A CRITIQUE OF THOMAS PIKETTY’S ‘CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY’ – 2

CONTAINING CAPITAL – 2

 

Prasanna K Choudhary

                                                                                                                     

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2. DATA AND DIALECTICS

France inherits a very rich and glorious intellectual-theoretical tradition. Beginning with Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and René Descartes (1596-1650), this tradition includes leading lights of French Enlightenment like, to name a few, Charles Louis de Montesquieu (1689-1755), François Voltaire (1694-1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Denis Diderot (1713-1784), and Jean Antoine Condorcet (1743-1794). The French Enlightenment played a vital role in the making of modern mind. Marx’s methodology too was indebted to these great minds. This tradition was carried forward by later French thinkers as well. Even in the twentieth century, F Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss pioneered structuralism in linguistics and anthropology respectively. Jean Paul-Satre influenced a whole generation of intellectuals as well as activists. Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ became the guiding spirit behind the feminist movement. Émile Durkheim and his theories and hypotheses became an integral part of social science studies the world over. ‘Annales School’ found a large audience among the historians, and its clones emerged in various universities around the world. These are just a few names; it is not possible here to give even a brief description of France’s immense contribution to the intellectual wealth of humankind and their vital role in the evolution of the theory of knowledge. Many of these thinkers were system-builders and versatile genius – Descartes himself was one of the founders of analytical geometry, mathematician, physicist, physiologist, philosopher and founder of rationalism.

In this background, it is quite understandable that young Piketty’s dream was ‘to teach at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, whose faculty has included such leading lights as Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Françoise Héritier, and Maurice Godelier, to name a few…’ He further writes, “There is one great advantage to being an academic economist in France: here economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything. ….” Explaining his theoretical and conceptual framework, Piketty strongly criticizes ‘childish passion for mathematics .. at the expense of historical research and collaboration with other social sciences.’ ‘Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in.’ Finally, he makes clear the aim behind his study – he wants to ‘contribute, however modestly, to the debate about the best way to organize society and the most appropriate institutions and policies to achieve a just social order.’ Furthermore, he ‘would like to see justice achieved effectively and efficiently under the rule of law, which should apply equally to all and derive from universally understood statutes subject to democratic debate.’ (‘Introduction/The Theoretical and Conceptual Framework’) Well said, indeed.

BIG DATA METHODOLOGY

However, despite his somewhat emotional fondness for the French intellectual tradition and French theoreticians, his criticism of ‘childish passion for mathematics’, and his eagerness to collaborate with the other social sciences, Piketty, so far as the main theme of the book is concerned, follows the ‘big data methodology’. (His book is not a big data book in the strict sense of the term – what I am referring to is his methodology.) He appears to be consciously avoiding ‘why’, and remains content to explain ‘what’. He tells us ‘what’ the data (spread over a very long period of two centuries) reveals about the movement of inequality in the age of capital (i.e., r > g), but he desists from going into the question ‘why’ r > g. He does not critically examine existing hypotheses or theories on this question, and he himself does not advance any hypothesis or theory in this regard, and hence, does not put such hypothesis or theory to test in the light of appropriate data. In short, he deliberately avoids venturing into the field of hypotheses or theories or reasoning – he is satisfied with correlations, and does not feel the need of causal analyses.

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‘With a cell phone in every pocket, a computer in every backpack, and big information technology systems in back offices everywhere’, the digital age has made it quite easy to generate, store, process and retrieve large amounts of data at a scale previously unheard-of. “In the analog age collecting and analyzing such data was enormously costly and time-consuming. New questions often meant that the data had to be collected again and the analysis started afresh. The big step toward managing data more efficiently came with the advent of digitization: making analog information readable by computers, which also makes it easier and cheaper to store and process. ….Google processes more than 24 petabytes of data per day, a volume that is thousands of times the quantity of all printed material in the US Library of Congress. Facebok, a company that did not exist a decade ago, gets more than 10 million new photos uploaded every hour. Facebook members click a ‘like’ button or leave a comment nearly three billion times per day, creating a digital trail that the company can mine to learn about users’ preferences. Meanwhile, the 800 million users of Google’s YouTube service upload over an hour of video every second. The number of messages on Twitter grows at around 200 percent a year and by 2012 had exceeded 400 million tweets a day. ….In 2013 the amount of stored information in the world is estimated to be around 1,200 exabytes (an exabyte is one billion gigabytes), of which less than 2 percent is non-digital. ….The era of big data challenges the way we live and interact with the world. Most strikingly, society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations: not knowing why but only what. This overturns centuries of established practices and challenges our most basic understanding of how to make decisions and comprehend reality. ….By changing the amount, we change the essence. ….The change of scale has led to a change of state. ….The quantitative change has led to a qualitative one. … As we transition from a hypothesis-driven world to a data-driven world, we may be tempted to think that we also no longer need theories.”1

“In 2008 WIRED magazine’s editor-in-chief Chris Anderson trumpeted that ‘the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete.’ In a cover story called ‘The Petabyte Age’, he proclaimed that it amounted to nothing short of ‘the end of theory’. The traditional process of scientific discovery – of a hypothesis that is tested against reality using a model of underlying causalities – is on its way out, Anderson argued, replaced by statistical analysis of pure correlations that is devoid of theory.’2 Piketty rightly acknowledges his indebtedness to ‘recent improvements in the technology of research’, but, I hope, he does not subscribe to Anderson’s views.

