- Capital in the Twenty-first Century
Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2014
- The Society of Equals
Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2013
For certain purposes, the seventy-odd years between the end of World War II and the present can be conveniently divided in half. From roughly 1945 to roughly 1980, the world’s “developed societies” (mainly liberal democracies that are largely European or part of the European Diaspora) accomplished three things:
- political stability;
- growing prosperity;
- increasing economic equity.
Then, from roughly 1980 to the present, the years of social and economic progress more or less fell apart, with the global financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath serving as the principal punctuation mark of the era. No one denies that something went dreadfully wrong and that the entire world was affected by the behaviour of the financial industry, led in the main by the banking and investment institutions in the United States of America. What lay behind the events and their longer implications remain matters of controversy. If “deregulation” and “toxic assets” were the crashing waves, what were the deep-sea ocean currents that provoked and sustained them?
Especially in North America, where parliamentary and presidential governments were well-established, the at least partial success in achieving the goals of prosperity and equity were the positive results of a special “grand bargain” among business, labour and government in the decades following World War II. Each sector assumed its role with at least a modicum of civility and social responsibility. The fragile truce among competing interests brought results. Capitalism was salvaged; working people won a measure of comfort and confidence; and government provided incentives to commerce and industry, a social safety net for ordinary citizens, increased social leadership and a degree of economic oversight to avert the recurrence of disasters like the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Corporate executives and shareholders were generally satisfied with substantial earnings and the promise of almost unlimited growth. Trade unions, once (and seemingly now again) the alleged bane of “free market” economies, provided labour peace in return for employment stability and liveable wages. And government functioned mainly as an enabler, a broker, a referee and a supplier of those services that were too important to be left in the hands of for-profit corporations.
Odd as it may seem to those lacking knowledge of the recent past, the marginal tax rate in the United States of America reached over 90% for the wealthiest Americans. Yet, the 1950s, particularly during the presidency of President Eisenhower, are nonetheless regarded as an ideal era for people who are now made apoplectic by the suggestion that taxes on the rich might grow from 35% to 37% of their income. Our memories are nothing if not selective.
The post-war era was a time of discernible improvement as finance and manufacturing made respectable profits as a result of a burgeoning middle class; average Americans enjoyed unprecedented standards of living; and politicians got to congratulate one another for jobs well done.
Not everything was ideal, of course. Massive social and political problems were experienced in the 1950s and more importantly in the 1960s. Especially in the United States, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the “counter-culture,” the early phases of “stage-two feminism” and an inchoate understanding of environmental degradation were all present to shake up the comfortable manners and morals of an increasingly snug and sometimes smug majority of citizens. As well, there was the unpleasantness of anti-communist hysteria including government and industry blacklists of putative subversives as well as overarching misogyny, homophobia, racism, deadly social conformity and the bland culture that (for those who recall it) followed the “bouncing ball” of Mitch Miller’s “sing-along” television show. Still, while life was imperfect, most people could sincerely believe that times were getting better and that, even if they did not achieve their own material dreams, there was a very good chance that their children would.
From about 1980 on, however, changes continued to occur, but not necessarily for the better. Cultural, social and political concerns were not overcome by mere material advancement. President Jimmy Carter spoke openly of a malaise in American society and, in so doing, brought about his own defeat, enabling President Ronald W. Reagan to usher in the emerging neoliberal triumphalism which had its (unearned) finest moment when people in the West were able, with undeserved but undiluted schadenfreude to witness the implosion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the collapse of “official” communism. A newly validated vision of society was available for the taking. That vision intensified and remains in place today. Its language defines current speech. Its assumptions are present in current policies. Its obvious inadequacies and obvious faults can no longer be ignored and its longevity is now in serious doubt; but, we cannot deny that the neoliberal tune is, at least temporarily, the dominant ditty in the song-book.
