Monday, May 4, 2020

4/25/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” c. p. 511

This blog has been disused for a while. Hardly anybody ever read it, so I decided to hardly ever write for it. But now I’ve decided to use it, for a while at least,  to start posting comments on things I am reading, copied from my notebooks. These are not edited, and particularly not made to function as stand-alone essays. I.e., I have not tried to paraphrase the arguments from the books that I may be discussing. The first book I’m doing this with is Thomas Piketty’s “Capital and Ideology”. Page references are to the 2020, hardcover, English language edition, published by Belknap Press.

4/25/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” c. p. 511

Had these thoughts a couple of days ago, when I was reading this section, but didn’t write them down. Trying to reconstruct.

Piketty’s considerations of fairness re. the entrepreneur trying to start a small business seems to conflate a couple of questions – at least the mechanics of capitalization and questions of passion and ambition.

First it assumes a capital regime similar to ours, that businesses are financed out of private savings, also a wealth regime such that a person not born wealthy might accumulated a small capital by saving, sufficient to start a business. (How realistic is his example, BTW? Is even $50,000 enough to start a small business with a brick-and-mortar store and two employees? My guess is it would be iffy, at least without also securing a substantial line of credit.)

Imagine, instead, Schweickart’s model, where the capital would come from a public board. Then, P’s entrepreneur would pursue her dream by developing her powers of persuasion, including the ability to develop a well-documented business plan, instead of by working in solitude to amass a capital. Powers of persuasion would also serve her in good stead in finding sympatico coop partners. And persuasion is a skill that requires much more social values than accumulation.

If we do assume private capital, the unfairness in the initial injection of the resources of one to be subsequently shared by all could be addressed by making capital infusions, over and above some initial universal buy-in, perhaps, in the form of loans. The terms of the loan would be set at the making of the loan (by contract), and could not later abrogated unilaterally by one party (the collective) acting against the other party (the member/investor “entrepreneur”). Of course, this isn’t necessarily fair, either, if we consider questions of initial social distribution of assets and privilege.

The other issue that seems to be conflated in Piketty’s story is an attitudinal one. P’s entrepreneur has ambition – a dream. Her two potential coop partners just want a job. This is P’s character thinking like a boss. She wants to hire people to fulfill her dream using her money, and feels annoyed that a coop structure might give them too much power to influence the direction of that dream. Successful coop recruitment, I would think, requires a different mindset. You need to think more like an organizer than a boss. Persuasion, again. You need to seek people who are not just hungry for a job, but who are capable of being infected with your dream, and then you need to spread it to them.

A large coop may be able to tolerate a range of levels of commitment to the mission or vision. Also some members may be motivated less by the mission, per se, than by social solidarity (or friendship) with their comrades. Diversity of motives is probably a good thing. (Even better when most people have more than one.) But a small coop like P’s example needs a high level of shared purpose, I would think, to succeed. In this it is like any human enterprise that is not able, due to external forces, to be structured purely hierarchically.  But capitalism is based on hierarchical structures of capital over labor, bosses over employees, managers over line workers, and Piketty, for all his research and creative thinking, has trouble shaking this mindset.

[Alt language at end of note not incorporated: Conflates issues of capital and social structure of firm, and involves quite a lot of classical bourgeois background assumptions.]

4/19/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” p. 410

This blog has been disused for a while. Hardly anybody ever read it, so I decided to hardly ever write for it. But now I’ve decided to use it, for a while at least,  to start posting comments on things I am reading, copied from my notebooks. These are not edited, and particularly not made to function as stand-alone essays. I.e., I have not tried to paraphrase the arguments from the books that I may be discussing. The first book I’m doing this with is Thomas Piketty’s “Capital and Ideology”. Page references are to the 2020, hardcover, English language edition, published by Belknap Press.

4/19/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” p. 410

I don’t think the far flung parts of the world had previously “ignored” each other. Extensive and important trade networks had always existed, effectively linking people from Scandinavia to the Far East, and large parts of at least Northern and Eastern Africa. The Americas were largely unknown in Europe, but Norsemen had already explored them, some, and attempted colonization. Also, there had been important military excursions west to east and east to west dating at least from the Bronze Age (Sea Peoples), or even before.  In the Middle Ages, the Crusades and the Mongols are obvious examples, not to mention the Moors in Spain and Sicily.

What changed in early modernity was the possibility of European domination, based on improvements in technology (including weaponry and transportation) and organization. Prior conflicts had been reduceable simply to force of man against man, similarly armed, organized, and equipped. Such struggles had never shown the West to have the superiority it liked to claim.