However, the big data experts Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier do not view analogs and algorithms, causality and correlation, ‘why’ and ‘what’ as dichotomous categories. They admit that big data itself is founded on theory (statistical theories, mathematical, computer science theories), and big data analysis is based on theories (how we select the data). ‘They shape both our methods and our results.’ They conclude, “We still need causal studies and controlled experiments with carefully curated data in certain cases. ….But for many everyday needs, knowing what not why is good enough. And big data correlations can point the way toward promising areas in which to explore causal relationships.”3

AMARTYA SEN’S METHODOLOGY

Amartya Sen who also grapples with the problem of inequality, justice and democracy in our modern world, derives his inspiration from the French Enlightenment. His methodology traces its origin to the ‘social choice theory’ (of Condorcet in the eighteenth century) which has been developed in the present form by the pioneering contributions of Kenneth Arrow in the mid-twentieth century (Condorcet → Kenneth Arrow → Amartya Sen). He critically examines John Rawls’s theory of justice, while developing his own views and propositions. Tracing the genesis of his own theory, he writes, “ There is a substantial dichotomy between two different lines of reasoning about justice that can be seen among two groups of leading philosophers associated with the radical thought of the Enlightenment period. One approach concentrated on identifying perfectly just social arrangements, and took the characterization of ‘just institutions’ to be the principal – and often the only identified – task of the theory of justice. Woven in different ways around the idea of hypothetical ‘social contract’, major contributions were made in this line of thinking by Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, and later by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, among others. The contrarian approach has been the dominant influence in contemporary political philosophy, particularly since a pioneering paper (‘Justice As Fairness’) in 1958 by John Rawls which preceded his definitive statement on that approach in his classic book, ‘A Theory of Justice’.

In contrast, a number of other Enlightenment philosophers (Smith, Condorcet, Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Marx, John Stuart Mill, for example) took a variety of approaches that shared a common interest in making comparisons between different ways in which people’s lives may be led, influenced by institutions but also by people’s actual behavior, social interactions and other significant determinants. This book (‘The Idea of Justice’) draws to a great extent on that alternative tradition. The analytical – and rather mathematical – discipline of ‘social choice theory’, which can be traced to the works of Condorcet in the eighteenth century, but which has been developed in the present form by the pioneering contributions of Kenneth Arrow in the mid-twentieth century, belongs to this second line of investigation. That approach, suitably adapted, can make a substantial contribution …. to addressing questions about the enhancement of justice and the removal of injustice in the world.”4 Thus, Sen talking about the dichotomy between ‘transcendental institutionalism’ (or an ‘arrangement-focused view of justice’) and ‘realization-focused comparison’ (or ‘realization-focused understanding of justice’) follows the latter line of reasoning. (However, the way Sen classifies Enlightenment philosophers into two opposing camps seems to be somewhat arbitrary.) Since Piketty mentions Sen only in the passing, I will not expand this discussion on Sen’s methodology further.

DIALECTICAL METHOD

Here, it will be sufficient to mention that in the dichotomy between ‘why’ and ‘what’, causality and correlation, analog and algorithm, Piketty chooses the latter, thereby misses the opportunity to pursue the dialectical method in order to grasp why and what, causality and correlation, analog and algorithm in their interconnections, in their motion and constantly changing places, and in their interpenetration. He falls prey to the method that views opposing categories in irreconcilable, absolute terms – why versus what, causality versus correlation, analog versus algorithm (and in case of Sen ‘arrangement-focused view of justice’ versus ‘realization-focused understanding of justice’). He thus departs from the great French tradition that played a vital role in the development of the science of thought. Descartes was himself a ‘brilliant exponent of dialectics’, and Rousseau (‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men’) and Diderot (‘Rameau’s Nephew’) produced ‘masterpieces of dialectics’.5

The genealogy of big data methodology can well be traced back to John Locke’s empiricism, and then to Auguste Comte’s positivism, to William James’s pragmatism, and to John Dewey’s instrumentalism (not to mention various shades of twentieth-century positivism). Big data methodology is, in fact, digital-age avatar of above-mentioned philosophical tradition.6

Karl Marx

It seems that ‘his vaccination for life, at the age of eighteen (when the Berlin Wall fell) against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anti-capitalism’ went much deeper, creating mistrust of theories and hypotheses; and this mistrust and prejudice was further reinforced when, at the age of twenty-two, he ‘experienced the American dream’ at Boston.