The new vision was promulgated by the already successful business elites. Any misgivings about social relations and the quality of life were attributed to already marginalized people―ethnic and religious minorities, youth, immigrants, feminists, the poor and others who had set great store in the possibility that their pain could be alleviated and that prospects for a better life could be provided as long as businesses kept faith with employees and consumers, trade unions remained strong to balance the power of the economic elites and governments did their job by serving both as a disinterested referee in inevitable disputes and also financed improvements in transportation, communications, health and education that would benefit the “common weal.”
The new vision supplanted the liberal dream of a pluralist society that tolerated social justice movements and accommodated their most pressing demands, while leaving the overall structure intact to provide stability in the management of progressive change, did not seem an impossible dream. It regarded the “nanny state” with contempt and asked incessantly whatever had become of personal responsibility. It bridled under government “red tape,” insisted that social(ist) welfare had sapped the energy of the people and mocked sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset’s pronouncement as the election of President Kennedy signalled the confident exploration of the “new frontier”: Western liberal democracy and a vibrant market economy had yielded what Plato and others had only imagined: “the good society in operation” (Lipset, 1960, p. 403). It felt the pain of humiliation at the ignominious retreat from Vietnam and it felt that the failed liberal experiment had to be replaced with a radical new/old revelation―one in which a robust military, an uncompromised capitalism and, in some quarters, a chorus of restored “Judeo-Christian” values could provide the soundtrack for a restored, redeemed and reinvigorated society.
Instead of the incremental but steady progress of the post-war years, pressure was brought to bear to deregulate the economy, undermine the workers’ organizations, shrink government spending, abandon social solidarity and join Mrs. Thatcher in her claim that “there is no such thing as society” and her insistence that individuals must take exclusive and complete responsibility for themselves. Or, as Mr. Reagan put it with quintessential simplicity: “government isn’t the solution, it is the problem.”
As a result, the already rich profited immensely while the salaries and wages of middle and working class people “flat-lined,” particularly in the Anglo-American nations of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. True, some already developed countries did not fare as badly. For instance, Germany, some smaller continental European states and the Scandinavian countries managed to maintain growth while avoiding the growing income gaps evident elsewhere. As an extra reward, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland regularly ranked in the “top ten” countries according to almost every measure of social well-being including education, health care, human happiness and the overall quality of life.
Moreover, some remarkable stories were being told elsewhere. Some formerly “third world” countries in the oil-rich Middle East and around the Pacific Rim―especially the “Four Dragons” of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore―dramatically improved their per capita incomes, with or without discernible improvements in democracy. As well, giant economies in Brazil, India and China profoundly altered economic arrangements within their own borders and became important forces on a global scale.
Nevertheless, even in the most successful countries, there has been much talk about a democratic deficit and income distribution. There are overarching questions that need to be asked, particularly in view of the “Great Recession,” the cause(s) of which seem properly to be placed at the feet of a US-based banking and finance system that spectacularly failed.
The first set of questions concern the explanation for troubled times. How did things go so wrong economically? What was the cause of the problem that left so many people―especially in the richest nation on the planet―frantic for funds as they watched their wealth and their future prospects dissolve? How is it that the subsequent “recovery” has left the financial sector better off and the stock markets soaring while personal bankruptcies, home repossessions, levels of unemployment and, not merely incidentally, private student debt upon postsecondary graduation so high? And why is it that political and economic leaders―regardless of party and expressed ideology―are inclined to seek economic solutions in punishing austerity measures and a preoccupation with overcoming public indebtedness that are proposed by precisely those interests that created the problems in the first place.
The second set of questions involve ethical and moral justification for the policies that led to the Great Recession and the corrective policies that are designed to remedy past problems at the expense of the struggling majority of people while tax relief and deregulation are allowed to benefit corporate wealth and open the door to future and perhaps more disastrous melt-downs. After all, it seems that working and middle class dreams have evaporated at the same time that plainly corrupt institutions have not only survived, but have never been stronger as they profit at unprecedented levels. Particularly galling to those who have lost jobs and retirement savings is the fact that the financiers who were responsible for the billions of lost assets and revenues have not only escaped well-deserved prison sentences, but are being paid huge bonuses. Their malfeasance is being rewarded. They are not just “laughing all the way to the bank”; rather, the banks have become their own platinum-plated comedy clubs and all the jokes are on us.