4/17/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” p. 368

This blog has been disused for a while. Hardly anybody ever read it, so I decided to hardly ever write for it. But now I’ve decided to use it, for a while at least,  to start posting comments on things I am reading, copied from my notebooks. These are not edited, and particularly not made to function as stand-alone essays. I.e., I have not tried to paraphrase the arguments from the books that I may be discussing. The first book I’m doing this with is Thomas Piketty’s “Capital and Ideology”. Page references are to the 2020, hardcover, English language edition, published by Belknap Press.

4/17/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” p. 368

This analysis of state power and functions in terms of tax revenues is interesting, if, I think, oversimplified. To get a complete picture for all types of state, you’d also need to look at local taxes, and other forms of elite income, especially in states where the line between the wealth of the state and the personal wealth of the ruler(s) is not clear (as in feudal societies), as well as the types of bonds within the ruling class, e.g., dependence of kings on the goodwill of nobility and clergy (sources of men and money) for extended military campaigns in Plantagenet England.

This does not counter Piketty’s points, just meant to elaborate on the in certain cases.

Similarly some empires (Ottoman? Chinese?) may have relied on local rulers/strong men, supported by local taxes/tax equivalents, for a lot of “state” functionality, including “watchman” function. Of course, this was a potential source of rebellions (and new central dynasties).

Then, there were lots of times and places when the “watchman” function pretty much broke down, altogether – bandits, highwaymen, condottieri, bands of armed men terrorizing the populace – Medieval times, Renaissance Italy, the American frontiers (North and South America)…

The other thing he hasn’t talked about (at least, yet) is the connection between the overall national income level and the tax revenues available to the central state. The closer the national income is to the subsistence level, the less excess exists, part of which can be taxed away by the state. A very poor family may not be able to sustain a 10% annual tax, especially if already required to tithe to the church and labor part time in the lord’s fields. It takes a fairly prosperous family to sustain a tax of 30-40%, or more. (It helps if some of those other levies are eliminated, or at least made voluntary.)

His analysis (p 369 ff) of why Europe developed a strong states with tax powers (when other places didn’t) doesn’t seem particularly compelling to me. My sense is that the Ottoman Empire was weak enough that states tended, effectively, to develop within it. Why couldn’t they develop into strong, European-style states? Similarly, I don’t think Mughal domination in India was so strong at all times and places that local political formations and competition couldn’t have developed within it. Again, I don’t know, I’m just not convinced by his explanation.

4/12/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” c. p. 250

This blog has been disused for a while. Hardly anybody ever read it, so I decided to hardly ever write for it. But now I’ve decided to use it, for a while at least,  to start posting comments on things I am reading, copied from my notebooks. These are not edited, and particularly not made to function as stand-alone essays. I.e., I have not tried to paraphrase the arguments from the books that I may be discussing. The first book I’m doing this with is Thomas Piketty’s “Capital and Ideology”. Page references are to the 2020, hardcover, English language edition, published by Belknap Press.

4/12/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” c. p. 250

I think his “ternary” or “trifunctional” classification of societies is wrong, but not totally off, and the distinction with later “proprietarian” societies is valid. [See 4/4/20 for earlier thoughts.]

I think the target he’s aiming at is societies based on orders, that is traditionally defined, maybe divinely ordered classes of people, usually though not exclusively heritable, where the paradigmatic type of the class includes wealth (or lack thereof), status, functions (duties), and privileges. This may be more-or-less amenable to lumping into the three “estates” of the Ancien régime, certainly those divisions would have been seen as primary in Medieval Europe – but a society of the orders doesn’t end there. It also defines you as a yeoman farmer, a Roman provincial colon, a miller, a blacksmith or other artisan, a mariner, fisherman, or merchant. These roles may be 100% determined for you by inheritance, as per the edict of Diocletian, or they may be determined for you early in life, as in an urban Medieval guild apprenticeship, but once chosen, they are (at least theoretically) all-embracing, and determine all the important circumstances of your life.

Unlike the strict ternary model, the society of the orders model can maybe be pushed way, way back, even to hunter-gatherer societies, where fixed roles might be defined only by sex/gender (possibly with some “two-spirit” alternative), along with transitory roles defined by age cohort. (Of course, aristocracy is not impossible in early societies, and slaves may exist.)

