently, it is not abnormal that this contribution to a pension fund during the work period sets off the inequality regarding the period of non-work by which we are presently scandalized. But this should not prevent us from raising the question of the justice of such a transfer: Why should the time of non-work not be a time to lessen the inequalities, since they are then much less acceptable? The fate of those who need the most help, even if they have worked for a time as long as the others, is much more cruel during the time of powerlessness, because they are old and ill, than the destiny of the well-to-do that are better cured and cared for, even though they might be struck down by the same diseases. I only touch on the subject here of the long search for a decent retirement home for dependent elderly people (what is called EHPAD[6]in France), when they must wait in a hospital for a nursing home to accommodate them. The accommodation in these nursing homes is extremely varied depending on the level of wealth of their inhabitants, and it may be disastrous, as it is presently denounced in France, both by the staff and the directors of such establishments.

Perhaps there is a more outrageous phenomenon than the economic inequalities and one which reinforces them: it is inequality faced with illness and death. Those who have worked hard, being physically exposed to the elements, tribulations and abuses, lose health and life sooner than those who have worked with their intellectual and imaginative faculties. The feelings of injustice are necessarily heightened in those who must work under more painful conditions than others – and for others – that are already favoured by economic conditions and over a longer time. Even though there may be attempts to hide inequalities between “classes” – in a Marxist sense – by speaking of “generations”, there is no avoiding the discourse of “classes”.

So, the mere application of true democratic principles may provoke dysfunctions that check and deregulate democracy. Indeed, the observance of contracts, even if the implementation of those contracts is very remote from the day when the parties drew them up, is a principle of democracy and also a mere principle of the commonwealth; but it must not be, in this regard, a heavy burden of worries for those who, having not directly negotiated the contracts or having merely inherited them, take them upon themselves thus honouring a state worthy of the name. The fiction of the legitimacy of the unequal share of what is paid after retirement is acceptable only, on the one hand, in an individualistic perspective in which every individual leans on the community only to settle a personal destiny, and on the other hand, in the no less dubious prospect of a steady course of time. Following such a prospect, in contracting to do something at a given moment, it must be possible to find, under the same conditions, what was decided, many decades earlier, as if the state should warrant civil laws as steady as pretended laws of nature of the classical age; in other terms, as if it could promise a world without any accidents, risks, probabilities, or dissymmetry between past and future. When the world of laws is expected to be pure thought and without any unforeseen event, it has the chance to be in the position of the Procrustean bed whose pretence is to measure a reality which does not care about those fantastic rules that might be maleficent for men and lure them into ideological traps.

 

III.

These latter remarks concerning differences and conflicts of temporality allow us to gain a new characteristic in comparison with the implicitly or explicitly quantitative approach we have so far assumed for defining the notion of a generation and taking another point of view upon the dysfunctions that have appeared to us.

Certainly, the qualitative and modal approach to the notion of generations, of their limits and of their possible conflicts, goes back a long way. Mannheim and many other sociologists, before and after him, have sketched the outlines of such a notion, where the first-mentioned speaks about “the generation of 1914”, while later sociologists speak about “the Baby Boomer generation” (The “Sixties”), the generation of the thirty years following the Second World War (of which I am a specimen), or the “Millennial Generation” (The 9/11 generation) if it is right to say that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 “may form the immediate source of a new global generation”.[7]

The former lived between two disasters, one that had already taken place, the other about to take place and opening up a tragic horizon. The second generation, ignoring war, living with hedonistic norms, taking on an air of egoism rather than altruism, without caring much for the condition in which it leaves the world to the generation of its children.[8] The third generation, finally, that arrived in demographic conditions that could have been anticipated, but which had not been planned, being left in economic conditions more chaotic than the previous ones received from their elders, and being constrained to inscribe their existence into the framework of uncertain – perhaps tragic – times. These are only sundry examples; so the slicing of the last generations in three or four pieces have many chances of being fallacious; but they give a direction we must not neglect on the pretext that only what is quantitative and countable would be real.

In parallel with many books written within sociology attempting a definition of what a generation is, I was struck by a dialogue that has the air of a monograph, though it was written by two authors. A retired professor of the University of Besançon converses with one of her former students. They are separated by four decades and following themes split into conventional units; they faithfully take stock of their differences in their conception of the family, the part of work in their lives, their mode of sexuality, their labour union and political commitments; the social-class difference never seems to be the most dividing split between them. Among the less expected matters in this exciting exchange, the reader finds the opposition between two ways of thinking about time and of living in it, so that it is difficult to separate ideology from reality. The elder, who belongs to my generation, speaks in praise of a course of time that seems to be built straight ahead, evolving smoothly on a single path, seeming to deepen unceasingly, without any nostalgia or troubles. While listening to this narration, the younger, usually caustic in his critiques, was enthralled by this time to which he had, has and will have no access and he seems to feel guilty about it. This course of life looks for him as if it were the sort of time in which he would have enjoyed to live, without realizing it could be a secondary elaboration, quite imaginary, dependent on the age of the narrator and on the ways that every epoch defines for us how we live with and think about time. There were epochs where time appeared to those who lived in them as perfectly linear; and others that cannot be lived in such a way. This guilt, unconsciously imposed by the elder onto the younger, gives the book its darkest pages;[11] it makes us think about the way one generation may extort from the other promises to which it has no right. If they have lived and thought the time as they ought to have lived and thought it, how would those who cannot succeed in doing so refuse a service or an advantage to them, who have found the right vital tempo? But why did the younger not present another temporality in the same positive light as the elder, although it might be extremely different? Had not many English thinkers already given way to a thought of non-linear times?[10]

 

 

IV.

This last point allows us to focus, among other theories, on the advantages of a theory of fictions, provided it may be deepened, to think about the reciprocal games of generations. How to give, in this reflection, the right share to reality and fiction? We may be tempted to claim that the population pyramid tells the truth about reality and, consequently, tells the truth about the ideological processes that necessarily come along with it and for which one of the best illustrations is the thought of a temporalization that, instead of leading to a revolt against a one-sided conception of time, blames itself for being unable to identify itself with it; but why would reality not chose the side of the clashes of temporalities that radically frame our lives without any room for manoeuvres in order to change them? In this case, it is the demographic pyramid that would be a fiction which does not stand for things themselves, but represents a sort of snapshot that has no more truth than the instantaneous speed of the physicist. A theory of fiction does not allow us an arbitrary choice between the first or the second option; but it is possible for it to adopt each in turn, without the former claiming to be more real than the other. Many situations which seem impossible when we consider them as graphs are perfectly bearable in reality: B. Vernier showed in the same way that the very improbable kinship structures of the Karpathos island could have reached our days through many centuries precisely because those structures, improbable to the extent of seeming impossible, become bearable when they are supported by affects and sentiments; there is no less reality in a play of affects than in the structure that seems to tell things and, sometimes, makes the demographer sound the alarm.

However, I do not want to give reasons to postpone the moment when the democratic dialogue must make possible the best decisions concerning what people at work must pay to others, and what those who are no longer at work are in the right to expect from them without referring themselves to obsolete contracts of which nobody – except erudite historians – knows why, how and with whom they were entered into in former times. Far from inscribing contracts in eternity, it is, on the contrary, necessary to accept temporality, not forcibly only when it goes off smoothly, in order to attempt by all the means given to intelligence to control its course. In this respect, it is not impossible that the pension system must be radically reformed, if not in all the countries of the European Community, at least in France where the authoritarian system of a legally decided retirement date at the same age has no sense. It is right indeed that the share of work from which the younger generations were so long excluded – up to being pauperized – will become problematic if everybody could choose freely to retire. Here, we find again the same necessity to limit one principle by another; the pure cultivation of unlimited principle – be it a component of a democratic regime – or, by the way, principles filtered in Rawlsian lexical order, are making democracy dysfunction. However, it is not, as Hume concluded, with less democracy, but with more democracy, that problems could be solved.

 

 

V.