Even those upset by trends in US inequality are living in the past. They still think Gordon Gekko is the problem—but … things have moved on a lot since 1987, when “Wall Street” came out. Back then scrappy self-made predators ruled; now we’re much more likely to be talking about their children and heirs. Patrimonial capitalism is already here, to a much greater extent than people realize.
Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, 2008.
To sort out the answers, we can turn to an unlikely source; namely, to France. No one doubts France’s credentials in terms of philosophers and social critics. From Descartes, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Pascal, Rousseau and Voltaire through to de Beauvoir, Camus, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre and on to the likes of Althusser, Barthes, Beaudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan and Lyotard, representatives of the French intelligentsia have been plentiful and have contributed in various way to humanity’s quest to discover what, if anything, human life is or ought to be about. Unfairly or not, however, Anglophones are not eager to consult Francophones on practical matters of economics.
Within the past year, however, two bona fide French intellectuals have been thrust upon the scene; that is to say that their books have been translated into English in order to instruct us on the nature of our material culture and on how we:
- produce and distribute goods and services; and
- explain the process and its consequences to ourselves and others.
They are Thomas Piketty and Pierre Rosanvallon. Piketty has produced the more popular book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Rosanvallon has authored the lesser-selling, but possibly the more important volume, The Society of Equals.
In our age of indiscriminate information dissemination and (perhaps paradoxically) accompanying social amnesia, I doubt if Piketty’s best-seller will remain a part of the intelligent laity’s consciousness for as long as his publicists hope. It is true that works with economic, social and political themes that similarly grabbed our imagination in past decades endured for some time, but they all had a limited shelf life―usually a decade or less.
A few examples of such works include David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (1950); C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956); John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State (1967); Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979) and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987).
Today, in the era of ubiquitous disposability, such passing fame and modest influence as such best-sellers enjoyed is increasingly rare and most come with “best before” dates hidden in plain sight in their dust-cover blurbs. Even the books that were fleetingly important a few years ago are now all but forgotten or, worse, condemned to be excerpted into freshman anthologies in recent social thought. None are apt to be recalled as “classics” in the same way as earlier writers from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill a century hence. It’s not that Piketty isn’t making a try as the title of his book (a little presumptuously) advertises itself as adopting the mantle of Marx and updating and adapting Das Kapital to the changed realities of the early twenty-first century. Still, in their fifteen weeks or months (or unlikely fifteen years) of fame and fortune, Piketty and Rosanvallon are apt to be about as good as it gets.
Capital in the Twenty-first Century intentionally and provocatively echoes Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. For those who sensibly regard Marx as one of the most important economic theorists of all time, Piketty has delivered an important update on the nineteenth-century work of “the Moor.” It is not, of course, a “Marxist” tract. It does not try to link itself to enduring Marxian concepts and interpretations. It does not advertize itself as an application of some allegedly Marxist or even post-Marxist orthodoxy to the postindustrial world. It certainly does not offer a prescription for revolution. It is content to try to understand the world, and makes only diffident suggestions about changing it. It does not contemplate a working class insurrection and consequent social(ist) transformation. It recommends a tax on wealth which could have stunning consequences, but which is an unlikely policy innovation in the foreseeable future.
At the same time, Piketty does not run in fear of the association with the father of modern communism, and not just as a marketing strategy. If nothing else, both writers attempt to say important things about the most important form of economic organization since the collapse of feudalism. Although the contexts are different, capital is the focus of both attempts to disclose the workings of a system that has dominated human life in advanced and advancing societies for over two centuries.
