Piketty, The Wall Street Journal, and rational conservatives

Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, has almost had the effect of a tsunami on economic thinking here in the United States after its translation from French into English washed up on our monoglot shores. In France itself it has been treated as more less just another economics book– no big deal.

Its impact on the U.S. is due to many factors, not least of which is the fact that our educational system is woefully inadequate by European standards as well as our lower cultural literacy compared to Europe. Piketty’s work appears here as a revelation, but to the educated European he is only providing a fuller historical context for what most people already understand.

Marxists, especially, should have been underwhelmed to learn that the capitalist system creates imbalances in wealth with a large pool of poor and exploited workers at one pole and a small group of capitalists hogging the social wealth at the other.

Piketty tells us this system is not sustainable and to prevent the “Marxist Apocalypse” the capitalists have to modify their behavior and moderate the social inequalities their system creates. The thought that capitalism might be replaced is indeed an apocalyptic nightmare for the bourgeoisie but for the working classes it might be more like a Marxist Epiphany come true.

The Wall Street Journal, no friend to the Left, has reviewed Piketty’s book (“A Not-So-Radical French Thinker” by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, weekend edition May 24-25, 2014). Here we find, implicitly, that not only have some on the left “lost it” over seeing Peketty as some sort of super progressive, but that many American “conservatives” have, explicitly, also gone completely off the deep end by referring to Piketty as a “soft Marxist.”

The conservative movement is the U.S. is, however, overloaded with “thinkers” who are intellectually immature and dishonest, selling their brain power (such as it is) to the Koch brothers, the Murdochs, and their ilk. The WSJ review points out that Piketty is a professional academic economist and his book merits consideration. He is a neo-liberal economist who supports market capitalism and, like many other neo-liberals, he advocates “government redistribution to smooth out some of the market’s excesses.”

The WSJ points out that in France you can find “honest-to-goodness actual Marxists [that] are still at large” and Piketty is not one of them. The fact that he has simply described how capitalism is actually functioning and this is enough to send so called conservative intellectuals into a nose dive (one from the American Enterprise Institute is especially mentioned) over “soft Marxism”  is evidence enough that many, I think most, conservatives have no regard at all for the facts or even rational discussion but are only mouthpieces for the corporate interests who support them as paid propagandists.

Piketty is worth reading. Marxists have a deeper understanding, I think, about the functioning of the capitalist system so there will be no surprises here, but readers will find a detailed history of wealth distribution and creation over the last 300 years that will convince anyone with an open mind that this system is exploitative and is leading towards an implosion that could very well destroy it.

Marxists, of course, think the system must be replaced and is ultimately existentially unreformable. Neo-liberals such as Piketty do not agree and he proposes reforms in his book which he thinks will save the sinking ship (such as an international, or at least a European Union, wealth tax).

The WSJ review suggests that the right wing could benefit from reading Piketty. If the inequality he describes is not remedied “it could undermine the social order” and “for all the huffing and puffing about Mr. Piketty’s supposedly revolutionary ideas, that conservative insight might be his most lasting contribution to the American debate.” Indeed, it well might.

Photo: Los Altos Library Facebook page


Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins is associate editor of Political Affairs. Reach him at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net.