Finally, the impossibility of separating one generation from another, which may seem dangerous, because of the confusing situation it generates, due to the paradoxical issue of the deepening gap between one generation and another, also gives the means to move them closer by another turn. For instance, it is quite possible, as Irene Hardhill showed in a beautiful article on Intergenerational Space,[11] that a use of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), even elementary ones, by older people puts off the dependency, decline, passivity and obsolescence which are the principal causes of the placement in retirement homes. So, the repentant moroseness of a conflict of temporalities from which certain young people could not choose the best, stamped by ontology and phenomenology, may be countered with intergenerational teaching, which does not always function in one way, from the elder to the younger, but conversely, as M. Mead showed, from the younger to the elder.[12] We see that, even if digital technologies would have delineated generations, as M. Serre said in a talk quoted by Marie-France Castarède,[13] that delineation must not be interpreted as a dividing line, because generations merge into one another, one unceasingly modifying the other. So techniques, detested by a certain phenomenology, far from working to divide men, to vulgarize them in preventing them from thinking and feeling, would rather have the reverse function.

 

Endnotes

1 This is the matter of the first chapter of Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government.

2 Not without reservation: because the increase in life expectancy makes diseases emerge that could not have time to develop so massively before. So Alzheimer’s disease is as yet incurable, though it does not directly jeopardize the patient’s life.

3 That is a point G. Simondon highlighted in Du mode d’existence des objets techniques, Aubier, Paris, 1958, p. 35 : « L’objet technique est un système physico-chimique dans lequel les actions mutuelles s’exercent selon toutes les lois des sciences. La finalité de l’intention technique ne peut atteindre sa perfection dans la construction de l’objet que si elle s’identifie à la connaissance scientifique universelle. Il faut bien préciser que cette dernière connaissance doit être universelle, car le fait que l’objet technique appartienne à la classe factice des objets répondant à tel besoin humain défini ne limite et ne définit en rien le type d’actions physico-chimiques qui peuvent s’exercer dans cet objet ou entre cet objet et le monde extérieur ». A politics may be drawn out from this reflection on historicity and the becoming of technical objects.

4 C. Marchal could write in 2003 : « En France, un bulletin de vote sur deux est aujourd’hui issu d’un citoyen ou d’une citoyenne de plus de 49 ans et le vote de plus de quarante ans dépasse 65 % » (La démocratie déséquilibrée. La démographie au secours de la démocratie,L’Harmattan, 2003, p. 39).

5 The will of all is very different from the general will; the latter looks only to the common interest, while the former looks to private interest and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but remove from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another and what is left of the particular wills adds up to constitute the general will. If people held its deliberations (on the basis of adequate information) without the citizens communicating with one another, what emerged from all the little particular wills would always be the general will, and the decision would always be good. But when plots and deals lead to the formation of partial associations at the expense of the big association, the will of each of these associations—the general will of its members—is still a particular will so far as the state is concerned; so that it can then be said that as many votes as there are men is replaced by as many votes as there are associations. The particular wills become less numerous and give a less general result. And when one of these associations is so great as to prevail over all the rest, the result is no longer a sum of small particular wills but a single particular will; and then there is no longer a general will, and the opinion that prevails is purely particular.”(The Social Contract, Book II, Chap. 3)

6 Établissement d’hébergement pour personnes âgées dépendantes (nursing home for dependent elderly people).

7 Edmunds and Turner, quoted by J. Bristow, The Sociology of Generations. New directions and challenges, Palgrave, Macmillan, 2016, p. 61.

8 In The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future and Why They Should Give It Back, David Willetts (2010), then Minister of State for Universities and Science, insists that the central problem with British social policy today lies in its failure to attach ‘sufficient value to the claims of future generations’. His argument is praised on a particular diagnosis of the problem of the Baby Boomer generation, which, he claims, has monopolized economic, social, and cultural resources, and thereby “weakened many of the ties between the generations” (p. 260).

9 To Marie-France Castarède who has just described, not without a certain Proustian complacency, the time lived by her generation, Samuel Dock answers, charmed, but also bitter about his own generation : « Plus je vous écoute, plus je suis touché par ce temps, passé, présent, futur (…). Aujourd’hui je vois ma génération aux prises avec une temporalité accélérée mais évasive, perdue dans un flux indigeste et abscons où les événements ont tous perdu de leur importance, qu’il s’agisse de l’histoire individuelle ou de l’histoire collective. La mémoire se languit et se traîne, s’égare et ralentit ; les événements passés nous échappent et ont perdu de leur chair ; nous les observons de loin, désincarnés, fantomatiques, passablement vains. Nous oublions que nous ne savons plus. Nous méprisons quand nous ignorons. Nous vagabondons à travers ce nihilisme nouveau dans lequel même les forces du temps se révèlent sans conséquences sur la pensée ». Follows a particularly harsh description whose bitterness that pervaded its words looks to be borrowed from Heidegger’s philosophy of Sein und Zeit; he concludes it with these words : « Comment grandir sans racines ? Ma génération ne peut se sentir exister qu’à court terme » (Castarède M-F. & S. Dock, Le nouveau choc des générations, Plon, Paris, 2015, p. 215). Then, after this great mea culpaworded by her bouger interlocutor, M-F. Castarède speaks again with a view to describe how days and years were passing, not only in her life, but also through the demarcation line between life and death, conferring sense on all mourning ceremonies, Samuel Dock, as a character in his own book, starts telling in a Schopenhauerian way: « Nous avons peur de mourir parce que nous ne savons pas vivre ; nous allons trop vite et nous ignorons comment nous lester d’assez d’existence pour un jour envisager de la quitter, accomplis et heureux d’avoir bien vécu, aimé, rêvé, de nous être liés. Oui, la quitter heureux de nous libérer de notre individualisme insensé et de passer notre tour aux générations d’après, appréciant notre chance, louant les êtres aimés et les quelques moments beaux qui auront su être appréciés, pleinement vécus plutôt que survolés et superficiellement éprouvés. (…) Narcisse, attaché à lui seul ne veut pas se quitter ; il veut s’aimer et s’aimer encore, fallût-il vivre tétanisé dans son reflet. (…) » (pp. 218-219).

10 Is it not in this way that David Hume thought history was a collection of facts or events? The definition by Giele and Elder of “lifecourse” as “a sequence of socially defined events and roles that the individual enacts over time” (1998, p. 22) recalls Hume’s definition.

11 ‘The international help desk. Encouraging ICT use in older adults in England’, in Intergenerational Space, ed. By R.M. Vanderbeck & N. Worth, Routledge, London & New York, 2015, pp. 273-285: “For older people, ICTs can be powerful assistive technologies, helping them to maintain their independence, social connectedness and sense of worth in the face of declining health or limited capabilities, but they can also offer new and empowering opportunities to improve an individual’s quality of life”. Anglo-Saxons (New Dynamics of Ageing [NDA] Research Programme) and Canadians (Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR]) have forwarded research teams that have much progressed in those fields.

12 Margaret Mead, in Culture and Commitment. A Study of the Generation Gap(published for The American Museum of Natural History, Natural History Press / Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1970), wrote that there are “three different kinds of culture –postfigurative, in which children learn primarily from their forebears, cofigurative, in which both children and adults learn from their peers, and prefigurative, in which adults learn also from their children” (p. 1). Margaret Mead had noticed that, “in this new culture it will be the child – and not the parent and grandparent that represents what is to come. Instead of the erect, white-head elder who, in post figurative cultures, stood for the past and the future in all their grandeur and continuity, the unborn child, already conceived but still in the womb become the symbol of what life will be like” (p. 88). It is the adults who need of the new knowledge of their children. “The Future is Now” (p. 97).

13 In Le nouveau choc des générations, p. 13, Marie-France Castarède writes : « Je me référerais à une conférence de Michel Serres où il montrait avec pertinence que la vraie différence intergénérationnelle aujourd’hui se situait entre les adultes et les enfants qui sont nés dans et avec le numérique. Les personnes de ma génération ou de celle de mes enfants se servent de l’ordinateur et d’Internet en tant qu’instruments précieux pour des applications diverses. Samuel, lui, à l’instar de mes petits-enfants, appartient à la génération née dans cette nouvelle manière d’être au monde, l’ère du numérique ». M. Serre repeated an idea of M. Mead who said in 1970, op. cit., p. 64: “Today, suddenly, because all the peoples of the world are part of one electronically based, intercommunicating network, young people everywhere share a kind of experience that none of the elders ever have had or will have. Conversely, the older generation will never see repeated in the lives of young people their own unprecedented experience or sequentially emerging change. This break between generations is wholly new: it is planetary and universal”.

