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.]

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