Capital in the 21st Century: Thomas Piketty’s homage to Michael Heinrich

by Jehu

Who can read Piketty’s gloss on Kuznets, Malthus and Ricardo in his introduction and not wonder if he read as little of them as he read of Marx?

I can imagine a replay of his New Republic interview:

INTERVIEWER: “Can you talk a little bit about the effect of Kuznets, Ricardo and Malthus on your thinking and how you came to start reading them?

PIKETTY: “Ricardo and Malthus?”


PIKETTY: “I never managed really to read them. I mean I don’t know if you’ve tried to read them. Have you tried?”

INTERVIEWER: “Some of their essays, but not the economics work.”

PIKETTY: “I think, they are very difficult to read and for me they were not very influential.”

INTERVIEWER: “Because your book, obviously with the subject matter, it seemed like you were tipping your hat to them in some ways.”

PIKETTY: “No not at all, not at all! The big difference is that my book is a book about the history of capital. In the books of Malthus and Ricardo there’s no data.”

terminator_salvation_24444In his introduction to Capital in the 21st Century, Piketty characterizes Marx’s definition of capital as “infinite accumulation”. In fact, far from infinite, Marx characterizes capital as a “merely historical, transitory” mode of production. Where in Marx’s argument, covering three volumes, does Piketty find this characterization of capitalism as one of infinite accumulation? It is difficult to read Piketty’s characterization of capitalism in Marx and come away with any confidence in his characterizations of Malthus and Ricardo’s writings.

What Piketty has done is to establish a cardboard Marxian argument against which he can later erect his own argument. In Marx’s argument, capitalism has a beginning and an ending; a history and a process of evolution. In Piketty’s gloss of Marx, all of this is lost; to be replaced by an unchanging, ahistorical process of accumulation. It is as though Piketty’s source for Marx’s own argument is drawn from Marxists like Kliman and Heinrich — an argument that Robert Kurz described as a theory of “eternal cyclic return of the same” — rather than Marx himself.

What I find most notable about this is that no review I have read since the publication of Piketty’s book has mentioned this even once. No Marxist writer has remarked on Piketty’s bizarre characterization of capital in Marx’s works as an essentially ahistorical process. Oddly enough, Piketty put the term, “principle of infinite accumulation” in quotes, as if he is quoting Marx. I may be wrong, but I can find this phrase nowhere but in Piketty’s own work and in one or two references to Schumpeter.

In any case, according to Piketty, there is an “inexorable tendency for capital to accumulate and become concentrated in ever fewer hands with no natural limit to the process.” Compare this with Marx’s own writings in chapter 15, volume 3:

“But the main thing about their horror of the falling rate of profit is the feeling that capitalist production meets in the development of its productive forces a barrier which has nothing to do with the production of wealth as such; and this peculiar barrier testifies to the limitations and to the merely historical, transitory character of the capitalist mode of production; testifies that for the production of wealth, it is not an absolute mode, moreover, that at a certain stage it rather conflicts with its further development.”

So, no natural limit, or, capital is its own limit?

Because he does not have even the most rudimentary understanding of Marx’s argument in Capital, when it comes to how this “infinite accumulation” meets its end, Piketty has to invent an ending: The profit rate falls, leading to violent conflict among the capitalists or to violent conflict between the capitalists and the workers. He just makes this shit up, pulls it right out of his academic ass and puts it down on paper as if ‘all done’.

Where did Piketty even get this shit from? It is impossible to tell because he makes it appear as if this conclusion is drawn from a reading of Marx himself. It is only later, when someone actually asks him how he came to read Marx, do we find that Piketty never read Marx and finds him too difficult to understand.

A forty fucking year career, just swept aside, by some fucking academic who thinks he can dismiss the most important economist in history. And Piketty feels he can do this, not because he has made an exhaustive study of Marx, but because he (Piketty) has statistical data. You see, those Victorians, didn’t have computers and excel spreadsheets like we modern folk.

Piketty explains to us that because of the limitations of his time:

“Like his predecessors, Marx totally neglected the possibility of durable technological progress and steadily increasing productivity, which is a force that can to some extent serve as a counterweight to the process of accumulation and concentration of private capital.”

Marx totally neglected technological progress? Now why would that be? Well, because during all of that time Marx spent in the British Library, he “lacked the statistical data need to refine his predictions” and he let his political fervor outpace his actual research.

Now, where the fuck could Piketty have drawn this argument, since he admits he never read anything of Marx beyond the Manifesto? On what source could he have based this conclusion? Well, it turns out Piketty got it from Marxists. Michael Heinrich, for instance, writes:

“Crises first took on a special political meaning for Marx in 1850 when he attempted a closer analysis of the failed revolutions of 1848–1849. He now regarded the crisis of 1847–1848 as the decisive process which led to revolution, from which he drew the conclusion: ‘A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, just as certain as this crisis.’

“In the following years, Marx eagerly awaited a new deep crisis. It finally came in 1857–1858: all capitalist centers experienced a crisis. Whereas Marx acutely observed the crisis and analyzed it in numerous articles for the New York Tribune, he also attempted to work out his critique of political economy, which he had planned for years. The result was the untitled manuscript which is known today as the Grundrisse.”

Mr. Piketty feels free to reduce Marx’s 40 year career to political fervor, because Marxists like Michael Heinrich did it first. According to Heinrich, Marx drew certain conclusions about the historical trajectory of capitalism, “without regard for how insufficiently secure the categorical foundations of the Grundrisse are.”

Nevertheless, Piketty admits Marx remains relevant — if nothing else, one can use the 3 volumes of Capital to hold a door open. One certainly should not attempt to read the 3 volumes — this could result in an aneurysm or blindness; even early onset dementia. Instead, we should take a simple-minded caricature of Marx’s argument regarding concentration and centralization of capital and appropriate it to add some serious “thugness”, to what is basically a threadbare liberal complaint that the rich are getting richer.

How far Piketty’s argument is from Marx’s can be seen in the fact that, for Marx, the concentration and centralization of capital into fewer hands is the historical mission and justification of capital. For Marx, concentration and centralization of capital into fewer hands is NOT a fucking defect, but the whole point of the capitalist epoch.

If this is as much a surprise to you as it is to Piketty, you are doing labor theory completely wrong.

Why else in the Communist Manifesto, would Marx and Engels call for centralizing the productive forces in the hands of the state? Notice, they do not call for decentralization of the forces of production, for parceling out the means of production among society; they call for it to be centralized in the hands of the proletarian organized as the state:

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

The concentration and centralization of capital into fewer hands makes it simpler for the proletarians to expropriate the remaining handful of capitalists. Marx wasn’t against concentration and centralization of capital; he wanted it to happen faster — to ACCELERATE the process. (Yes, ACCELERATE. That terrible word usually applied to Nick Land.)

You fucking Marxists are so completely fucking bogus it brings tears of laughter to my eyes. You jump all over this asshole’s work like it is some revelation of the second coming of Marx, when from his fucking introduction he does nothing but formulate the most anti-communistic argument possible. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether Piketty proves his argument to your satisfaction; the argument itself is complete horseshit.

I have never read Kuznets, Ricardo or Malthus, but if Piketty’s gloss on them is as ass-backward as his gloss of Marx, there is nothing in this introduction to his book of any value whatsoever. In fact, I see no way anyone can walk away from Piketty’s introduction not feeling dumber than they began. It literally peels away your IQ.

And, by “literally”, I mean only metaphorically, of course.