From Piketty’s Capital to Marx’s das Kapital

Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has created a very new platform for a discussion of the global economy. There is possibly no other book on economy which has been published in so many languages, printed in so many copies, and has found its way to such a varied global public. Piketty’s Capital has been discussed in many high ranked academic journals, and at the same time, it has come out to a broader audience with advertisements in places like the underground public transportation in metropolises around the world. The title of the book is also very ambitious in so far as the title Capital claims to be a follow up of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital for the twenty-first century. Piketty is similar to Marx in his ambition to give a large historical, or a world historical perspective on the significance of capitalist economy for the development of global society. Given this background it could be interesting to consider the relations between Piketty’s Capital and Marx’s Das Kapital.

 

 

Main Thesis

My main thesis is that although Piketty gives a very essential theoretical and historically based prognosis and critique of the development of inequality as he expects it to increase in the twenty-first century. Ultimately, he is not able to provide a conceptual critique of capitalism which can surpass the basic market perspective in Adam Smith’s tradition of classical and neoclassical economy.

On this basis my thesis is that Marx’s conceptual determination of the capital, das Kapital, the capitalist mode of production, and capitalism in general could contribute to sharpen the outcome of Piketty’s enormous empirical and historical research on the development of inequality in capitalist societies beginning from the French Revolution. In addition, Piketty has also presented a calculated prognosis for the exacerbation of inequality in global capitalism during the twenty-first century.

According to Marx, the development of inequality is not accidental but inherent in the principle of capital and the capitalist mode of production. Therefore, Piketty’s empirically documented development of inequality should lead to a fundamental critique of capitalism. However, this is not the case.

On this background, I would like to consider a change of perspective from Adam Smith’s liberal market perspective to Marx’s productive perspective on capitalism. For Marx, capitalism is seen as an autopoietic bureaucratic and productive machinery or social system, which not only determines the production of inequality but also the basis for all social relations on a global scale.

Outline of the paper

In the following paper, I would like to substantiate this thesis with a presentation of Piketty’s theory, method and main results. I would further like to present Marx’s critical concept of the capital and capitalism. Finally, I would like to illustrate some of the consequences of Marx’s critical theory for the understanding of Piketty’s empirical work.

Piketty’s Capital

 

Piketty’s theory is situated in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition.

Piketty’s work is situated in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition. Adam Smith’s main work Wealth of Nations (1981 I-II) from 1776 is interesting because it represents the foundation of modern economy. Smith’s theory can be read in many ways and it has brought inspiration to many different perspectives on ethics, societal ethics, common moral, political philosophy, political theory, sociology and economy. Normally the economic perspective has been emphasized, but one could say the same regarding the other perspectives.

Wealth of Nations begins with a presentation of the division of labor as the basis for creation of wealth in a nation. Therefore, it should be emphasized that Smith has a general concept of work as the basis for his economic theory. Smith formulated this generalization on the basis of the Physiocrats’ more restricted idea that only agricultural work created value.

The second essential line of thought by Smith is that the products of work should be sold at a price determined in an open market, which on a larger scale implies the world market as its perspective. Therefore, the free market is essential for Smith.

The third line of thought is that the price of the commodity is determined by the work behind the creation of the product. However, Smith is not completely clear on this topic. The other perspective in Wealth of Nations is that the price is determined by the exchange in the market. In other words, Smith’s theory is ambivalent concerning the creation of value.

It is this ambivalence in Smith’s theory, which is in the center of discussion during the next two hundred years among economists, especially in the neoclassical economic tradition.

On the one hand, the work perspective leads to an internal understanding of the fundamental role of work in comprehending societal relations and institutions. This is what leads to the sociological perspective on the relationship between economy and society. Marx’s, Durkheim’s and Weber’s theories should also be mentioned here.

On the other hand, we have the price and market perspectives, which become the dominant perspectives in later economic traditions. It is in these traditions that we find the most economists having an influence on economic practice and on economic education. Thomas Piketty should be placed in these traditions.

Piketty’s research method: economy as part of the social sciences

Piketty is a market economist based in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition and the later neoclassical liberal tradition. However, Piketty has a much broader theoretical and methodical horizon, which should be understood on the background of Piketty’s French formation.

The interesting thing about Piketty’s method is that he wants to integrate economics as a sub discipline of social sciences, alongside history, sociology, anthropology, political science and even literature (Piketty 2014: 573 ff.). Piketty has his specific methodological perspective from the French Annales School and from Francois Furet’s quantitative historical method, which gives him a long and convincing historical perspective (Bouvier & Furet 1965; Piketty 1998; Piketty 2001; Piketty 2004; Piketty 2006). Piketty would not have been able to come to his results, if he had not integrated all these different perspectives.

Following this, Piketty wants to reconstruct the classical political economy as a value based science, which is connected to its political, normative and moral purpose (Piketty 2014: 573 ff.). This is the same ambition found in Adam Smith and further back in classical political philosophy by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. The fundamental question according to Piketty is, how public policies and institutions can bring us closer to an ideal society (Piketty 2014: 574). This was also the question raised by Aristotle, Aquinas, Adam Smith, Hegel and Marx. They had very different answers to this question, but they all had in common that the economy should be subordinated to the political, normative and moral value horizon. Economy could not be sustained independent of the moral, social and political interpretation.

According to Piketty, political economy should be a part of public discussion meaning that the shared values should be found in public democratic discussion. According to Piketty, this is not the case in most economic theory and practice in which economic models are used without regard to the political, social, cultural and historical context.

Piketty’s basic thesis: r > g – revenue is bigger than growth in a long historical perspective

Although Piketty has these critical perspectives on economy, he is in many ways still a traditional market economist based in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition and the neoclassical tradition. Piketty’s focus is price, market and equality in the distribution of goods. It is in this background that Piketty is concerned with the liberal discussion of inequality.

Piketty’s basic thesis is that revenue, r, has been bigger than growth, g, during the last two hundred years in Europe and the US, and more generally in all higher developed societies in recent history. Therefore, there has been a tendency towards a strong inequality in the last two hundred years in Europe. In general, this has also been a tendency throughout European history and in all higher developed societies. In that sense, all societies in history have been class based societies, albeit in different forms.

Patrimonial Capitalism

It is Piketty’s expectation that a new form of capitalism has been created, which he calls patrimonial capitalism (Piketty 2014: 173). It could seem to be a new form of capitalism, but in fact, it is a form of capitalism, which was known from the late 1800s until 1914. It is characterized on a huge accumulation of private wealth among a small part of the population, the upper 10%, 1%, 0.1% and 0.01%. At the beginning of the 1970s, the total value of private wealth in the Western societies stood between two to three and a half years of national income. Forty years later, in 2010, private wealth represented between four to seven years of national income in the Western world. The general evolution is clear: This is a strong comeback of private capital in the rich countries since 1970 (Piketty 2014: 173). This concentration of wealth is what Piketty calls ‘patrimonial capitalism’.

Piketty regards the new patrimonial capitalism as a repetition of something, which was formerly known in history from the late 19th to early 20th century. It is characterized by a high concentration of wealth in a low-growth environment like the nineteenth century (Piketty 2014: 237). The crisis of 2008 was according to Piketty the first crisis of the globalized patrimonial capitalism of the twenty-first century (Piketty 2014: 473). He expects that it will be followed by other crises. This is the scenario that Piketty expects for the twenty-first century.

Patrimonial capitalism, heirs and entrepreneurs

Consequently, the strong concentration of wealth can give rise to a tendency where the ‘entrepreneur’ transitions to the ‘heir’ as the basic figure of capitalism. According to Piketty, all large fortunes, whether inherited or entrepreneurial in origin, grow at extremely high rates, regardless of whether the owner of the fortune works or not (Piketty 2014: 439ff.).

Piketty gives a very illustrative example comparing Bill Gates, the entrepreneur among all entrepreneurs, and Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress of the cosmetics company L’Oréal. Between 1990 and 2010, Bill Gates’ fortune increased from $4 billion to $50 billion. In the same period, Liliane Bettencourt’s fortune increased from $2 billion to $25 billion. Both fortunes thus grew at an annual rate of more than 13 percent from 1990 to 2010.