To be fair to Piketty, it must be mentioned that the quintessential French intellectual (as distinct from the American) asserts and shines forth occasionally in different chapters of the book, particularly when he passionately deals with the Euro-zone crisis and comes out with a number of propositions and proposals.

The role of data should not be underestimated. Piketty’s study of the ‘World Top Income Database’ (WTID, based on the joint work of some thirty researchers around the world) and his findings which form the main content of the book, are definitely major contributions towards understanding income inequality in our time. However, since capital is a network of social relationships, to explore distributive injustice (why) is as much, and more so, important as the data-based movement of income inequality (what).

To sum up, so far as the methodology of Piketty is concerned, his pious wish to resurrect the spirit of classical political economy on the one hand, and his pragmatic preference for the big data methodology on the other hand, constitute the first major inconsistency of the book.

HISTORY: CONTINUITY AND INTERRUPTION

Before moving ahead, a little more on the question of methodology will not be out of context. Piketty rightly suggests that his book can be read as a history book as well. Here, a brief reference from Michel Foucault seems relevant: “For many years now historians have preferred to turn their attention to long periods, as if, beneath the shifts and changes of political events, they were trying to reveal the stable, almost indestructible system of checks and balances, the irreversible processes, the constant re-adjustments, the underlying tendencies that gather force, and are then suddenly reversed after centuries of continuity, the movements of accumulation and slow saturation, the great silent, motionless bases that traditional history has covered with a thick layer of events. The tools that enable historians to carry out this work of analysis are partly inherited and partly of their own making: models of economic growth, quantitative analysis of market movements, accounts of demographic expansion and contraction, the study of climate and its long-term changes, the fixing of sociological constants, the description of technological adjustments and of their spread and continuity. These tools have enabled workers in the historical field to distinguish various sedimentary strata; linear successions, which for so long had been the object of research, have given way to discoveries in depth. ….

At about the same time, in the disciplines that we call the history of ideas, the history of science, the history of philosophy, the history of thought, and the history of literature (we can ignore their specificity for the moment), in those disciplines which, despite their names, evade very largely the work and methods of the historians, attention has been turned, on the contrary, away from vast unities like ‘periods’ or ‘centuries’ to the phenomenon of rupture, of discontinuity. ….One is now trying to detect the incidence of interruptions. ….They suspend the continuous accumulation of knowledge, interrupt its slow development and force it to enter a new time, cut it off from its empirical origin and its original motivations, cleanse it of its imaginary complicity; they direct historical analysis away from the search for silent beginnings, and the never-ending tracing back to the original precursors, towards the search for a new type of rationality and its various effects. There are ‘displacements’ and ‘transformations’ of concepts; ..they show that the history of a concept is not wholly and entirely that of its progressive refinement, its continuously increasing rationality, its abstract gradient, but that of its various fields of constitution and validity, that of its successive rules of use, that of the many theoretical contexts in which it developed and matured. ..”7

Any study of capital in the twenty-first century required the ‘architectonic unity’ of both the methods described above by Foucault, but Piketty obviously avoids to ‘enter a new time’, to search for a ‘new type of rationality’, and to attempt ‘displacements’ and ‘transformations’ of concepts, thereby creating architectural fault-lines in the book which I will deal with in course of this critique.

NOTES

  1. Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor, and Cukier, Kenneth; ‘Big data’, John Murray, London, 2013.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sen, Amartya; ‘The Idea of Justice’, Allen Lane, London. 2009.
  5. Engels, Frederick; ‘Anti-Duhring’, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1976.
  6. “In the Preface to Sir Dudley North’s ‘Discourses upon Trade’ (1691) it is stated that Descartes’ method had begun to free Political Economy from the old fables and superstitious notions of gold, trade, &c. On the whole, however, the early English economists sided with Bacon and Hobbes as their philosophers; while at a later period, the philosopher of Political Economy in England, France and Italy was Locke.” Karl Marx, ‘Capital’, Volume I, Part IV (Continued), Chapter XV, Section 2, Second Footnote, p. 368. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977. Translated from the third German edition by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling.
  7. Foucault, Michel; ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’, Routledge Classics, Oxon, 2006.

[This critique is divided in eight parts, tentatively titled as: i. Apocalypse and Exuberance; ii. Data and Dialectics; iii. Capital Social and Self-Expanding; iv. Wealth Inherited and Created; v. Century Twentieth and Twenty-First; vi. Yes Marx No Marx; vii. London Chicago Paris; and viii. Thank You Mr Piketty.]

