Wednesday, July 02, 2014

too good to stay in the comments: capitalism is a system by which the past DEVOURS the future


truth-out |  Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century gives us a few clues, though not by any means, the whole picture. Replete with startling empirical evidence in the form of charts, graphs, informative statistics, mathematical-logical expressions and astute critical-historical analyses, Piketty's work draws a number of sobering conclusions about the present dynamics of wealth and income distribution that exposes not merely the dark underside of capitalism but a central contradiction within it. Thus, Piketty concludes ". . . wealth accumulated in the past grows more rapidly than output and wages. This inequality expresses a fundamental logical contradiction. The entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labor. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future."

The past devours the future. But, what if the bizarre inverted logic of capitalism has always been its real point? What if, under the rubric of capitalism, the powerful elite are given permission to act as if it simply doesn't matter whether their ever-expanding wealth might actually devour the future, or "wear the world out faster" to borrow a phrase from Orwell? Do they not often appear to live in an all-consuming present - get what you can for yourself right now, and don't worry about others, or even about tomorrow? Moreover, is not such an attitude, sanctioned by capitalism, the reason why this particular economic system requires endless cycles of economic crisis?

Perhaps Piketty's point is that if it doesn't matter to the elite, it should at least matter to us. But if it does matter, then it is up to the rest of us - including experts like Piketty who grasp the reality of capitalism better than anyone else - to imagine real alternatives to such an economic system, to think outside of the present paradigm of endless development, profit maximization and disastrous austerity measures imposed on whole populations. Despite the apparently glaring "logical" contradiction within capitalism, Piketty still holds to the idea that it can be properly disciplined through a progressive annual tax on wealth. It is not the conclusion he should have reached given his thorough and prescient analysis.

Of course, Piketty is by no means alone in wanting to save capitalism from itself. Capitalism - no matter what its excesses, or how destructive it is for life or democracy - is invariably held as our default economic system, grudgingly acceded to even by popular left-oriented economists such as Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini or Joseph Stiglitz. As Chrystia Freeland unabashedly concludes in Plutocrats, The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, despite all its faults, we continue to need capitalism because, "very much like democracy," it is "the best system we've figured out so far." [1] Thus, if capitalism appears to go wrong, this is not because it is grounded on a misreading of history, internal contradictions, false theories about nature or human nature, or misguided moral and political presuppositions. Rather, the excesses of capitalism are simply a question of "bad management' and a political unwillingness to properly regulate it by imposing the right sort of checks and balances.

In fact, Piketty's proposed wealth tax solution may do more to obscure than resolve the really existing contradictions of capitalism. Looking at the history of capitalism, it is difficult not to conclude that growing inequality expresses a fundamental property of  and not a contradiction within capitalism. Inequality is built into capitalism. If there is a contradiction here it is a material not a logical one. In other words, it is the contradiction between an economic system that is radically indifferent to the health and well-being of the planet as a whole versus the economic, moral and environmental obligation to preserve and sustain such health and well-being.  Fist tap Vic.

4 comments:

arnach said...

In my opinion, you do not spend enough time in the other part of the taijitu. There are people out there working from the ground up to make things better too. We may be in a race to the end, but it's a race that has not yet fully run.

John Kurman said...

Ee-yup. It's pretty clear that selfishness as a virtue, or even rational self-interest, gets you genocide, slavery, mass extinctions. Seeing beyond the end of their very short dicks is not within the purview of the parasitic asshole niche. And this particularly virulent version of Anglo-American capitalism had the unfortunate luck of its contrived mechanisms being confused with virtue, when instead the prosperity was almost solely the product of the discovery of the New World. One thing is for sure, regulations are at best temporary, with eventual capture and suborning of regulators or clawback of regulations inevitable. Regulations are like putting up signs in the laundromat. Doesn't work. Only constant policing works. In which case, we all get into a condition of corruption or vigilance burnout. Collectivism might still have a chance, given that the beta versions in Russia and China weren't the best petri dishes...but....

Ed Dunn said...

I do see any strayegy on this topic to deal with Planned Obsolescence and Creative Destruction. It seem the capitalists who are the drivers to shape the future has no checks and balances from the middle class and intellectuals waiting for the next iPhone at the Apple store

CNu said...

You mean like a suicide-bomber?