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Piketty Digest #18: Conclusion

by Adam David Morton on November 21, 2014
Piketty Forum

With all the furore surrounding Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century my aim here is to carry a weekly focus on the book . The purpose is modest. There is already in existence some rather excellent coverage and detailed engagement with the book both in the general media and on specific blog sites. I am thinking here of the analyses by Michael Roberts on his blog site; the competing viewpoint or ‘afterthoughts’ of David Harvey; Benjamin Kunkel’s assessment in ‘Paupers and Richlings’ for London Review of Books matched by Knox Peden’s great essay on ‘The Abstractions of History’; or Paul Krugman’s rather different tone in ‘Why We’re in a New Guilded Age’ for The New York Review of Books. My own endeavour is much less ambitious than any of these engagements. It seeks to offer a weekly equivalent to the ‘Pocket Piketty’ provided by Duncan Green. Each week my intention is to carry a blog post that summarises my notes on each chapter in just a few hundred words that can be read quickly. The purpose of these summaries is to produce an interpretative synopsis of each chapter drawn from my more detailed notes.

These interpretative digests will also enable me to formulate my engagement with a reading group on Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, organised by Chris Hesketh at Oxford Brookes University. They will also provide a quick précis for teaching purposes at the University of Sydney and through this novel pedagogical exercise conclude with a question each week to be developed in my Department of Political Economy classes on ‘The Political Economy of Global Capitalism’ (linked to the Twitter hashtag #ECOP2613). Such short interpretative digests may thus provide a different and original form of engagement with the book. Without attempting to rival or replace the importance of detailed engagement, these ‘Piketty digests’ will facilitate a quick and accessible read for people ‘on the go’. The posts will be formulated and produced after reading each chapter, in dialogue with the Oxford Brookes University reading group and colleagues at the University of Sydney, rather than polished after completing the reading of the whole book and then subsequently edited; although I may tidy up a little week-to-week. Perhaps these ‘Piketty digests’ will also provoke some wider resonances and points of contact. Here is the eighteenth ‘Piketty Digest’ on the ‘Conclusion’.

Conclusion

Well here we are, finally at the end of a marathon read completing Capital in the 21st Century! — I thoroughly enjoyed the book despite my dissatisfaction and unease with the way in which Thomas Piketty has been so footloose and sloppy with his engagement with Marxist political economy — Sadly that slapdash level of scholarship in relation to ideas that he is all too quick to dismiss, based on caricature andMarxflimsy arguments, resurfaces in the concluding chapter to the book — It is worth reminding ourselves at this juncture of Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho’s point in their own conclusion to Marx’s Capital — In this nifty book, in the chapter ‘Marxism and the Twenty-First Century they take issue with criticism in the form of parody when it comes to crude portrayals of Marxism — This captures aptly the structure and content of Thomas Piketty’s putative dialogue with Marxism in Capital in the 21st Century — How is this manifest? — Recall here not only the clumsy articulation of the theory of overaccumulation in Chapter 16 matched, if not bettered, by the crass comments about Marx, lacking statistical detail and a theory of technology right at the start in the Introduction — Leaving aside these points, there in this Conclusion also a remark about new instances of primitive accumulation that preserve competition and capitalist incentives but not followed up in detail — Before one anticipates, then, a return to Marx there is, instead, a return to Piketty’s earlier tone that he was ‘vaccinated for life’ from anti-capitalism, in this instance in his conflation of Marxist intellectual arguments with the Soviet bloc — ‘The bipolar confrontations of the period 1917-1989 are now clearly behind us’, he states, ‘The clash of communism and capitalism sterilised rather than stimulated research on capital and inequality by historians, economists, and even philosophers’ — The signalling function of terms such as ‘vaccination’ and ‘sterilisation’ leads one to the view Marxism is regarded here as a ‘disease’ when, in fact, a rigorous and scholarly engagement with Marxist thought and practice would enable anybody to avoid the simple blunder that Piketty commits by insisting that we need to study the state, taxes, and debt in concrete ways while abandoning ‘simplistic and abstract notions of the economic infrastructure and political superstructure’ — Only a parody of Thumbnail-Argyrous-Stilwell-Political-Economy-3e-372x480Marxism upholds such simplistic abstractions — Meanwhile the book itself closes on some interesting reflections on the enterprise of political economy — There is an assertion of the importance of economics and social science: political economy is seen as essential here in encompassing the political, normative and moral purpose of social science — ‘It is illusory . . . to think that the scholar and the citizen live in separate moral universes, the former concerned with means and the latter with ends’ — This reminds me of longstanding efforts to define economics as a social as social science, especially within heterodox political economy environments captured in the edited and handy volume by George Argyrous and Frank Stilwell, Readings in Political Economy: Economics as a Social Science — Finally, Piketty states that, ‘all social scientists, all journalists and commentators, all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever strip, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history’ — To finish in his own words, this is importance because, ‘Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off’.

Question: Despite reference to political economy and economics as a social science, is Marxism still treated as a “disease” that one has to be “vaccinated” and “sterilised” against?

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
1 Comments
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  • December 2, 2014 at 7:33 am

    Despite Marx still being acknowledged as one of the three founders of sociology, and most significantly many of his analytical insights on capitalism still being relevant today, most probably feel that Marxism is one of those diseases that we’ve managed to control. So much so many students and activists regard Marx and Marxism as unnecessary to study. Yet, ASIO and the Liberal Party are only some of those who have evidence that it is only lying dormant. Watch this space (PPE) for its resurgence in the climate it spontaneously multiplies in — environmental crises, economic chaos and raised consciousness — and we might well see that its rate of infection in the future will soar.

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