July, 2014.

Continued.

Next: CAPITAL SOCIAL AND SELF-EXPANDING

A CRITIQUE OF THOMAS PIKETTY’S ‘CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY’ – 1

CONTAINING CAPITAL – 1

Prasanna K Choudhary

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1. APOCALYPSE AND EXUBERANCE
No. This is not a story about London society where ‘old Madame du Deffand and her friends talked for fifty years without stopping, and during those fifty years Madame du Deffand said no more than three witty things (or that the fraction of three witty sayings lasted eighteen thousand two hundred and fifty nights.’1
This is also not a story about the Faubourg Saint-Germain, about ‘Princesse de Guermantes’s drawing room, illuminated, forgetful, and flowery, like a peaceful cemetery, where time had not only brought about the ruin of the creatures of a former epoch, it had made possible, had indeed created, new associations.’2
This is about a sanatorium. In Davos, Switzerland. News of the assassination of a prince in not very far off Sarajevo was still in the making.
AN OLD STORY RETOLD
Tubercular patients from all over the world in the International Sanatorium Berghof formed a ‘charmed circle of isolation and invalidism’, and ‘in a sort of substitute existence’, spent their time talking of disease and health; life, love and death; civilization and humanity’s prospects, etc. Two of them got engaged in very intense arguments over the future of capitalism, of bourgeois democracy.
One was Ludovico Settembrini, a literary man, the rhetorical rationalist and humanist, grandson of a Milanese lawyer, a patriot, political agitator, orator and journalist Giuseppe Settembrini. He is quite excited about the prospect of bourgeois democracy’s victorious march all over the world.
He was also a Freemason. He had much to tell of the great names whose bearers had been Masons: Voltaire, Lafayette, Napoleon, Franklin and Washington, Mazzini and Garibaldi; among the living, the King of England, and besides him, a large group of people in whose hands lay the conduct of nations of Europe, members of governments and parliaments.
His exuberance was well reflected in his arguments: “Technical progress gradually subjugated nature, by developing roads and telegraphs, minimizing climatic differences; and by the means of communication which it created proved itself the most reliable agents in the task of drawing together the peoples of the earth, of making them acquainted with each other, of building bridges to compromise, of destroying prejudice; of finally, bringing about the universal brotherhood of man. Humanity had sprung from the depths of fear, darkness and hatred: but it was emerging, it was moving onward and upward, toward a goal of fellow-feeling and enlightenment, of goodness and joyousness; and upon this path, the industrial arts were the vehicle conducive to the greatest progress. ….Christ had been the first to proclaim the principle of equality and union, that the printing-press had propagated the doctrine, and that finally the French Revolution had elevated it into a law. ….
The achievements wrung from the past by the Renaissance and the intellectual revival, are personality, freedom, and the rights of man. ….
Two principles were in perpetual conflict for possession of the world: force and justice, tyranny and freedom, superstition and knowledge. ….There was no doubt as to which of the two would finally triumph; it would be the power of enlightenment, the power that made for rational advance and development. For human progress snatched up ever more peoples with it on its brilliant course; it conquered more and more territory in Europe itself and was already pressing Asia-wards. Much still remained to be done, sublime exertions were still demanded from those spirits who had received the light. Then only the day would come when thrones would crash and outworn religions crumble, in those remaining countries of Europe which had not already enjoyed the blessings of eighteenth century enlightenment, nor yet of an upheaval like 1789. But the day would come if not on the wings of dove, then on the pinion of eagles; and dawn would break over Europe, the dawn of universal brotherhood, in the name of justice, science, and human reason. It would bring in its train a new Holy Alliance, the alliance of the democratic peoples of Europe. …. In a word, it would bring in its train the republic of the world. ….”3
The other was Leo Naphta, professor of ancient languages, son of a village slaughterer father and a working class mother. His mother worked in a cotton-spinning factory, where she labored as long as her strength held out, while the children attended the common school. Naphta, in his young age, studied Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in a cheap edition, and passed from Karl Marx to Hegel. Born a Jew, he converted to the Roman Catholic faith and ‘sang the praises of the Middle Ages’.
He became a Jesuit.