Piketty also mentions Steve Jobs, who is regarded as a more creative entrepreneur than Bill Gates. But at the top of his career, his fortune was only $8 billion in 2011.

Piketty’s conclusion is that inheritance becomes the main access to the creation or growth of fortunes, and not the entrepreneurial spirit. Therefore, wealth is not just a matter of merit, and capital grows according to its own dynamic, when it has passed a certain size. The reason for this is the simple fact that the return on inherited fortunes is often very high solely because of their initial size.

Inequality – The economic system is the problem

It is a common discussion in liberal political theory that inequalities are acceptable if they serve the common good. This is also what has been stated in §1 of the Declaration 1789: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be found only upon the common utility”. It is on this basis that entrepreneurs becoming extremely rich while compared to other people becomes acceptable.

However, Piketty claims that the entrepreneurial argument cannot justify all the inequalities of wealth, no matter how extreme (Piketty 2014: 443). This is a claim that we find in Rawls’ liberal theory as well (Rawls 1971). As we have seen, the general class based inequality r > g combined with better returns on capital as a function of initial wealth makes it possible that fortunes can grow and perpetuate themselves beyond all rational limits and beyond any possible rational justification in terms of common utility.

In this way, it does even not take one generation to move from an entrepreneur to a rentier. Entrepreneurs can be transformed into rentiers in their own lifetime, and their wealth can be multiplied more than tenfold in twenty years as in the case of Bill Gates and Liliane Bettencourt (Piketty 2014: 443ff.).

The consequence is that even the merit criteria in §1 of Declaration that social distinctions are acceptable if they serve the common utility or the common good is very difficult not to say impossible to concretize. It is very difficult in praxis to sustain the distinction between the entrepreneur and the rentier when the first can be transformed into the second in a very short time as has been exemplified with the case of Bill Gates.

As I understand Piketty, he draws the conclusion that the most important problem is not to clarify whether inequality serves the common utility or not? The most important problem is that the accumulation of wealth among the 1%, the 0.1% and not at least the 0.01% tends to represent 70%-90% of all the countable wealth in global societies. It is this enormous concentration of wealth that justifies Piketty’s use of the concept of patrimonial capitalism.

Patrimonial Capitalism

The concept of ‘patrimonialism’ is situated in Max Weber’s classification as a traditional form of governance (Weber 1980: 682 ff). It has its origins in the specific patriarchal form of authority in the family. Following up, it can be broadened out to concern patrimonial forms of government in which political and or economic power can be concentrated. In this form of government, authority and power form a political unity. It is this traditional unity which transgresses into the power and authority of economic wealth in the patrimonial form of capitalism, as has been described above.

Problems with Patrimonial Capitalism

Per my observations, Piketty draws the following conclusions concerning the patrimonial form of capitalism.

Society will fall behind the French Revolution

Piketty’s perspective is overall that patrimonial capitalism will bring society back to before the French Revolution. Some of the modern institutions may formally be maintained but the reality may be different.

Suspension of basic principles of Human Rights 

The second point is that the basic values of modern society are suspended as they are formulated § 1 of the Declaration: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be found only upon the common utility”. In patrimonial capitalism, there are basic distinctions which are bound to inheritance and which therefore are transferred from generation to generation. This is exactly what characterizes a traditional pre-modern society. In such a society, men are not equal in rights, because wealth is the basic structuring parameter for the life chances of people in all matters concerning wealth, education, health, work, and political, social and other positions in society. In short, human rights are suspended in such a society.

Suspension of democracy 

The third point is that democracy will be strongly weakened or even suspended in such a society, and there can be no possibilities to develop democracy in such a society.

Stagnation of society 

The fourth point is that patrimonial capitalism will not be able to develop a society because the entrepreneur and innovator will lose their possibilities compared to the primacy of secure reproduction and accumulation of the inheritance.

Violence and corruption will dominate society 

The fifth point is that such a society will be built on violence and corruption instead of legal and deliberative political institutions.

The rule of war between states 

The rule of war between states will be dominant because interstate conflicts cannot be solved through diplomacy and international law.

 

Patrimonial capitalism does already exist in many societies in the world

The description of patrimonial capitalism may seem like a doomsday prophecy, a description of the last days. But in fact, the reality is that this form of capitalism does already exist in different forms in many societies in the world and maybe even the most societies with a developed economy combined with a strong authoritarian and corrupt regime. Even in the US we find signs of patrimonial capitalism, when wealthy people have enormous possibilities to influence elections, political life, allocation of resources and social decisions.

Piketty’s Capital: A platform for a critique of capitalism and its perspectives

In the end, the interesting thing about Piketty’s analysis is in the end that it is an economic analysis on the basis of the fundamental principles of the French Revolution. Piketty’s own conclusion is that the French Revolution failed and is an illusion.

With this background, one could have expected that Piketty had been critical toward capitalism as an economic system. But this is not the case. Piketty is worried about the historical consequences of capitalism, but he does not criticize capitalism in itself as an economic and social system. However, this seems to be a relevant topic as he has at least created a new platform for a discussion of capitalism, because he has uncovered some of the historical destructive perspectives in capitalism.

Marx’s Das Kapital

Introduction to Marx

It is in this background that I would like to discuss Marx’s concept of capital, das Kapital, and some of his perspectives on capitalism. Marx is such an interesting thinker in this context because no one has delivered such a strong critique of capitalism and political economy as him.

If we want to understand Marx’s critique of capitalism, we have to look shortly at his intellectual background and development. Marx (1818-1883) is a German intellectual strongly influenced primarily by Hegel’s political philosophy. Marx is a Hegelian who criticizes Hegel’s perspective on state, civil society, politics, and economy in Kritik der Hegelschen Staatsphilosophie 1844 (Marx 1841/42: 20-149). His basic critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (Hegel 1955; 1991) is that Hegel ‘aufhebt’, lifts up or sublates the basic contradictions in civil society into a reconciliation, ‘eine Versöhnung’, in the State as an all-encompassing unity of the contradictions in civil society. According to Hegel, the contradictions in civil society were first of all constituted through the struggle between economic agents, who were only concerned with their own business. This is an insight Hegel had acquired through Adam Smith’ Wealth of Nations (Smith I-II 1981) and David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation from 1817 (Ricardo 1996).

In his Kritik der Hegelschen Staatsphilosophie 1844, Marx mostly critizised Hegel’s Aufhebung and Versöhnung. Later on, his project became to reconstruct this political and political-philosophical critique of Hegel as a critique of political economy. Therefore, it would be right also to consider Marx as a Hegelian in this later period of his life after 1849, when he arrived as a political refugee to London. This is also what Marx remarks in his postscript to the second edition of Das Kapital (Marx 1970: 27f.). Marx comments on his method and claims that there must be made a distinction between the research (die Forschungsweise), in which the subject is taken in consideration, and the presentation (die Darstellungsweise), in which the topic is reconstructed as it has taken place. Die Darstellung, the presentation, means for Marx the same as how the subject can be developed in an idealized way which gives the impression that it could be a pure construction. One could say that it could give the impression of being a pure construction without relation to the reality in so far as it should present the essential (das Wesen) of the topic. In that sense, ‘die Darstellung’ could also be considered as a form of presentation and interpretation at the same time. Although Marx claims to be a materialist, he has such a style of presentation that it does remind us of a constructed model in the idealistic tradition of Plato and Hegel.

Marx’s Hegelian method

It is very essential to understand Marx’s Hegelian method, because it indicates that for Marx and for Hegel there are always two levels in the understanding of social phenomena. On the one hand, we have the surface, ‘die Erscheinung’; this is the empirical level, where the events happen. On the other hand, we have the understanding of the phenomena; this is the level where the essence, ‘das Wesen’, is expressed. As the third step, Hegel and Marx claim that it is only from the perspective of the essence, ‘das Wesen’, that we can understand the empirical level, where the events take place. According to Marx and Hegel, this was the meaning of dialectics.

It is exactly this phenomenological double perspective with the movement from Erscheinung to Wesen and from Wesen to Erscheinung, which is so strange for the American and English way of thinking, and is also the dominant perspective in modern liberal economy. However, it is this double perspective, which gives Marx the possibility to make a critical reconstruction of the political economy and present a new perspective on the relation between economy and society.