For some, capitalism is the greatest achievement of economic thought and practice. It is said to be fully and exclusively responsible for bringing us (or most of us) into a world of unprecedented ease and luxury. From indoor toilets to the Internet and from food refrigeration to robotic surgery, it would be churlish to deny the achievements of modern technology and social organization under the capitalist model. Indeed, very few of its sharpest critics sincerely seek to return to life as nomadic hunter-gatherers or the culture of the allegedly “dark ages” (even Marx was unrestrained in his praise for the material achievements of the system that he morally deplored).
For others, capitalism is perhaps a necessary stage in the advancement of our species, but it is also the principal cause of injustice and misery. Wealth, it is claimed, is the author of poverty and capitalism has created more of both than any other hitherto existing society. As such, it has had to be endured, but it must surely be transformed if we are to live up to our most progressive potential.
Across the globe, the forces of neoliberalism, or what might be called the latest stage of predatory capitalism, are on the march―dismantling the historical guarantees and social provisions of the welfare state, defining profit making as the essence of democracy, increasing the role of corporate money in politics, waging an assault on unions, expanding the military security state, promoting widening inequalities in wealth and income, fostering the erosion of civil liberties, and undercutting public faith in the defining institutions of democracy.
Henry A. Giroux
For Piketty, those for whom the very name of Karl Marx conjures up demonic images and ideational dread are paying more attention to his tome than they have to any number of books that have offered equal or even more serious analyses, and these people have the discretionary income needed to buy his book and make him at least moderately and potentially fabulously well-off. Thomas Piketty has been discussed on television chat shows, in mainstream newspapers and current affairs magazines and throughout the organs of the literate right-wing, the impatient left-wing and the congenitally moderate proponents of safe politics in the United States and elsewhere. In the wake of such broad discussion, it becomes ringingly clear that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
So, what does Thomas Piketty have to say?
At the risk of making more than the usual oversimplification, he says this: You have to have money to make money. Or, as I tell my students who are generally immune to such toxic talk, you don’t get rich by working hard, but by getting other people to work hard for you … unless you took the preferred route of choosing your parents properly and coming by an immense patrimony which, of course, you still must invest in schemes whereby people will continue to work hard for you. (You might be surprised how quickly people accustomed to the most expensive wine at the vintner’s can spend their way through the family fortune unless attention is paid to the accounts―which is what lawyers and financial advisors are and are paid handsomely for.)
There are, however, other factors in play. Capital (the original) made some mistakes or (to be kind) got a few predictions ever-so-slightly wrong. Marx failed to anticipate some changes that were (to be honest) also unanticipated by any of his rivals in his day. Though he came closer to anticipating such game-changers as automation than we choose to recall, Marx can be forgiven for ignoring space travel, microwave ovens and online college courses. (For those unwilling to read the work in which he comes as close to prescience as any other, The Grundrisse (1973), a tasty précis can be found in a few pages of Marx’s Grundrisse (McLellan, 1971: 141-143). In any case, we have no reason to believe that Piketty will do better as a prognosticator, nor does he attempt anything as large.
One of Marx’s miscalculations was that the proletariat would rise up and overthrow its masters. It has not, and there are several reasons for its reluctance to do so. One was cultural. Workers got no less besotted with nationalism than their betters in the officer class and proceeded to shoot their putative comrades in two world and innumerable other wars. Then, when peace broke out, they got seduced by mass entertainment which made stretching out on a couch watching football games on television seem preferable to rioting in the streets, occupying factories and palaces and seizing control of the state.
Another was that “class conflict” became sociologically ambiguous and therefore a politically useless concept in any attempt to organize a half-way serious revolution. Marx believed that the rich would get richer and richer and the poor would get poorer and poorer until, to borrow a phrase from W. B. Yeats, “the centre cannot hold.” Throughout the twentieth century, however, it became harder and harder to define social class or even to get people to admit that it existed. In fact, in sociology, it was reduced to “social stratification” or “socio-economic status.” These retreats from structural class analysis involved the selection of a number of empirical variables including income, education, occupational status (or stigma) and so on. They did not take account of structural relationships such as ownership and control of the means of production on the one hand and wage labour on the other.
