It is too fatally easy, in these days, when machinery—that “Star called Wormwood”—dominates the world, to fall into a state of hard and flippant cynicism, or into a yet more hopeless and weary irony. The unintelligent cheerfulness of the crowd so sickens one; the disingenuous sophistry of its hired preachers fills one with such blank depression that it seems sometimes as though the only mood worthy of normal intelligence were the mood of callous indifference and universal mockery. All men are liars, and “the Ultimate Futility” grins horribly from its mask. Well! It is precisely at these hours, at the hours when the little pincers of the gods especially nip and squeeze, that it is good to turn the pages of Fyodor Dostoievsky. The books that are the most valuable in this world are not the books that pretend to solve life’s mystery with a system. They are the books which create a certain mood, a certain temper—the mood, in fact, which is prepared for incredible surprises—the temper which no surprise can overpower. Dostoievsky is more than an artist. He is, perhaps—who can tell?—the founder of a new religion.
Over the past few months I have mostly been putting together and writing for a radical news magazine for the town in which I live. The website of the magazine is now fully functional and complete, and you can download a free copy of the magazine from there. It is one of the one or two things I am most proud of having produced. Please go check it out! (Hat tip of recognition and gratitude for both those things to my co-editor Lynn, whose contribution to both is incalculable.)
Left Unity Leamington members ran a stall today, handing out leaflets and literature, chatting to passersby. So bloody what, you might say. Lefties run a stall. What will you report next? That the Pope has tendencies towards the Catholic?
Well, OK, but this time was different. It was the most successful and enjoyable stall we’ve held in a long time, perhaps ever. We ran out of leaflets. Magazines went. Badges eagerly pinned on. It was actually fun.
Which naturally got us wondering… what had changed? Anyone who has done stalls on even an irregular basis (you poor buggers) will know that, with the best will in the world, they can be pretty boring and dispiriting affairs. You stand there with your paste table covered with dingy old leaflets and boring newspapers, trying to stop it being whisked off down the road with the breeze. People cross the road to avoid you. They take a leaflet and stand in front of you staring at is as if you’d just handed them one of those little bags with a dog turd in it. They turn and ask you whether you haven’t ever considered, you know, human nature, or the real world at all? If you’re really unlucky, you might even end up in some kind of pathetic turf war – someone from the Labour party, perhaps, who is worried that you might be reminding the proles what Labour is actually like in power, or is perhaps staging a power play to wrest control of a campaign with five members away from the other four.
It would be enough to make a sensible person pack it all in. But then, there are times, like today, when things are different. The sun is shining. We have a table worthy of the name, covered in a smart and bright banner, covered in professional-looking and interesting material. People come up to the stall, curious, and begin chatting. Others bound up with a smile, delighted to hear the Good News that the left is not yet completely dead. They leave again reluctantly, muttering about having to get back to work. People cross the road … to you! To take a leaflet! Conversations, jokes, banter, debate, pass back and forth across the table, both with passersby, and with your comrades. All the depressing stuff inherent in life on the left fades into the background of your mind and you remember why you ever bothered with all this stuff in the first place. Because it matters.
What is it that accounts for the difference? It might just be the sunshine and the luck of the draw – the sample size here is too small to be sure. But I couldn’t help wondering whether there wasn’t more to it. The disastrous, boring stalls – haven’t they always been on busy shopping streets on a Saturday? Who wants to be pestered with a leaflet when you’re out enjoying yourself, or just filling the larder joylessly in the consumer-zombie parade, and wanting to get off it again as quickly as possible? And the stall today – wasn’t it done away from the consumer main drag, catching people in their lunch break, when they are more amenable to things more interesting than the daily grind, with the time to stop and chat? And wasn’t it too done in the more working-class part of town – where even if people are initially hostile to your arguments, have at least some intuitive sense of what the fuck you’re talking about, so preferable to the harder-to-forgive, comfortable complacency of the middle and upper classes?
Perhaps I’m talking nonsense, or perhaps I’m just unknowingly repeating the accumulated wisdom of lefty stall holders everywhere – wisdom I’ve just not come across or accumulated myself. Whatever the case may be, it’s nice to be reminded that political activity needn’t be boring – that, indeed, if it is, you’re doing something very wrong. More stalls soon – and other non-boring activities planned and in the pipeline. Stay tuned.
(Thanks to Ally and Mary-Ann for doing the legwork.)
Whenever I get too depressed about the state of the world, I like to remind myself that a 700-page tome on economics, written by a French professor, currently tops the bestseller charts. Cynics will say that it is a book destined to be more often bought than read; wiser folk will know full well that you hardly need to read a book to talk about it intelligently and reflect on it critically. You could, for example, just read the introduction. And that’s what I do here.
The long introduction to Piketty’s book, written by Piketty himself, is one of those introductions that is so comprehensive, so lucid, so well written, and so skilfully sketches the arguments, contents and conclusions that follow, that many reasonable readers will wonder why they should bother reading on. The truth is, you probably needn’t, not if all you want is to know roughly what all the fuss has been about. Read the introduction, read just a few of the thousands of reviews, published in every newspaper and magazine everywhere, and you’re about set.