In terms of “inequality regimes”, it seems to me this gives us three relevant ideologies:

  1. Society of the orders: Inequality is justified by traditional roles (maybe divinely inspired), each with its duties and privileges.
  2. Proprietarian society: Property is in principle available to all, and may increased by hard work. Property is sacrosanct: otherwise, there is no guaranteed reward for work, and society will fall apart. Property may be unequally distributed, but this is because some people work harder, or worked harder, than others, and, in any case, redistribution of property (other than by free contract) is a cure worse than the disease. Anybody who cannot get ahead by their work is lazy or incompetent, and therefore undeserving.
  3. Social democratic: The aggregate wealth of society is the product of the labor of us all, and should be shared more-or-less equally between us. People who cannot work, for some reason, should be well-cared-for by reason of our common humanity. Material things (capital) is obviously necessary for production, but the legal fiction of private ownership of that capital contributes to production not in the slightest,  and should not be allowed to exist (let alone richly rewarded). No one should be paid handsomely just for already being rich; in fact, all the capital of society should be collectively owned (socialized), and decisions as to its use made socially and democratically by all.

[Note the “social democratic” model above doesn’t specifically tie to anything Piketty has said, up to this point in the book.]

This may be controversial, but it seems to me that the main difference between what I’ve called the “social democratic” model and early Leninist communism is the addition by Lenin of vanguardism: until the people are ready to assume their full, democratic role, they must be led by a vanguard or party that has already attained the correct consciousness.

I am not distinguishing between social democracy and democratic socialism.  I do not accept that the regulated capitalism in fact accepted by many social democrats as a compromise should be allowed to redefine the term. [Although Piketty, when he gets around to talking about it, uses the redefined term.]

4/6/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” p. 103

This blog has been disused for a while. Hardly anybody ever read it, so I decided to hardly ever write for it. But now I’ve decided to use it, for a while at least,  to start posting comments on things I am reading, copied from my notebooks. These are not edited, and particularly not made to function as stand-alone essays. I.e., I have not tried to paraphrase the arguments from the books that I may be discussing. The first book I’m doing this with is Thomas Piketty’s “Capital and Ideology”. Page references are to the 2020, hardcover, English language edition, published by Belknap Press.

4/6/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” p. 103

French revolutionaries, like 19th Century Radical Republicans, were unable to conceive two ideas that could have led to more egalitarian societies, in each case:

  1. That centuries of exploitation – working the land for someone else’s benefit – might give people (peasant or freedman) a “property right” in the land greater than that of the titular owner who had been exploiting them, and,
  2. The idea of cooperative ownership, i.e., of former plantations in the U.S.A., or things like mills (“banalités”) in the French case.

4/4/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” p. 52

This blog has been disused for a while. Hardly anybody ever read it, so I decided to hardly ever write for it. But now I’ve decided to use it, for a while at least,  to start posting comments on things I am reading, copied from my notebooks. These are not edited, and particularly not made to function as stand-alone essays. I.e., I have not tried to paraphrase the arguments from the books that I may be discussing. The first book I’m doing this with is Thomas Piketty’s “Capital and Ideology”. Page references are to the 2020, hardcover, English language edition, published by Belknap Press.

4/4/20 Piketty “Capital & Ideology” p. 52

Sometimes I think Piketty does not know how much of historian he is not.

I’ve been trying to project his tripartite model onto the classical, and, to a lesser extent, the ancient world.  Greece and (pre-Christian) Rome didn’t really have a priestly class. They didn’t really have a military class, either. The main categories were citizen, non-citizen free people, and slaves. In later Roman society, the military was professionalized, as was the (Christian) priesthood, but powerful landowners stood apart, not primarily military nor priestly (nor clerical, intellectual, or administrative). The military was not a socially privileged class in the way of the Medieval nobility, although it could provide a path, for some, to wealth and political power, even supreme civil power.

It seems to me the trifunctional society in Europe rose from the barbarian invasions. The ruling class was, perforce, military, since the conquerors consisted of a numerically small military elite. The clerical class they inherited by their adoption of Christianity, and the clerics were useful to the rulers because, (1) they believed their souls needed saving, and, (2) they needed scribes and clerks (and disdained to do that work, themselves, and, (3) because they needed some respectable class to absorb second, and especially third, fourth, etc. sons in a society committed to non-partible inheritance (although that wasn’t true in all parts of Europe, I guess.)

For the ancient (Mediterranean) world, I don’t know enough. Based on what I do know, the trifunctional society MAY have fit at least some cultures in the Middle East. Not sure about Minoan and Mycenean societies. It seems a stretch to apply it to Egypt.

May have fit China, Japan, Korea better, especially if the clerical class is understood to be a class of educated administrators, and not necessarily religious.  India, okay probably, although the caste system was more complex. [He actually has a much more thorough discussion of this, later in the book.]

I think it’s a stretch at best to try and fit this “trifunctional” model on the Muslim world, also. Maybe. Not sure.

I mean, I don’t know enough about all these societies, but based on what I do know, trying to divide their social arrangements into these three specific classes seems to do violence to the facts.

[See additional comments made on 4/12/20.]