Marx’s project is to reconstruct the classical political economy

With this background we can discuss what Marx is concerned with in Das Kapital. Here we should remark on the subtitle of Das Kapital, which is Kritik der politichen Ökonomie – Marx wanted to criticize and reconstruct the political economy because it did not present what should be its essence, das Wesen. One could say that Marx wanted to write a new edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations. According to Marx, political economy had moved away from a scientific project to a political project that was only concerned with price and market, the surface, ‘die Erscheinung’, because it served to hide that the dominant economy’s ‘Wesen’, the workproces, was based on exploitation of the workforce, who produced value and surplus-value.

Marx did not finish his project; he did not finish the presentation of the total reproduction of the economic system. In that sense, we cannot say that Marx has presented a model for the total reproduction of the economic system. Marx edited only the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867. Friedrich Engels edited the next two volumes with support from Marx’s remaining manuscripts. Therefore, the question is what status can Marx’s theory have, when it is not finished in the same sense as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is a finished work?

The three edited volumes of Das Kapital, the collection of Marx’s preparatory work papers collected in Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Marx 196-?), combined with the rest of Marx’s work give a sufficient basis to understand Marx’s new theoretical contribution to the political economy. Marx presented the basic principles in a critical theory with a new perspective on political economy understood as the reproduction of what he called the capitalistic mode of production or the capitalistic economic system. Broadly speaking, it gives a new understanding of the basic principles in a capitalistic society. In that sense, Marx’s theory provides the basis for a sociological understanding of the relation between economy and society, and in a wider perspective for the interpretation of history.

The glorious and tragic days of Marxism have ended. Therefore, today Marx’s theory should be seen in line with other economic and sociological theories, and it should be seen as part of a hermeneutical work, which in the end determines the integration of the different possible scientific perspectives.

With this background, I would like to present some of the essential topics in Marx’s theory in Das Kapital and Grundrisse, which will be relevant for a discussion of Piketty’s Capital. I will concentrate on the first chapters of Das Kapital as it is here that we find the basis for all of Marx’s theoretical construction.

The concept of Capital – The constitution of das Kapital

It already becomes clear from the title page itself that Marx’s Das Kapital is a very special treatise. On the one hand, it is in fact very similar to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1955), and on the other hand, it is very different compared to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Piketty’s Capital. Therefore, it can be enlightening to compare it with these treatises.

Smith’s theme is the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, and chapter 1 begins immediately with a presentation of the division of labor as what has mostly improved the production of wealth (Smith 1981, I: 13 ff.). All the categories here and in the rest of the treatise refer to empirical matters. All of Smith’s categories have an empirical reference.

The same could be said about Piketty’s subject, which is equality and inequality with reference to the distribution of wealth.

Marx’s Introduction does not have this character. The title of the book, Das Kapital, is an abstraction and does not have an immediate empirical reference. The subtitle is Critique of the Political Economy. This means that the treatise is concerned with a critique and reconstruction of political economy as we know it from Smith and Ricardo. The subtitle of the first volume of Das Kapital is the Capital’s Production Process. The subject in Das Kapital is the capital. This is very strange in itself. How should capital be understood in a determined form? Normally we understand capital in quantitative terms, however, in Marx’s determination of das Kapital (Marx 1970: 12) we have to do with a concept. Capital is a conceptual abstraction, and it is the production and reproduction process of this subject, which is the topic of Das Kapital. This is also, what Marx emphasizes in the introduction to the first edition of Das Kapital in 1867 (Marx 1970: 11-17). In the postscript to the second edition from 1875, Marx comes back to the same theme concerning his method, which he designates as being the same as Hegel’s method, although turned around, because Marx claims that Hegel is an idealist, and Marx claims to be a materialist (Marx 1970: 27). I think that the two methods are very closely connected, and I find it difficult from a methodological perspective to see the difference between the beginnings of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s Das Kapital.

Marx’s development of the concept of capital

The first chapter of Das Kapital begins in the same abstract style with an analysis of the wealth in a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production, which presents itself as an amazing collection of commodities. The skeleton, ‘die Elementarform’, the basic element of such a society is the commodity. This is the reason why Marx begins his analysis with an analysis of the commodity.

In chapters 1-3, Marx develops all the basic concepts of work such as the production of the commodity, the use and exchange value of the commodity, the equal exchange of commodities, and the invention of money as the means of exchange of equal values.

I would especially like to emphasize chapter 1, section 4, where Marx introduces the fetish character of the commodity and it’s secret. In a commodity producing society, all social relations become hidden in the commodities, which are all a product of the work process. It is the commodities that seem to be the real actors in society (Marx 1970: 86). This is the beginning of the creation of the alienation in a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production.

In the third chapter, Marx describes how money becomes the general presentation of the circulation of commodities. There is a change from the form ‘commodity – money – commodity’ to the form ‘money – commodity – money’. In this way, money comes into the center of society and becomes an aim in itself.

In the fourth chapter, The Transformation of Money into Capital, Marx questions the addition of value when only equivalents are being exchanged all the time. Marx’s simple answer is that the workforce, ‘die Arbeitskraft’, is a commodity, which has the ability to produce more value, a surplus value or ‘Mehrwert’, than it costs to reproduce it.

Marx speaks about the transformation of money into capital, when the production takes the character of a production of surplus value, ‘Mehrwert’, and in that sense a production of Capital (Marx 1970: 180 ff.). Marx speaks about society as a capitalist society when the production of capital dominates society.

The term ‘capitalism’ is a technical term, a concept for a specific form for economy and society. The concept capitalism has its origin in the Late Latin word capitale derived from caput, meaning ‘head’, which is also the origin for chattel and cattle in the sense of moveable property. Capitale emerged in the 12th to 13th centuries in the sense of referring to funds, stock of merchandise, sum of money, or money carrying interest. In English language, the word capitalism is used since the 1850s as the determination of a specific form of society, in which capital and capitalist modes of production have a determined significance.

On the basis of the concept of capital, Marx’s project is to develop an all-encompassing description of the reproduction of a society dominated by the capitalistic mode of production. As mentioned, Marx did not finish this project. In this sense we could say that Marx did not succeed. However, this would not be a correct judgement, because Marx developed the base for a new understanding of economic significance in a modern society.

I will not go in detail with a further presentation of Das Kapital, but would only like present some of the consequences of Marx’s perspective. I speak here about the abstract theory in itself and not about the specific historical forms, which are determined by many other historical and social factors. In that sense, the abstract principle of capital does only indicate the determinate productive principle in a specific historical form of society.

Marx gives a totally new perspective on liberal economy

The essence is that Marx determines a new perspective on economy and society. Das Kapital, the capital, is a driving machine or subject, which aims to produce capital in an escalating intensity and quantum. This is also determined as accumulation of capital.

Das Kapital is a critique of the liberal market economy

Marx theory is a critique of political economy. The word ‘critique’ could be mystifying. Therefore, let me first express what I think critique means in this context. It primarily means to show what is inconsistent, hidden or suppressed in the understanding of a liberal market economy, and secondarily to present a reconstruction of a basis for another understanding of economy. In the liberal economic perspective, the economy does only mediate social relations; it does not produce social relations. The basic categories are therefore price, market and commodity. In this perspective, the economy is in itself a neutral mediator. In Marx’s perspective, it is different.

Das Kapital is the productive and destructive subject of society

In Marx’s perspective, das Kapital not only produces ‘Mehrwert’ and ‘Kapital’, or is not only an economic productive force. Das Kapital forms a society, its institutions and its social relations in a specific adequate way. In this context, the following topics can be emphasized:

Commodification

Das Kapital has a tendency to create a commodification of all social relations and all human life.

Die groβe Profanierung – All pre-given norms are broken down and restructured in accordance with the new historical imperatives

All pre-given norms are broken down, because they are under pressure to be relativized and commoditized. This is ‘die groβe Profanierung’, this is the big profanation of the Holy and of all social norms. In The Communist Manifesto, it is stated in this way: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” (Marx 1968b: 529).