This is the route I should have chosen for myself if it were not for two things. The first is that, following a long engagement with Marx (not to mention as a socialist and member of the wage-slave class), economic commentary holds a special interest, and this book will almost certainly prove to be the most important book written on the subject in our lifetime. The second is that Piketty’s book is not just a dry, dull economics textbook: it is full of fascinating historical and literary allusions, that will appeal to lovers of good books, even if they are not the kind who would ordinarily read the first thing – or indeed anything – on economics. Whether it will come to be regarded, like the book after which it is named, as a classic of world literature, with a value that will last when the passions and moods of the moment have evaporated, remains to be seen. But it is certainly one of the top two or three most essential reads for socialists of all stripes – not to mention for anyone who is wondering whatever happened to their benefits, their wages, their pensions, their healthcare, their education, their prospects… which is just about everyone. This book is a bestseller for a reason.
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, the existence of grotesque inequalities of wealth have been forced back into the public mind (those paying closer attention would have known about it since the Seventies or Eighties). But this is history repeating itself. Inequality as a problem that troubled the public mind arises with industrial capitalism itself in the 19th century. The greatest thinkers of the day turned their mind to the problem and came up with different explanations. According to Malthus, the problem was that there were just too many poor people and we couldn’t afford them. We’d have to kill the buggers off in some way, and stop them breeding, or they’d kill us all off by scoffing all the food. According to Ricardo, the problem was bloated landowners. As society got richer, the supply of everything grew except land (they’re making no more of it), so the price of land (rent) would go up, and the landlord class would get fat on the profits at the expense of the rest of us. According to Marx, the problem was that capitalist production (making money) faced no inherent limit, and so capitalists would accumulate ever more wealth at one pole of society, while the rest accumulated misery and poverty at the other.
All were agreed, however, that apocalypse of some kind was imminent. In this, they shared the concerns of their society. But they were wrong. Capitalism overcame its own problems – or seemed to.
Eventually, along came the 20th century, and then economist Simon Kuznets. He had one great advantage over his forebears in that he had access to actual data on these problems – not just theories and best-guesses based on incomplete and inadequate sources. Unfortunately, this data, and its interpretation, led to a fairy tale, a tale at least in part a product of the Cold War (ie, of the need to prove that capitalism trumped ‘communism’), that has been widely believed ever since. The fairy tale was that capitalism sorts out its own problems by growing its way out of them – inequality may be a problem in capitalism’s teething period, but as it matures and grows, the benefits of growth are ever-more widely shared – if not in an entirely egalitarian way, then at least in a more or less fair and economically efficient way. This fairy tale was believed because the data, the facts, seemed to bear it up. But that’s only because the data were somewhat skewed by a few extraordinary things that had had massive effects on capitalism, but were not (believed to be) internal to capitalism’s ordinary functioning. These were the Great Depression and the subsequent world wars – both of which led to the destruction of wealth on a huge scale (hence paving the way for a big economic boom after the wars), and to social movements that demanded a bigger slice of the economic pie.
By the 1980s, these extraordinary events had run their course. Wealth had been built up on ever vaster scales, and the mechanisms that redistributed that wealth to the working class and poor were scaled back (and the work goes on – today it is called ‘austerity’).
What Piketty did
Thomas Piketty trained in the United States, but returned to France to work as an economist there. Why? Because in the US, he says, economists are treated with a huge amount of respect, and they, in common with other social scientists, are daft enough to think that they actually know anything about the subjects they study. In France, on the other hand, economists are treated with the contempt they deserve, and have to work hard to convince anyone of anything. Piketty quite rightly considered this to be a better environment in which to do economics.
And his main concern was to return to the concerns of the 19th-century economists. Whatever you think of their answers, at least they were asking the right questions – does capitalism work as its proponents claim it does? If not, why not? Might it work better? What determines the distribution of wealth and income? Is it, as is claimed, hard work? Or is it the ill-gotten gains of luck and usurped power? These are questions that 20th-century economists have simply ignored or treated as long-settled. The crisis exposed the complacency – we can afford to ignore them no longer. Piketty sets out to answer these questions, not by getting involved in interdisciplinary wars over theory or arcane subjects of interest and relevance to no one but the participants, or coming up with a fancy new mathematical model, but by collecting the relevant data, and, with the help of new technology that makes this so much more feasible than in the past, using it to really try hard to answer those questions.
Over a decade later, this book is the result of his and his co-workers’ efforts. What are its conclusions, its take-home messages?
The first is that there are long-term economic trends that pull in both directions – both towards greater equality and generalised prosperity, on the one hand; and towards greater inequality and ever-worsening poverty for the mass of ordinary working people, on the other. For example, an economy that is growing and investing in new technology and education can be expected to lead to more generalised prosperity than one that is economically stagnant and pursuing ‘austerity’ polices, cutting back on education spending and investment.