And why should they? Previously privileged “white-collar” office workers often earned less than “blue collar” electricians and plumbers and therefore became confused, though still appreciative of their occasional manicures. As well, assembly-line workers and elementary school teachers sometimes became low-level ersatz capitalists through modest investments in mutual funds or pension funds invested on their behalf. Moreover, the largest owners of the means of production including the giants in the automobile and appliance, steel and petroleum, agricultural and chemical, insurance and financial industries became hard to identify precisely. Ebenezer Scrooge has been replaced by interlocking and interpenetrating patterns of corporate ownership so tangled that forensic accountants have difficulty sorting out who owns what. And, of course, the corporations themselves have now been deemed “persons” by the Supreme Court of the United States, so it is hard to distinguish embodied humanity from the legal fictions that exercise control over us. A millennium ago, it was no chore to figure out who the King or the Lord of the Manor were. Today, even identifiable company presidents or CEOs who seem to be the effective powers in the economy are, technically at least, employees in the same structural relationship to the enterprise as receptionists and after-hours cleaners. It’s complicated.
Piketty attacks these and similar questions with mountains of data, nicely reduced to manageable proportions for ease of popular consumption. His main conclusion is that capitalism is an economic system that permits and encourages a plutocracy. The free market isn’t really free. Private enterprise is not a matter of individual initiative, clever innovation and dedication to the profit motive. The game is rigged. Equality of opportunity does not lead to equity, much less to equality of condition. Private ownership of the means of production merely ensures the domination of society by a small (and getting smaller) number of mainly anonymous people (Bill Gates and Donald Trump notwithstanding) whose collective control can be altered only by some major conflagration―war, revolution and ecological devastation among them.
Piketty is also keenly aware that such elements as technological innovation demand greater attention. Feudal landlords were initially undone by mercantilism; the merchant class was challenged by those in charge of industrial manufacturing; and, as the American “rust belt,” poor marketing strategies and sloppy engineering attest, even the most dominant and prosperous firms can flirt with failure and, occasionally need public “bail-outs.” At the same time, electronic technology in all its forms, but mainly in “information” creation, storage and dissemination, is likely to define our era. With it not only come new fortunes won and old fortunes lost, but entirely new labour processes and employment structures. In all of this bustling dynamism, however, wealth inexorably moves toward the top and not even the myth of “trickle-down economics” can mislead people forever. Piketty, we can be assured, is not at all misled. Nor, we may hope are we.
Any sentient college teacher knows how computers, online education, machine-graded tests and emerging machine-graded essays will make even more educators as redundant as phrenologists, farriers and chimney-sweeps while, simultaneously, the institutional “business class” (layer-upon-layer of administrative personnel) take up the slack that is left when something approaching 75% of all teaching is turned over to part-time employees who are intimidated, vulnerable to dismissal without cause or recourse, and paid penurious wages, often without benefits.
Like Marx, Piketty understands that capitalism leads to the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, but he recognizes that this process is not linear. There have been bumps on the road to monopolies and oligopolies. From time to time, moreover, an unlikely (and inconsistent) “hero” has arisen. US president Teddy Roosevelt famously led the “progressive” movement that “busted” the “trusts.” Later, Franklin Roosevelt presided over the regulation of the US banking industry, notably by using the Glass-Steagall Act―more formally the US Banking Act of 1933―to keep US financial institutions more-or-less under control through the Great Depression. It remained a valuable instrument of economic health until Bill Clinton oversaw its repeal in 1999, thereby creating the conditions needed for the Great Recession of 2008.
For Marx, the increased accumulation on one side and increased immiseration on the other could (or should) lead to transformative revolution. For Piketty? Not so much. Of course, he sees what is obvious―the domination of the economy by the infamous 1% or, more accurately, the 1% of the 1% or even the 1% of the 1% of the 1%―in any case a very small number indeed. What’s missing, however, is the absence of intimation of change.