Die groβe Verschleierung – the big concealment

The big paradox in capitalism is that its consequences are ‘verschleiert’ or veiled. The astonishing thing is that this veil is constituted through the liberal market economy, in which all distinctions are ‘aufgehoben’, lifted up and abolished in the general equivalent, money, at the market. All social distinctions are relativized and hidden on the market. In the end, there is only the distinction more or less of the general equivalent, money.

The big illusion – the liberal market economy produces the big illusion about society

The liberal market economy creates or produces the big illusion about this same form of society, because the abolishment of all distinctions becomes a hindrance for critique. We are all equalized in the general equivalent, money. Therefore, there is no internal way from the liberal market economy to a critique of the specific formation of the social relations, because these distinctions are not inherent in the economic theory. The liberal market economy is constituted through an abstraction from the possible distinctions.

Summing up – Marx has presented a specific theory which can be applied on empirical work with economy and society

What I have presented are the basic principles in Marx’s critique of the political economy. As mentioned, Marx has developed a much broader and differentiated theory compared to, what has been presented here. However, in the end, what we have from Marx is a theory with a specific perspective on economy and society, making it possible to apply it in specific empirical work.

From Marx to Piketty – From Piketty back to Marx

 

Marx and Piketty on empirical work – What is the difference?

In this context, it could be interesting to question how empirical research would be different in a Marx perspective compared to a Piketty perspective. Let us imagine that Marx had conducted similar research as Piketty on the development of inequality in France the last 200 years. What would be different? I am not sure that the concrete research method would be different. Piketty has gone down to the sources and tried to give an answer to his question. The difference would lie in how the questions are posed. Piketty poses his questions inside the horizon of the liberal market economic theory and the neoclassical economic theory. He does not pose questions to or discuss this economic perspective. It is as if it were pre-given or impossible to fundamentally question it. Consequently, we do not move outside the framework of this economic perspective.

The practical results of Piketty’s research are not very significant compared to the enormous research he has done.

The taxation card is Piketty’s only solution to the huge problems created by growing inequality. However, Piketty does not really believe that it is possible to establish the necessary taxation system. Therefore, one could say that there is a lack of critical potential in his theory although he delivers amazing empirical material. The practical results of his research are not very impressive compared to the enormous research he undertook.

Marx’s perspective on empirical economic research

On the other hand, Marx has an incomparably stronger critical theory, which can help pose many interesting research questions and could be integrated in an empirical project.

In the end the dividing line between Piketty and Marx is the following. For Piketty, the liberal market economy is regarded in itself as a neutral system. For Marx, the problems of inequality observed by Piketty are an inherent consequence of capitalism. It could simply not be otherwise because a basic principle in capitalism according to Marx is capital accumulation and capital concentration. Piketty remarks that contingent historical events, the first and second world wars combined with a strong left wing policy, created the basis for diminished inequality in the period 1945-1975, and not fundamental changes in the liberal economic system.

In Marx’s perspective, it would also have been a good idea to change inequality through taxation. However, the interesting perspectives are the basic contradictions in the economic system itself, and whether these contradictions can find a practical solution is a political question.

 

Marx and Piketty – research perspectives and strategies

What to do in a world dominated by the liberal economic perspective?

A basic question would be how one should conduct research in economic oriented topics when most research resources are concentrated around the liberal economic perspective. The strategy could be to integrate research from the liberal economic perspective in a hermeneutical horizon, which is more influenced by critical theory. In this way, it would be possible to use the given empirical resources in another critical hermeneutical perspective in which an inherent critique of capitalism could be formulated.

References

Declaration of Man and the Citizen 1789

Bouvier, Jean; Furet, François; Gillet, Marcel (1965), Le mouvement du profit en France au XIXe siècle, Paris and La Haye, Mouton & Co

Hegel, G. W. F. (1955), Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1991), Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl (1968), Die Frühschriften. Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag.

Marx, Karl (1968a), Kritik der Hegelschen Staatsphilosophie 1841/42, in. Marx, Karl (1968), Die Frühschriften. Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag

Marx, Karl (1968b), Manifest der kommunistischen Partei, in: Karl Marx, Die Frühschriften. Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag.

Marx, Karl (1970), Das Kapital band I, MEW 23, Berlin, Dietz Verlag.

Marx, Karl (196-?), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Frankfurt, Europäische Verlagsanstalt.

Piketty, Thomas (1998), Les hauts revenus face aux modifications des taux marginaux supérieurs de l’impôt sur le revenu en France, 1970-1996, CNRS, URA928, numero 9812. [High-Income Taxpayers’ Reaction to Marginal Income Tax Rates Changes in France, 1970-1996].

Piketty, Thomas (2001), Les hauts revenus en France au 20e siècle: inégalités et redistribution, 1901-1998, Paris, B. Grasset.

Piketty, Thomas (2004), L’impact de la taille des classes et de la ségrégation sociale sur la réussite scolaire dans les écoles françaises: une estimation à partir du panel primaire 1997, EHESS, Paris-Jourdan.

Piketty, Thomas; Valdenaire, M. (2006) L’impact de la taille des classes sur la réussite scolaire dans les écoles, collèges et lycées français – Estimations à partir du panel primaire 1997 et du panel secondaire 1995, Ministère de l’éducation nationale, Paris.

Piketty, Thomas (2014), Capital in Twenty-First Century, Cambridge Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Rawls, John (1971), A Theory of Justice, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ricardo, David (1996), Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Amherst, Prometheus Press.

Smith, Adam (1981), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume I-II, First edition 1776, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund.

Weber, Max (1980), Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der Verstehenden Soziologie, 5. Rev. Aufl. Tübingen, Mohr.

Thomas Piketty – The Adam Smith of the Twenty-First Century?

 

The essential achievement of Capital in Twenty-First Century is that it represents a revival of political economy, in the classical sense, on a global scale.

In Piketty’s book, economics is initially regarded as a social science and, in the end, as a moral, philosophical and political science. Here, we are placed in the tradition of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Adam Smith and Karl Marx. In this manner, Piketty utilizes an economic perspective and reconstructs the unity in the practical sciences, at the same time as he recognizes that each of the different human sciences has its special perspective.

Piketty’s book could be regarded as a revival of Adam Smith’s main work, The Wealth of Nations (1776) in which the modern political economy was grounded. Later on, economics became an independent and specialized social science that lost its relation to the other social sciences. This has especially been the case in the period after the Second World War, when economics increasingly became an exercise in mathematical calculation, a mathematical modeling technique that totally lost its connection to the other social sciences. During the same period, the global economy has been developed on an unprecedented scale. Consequently, it has become difficult to discuss global society within the perspective that signified the classical political economy.

On one hand, we had the dominating economy, where it was possible to make some mathematical calculation about specific economic topics without any relation to a broader social scientific, political, and moral understanding of the significance of the economy for society and its environments.

On the other hand, we had the social sciences, sociology, political sciences, law, humanities, historical sciences and, finally, the moral sciences in their broadest sense. These sciences could criticize the economically driven uniform creations of global society, but they were not able to substitute the economic perspective and therefore, in the end, their impact was relatively limited.

Consequently, economics had become the triumphant sovereign perspective for understanding the transformation of modern global society. Given this background, it cannot be underestimated that Piketty reintroduces the classical political economic perspective in economics and on today’s global society. This is the essential significance of Piketty’s book. It has created anew a platform for a discussion of essential topics of classical political economy.

In this context, it should be emphasized that the global perspective is the central perspective in Piketty’s book. He recognizes that the economy has transformed the world into a global world. It is from this perspective that he tries to understand the transformation of the nation states in the world. By so doing, Piketty gives an articulate understanding of how the economy may be able to transform global society in the twenty-first century. In this context, the long historical perspective from the past to the future becomes essential. Piketty’s description could be called a historical analysis of the transformation of modern society from the origins of capitalism in the 18th century until the global perspective of the 21st century.

In the following, we would like to present some of the essential topics of Capital in Twenty-First Century, and in conclusion pose some questions for a further discussion of Piketty’s book.

 

 

I.The Fundamental Arguments in Piketty’s Capital in Twenty-First Century

 

Part 1: Income Capital and Inequality

In the introduction and part One of Capital in Twenty-First Century, Piketty poses some of the fundamental questions of political economy: What is capital? How is the wealth in the world distributed? Has wealth increased so that there is more equality or is the situation of wealth the same in the world? Piketty looks at the relation between income and capital, and argues that capital still has paramount significance for income today and that this implies reproduction of inequality. Therefore, according to Piketty, it is still capital and not work that is the basis for income in society.