 

He was convinced of the apocalyptic end of capitalism. He, too, was quite forthright in defense of his conviction: “Is your Manchester liberalism unaware of the existence of a school of economic thought which means the triumph of man over economics, and whose principles and aims precisely coincides with those of the kingdom of God? ….The fathers of the Church ….were humane enough, anti-commercial enough, to feel that all commercial activity was a danger to the soul of man and its salvation. They hated money and finance, and called the empire of capital fuel for the fires of the hell. The fundamental economic principle that price is regulated by the operation of the law of supply and demand, they have always despised from the bottom of their hearts; and condemned taking advantage of chance as a cynical exploitation of a neighbor’s need. Even more nefarious, in their eyes, was the exploitation of time; the monstrousness of receiving a premium for the passage of time – interest, in other words – and misusing to one’s own advantage and another’s disadvantage a universal and God-given dispensation. ….Quite indeed, these humane spirits were revolted by the idea of the automatic increase of money; they regarded as usury every kind of interest-taking and speculation, and declared that every rich man was either a thief or the heir of a thief. They went further. Like Thomas Aquinas, they considered trade, pure and simple, buying and selling for profit, without altering or improving the product, a contemptible occupation. …. They demanded that the measure of profit or of public esteem should be in proportion to the actual labor expended, and accordingly it was not the tradesman or the industrialist, but the laborer and the tiller of the soil, who were honorable in their eyes. For, they were in favor of making production dependent upon necessity, and held mass production in abhorrence.

Now then: after centuries of disfavor these principles and standards are being resurrected by the modern movement of communism. The similarity is complete, even to the claim for world-domination made by international labor as against international industry and finance; the world-proletariat, which is today asserting the ideal of the Civitas Dei in opposition to the discredited and decadent standards of the capitalistic bourgeoisie. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the politico-economic means of salvation demanded by our age, does not mean domination for its own sake and in perpetuity; but rather in the sense of a temporary abrogation, in the Sign of the Cross, of the contradiction between spirit and force; in the sense of overcoming the world by mastering it; in a transcendental, a transitional sense, in the sense of the Kingdom. ….
What had been the net result of the vainglorious French Revolution – what but the capitalistic bourgeois state? ..Progress? It was the cry of the patient who constantly changes his position thinking each new one will bring relief. ..The flabby humanitarianism of it went hand in hand with the wolfish cruelty and baseness of the economic conflict within the bourgeois state. War, war! ..Justice, in short, was an empty husk, stock-in-trade of bourgeois rhetoric. ..Freedom is historically bound up with the inhuman degeneration of commercial morality, with all the horrors of modern industrialism and speculation, and with the devilish domination of money and finance….”4

These passionate arguments led them to duel with pistols. Settembrini refused to fire at Naphta; instead he fired in the air. Naphta shot himself in the head, leaving behind the blackened red hole in the temple.
Naphta died; Settembrini with his excessive fondness for fairy tale capitalism survived. But soon, there ‘came the peal of thunder, that deafening explosion of long-gathering magazines of passion and spleen; that historic thunder-peal made the foundations of the earth to shake; and that fired the mine beneath the magic mountain.’ The First World War had begun.
In between these arguments, Hans Castorp, young scion of good Hamburg society, and an indifferent engineer, although sympathetically inclined towards Settembrini’s views, often pondered over striking a balance, a pedagogic equilibrium, a sort of harmony.
I do not intend to stay further in the magical world of Thomas Mann. I can now descend from the magic mountain to the flatland of real life existence.

Davos now hosts the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of corporate bigwigs, heads of governments, and who’s who of the world. They discuss the health of global capitalism.
MARX AND KUZNETS
Almost a century after the story stated above, Thomas Piketty, in his ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’5, strives to tread the path between, what he calls, ‘the two extremes of Marxian apocalypse and Simon Kuznets’s excessive fondness for fairy tales, or at any rate happy endings.’ This theme runs throughout the book. He does not believe in Kuznets’s fairy tales, and the thrust of his study is on avoiding Marxian apocalypse.
Whether Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism can be categorized as ‘apocalyptic’ or not will be dealt with in course of the critique. So far as Kuznets’s study is concerned, it was, from the very beginning, lacking in credibility. At the beginning of the Cold War in early fifties of the last century, when McCarthyism was at its height in the United States, Simon Kuznets’s findings were part of a political project to counter Soviet communism. It was designed to present a rosy picture of capitalism – it tried to show that inequality was not an inalienable part of capitalism, that over the course of industrialization and economic development inequality actually decreases, and this trend (reduction of inequality) was in fact observed in the US between 1913 and 1948. He further portrayed this finding ‘as one instance of a more general phenomenon, which should theoretically reproduce itself everywhere, including underdeveloped countries then mired in post-colonial poverty.’