Piketty does not urge violent revolution or environmental catastrophe or even a wide new technological base for production and distribution of goods and services; but, he does worry about extreme wealth. When very few dominate very many for the fairly simple economic reason that the return on investment in land, housing, factories, resources, financial products such as stocks, bonds and mortgages is greater than the income earned for actual work (salaries and wages), then the high “capital-to-income ratio” not only promotes inequality, but in the absence of high taxes on the owners of economic assets, that gap must increase. And, in case no one has noticed, the political parties beholden to corporate interests are not only avoiding such tax increases, but are actually insisting that they be lowered even more. So, as Piketty explains, the “new gilded age” is upon us.
Of course, Piketty is not doctrinaire and he is certainly not as simple-minded as the monetarists, the “supply-side” economists and the authors of mainstream economic textbooks have frequently been. He knows that the capital-to-income ratio is just one of the factors at play―albeit the crucial one. He is also aware that political demands for the redistribution of wealth have a potential effect, as might demographic shifts, periods of hyperinflation and so on. And that is where the book becomes more and more interesting. For example, from about the turn of the twentieth century to the 1970s, the average share of national wealth owned by the top 1% in advanced countries fell from about 50% to less than 25%, with the remainder going largely to the new middle class. It is this class and the temporarily prosperous working class of the post-World War II era that are getting squeezed, mostly to the benefit of the super-rich.
These findings not only knock the stuffing out of both the description and the analysis of wealth creation and distribution championed by “Economics 101” and the local Chamber of Commerce, but also the policy assumptions made by Barack H. Obama, Stephen J. Harper, David Cameron, François Hollande, Angela Merkel and all the other leaders (or, more importantly, their chief advisors and allies) and, in all likelihood, their immanent successors no matter of which political party or persuasion.
This presents a problem. Piketty sensibly argues that the current situation and trend is not sustainable and that the best way for capitalism to survive is to promote a coordinated and enforceable global tax on wealth for the explicit purpose of income redistribution. I have no good idea of what Piketty’s private moral position might be on the matter of inequity, but it is obvious that, as a purely empirical matter, he knows that extreme concentrations of wealth damages and will ultimately destroy an economy. Progressive taxation, of course, is only one mechanism and it is the one Piketty’s prefers. Leftists have criticized him for ignoring or underestimating other factors such as stronger fiscal regulation and revitalized trade unions. It is, however, unclear that such fine points matter very much in light of the tremendous power exercised by concentrated corporate capital over politics and government.
Piketty therefore emerges as a meticulous researcher who has sorted through a tremendous amount of data and has achieved one very important end (no matter how nit-pickers in the financial press might try to undermine his analysis). Although plenty of progressive economists including some with Nobel Prizes (Paul Krugman and Joseph A. Stiglitz) and some without (James Galbraith and Jeffrey Sachs) have been stating the obvious: the rich-poor gap is growing, inequity threatens social stability and environmental limits of economic development are inescapable, there has been a deep reluctance to discuss such matters in polite company and an ever deeper resentment against those who might try. It is Thomas Piketty who seems at least temporarily to have made such topics respectable.
It would be foolish to imagine that his impact and durability will be as significant as that of Alexis de Tocqueville, who has a profound influence on the understanding of American political economy and culture almost two centuries ago. It would be folly to think that Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century will become a classic in the same sense that Tocqueville’s Democracy in America most certainly did. In fact, it is probably close to madness to believe in modern “classics” arising at all in the so-called “information age.” It will, however, surely do no permanent harm to take him seriously, to refresh our understanding of others in the tradition of political economy and to try to enhance the “conversation” about the future of our society by reacquainting ourselves with the past. It’s not that I fear that forgetting our history will cause us to repeat it in the future, but that forgetting it might make it hard to have a future at all.
Pierre Rosanvallon is also a Frenchman. He deals the same empirical facts as Piketty and he shares Piketty’s dismay with the structure of contemporary capitalism; however, he approaches the matter from a different perspective and with different goals in mind. He is more concerned with the second question: How might the current “late” or possible “end” stage of capitalism to be understood, justified or criticized in ethical or moral terms?