Piketty gives the following important definition of capital: ”The first fundamental law of capitalism is ? = r x ?, where r is the return on capital. This links the capital stock to the flow of income from capital. The capital/income ratio ? is related in a simple way to the share of income from national income, denoted ?. The formula is ? = r x ?. For example if ? = 600% and r = 5%, then ? = r x ? = 30 %. “The return on capital is the central law of capitalism. Return on capital is a broader notion than the rate of profit and the rate of interest while incorporating them both” (Piketty 2014: 52)

For example, the housing market in Paris shows how an old relation between ownership, rent, and capital is still reproduced. It was also like this in the 20th-century and 19th-century novels that just took the capital income on real estate or other capitals for granted. We can see this in the novels of Balzac or Jane Austen. The author makes many references to the description of money and wealth of characters in novels. He argues that this helps us to understand the perception of wealth and inequality, but it also shows the changes from the 19th to the 20th century, because Jane Austin and Balzac can easily use money to describe the wealth of their characters in the sense that Austin’s characters earn approximately 1,000 pounds when they are rich, and 30 pounds on average a year just to live. Balzac talks about 10,000-20,000 francs on average to live well (Piketty 2014: 105 f.). This reference to literature to understand economics is an important contribution to the creation of a methodology of economics beyond the exclusive formal references to mathematics.

In the book, the growing inequality in the world is analyzed in terms of world regions. If we compare the numbers of population with input-output of capital/production in different parts of the world, we cannot really document a convergence of equality between the parts of the world even if the number of people and total output in Europe and America has decreased. Due to the increase of population in Asia and Africa, inequality between the regions still becomes bigger (Piketty 2014: 60-61).

Piketty says: “To sum up, global inequality ranges from regions in which the per capita income is on the order of 150-250 Euros per month (Sub-Saharan Africa, India) to regions where it is as high as 2,500 Euros to 3,000 Euros per month (Western Europe, North America, Japan) that is ten to twenty times higher. The global average, which is roughly equal to the Chinese average, is around 600-800 Euro per month.” (Piketty 2014: 64)

But these figures have to be corrected with regard to differences in purchasing power and exchange rates in different regions. So there may be important regional differences to take into account. We still see a situation where the rich countries have a higher income of their domestic product because they invest more abroad, and own more than their domestic product abroad. This is particularly true of Africa where foreign investors akin to the old colonial days still own more than 20% of the country’s capital producing units. So the rich countries earn money on capital ownership in the poor countries.

One possible conclusion from this is the following: That the rich countries still own a large part of the poor countries could be regarded both as good and bad. It can facilitate access to the international economy and growth, but it can also be a danger to development and self-determination, in consideration of marginal utility theory, meaning that the poor countries do not equally get access to their goods like the rich countries, who get increased wealth but do not need it as much as the poor countries.

The book discusses the law of cumulative growth. There is a close link between demographic growth and economic growth. Capital ownership structure has a close influence on this relation: “The central thesis of this book is that an apparent small gap between return on capital and rate of growth can in the long run have powerful and destabilizing effects on the structure and dynamics of social inequality. In a sense everything follows from the laws of cumulative growth and cumulative returns” (Piketty 2014: 77).

According to the law of cumulative growth in demography, we were 600,000,000 in year 1700, now we are 7 billons, and if this continues with cumulative growth dependent on life expectancy and birth rate in year 2300, we may be 70 billion. The accumulation of people in the developing world, and the stagnation of people in the developed world will lead to greater inequality due to the inequality of capital income in the developed and the developing world. The people in the regions with little demographic growth will become richer because of their increased capital income. On the other hand there is no doubt that growth has been extremely important for the developing countries. We have now moved from a life expectancy of 40 in the 18th Century to 80 in the 21st century, and today it has become normal to have access to health care and cultural goods. But can we sustain this kind of growth?

When we look at growth in the 20th century we see that rapid growth only happened in Europe in the glorious period between 1945 and 1970. This was due to the fact that Europe was far behind the US and could reach the US quickly during that period. After that period, growth has been slower, close to an average of 1.5 % annually. In fact, liberalization policies in the 1980s did not change this, and there is no evidence that state intervention really caused harm to growth. However, it is difficult to foresee growth and we cannot predict how growth will increase in the future and growth may also decrease in the 21st century.

Piketty talks about the “double bell curve of global growth”: “To recapitulate, global growth over the past three centuries can be pictured as a bell curve with a very high peak. In regard to both population growth and per capita output, the pace gradually accelerated over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and especially the twentieth, and is now most likely returning to much lower levels for the reminder of the twenty-first century” (Piketty: 2014: 99).

 

 

Part 2: The Economic Dynamics of Inequality

In part two of Capital in Twenty-First Century, the dynamics of capital/income ratio over time are analyzed. Piketty argues that the present state of inequality in the 21st century in Europe is just a return to the situation of the 19th century, which was interrupted by the public policies following the Second World War. Starting with the references to Balzac and Jane Austen, where the unequal distribution of wealth in 19th-century society is clear, Piketty analyzes the distribution of wealth in western societies today. He shows that a small group of people owns virtually most of the wealth, while millions of people have a very limited relation to capital. Piketty shows that the richest 10 % owns 60 % of the wealth, while the remaining 90 % owns very little and of only 40 % of the wealth (Piketty 2014: 259). They own so little that capital for them is a very abstract concept. The growth of the middle class in the 20th century was the social invention that contributed to hide these differences in wealth from view and, possibly, from memory.

 

 

Part 3: What was the Justification of Inequality?

In the third part of Capital in Twenty-First Century, Piketty questions the justification of this inequality. We can call it a hyper-patrimonial society, that is, a society based on inherited wealth. This was the case in Europe. In the US there was hyper-meritocratic society, a society of super-managers, but this distinction does not hold. Piketty does not only make the mathematical measures of inequality by Gini and Pareto, but he also uses real examples from life to illustrate inequality. However, if we look at the numbers, the fall in inequality in the 20th century is due to the collapse of rentiers and high income from capital, at least this is the case in France (Piketty 2014: 274). But, we have gone from a society of rentiers to a society of managers (Piketty 2014: 278), where the managers today are the ones with the high income. After ’68, a minimum wage was introduced in France and this increased equality, but from the 1980s this trend did not continue so strongly and from the 1990s super-salaries was introduced to top managers. In the US, the numbers of rentiers in the beginning of the 20th century were lower than in Europe, but they existed. The US were even more egalitarian than France between the 1950s and 1980s. However, since then inequality has exploded and contributed to the instability of the US economy and led to the financial crisis. The highly paid superstar managers in the US have recently contributed to the increase of inequality.

How should we understand wage difference and inequality? Education plays a key role. In particular, minimal wages are important to avoid inequality in combination with investment in education. But the race between technology and wages cannot explain the increase of top-income in the US since the 1980s.

In the beginning of the 20th century, inequality in Europe was bigger than in the US, even in the Scandinavian countries, including Denmark. The top incomes in Germany increased during the Nazi-period 1933-1938, and later in the 1950s. We can also document rising inequality in salaries in the developing world, particularly in China, after the changes to a capitalist system in the 1980s.

Piketty has also studied inequality of capital ownership. In France a tax on estate and gifts was established in 1791, and this gives us a historical picture of wealth distribution since that time. In fact, we can document hyper concentration of wealth during the Belle Epoque in France, and we can also document hyper-concentration of wealth in Europe in the 19th century, particularly in societies prior to the First World War. The society of rentiers flourished during “la belle époque”. It seems that the return on capital is greater than the growth rates in such “inheritance societies”.

Inequality remains very big: “To recap: the inequality r > g (return on capital is bigger than growth) is a contingent historical proposition, which is true in some periods and political contexts and not true in others. From a strictly logical point of view it is perfectly possible to imagine a society in which the growth rate is greater than the return on capital – even in the absence of state intervention” (Piketty 2014: 358). This is a historical relation that changes in different historical periods. The fundamental inequality r > g can explain the failure of the French revolution (Piketty 2014: 365). The concentration of wealth today, though markedly lower than in 1900-1910, remains extremely high (Piketty 2014: 375), and taxation may not change this fact.