There is no reason to think that the trend now, or in the near future, will be the good one. Instead, the main determining trend is what Piketty refers to as “r>g”, which means that the cash is flowing more to people who are already wealthy and own a lot of assets (capitalists and landowners) than to people who rely on growth in the economy to make their living (workers). This trend is exacerbated by changes in technology (that make jobs redundant) and population (fewer people means few workers means less growth). In short, the message is that, yes, the rich really do get richer and richer, and they get rich because they are already rich, not because of their hard work or virtue, and there’s no reason to be optimistic that this is going to change in the near future. The result is that wealth and power has and will continue to concentrate in a very few hands (the infamous 1% – or a small fraction of the 1%). This is incompatible with democracy.
However, the study of history gives us no reason to believe in any kind of economic determinism. The question of who owns the wealth, and who should own the wealth, is ultimately a matter of beliefs about what is right and wrong, and of power – it is a political question. Inequality dropped in the years after the second world war and up to the 1970s because there was a widespread belief that those who had returned from the war, and their families, should share in the prosperity generated by economic activity. That widespread belief found expression in organised political movements, and then in policy. In the 1980s, these movements, ideas and policies suffered a massive defeat at the hands of Thatcherism/Reaganism/neoliberalism – we are living with the consequences of that defeat, and of continued and determined efforts to deepen that defeat, to this day.
Contrary to received wisdom, these trends have nothing to do with “market imperfections”, argues Piketty, and will require big, state-led changes if we are to reverse them – it’s not enough, as the right always argues, simply to pursue capitalism and property rights and free markets, and wait for them to naturally deliver the goods. They haven’t and won’t.
It’s interesting to see how the right has reacted to all this. They are, as this review says, in intellectual disarray. Despite a few half-arsed efforts, led by the Financial Times, they’ve not been able to land a blow on Piketty. They are fully aware themselves that they need to up their game and come up with some kind of response. Their ancestors’ response to Marx was to dump the entire discipline (political economy) as of no interest, claim the whole thing rested anyway in deeply flawed assumptions, and pretend they were interested in other questions all along (economics). It will be interesting to see what their response is this time.
More interesting though is what Piketty has done for us on the left. Like Marx, he has gifted us a huge edge in the battle of ideas. We must press the advantage.
Last night, Left Unity Leamington members, including myself, went along to support Warwick Anti-Racists and PPU‘s protest against the rise of a particularly nasty political movement on their campus. Apart from the heartening number of people who turned up, it was, in most respects, a typical small protest – ably reported by Coventry Socialists here. In other respects, though, it was really something rather special.
Because after the banner waving and the photo opportunity for the press, and before the chanting began (and anyone who has looked on at marching and chanting and cynically looked down their noses at it has no idea how it acts to build energy and solidarity in a group of people), we had the speeches. These also, to an untrained eye, might have seemed like the usual affair – a Trotskyist paper-seller gives a speech about the need for a programme, an old-hand from a trade union gives a rabble-rousing speech, putting this demo of a couple of hundred students in the provinces into the context of the grand historical march to freedom, and so on.
These are needed. We need to hear these voices. But something more impressive was also happening. A young student who declared himself an anarchist gave a quiet but moving and poetical speech about the importance of mutual aid and solidarity. Teachers at Warwick University put the struggle against fascism into its historical context and convincingly explained why the far-right was rising again now – and why it must be fought all over again. Students and others, who declared that they’d had no intention of speaking before that moment, told of their personal experiences – of the ordinary everyday hardships experienced by people if you are the wrong colour, the wrong gender, the wrong sexuality, from the wrong country, the wrong class, and of the difficulties of speaking out against these prejudices and oppressions in a culture hostile to political engagement. How all these hardships are exacerbated by ‘austerity’ politics.
And yet we also heard of the joys and pleasures and opportunities living in a multicultural context brings, how it teaches us about diversity and mutual respect and makes our worlds bigger and more interesting places. As one young woman pointed out brilliantly, what is most important is doing exactly what we were doing – public displays of our own kind of politics to force our opinions into the light of day, to prove that our politics – of mutual aid and solidarity – is far more valuable and fun than anything the fascists have to offer. Differences of opinion, too, were intelligently and forcefully expressed, without anger or impatience.
And, to round things off, a young man pointed out that, however wonderful and encouraging the whole occasion had been, we had to remember that we were at that moment living in a tiny, unusual and highly privileged bubble – that the real work was not talking amongst ourselves and congratulating ourselves on a job well done, but to do the work that it’s all too easy to shy away from: to challenge people when they say they’re worried about immigration, to challenge the overheard conversation on the bus that wishes Warwick wasn’t “quite so diverse” as it is.
A friend of mine recently shared on social media an obituary of an old-school socialist and lamented that “they don’t make ‘em like that any more”. I hope he is as heartened and inspired to hear, as I was to witness, that this is not the case. The production line never stopped. And if there’s hope, it’s that this kind of politics spreads throughout the country, and fast.
In Left Unity, the new political party of the left that we helped found last year, we often hear it expressed that what we need is a “different kind of politics”. The good news is that we don’t need to scratch our heads to figure out what this might look like. We just need to follow this lead.