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Home > 2020 > Karl Marx, Thomas Piketty and the Open Society | Sukumaran C.V.

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 38, New Delhi, September 5, 2020

Karl Marx, Thomas Piketty and the Open Society | Sukumaran C.V.

Friday 4 September 2020, by Sukumaran C.V.

To understand the world today, it is indispensable to study the inequality regimes, and especially the way European proprietarian and colonial powers affected the development of non-European trifunctional societies. The traces of that lengthy history remain quite visible in the structure of contemporary inequality.—Thomas Piketty.

Karl Marx talked about the unequal economic infrastructure that bolsters the political superstructure which, in return, helps the continuation of the economic inequalities. Hence, the Marxists all over the world believed that it will not be possible to create an egalitarian political system or structure without demolishing the unequal economic infrastructure. And they believed that the state is always a machinary to sustain the unequal economic infrastructure and therefore we can’t create an egalitarian social set up without usurping the state power through an armed revolution and shattering or remoulding the state machinery. This notion, the Marxist view that all human history is a history of conflicts of the different classes or a continuous struggle between the haves and have nots with the state in the side of the haves, virtually ruined the other possibilities of creating an egalitarian world through democratic means of less confrontation and more co-operation.

I have been a great admirer of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist outlook of ‘restructuring’ the world through armed revolution. It was only when I read Karl Popper’s critical work The Open Society and Its Enemies, I realised what a dangerously dogmatic and bigotic outlook the one I vehemently subscribed to was/is.

Books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War against Nature clearly show us that “...life, with its unfathomable diversity and unpredictability, never allowed itself to be squeezed into the crude Marxist cage. All that the guardians of the cage could do was to suppress and destroy whatever they could not make fit into it. All the natural manifestations of life were stifled in the name of an abstract, theoretical vision of a better world. It was not just that there were what we call human rights abuses. This enforced vision led to the moral, political and economic devastation of all society.” (Quoted from the speech “Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies in the contemporary world” delivered in 1995 by Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic).

Popper advocates piecemeal social engineering against the totalitarian social engineering the dogmatic political theories subscribe to. Popper’s book was first published in1945 and it was really impossible in those times to go beyond the bipolar confrontational theories of bourgeois-communist binaries.

The twenty-first century needs to go beyond such confrontational postures of the world and that is where Thomas Piketty’s relevance lies. In his groundbreaking work Capital in the Twenty-First Century (published in 2013) he studies ‘the state, taxes, and debt in concrete ways’ abandoning “simplistic and abstract notions of the economic infrastructure and political superstructure.”

As Piketty rightly says in the ‘Conclusion’ of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, “Politics and ideas obviously exist independently of economic and social evolutions. Parliamentary institutions and the government of laws were never merely the bourgeois institutions that Marxist intellectuals used to denounce....It is possible, and even indispensable, to have an approach that is at once economic and political, social and cultural, and concerned with wages and wealth. The biploar confrontations of the period 1917-1989 are now clearly behind us. The clash of communism and capitalism sterilized rather than stimulated research on capital and inequality... It is long since time to move beyond these old controversies and the historical research they engendered...”

What Piketty envisages for the twenty-first century is an advanced form of piecemeal social engineering Karl Popper discussed. Piecemeal social engineering is more democratic and hence it helps us not to fall prey to fascist theories that promise the ’creation of a classless world’ and deny the people freedom to dissent and question.

As Piketty says, “the ideal policy for avoiding an endless inegalitarian spiral and regaining control over the dynamics of accumulation would be progressive global tax on capital. Such a tax would also have another virtue: it would expose wealth to democratic scrutiny, which is a necessary condition for effective regulation of the banking system and international capital flows. A tax on capital would promote the general interest over private interests while preserving economic openness and the forces of competition.” (Chapter13A Social State for the Twenty-First Century

In Capital and Ideology, which was published in 2019 and the English translation came out recently, Piketty talks about participatory socialism and participatory and egalitarian democracy. Capital and Ideology argues that ’it might be possible to reorganise the global economy so as to favor a transnational democratic system aimed at achieving social, fiscal and environmental justice.’

Piketty’s definition of a just society and his proposals for achieving such a society are really praiseworthy and can be emulated by all the political parties (and governments). To create a just society, political parties need not necessarily be ‘left’ or ‘socialist’. “A just society is one that allows all of its members access to the widest possible range of fundamental goods. Fundamental goods include education, health, the right to vote, and more generally to participate as fully as possible in the various forms of social, cultural, economic, civic, and political life. A just society organizes socio-economic relations, property rights, and the distribution of income and wealth in such a way as to allow its least advantaged members to enjoy the highest possible life conditions. A just society in no way requires absolute uniformity or equality. To the extent that income and wealth inequalities are the result of different aspirations and distinct life choices or permit improvement of the standard of living and expansion of the opportunities available to the disadvantaged, they may be considered just. But this must be demonstrated, not assumed, and this argument cannot be invoked to justify any degree of inequality whatsoever, as it too often is.” (Quoted from under the subtitle ‘Justice as Participation and Deliberation’ of Chapter 17—Elements for a Participatory Socialism for the Twenty-First Century)

Piketty helps us to go beyond the world of both the unjust capitalism (which is now hypercapitalism) and the equally unjust communism. And the goal of a just society can be achieved through democratic means, not by the ‘revolution’ of a particular class but by the participation of the whole people irrespective of their class and caste.