Piketty says: “To sum up: the fact that wealth is noticeably less concentrated in Europe today than it was then in the Belle Epoque is largely a consequence of accidental events (the shocks of 1914-1945) and specific institutions such as taxation of capital and its income. If those institutions were ultimately destroyed, there would be a risk of seeing inequalities of wealth close to those observed in the past or, under certain conditions, even higher. Nothing is certain: inequality can move in either direction. Hence I must now look at the dynamics of inheritance and at the global dynamics of wealth. One conclusion is already quite clear, however: it is an illusion to think that something about the nature of modern growth or the laws of the market economy ensures that inequality of wealth will decrease and harmonious stability will be achieved” (Piketty 2014: 376).

Piketty studies capital accumulation in the long run. Referring to Balzac he asks whether study and hard work or marriage with a rich person or inheritance leads to wealth. He looks at the annual flow of inheritances in the long run, and he can document that “the inheritance flow accounts for 20-25% of annual income every year in the nineteenth century with a slight upward trend toward the end of the century” (Piketty 2014: 379). From 1910 until 1920 it diminished, and from 1920 until 1980 it was rather low (from 10% to 4% to 7%). From the 1980s it began to rise again, and in the year 2010 it seems to be 12% (Piketty 2014: 380). The baby boomers had very little inheritance, but the children born in the 1970s and 1980s have already inherited. For them the decision to buy a house may have been dependent on this (Piketty 2014: 381).

Decreasing mortality rates do not necessarily influence the transmission of gifts as inheritance. Inheritance is also realized through the transmission of gifts. Inheritance occurs later in aging societies but is still very important. In the aging society there is a growing importance of inheritance and gifts are given approximately ten years before the death of the donor. Gradual increase of gift giving between generations contributes to enforce this trend (Piketty 2014: 393). In an aging society people also inherit a larger amount. If we look at the distribution of inherited wealth since 1790, we can see that 25 % of income comes from heritage while 75 % from work. But this is very unequally distributed. This explains the young man Rastignac’s dilemma, that is, rich people were a very little group so it is difficult to find a rich girl, so it may be better to work to get a decent salary (to be or not to be!).

Inheritance represents one quarter of total lifetime resources of cohorts born in 1970 or later. So we are moving towards the society of petits rentiers (Piketty 2014: 418). The fact of living of money from the past will increase. This is the case with the movie Dirty Sexy Money. In France today we see the reemergence of inherited wealth – and not only wealth achieved by hard work, education or merit. This is the case even though the words rents and rentiers took on very pejorative connotations in the 20th century. In the book the concepts are used in their descriptive sense. Capitalism remains a society of rentiers even though it has become more democratic. The return of inherited wealth seems to be a global phenomenon. This is the case not only in Europe and the United States, but globally as well. We can see this among others with the increase in global billionaires.

The wealthiest 0.1 % on the planet, some 4-5 million out of an adult population of 4-5 billion apparently possess fortunes in the order of 10 million Euros on average, nearly 200 times of the average global wealth. The wealthiest 45 million possess 3 million euros on average (Piketty 2014: 438). Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress of L’Oreal had a fortune that increased from 2 billion to 25 billion dollars from 1990 to 2010. This was a little less than Bill Gates and more than Steve Jobs (Piketty 2014: 440). However, the entrepreneurial argument cannot justify such differences in wealth. Is the inequality of the fortunes justified? Moreover, Piketty discusses the Sovereign Funds of the Oil states like Norway, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. What about all the people who worked very hard in the businesses? Maybe we need a progressive fiscal tax on capital!

 

 

Part 4: Regulation of Capital in Twenty-First Century

In part four of the book, Piketty deals with this question about regulation of capital in the Twenty-First Century. Can we imagine political institutions that contribute to the regulation of these issues?

Piketty thinks that a progressive tax on capital is the way to solve the challenges of the 21st century. Piketty argues for greater state intervention in the economy. He looks at different solutions to inequality problems in relation to university systems, pension systems, tax systems etc. Then he argues that we need to rethink the progressive income tax and introduce a global tax on capital in chapters 14 and 15 of the book. It is argued that estates must be more heavily taxed than income.

Piketty argues that it was war, not democracy that gave us progressive taxation. We need to rethink income tax in a more egalitarian way in the globalized economy. However, a global tax on capital is a utopian idea. It is difficult to impose a tax on global wealth. A simpler solution could be automatic transmission of banking information.

There is a contributive and intensive justification for capital tax. The three types of tax on income, on capital, and on inheritance complement each other.

Piketty proposes also a European wealth tax enforced by European institutions and the European central bank. A tax on capital is a better and less totalitarian solution than a centrally planned economy. Piketty says: “To sum up: the capital tax is a new idea, which needs to be adapted to the globalized patrimonial capitalism of the twenty-first century. The designers of the tax must consider what tax schedule is appropriate, how the value of taxable assets should be assessed, and how information about asset ownership should be supplied automatically by banks and shared internationally so that the tax authorities need not rely on taxpayers to declare their own asset holdings” (Piketty 2014: 534).

The tax on private capital is the most efficient solution to reduce public debts. This is a way to solve the problems of the current crisis in many states. It is presupposed that this would be the solution for the European Union.

 

 

II. Some Essential Questions for a Further Discussion of Capital in Twenty-First Century

Instead of moving towards a society of equal chances and resources, we face a society with increased inequality. In this sense, Piketty’s book represents an important challenge to mainstream ethics and political philosophy.

However, we can still point to a number of important questions that remain after this discussion of Piketty’s work. In particular, it would be possible to address the following questions to Piketty’s work:

1. Are Marx and Piketty right when they argue that capital will be the basis for income rather than work in the long run, or do they forget that value-creation through work will still makes work very important?

2. How should we evaluate the dangers to democracy of increased individual wealth? Should we argue that this is not only a challenge to equality, but also to political freedom and social cohesion in democratic societies?

3. Does the law of accumulative growth work? The belief in the existence of such an economic law seems to be the fundamental presupposition of the work of Piketty.

4. How should we evaluate the use of literary examples in Piketty? They seem to be very important. But can we give them an essential significance for economic theory?

5. Is Piketty right in saying that, due to capital ownership, the developing world is still owned by the developed world?

6. Is it really true that we live in a hyper-patrimonial society where richness and wealth are based on inheritance and rentiers after all? It seems that this is the case, and that it is an illusion to believe that we live in a kind of democracy with equal conditions for everyone – given for example the fact that most students at Harvard have parents who belong to the richest 2% in the US.

7. What should we say about the idea that it was accidental that there was equality in the 20th century due to the world wars. How do we ensure equality in the future, without wars?

8. What about Piketty’s analysis that we live in a society where people get 25% of their life income from inheritance, and that this will also be the case in an aging society because even though inheritance will only come later, it will still be a general part of society’s function? Is that not contradictory to the idea that older people today want to spend their money rather than to give it to their children? Maybe Piketty underestimates the egoism of the ‘68 generation?

9. Is the idea of a global tax on capital income the way to proceed? If it is only possible at the EU-level, what does it mean for the national tax systems?

10. What will happen if we do not have such a tax in the future – will we, as Piketty suggests, experience further increase of inequality throughout the world?

These questions do not exclude the significance of Piketty’s research. As mentioned in the introduction, the essential achievement of Piketty’s book is that this book represents a revival of political economy, scaled for global society, in the classical sense. Economics is placed as a social science and a humanistic science, and in the end as a moral and political science. In this manner Piketty utilizes an economic perspective and reconstructs the unity in the practical sciences. At the same time as he recognizes that each of the different human sciences has its special perspective.

Piketty’s reconstruction could be called a historical analysis of the transformation of modern society from the origin of capitalism in the 18th century till the global perspective in the twenty-first century. In conclusion, Piketty revives the political-economic project of Adam Smith and Piketty’s work has already had an impact comparable to that of Adam Smith during the 1770s. Therefore, it would be fair to see Piketty as the Adam Smith of the Twenty-First Century.

 

Reference Piketty, Thomas (2014), Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London.