"Introduction" to Capital in the Twenty-First Century by: Thomas Piketty— Part 5. Reviewed by: Thomas Riggins (5/6)Read Now
11. The Fundamental Force for Divergence: r > g
This formula, r is greater than g, where r is the average annual rate of return on capital and g is the rate of annual economic growth “sums up the overall logic” of Piketty’s arguments regarding growing inequality under capitalism.
Piketty thinks the outlook for the 21st century is that r will be much greater than g and this means that inherited wealth will be greater than output or income. Under the rule of r > g it follows that people with wealth need to save only a small fraction of their income and it will accumulate faster than the economy does thus increasing inequality. A real possibility exists that the increase in inequality will undermine the principles upon which bourgeois democracy is based. Billionaires, for example, could be able to sink so much money into elections and lobbying that they will basically control the electoral process and the government and people’s democratic rights will be honored in name only if at all.
Piketty thinks that this scenario is a real possibility but it is not inevitable. Besides this powerful D-force there are also C-forces at work that could delay or even completely counteract it. He thinks, however, that the decrease of g in the coming decades is very likely.
His view is, he says, less “apocalyptic” than Marx’s view. But I think he mischaracterizes Marx’s outlook. He says Marx has a principle of “infinite accumulation and perpetual divergence” because he thinks g will be 0 due to 0 growth in productivity. Because of this there will be a revolution to overthrow capitalism (the Apocalypse). But this isn’t Marx’s view at all. His view, somewhat simplified, is that capitalism will eventually run out of markets due to a crisis of overproduction and will break down because it won’t have the profits needed to sustain itself.
Piketty says his theory of r > g has nothing to do with any “Imperfections” in the market. It is not inevitable but is a likely occurrence and we should be aware of it. He stresses that the “more perfect” the capital market the more likely is r > g. Does this imply that the “better” the capitalist system is the more inequality it will create? This would make it incompatible with any kind of democracy and logically implies that some sort of fascist anti-democratic state is its natural outcome.
Piketty thinks the capitalist state will have to intervene and manipulate the outcome of the “more perfect” capitalist market to counteract the negative effects of r > g. He suggests “a progressive global tax on capital.” He doesn’t think this will be a real world solution to the problem and whatever the different nation states end up doing will be “less effective.” Does this mean that, after all, in the real world r > g is actually unstoppable? Is the Apocalypse destined to be our fate?
12. The Geographical and Historical Boundaries of Piketty’s Study
The upshot of this section is, that while Piketty will use information from many areas of the world to bolster and develop his views, he will rely “primarily on the historical experience of the leading historical countries: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, and Great Britain.”
He thinks the UK and France are particularly important because they have the best economic records kept from the 19th century and they were the leading countries of the “first globalization” (1870-1914) of international trade and finance. This, by the way, was the period analyzed by Lenin in his Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. This first globalization was, Piketty says, “prodigiously inegalitarian.”
Piketty notes that the “first globalization,” is “in many ways similar” to the second one which has been going on “since the 1970s.” It is so similar that Lenin’s book on Imperialism is still largely relevant for understanding it. One of the weaknesses of Piketty’s book is that neither “Lenin” nor “Imperialism” appear in its index — a strange omission in a work trying to explain the origins of, and remedies for, inequality.
One of the similarities Piketty notes is the fact it was not until the beginning of the 21st century that the leading imperialist countries attained the level of stock market capitalization vis a vis GDP as the UK and France had at the beginning of the 20th century.
He next explains why he spends so much time on France. The first reason is that it has records going all the way back to the late 1700’s. The second reason is he thinks France is more typical than the US and its future will more likely be what most states will experience rather than that of the US. This is because the US population went from 3 million in 1776 to 300 million today. That quantitative leap has had its qualitative accompaniment and the US “is no longer the same country it was.” France meanwhile has only doubled its population from 30 to 60 million over two hundred years not increased it a hundred fold. It is still basically the same country. Piketty doesn’t see the world population increasing 100 fold in the next two hundred years so French development is more likely representative of the future.
He means the trends in inequality seen in French history are more useful to predict future developments than are those seen in US history. This is another example of “American Exceptionalism" as the US experience “is in some sense not generalizable” and social class and inequality in the US are “so peculiar” when contrasted with other countries.
The third reason is that France is “interesting” because its revolution was more “bourgeois” than the English (1688) or the American (1776). The English kept their nobility and the Americans their slaves while the French actually established “ the ideal of legal equality [of men] in relation to the market.” This has important implications in discussing the growth and future development of inequality. Piketty also says that the concentration of wealth was the same in Britain as in France so even though the French had legal equality for all [men] and the British did not this was not enough to “ensure equality of rights tout court.”
We will finish the introduction to Piketty's book in the next posting.
Author Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.