The disastrous effects of the revolution and “dictatorship of the proletariat” can be seen objectively and without bias delineated in the twelfth chapter of Capital and Ideology (Communist and Postcommunist Societies): “At the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, more than 5 percent of the adult Soviet population was in prison, more than half for “theft of socialist property” and other minor larceny, the purpose of which was to make their daily lives more bearable...To find a similar incarceration rate, one would have to look at the black male population of the United States today (about 5 percent of the adult black males are in prison). Looking at the United States as a whole, about 1 percent of the adult population was behind bars in 2018, enough to make the country the unchallenged world leader in this category in the early twenty-first century. The fact that the Soviet Union had an incarceration rate five times as high in the 1950s says a great deal about the magnitude of the human and political disaster. It is particularly striking to discover that the incarcerated were not just the dissidents and political prisoners; the majority were economic prisoners, accused of stealing state property, which was supposed to be the means of achieving social justice on earth. Soviet prisoners were full of hungry people who pilfered from their factories or collective farms: petty thieves accused of stealing a chicken or a fish and factory managers accused of corruption or embezzlement, often wrongly.”

What makes Thomas Piketty’s arguments and proposals for a just society original and plausible is that he doesn’t make prophecies and he sees not only the demerits of capitalism, but of ‘socialism’ too. The balanced view the world today needs can be seen in the following words: "In view of the largely positive results of democratic socialism and social democracy in the twentieth century, I think that the word "socialism" still deserves to be used in the twenty-first century to evoke that tradition even as we seek to move beyond it. And move beyond it we must if we are to overcome the most glaring deficiencies of the social-democratic response of the past four decades. In any case, the substance of the proposals we will discuss matters more than any label one might attach to them. It is perfectly comprehensible that for some readers the word “socialism” will have been permanently tarnished by the Soviet experience (or by the actions of more recent governments that were “socialist” in name only). Therefore, they would prefer a different word. Nevertheless, I hope that such readers will at least follow my argument and the propositions that flow from it, which in fact draw on experiences and traditions of many kinds.”

Capital and Ideology is especially relevant for India because, it traces the socio-political changes of India from Independence to till date focusing on the post independence social cleavages. His observations on India’s quota politics and the Hindutva victory are precise: “The fact that caste can have an effect on voting independent of socioeconomic characteristics is in any case not very surprising given the importance of caste-based quotas in Indian debate. If redistribution in India were based primarily on income and wealth or if preferential admission to universities and public employment depended on parental income or family wealth (rather than on caste as such), then it would be more surprising that caste remains the principal determinant of political cleavages. But since India makes limited use of social redistribution policies based on income and wealth, and quotas play a key role in structuring political conflict, the fact that politicization depends more on caste than on class should not be surprising.” (See the subtitle ‘Indian Political Cleavages: Between Class, Caste, and Religion’ in Chapter 16—Social Nativism: The Postcolonial Identitarian Trap).

It is from Piketty’s analysis of the Indian socio-political scenario I learnt that we Indians still do have some outstanding positives when compared to the Western democracies. “...owing to the weakness of the other parties (Congress and left), the Hindu nationalists were reelected in 2019...Two key differences stand out, however, and these are particularly instructive for other countries. First although the importance of the classist cleavage has declined in the West since 1980, it has increased in India since 1990. Second, while the white working class has parted company with black and Muslim minorities in Western democracies, in India the Hindu and minority Muslim classes vote for the same parties. Several future trajectories are conceivable, ranging from intensification of conflicts of identity, religion, and inequality to the advent of a secularist redistributive coalition.” (See the subtitle ‘The future of the Classist Cleavage and of Redistribution in India: Intersecting influences’ in Chapter 16—Social Nativism: The Postcolonial Identitarian Trap).

Let me conclude by quoting from the ’Conclusion’ of the book: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848)... I am tempted to reformulate it as follows: The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of the struggle of ideologies and the quest for justice...With the history of the twentieth century and of the communist disaster in mind, it is imperative that we carefully scrutinize today’s inequality regimes and the way they are justified. Above all, we need to understand what institutional arrangements and what type of socioeconomic organization can truly contribute to human and social emancipation. The history of inequality cannot be reduced to an eternal clash between oppressors of the people and proud defenders...Unlike the class struggle, the struggle of ideologies involves shared knowledge and experiences, respect for others, deliberation and democracy.”

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