 

Piketty rightly points out, “The sharp reduction in income inequality that we observe in almost all the rich countries between 1914 and 1945 was due above all to the world wars and the violent economic and political shocks they entailed. ….It has little to do with the tranquil process of inter-sector mobility described by Kuznets. ….The data Kuznets had presented in his 1953 book suddenly became a powerful political weapon. He was well aware of the highly speculative nature of his theorizing. ..He took care to remind his listeners that the intent of his optimistic predictions was quite simply to maintain the underdeveloped countries ‘within the orbit of the free world’. In large part, then, the theory of the Kuznets curve was a product of the Cold War.” Kuznets himself put it: ‘This is perhaps 5% empirical information and 95% speculation, some of it possibly tainted by wishful thinking.’ (Piketty, ‘Introduction/The Kuznets Curve’) Despite these clear-cut observations, one wonders why Piketty gives so much space and importance to Kuznets.
While Piketty is quite forthright regarding Kuznets’s exuberance, he appears to be quite defensive about ‘Marxian apocalypse’. He writes, “Despite ….limitations, Marx’s analysis remains relevant in several respects. First, he began with an important question (concerning the unprecedented concentration of wealth during the Industrial Revolution) and tried to answer it with the means at his disposal, economists today would do well to take inspiration from his example. Even more important, the principle of infinite accumulation that Marx proposed contains a key insight, as valid for the study of the twenty-first century as it was for the nineteenth and in some respects more worrisome than Ricardo’s principle of scarcity. If the rates of population and productivity growth are relatively low, then accumulated wealth naturally takes on considerable importance, especially if it grows to extreme proportions, and becomes socially destabilizing. In other words, low growth cannot adequately counterbalance the Marxist principle of infinite accumulation: the resulting equilibrium is not as apocalyptic as the one predicted by Marx but is nevertheless quite disturbing. Accumulation ends at a finite level, but that level may be high enough to be destabilizing. In particular, the very high level of private wealth that has been attained since the 1980s and 1990s in the wealthy countries of Europe and in Japan, measured in years of national income, directly reflects the Marxist logic.” (‘Introduction/Marx: The Principle of Infinite Accumulation’. Here I would like to replace the word ‘infinite’ with ‘unsustainable’ – unsustainable accumulation. Although Marx uses terms like ‘endless’ or ‘limitless’, this should be understood in conjunction with his theory of periodic cycle of crisis and social revolution. Its un-sustainability makes it what Piketty calls ‘socially destabilizing’.)
So much so for Apocalypse and Happy Endings! Let Princess Apocalypse and Mademoiselle Exuberance amuse themselves in their respective salons. I can now move on.

NOTES
1. Selected Works of Virginia Woolf; ‘Orlando: A Biography’, Wordsworth Editions Limited, Hertfordshire, 2005.
2. Proust, Marcel; ‘In Search of Lost Time 6’, ‘Finding Time Again’, Penguin Books, London, 2002. Translated from the French by Ian Patterson.
3. Mann, Thomas; ‘The Magic Mountain’, Vintage Books, London, 1999. Translated from the German by H T Lowe-Porter. Quotations have been selected from different pages of the novel.
4. Ibid.
5. Piketty, Thomas; ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, 2014. Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer. (From now on, references – related chapters and subheadings – regarding all the quotations of Thomas Piketty from this book will be mentioned in the running text in bracket.)

[This critique is divided in eight parts, tentatively titled as follows: 1. Apocalypse and Exuberance; 2. Data and Dialectics; 3. Capital Social and Self-Expanding; 4. Wealth Inherited and Created; 5. Century Twentieth and Twenty-First; 6. Yes Marx No Marx; 7. London Chicago Paris; and 8. Thank You Mr Piketty.]

July, 2014.

Continued.
Next: DATA AND DIALECTICS

Insanity: inside the Country of the Mind

Originally posted on Living in the Modem World:

In his novel Queen ofAngels, set at the close of 2047, Greg Bear explores the concept of what he calls, “the Country of the Mind”. This, Bear postulates, is the “ground” for all our thoughts. A kind of virtual reality landscape within us where our “big and little selves” – the personality routines which make up the conscious self, and all of the partial personalities and talents which operate alongside and within our primary personality – reside.  It is a place that can be shaped and refined by those different aspects of our personality as they variously work together or come into dominance – or conflict with one another.

Where the mind is healthy, and the personalities and talents are integrated, the Country of the Mind can be a place of beauty; but where there is illness or damage, and personalities and talents are in flux…

View original 357 more words

Hips Liberated Because the Feet Have Been Shackled

Hips Liberated Because the Feet Have Been Shackled

Originally posted on COOLIE WOMAN:

Michael Goldberg Collection, University of the West Indies, Trinidad. http://www.cooliewoman.com

Michael Goldberg Collection, U.W.I., Trinidad. http://www.cooliewoman.com

For the new Indian site Scroll.in, I wrote about my affection for chutney music. Here’s the piece:

