The debate over Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is as dumb as every other issue-set in the public arena these days — a product of failed mental models, historical blindness, hubris, and wishful thinking. Piketty’s central idea is that wealth will continue to accumulate and concentrate among individual rich families at ever-greater rates and therefore that nation-states should take a number of steps to prevent that from happening or at least attempt to correct it.
The first mistake of Piketty fans such as New York Times op-ed ass Paul Krugman is the assumption that the dynamic labeled “capitalism” is an ism, a belief system that you can subscribe to or drop out of, depending on your political correctitude. That’s just not true. So-called capitalism is more like gravity, a set of laws that apply to and describe the behavior of surplus wealth, in particular wealth generated by industrial societies, which is to say unprecedented massive wealth. The human race never saw anything quite like it before. It became both a moral embarrassment and a political inconvenience. So among the intellectual grandiosities of modern times is the idea that this massive wealth can be politically managed to produce an ideal equitable society — with no side effects.
Hence, the bold but hapless 20th century experiment with statist communism, which pretended to abolish wealth but succeeded mainly in converting wealth into industrial waste and pollution, while directing the remainder to a lawless gangster government elite that ruled an expendable mass peasantry with maximum cruelty and injustice.
In the other industrial nations, loosely called “the west,” the pretense to abolish wealth altogether never completely took, but a great deal of wealth was “socialized” for the purpose of delivering public goods. That seemed to work fairly well in post-war Europe and a bit less-well in the USA after the anomalous Eisenhower decade when industrial labor enjoyed a power moment of wage arbitrage. Now that system is unraveling, and for the reason that Piketty & Company largely miss: industrial economies are winding down with the decline of cheap fossil fuels.
Piketty and his fans assume that the industrial orgy will continue one way or another, in other words that some mysterious “they” will “come up with innovative new technologies” to obviate the need for fossil fuels and that the volume of wealth generated will more or less continue to increase. This notion is childish, idiotic, and wrong. Energy and technology are not substitutable with each other. If you run out of the former, you can’t replace it with the latter (and by “run out” I mean get it at a return of energy investment that makes sense). The techno-narcissist Jeremy Rifkins and Ray Kurzweils among us propound magical something-for-nothing workarounds for our predicament, but they are just blowing smoke up the collective fundament of a credulous ruling plutocracy. In fact, we’re faced with an unprecedented contraction of wealth, and a shocking loss of ability to produce new wealth. That‘s the real “game-changer,” not the delusions about shale oil and the robotic “industrial renaissance” and all the related fantasies circulating among a leadership that checked its brains at the Microsoft window.
Of course, even in a general contraction wealth will still exist, and Piketty is certainly right that it will tend to remain concentrated (where it isn’t washed away in the deluge of broken promises to pay this and that obligation). But he is quite incorrect that the general conditions we enjoy at this moment in history will continue a whole lot longer — for instance the organization of giant nation-states and their ability to control populations. I suppose it’s counter-intuitive in this moment of the “Deep State” with all its Orwellian overtones of electronic surveillance and omnipotence, but I’d take the less popular view that the Deep State will choke to death on the diminishing returns of technology and that nation-states in general will first degenerate into impotence and then break up into smaller units. What’s more, I’d propose that the whole world is apt to be going medieval, so to speak, as we contend with our energy predicament and its effects on wealth generation, banking, and all the other operations of modern capital. That is, they’ll become a lot less modern.
As all this occurs, some families and individuals will hang onto wealth, and that wealth is apt to increase, though not at the scales and volumes afforded by industrial activities. Political theorizing a la Marx or Thomas Piketty is not liable to deprive them of it, but other forces will. The most plausible framework for understanding that is the circulation of elites. This refers to the tendency in history for one ruling elite to be overturned and replaced by another group, often by violence, and then become the new ruling elite. It always happens one way or another, and even the case of the Bolsheviks in Russia during the industrial 20th century can be seen this way.
In any case, just because human affairs follow certain patterns these days, don’t assume that all these patterns will persist. I doubt that the Warren Buffets and Jamie Dimons of the world will see their wealth confiscated via some new policy of the Internal Revenue Service — e.g. the proposed “tax on wealth.” Rather, its more likely that they’ll be strung up on lampposts or dragged over three miles of pavement behind their own limousines. After all, the second leading delusion in our culture these days, after the wish for a something-for-nothing magic energy rescue remedy, is the idea that we can politically organize our way out of the epochal predicament of civilization that we face. Piketty just feeds that secondary delusion.