Rosanvallon is not an economist. Although Piketty draws upon the history of France and upon philosophy more than most North American economists are apt to do, he is preoccupied with more narrowly economic data. Rosanvallon wants to know what it all truly means. His main premise is not the fact of inequality which is obvious to anyone with the will to see, but with how it is experienced and assessed. One main starting place is the way in which he thinks we have become used to it. Despite the evident return to the gilded age in Europe and North America, Rosanvallon detects a dearth of anger, resentment or revolutionary fervour. Not only is there a kind of resignation to unfairness, but there is also a “tacit acceptance” of inequity and a sullen “resistance to any practical steps to correct them.” This may partly be the result of the failure of nominally left-wing political parties to stick to their principles rather than to make whatever ideological adjustments seem necessary to win a marginally larger proportion of the vote (a tactic that has not been demonstrably supported in electoral practice in recent elections in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom).
In any case, Rosanvallon seems persuaded that notions such as injustice are becoming obsolete and goes so far as to say that the culture of late capitalism has traded social justice and solidarity for a set of social arrangements in which consciousness is dominated not merely by the technology of the social media, but also by the concepts of personhood that are implicit in it. There is surely something to this. The questions are what and how much?
Rosanvallon writes at length about an individualistic ethic in which people (presumably mainly young people) crave validation for their uniqueness and singularity. Paradoxically, this new age of selfishness is to be carried on in the domain or Twitter and “tweets” as billions of people establish their “brands” in the ether of cyberspace. No longer able to expect stable employment, supportive communities apart for ethereal chat rooms and a life of material abundance apart from the latest electronic gadget, people are becoming preoccupied with “my” things. That those things―opinions, music, photos―are very like everyone else’s and given materiality, if at all, on anonymous blogs, personal playlists and pictures that will never be stored in a photo album or on a family mantle, does not appear to be pertinent. Individuality is celebrated and immediately deleted―of no permanent interest to anyone apart from those who mine megadata in search of terrorist cells or electronic sales. We now write our diaries in pixels, the functional equivalent of disappearing ink.
At the base of The Society of Equals is a cry for humanity in the absence of consideration of political or economic power. Our self-esteem becomes a function of the number of Facebook friends we can attract and keep as well as the number of “likes” we can collect in response to our most recent announcement of some success or a picture of our cute little kitty.
I suppose that Rosanvallon is on to something. If corporate capitalism, in cooperation with the surveillance society and militarized police and prison systems cannot reasonably be altered, then it is narrowly rational to seek succour elsewhere, even if it is by means of “following” the rich and infamous and communicating with others in less than 140 characters. At first glance, this seems delusional, no more than narcissistic and ultimately rather pathetic. Is there more to it than first appears?
No one doubts that our culture is changing and that technology and especially information technology is defining and directing that change. If some of both the extreme technophiles and technophobes are to be believed, we are well into a social dynamic that will prove as transformative as the Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the creation of the alphabet or the printing press. Maybe so; and, if so, Rosanvallon may be no worse an analyst or a prophet than anyone else.
For my part, however, I am afraid that what some take to be an engaging principle of singularity strikes me as a rather desperate thrashing about in a depoliticized world in which self-referential symbolic acts such as posting a “selfie” substitute for social solidarity, with no good effect either for poor souls seeking to be recognized, valued and cherished in a world of LinkedIn endorsements. Meanwhile, any sense of social justice is marginalized in the struggle to be individually, if largely anonymously, accepted and acknowledged. It might stand as a surrogate for social relations, but it will be of little significance for people whose sense of deprival is a little more substantive than the a level of angst that can be assuaged in a flurry of “texts.”