Bollywood and my mother’s bhajans were the background music of my childhood. Growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s, any and all yearning for lost homelands was set to the score of ‘Love Story’, ‘Dostana’, ‘Silsila’. Hindi film music was the approved soundtrack of our nostalgia. Arguably, since I am an Indian roughly a century out of India, born in Guyana, chutney should have been.
Chutney is Indo-Caribbean dance music that evolved from the Bhojpuri folk songs taken by indentured immigrants to British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica and elsewhere in the West Indies. Like the sugar cane blossoming out of muck and mud on the Demerara Coast, the music was a thing original to India that then was grafted into the Caribbean landscape. Both cane and chutney…

View original 328 more words

A Brief Note on Political Structure

A BRIEF NOTE ON POLITICAL STRUCTURE

PRASANNA K CHOUDHARY

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Human communities self-organise in order to reproduce themselves, and like production relations, political structure of a given society is the product of this process of self- organisation. During different ( hunting-food gathering, agrarian and industrial ) phases of the evolution of human societies, we encounter political structures of patriarchy/
matriarchy, ancient republics, monarchy and modern democracy. We can still see these political structures co-existing, albeit in changed forms and inter-relationships. There have been some intermediate forms as well.
All those political structures have four underlying factors. First, a system to seek and acquire popular approval to rule. This pertains to the legitimacy of the political structure.
Second, a system of empowerment of clans, castes, classes, and similar sections which strengthens and broadens the scope of the political structure. Third, a system of governance that provides the very raison d’ etre of the existence of the the political structure. And lastly, a system of effective and fruitful interaction with other societies which provides identity, legitimacy and security to the given political structure on a worldwide scale. These four factors can be found in matriarchy/patriarchy, ancient republics, monarchies and modern democracies. In our contemporary parlance, I will, hereafter, call these four factors as democracy, empowerment, governance and global convergence. Since society is a developing category, in a dynamic political structure, we can at most see these four factors approximating a short of balance. All these factors are themselves processes and they are not only interdependent but they often interpenetrate as well. Overgrowth of any one factor at the cost of other ones leads to the decay of the political structure and to its final breakdown. Now we can look into these four factors seperately.
A. DEMOCRACY: This factor consists of multiple variables like universal adult franchise, fundamental rights/political freedoms, rule of law/equality before law, etc. There is an inherent mechanism in democracies of its renewal after every few years. Giving proper weightage to each of the variables on a scale of 0 to 9, we can find out the Index of
Democracy ( I D ) in a political structure.
India is a land of 2794 communities speaking 321 living languages and dialects and encompassing an extraordinary range of variations. (11) None of these communities form majority of the population – at best they come to about 10-20% of the population barring a few exceptions. Hence only a coalition of communities can rule in India. On the eve of every general election, we find a feverish attempt on the part of almost all the political parties to build a viable winning coalition. The sheer number of communities provides the possibility of an infinite series of permutations and combinations. Hence, for the political parties, it proves to be an endless act of social engineering.
Due to the above-mentioned feature of Indian society, some instability is inherent in our polity. Given the inherent instability, every ruling coalition is forced to leave open the door for new recruitments. Hence, coalitions normally attempt to rule by consensus. Social engineering to form a winning coalition of communities and ruling by consensus ( or to use the term coined by John Rawls ‘overlapping consensus’ ) constitute the core of democratic functioning in India.
B. EMPOWERMENT: Democracy itself empowers people in general. But people are organised in communities, and despite social engineering and attempts to rule by consensus, democracy remains basically a majoritarian rule. Many depressed/minority communities of various hues may feel alienated and left behind in this process.
Moreover, every society inherits stratified structures and inequalities from the past. Between two poles of atomized indiviual ( supposed to be equal ) and an abstract political structure ( supposed to be neutral ), there remain many layers of inherited and acquired identities.
These objective conditions provide ample space for agitations and rebellions on the part of aggrieved and alienated communities, even in functioning democracies. In order to be sustainable, political structure needs to incorporate empowerment of these communities (some writers call this system consociationalism ).
Raising an all-important question of ‘equality of what ?’, Amartya Sen ( like Thorstein Veblen and Vilfredo Pareto, Sen, although an economist, is mostly quoted by sociologists and political theorists ) emphasized on the recognition of the ‘plurality of spaces in which equality might be assessed’ and delineated his differences with Rawlsian focal variable (of primary goods ) and his theory of ‘justice as fairness’.

