Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014) has received widespread attention within academia, the media, amongst the Left and across the general public. His criticism of increasing inequality has made him an attractive read for everyone concerned about the devastating results of global capitalism. In this blog post, I will critically reflect on the implications of this attention for the Left.
Piketty’s lambasting of inequality is important and welcome. For too long, increasing inequality has been accepted as the price to pay for general development. Underneath Piketty’s analysis, however, lies nothing radical. Inequality is regarded as a problem of unfair distribution, a potential solution to which could be a global wealth tax. Piketty’s 21st century capitalism is a reformed capitalism harking back to 20th century social democratic understandings. Piketty’s 21st century capitalism is still capitalism with all the exploitation which comes with it (for a detailed engagement with the book, see the blog posts by Adam David Morton at http://adamdavidmorton.com/).
To historical materialists who are more concerned with the fundamental logic of capitalism, Piketty’s findings are hardly surprising, although they serve as a nice empirical confirmation. Drawing on Marx, historical materialists know that the problem is not unfair distribution of wealth. Inequality and exploitation are, instead, rooted in the way the capitalist social relations of production are organised around the private ownership of the means of production and wage labour, in which workers are paid less than the value of the products they create. It is the internal contradictions of capitalism around competitiveness and its crisis tendency, which result in constant cycles of dramatic economic expansion and moments of crisis of overproduction and overaccumulation.
What is, therefore, interesting in my view is not so much the contents of Piketty’s book, despite its obvious richness of empirical data, but the fact that it receives so widespread attention. This indicates that people across the world are increasingly without illusions about capitalism. People are increasingly fed up with mounting inequalities, a situation in which the wealth of the few is confronted with abject poverty by the masses and super-exploitation in sweatshop factories in countries such as China or Mexico.
From a left perspective, the conclusion to be drawn is that the time may be ripe to start mobilising for more drastic alternatives. Drawing again on Marx, the way forward is clear. It is not the distribution of wealth, which needs to be changed, but the way production is organised itself has to be transformed. It is the socialisation of the means of production, which ultimately will pave the way to end inequality as we know it.
4 September 2014
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://andreasbieler.net
4 September 2014