There is, however, a wholly different basis for criticism. Rosanvallon’s critique of formalized and ritualized democracy is not without merit (2008). He has been one of France’s most articulate critics of representative institutions and analysts of apathy. He has published erudite explorations of the depth of distrust that liberal democratic electorates display toward cumbersome bureaucracies, unprincipled politicians, overarching corporate entities that exercise unseen but hurtfully felt influence over the policy-making process.
The Society of Equals, however, leads us away from both traditional and explicitly non-traditional political action in response to human oppression and, in effect, comes very close to normalizing injustice. Others are less sanguine. Citing spontaneous protests sometimes leading to actual insurrection in societies that have not enjoyed the relative ease of life under the rule of law and representative government, advocates of fundamental change can point to an as yet inchoate rebelliousness involving pro-democracy movements, anti-austerity movements, indigenous rights movements and others that may be lacking in comprehensive political theory and strategic acumen, but not in authentic commitment and solidarity. Events of at least potential importance are, however, systematically ignored, contemptuously dismissed or cunningly distorted through the lenses of the authorities; but, they nonetheless exist and persist. Indeed, the attempts to demonize and criminalize dissent that have become standard features of debates ranging from the phony North American “war on drugs” to the environmental damage posed by bitumen extraction in the tar sands of Alberta point in a different direction to the one that seems to preoccupy Rosanvallon. Labelling those seeking to protect the environment as terrorists and foreign agitators (as the current Government of Canada insists upon doing while simultaneously silencing scientists and public servants who dare to dispute official policy) may be one reliable measure of the desperation or at least the atrophy of imagination available among corporate leaders and the perceived threat to the corporate agenda.
In the alternative, I vividly recall Judy Rebick (2012), an activist, journalist and feminist who also holds the Canadian Auto Workers-Sam Ginden Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University in Toronto telling an enthusiastic audience of teachers, students, trade unionists, political functionaries and social activists that, at age 68, she has never felt more confidence in the popular desire for social change. The meeting with a group of several hundred was, of course, unreported in the media. Yet, her celebratory assessment that the “Idle No More” movement of Canadian First Nations peoples was the single most important political association in the country and her expressed faith that new, twenty-first-century technologies, tactics, strategies and sensitivities betokened the emergence of a transformative political culture could hardly have been farther removed from Rosanvallon’s message of transparent self-regarding psychological affirmation and apparent political quietism.
For a self-described “sixties radical” to display none of the disillusionment and embitterment that has become the unfortunate legacy of so much of the now antique youth movement and counter-culture was nothing short of inspiring. However easily such testaments are to mock in the mass media and in the corridors and catacombs of power and however difficult it is to forge common fronts among trade unions, environmental groups, the rising food and justice movement, all manner of aboriginal, immigrant, race and gender, anti-poverty and peace organizations in connection with academics, artists, progressive policy and research institutions and at least sometimes functioning political parties, the drive toward creating and maintaining public spaces in opposition to the undeniable and unavoidable structures of domination is surely more ennobling than affirmations of singularity and simulacra of social change in a cyber-box.
Whether the kind of populism hinted at here will eventually be judged “a pathological political phenomenon” and a “threat to democracy” or “the most authentic form of political representation” and “a corrective for democracy” (Kaltwasser, 2012: 184) remains to be seen; but, it is probably safe to say that it is an unambiguous challenge to politics as usual. Whatever the future holds for democratic politics and however clever Rosanvallon’s rendering of the limits of democratic institutions in their current form, the “post-foundational” theory which he advances threatens to be even more corrosive of democracy because it delegitimates any recognizable concept of politics itself. While it is fair to lament the reduction of politics and government to the technical administration by the state and to see the irrelevance of liberal pluralism either as fact or norm to the patterns of authority and domination in contemporary society, it is difficult to understand how Rosanvallon’s admittedly provocative analysis can recolonize the public spaces now emptied of meaningful discourse and repoliticize “the sphere of the ‘economic’ understood as the procedures of wealth creation and distribution” (Swyngedouw, 2011: 4) which I, for one, continue to see as more central to social justice than exercises in personal branding.
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Howard A. Doughty teaches Political Economy and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org