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A system of positive discrimination in favour of depressed, socially backward and alienated communities constitute the core of empowerment. The concept of ‘Pareto optimality’ much used in welfare economics, and further used by Sen in terms of liberty, may apply in case of empowerment as well. Corresponding to Pareto optimality in the space of utilities, efficiency in terms of empowerment would demand that the situation is such that no community’s empowerment can be increased without cutting down the empowerment of some other community.
In our case, in a general democratic set-up, a system of reserved constituencies, panchayati raj institutions with reservations, provision for autonomy under sixth and seventh
schedules, institution of zonal and inter-state councils, reservations in jobs and educational institutions, various financial institutions and distribution systems exclusively catering to the needs of poor, depressed and backward communities, etc. provide ample cushion for withstanding the demands of empowerment. Moreover, due to new economic initiatives, new groups pressing for power-sharing. Empowerment too is an ongoing process.
Giving proper weightage to its different variables, we can deduct an Index of Empowerment (I E) in a political structure.
C. GOVERNANCE : Every political structure has a system that is exclusively meant to ensure the smooth functioning of all other systems. It is a sort of delivery vehicle (which scientists call a vector) in the body politic. Governance is precisely that system, and it too incorporates a number of variables.
Any democratic polity can hardly afford to ignore the issues that have a direct bearing upon the livelihood problems of the vast masses. Hence, macro-economic management
is one of the important tasks of governance. How is this task accomplished may be debated, but good governance involves ensuring an impressive rate of economic growth, keeping the rate of unemployment and inflation well within manageable limits, declining rate of people living below the poverty line (i.e., effectively putting in place a system of poverty-alleviation and social security), ensuring the accomplishments of national goals ( as, in our case, enshrined in the Directive Principles of our Constitution ), etc.
Second, good governance means transparent, responsive and (result-oriented) accountable administration. Third, governance obviously involves law and order management. Lack of effective governance or mis-governance leads to the overgrowth of other factors in the political structure. This overgrowth may in turn develop into malignant tumors, and to prevent the entire body politic from getting sceptic and collapsed, urgent surgery is required.
Index of Governance ( I G ) can also be calculated taking into account the variables of governance.
D. GLOBAL CONVERGENCE : The evolution of human society has been an interactive process since ancient times. However, the form and content of interactions among tribes, societies, nations vary according to the varying modes of production. In our age, in the wake of Information-Communication-Entertainment (ICE) revolution and con-committant globalization, almost all the classes and sections ( be it capitalists, peasants or workers ) are getting dislocated and striving to readjust and protect their interests.
Internet and satellite technologies have exposed every society to an unheard-of global exposure, both materially and culturally.
Every political structure since ancient times has an inherent system of interacting with the world around itself. In this process, some societies get dominated and colonized and some emerge as hegemonic powers. Yet there are ample examples of beneficial interactions beyond this hegemon-vassal framework. In this age too a dynamic political structure can venture into a beneficial global convergence through bilateral, multilateral and global mechanisms successfully enlarging its identity, legitimacy and security among the comity of nations.
There are many variables involving global convergence, and in this case too, we can arrive at an Index of Global Convergence ( IGC ) in the political structure.

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Here we have briefly narrated the four factors of a political structure. Their combined operation can be termed as the quadra-force behind a dynamic polity. Taking the indexes of these four factors as variables, we can well determine the composite Index of a Dynamic Political Structure ( IDPS ). This index, in my opinion, is more important than many other indexes currently in vogue. Other indexes base on actual achievements, while this index informs us on the inherent ability of a polity to achieve. This index even helps us
to foresee possible areas of political crisis, conflict and agitations, and to identify the remedial measures. By the way, it should be made clear that of all the four variables of a dynamic polity, focal variable keeps changing depending on the changes in society (e.g. democracy became the focal variable during the emergency; in late 80s and 90s, empowerment of rural middle classes – as distinct from the metropolitan middle classes – comprising of intermediate castes became the focal variable in north India ). In the Index of Dynamic Political Structure on a scale of 0 to 9, 0 obviously means an absence of any political structure whatsoever, while 9 stands for a perfect state in all its dimensions. This state too is unattainable and has only a comparative theoretical value. There has never been a time in human history ( nor there will be any time in future ) when human communities lived in perfect peace and harmony. Such ideals at best give vent to our some inherent wish. Spiritualists would like to co-relate that wish with our inherent longing to merge with the Infinite, while the psycho-analysts will identify that wish as a sublimated manifestation of our inherent death instinct. Politics, however, belongs to the realm of erotic instinct.
Below I can now elaborate my own classification of the index-points. 8-7: Excellent; 6.9-6: Very good; 5.9-4.5: Good; 4.4-3.5: Average; 3.4-3: Bad; Below 3: Worse. Decay sets in between 3.4-3, and disintegration begins in the last category. If remedial drastic measures are not taken, all-round anarchy may result in Balkanization or colonization.
EPILOGUE
A dynamic political structure facilitates, in an increasingly better way, the self-reproduction of the given society. It is supposed to be capable of successfully meeting the challenge of grass-root level violence, of withstanding various stresses and strains of a changing society, and of forging and strengthening, amidst million mutinies, a million unities.

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