|French economist, Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century.|
Sinclair Lewis, in his 1920 satirical novel, Main Street, uses the characters of Vida and Carol to illustrate the difference between liberals and radicals. Lewis, a socialist and fierce critic of the dehumanizing effects of Industrialization, wrote the novel as a scathing send-up of conservative small-town America.
Carol Kennicott, the novel's rebellious, free-spirited protagonist, moves with her more conventionally-minded husband from the city to the rural country town of Gopher Prairie, a fictional town modeled after Lewis's own hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Much of the novel's loosely-structured plot focuses on Carol's inept, at times perhaps naive, attempts to influence the uncultured, smug conservatism of Gopher Prairie with her progressive, feminist beliefs.
Ironically, Carol finds the greatest impediment to her efforts to "modernize" the town come, not from its conservative, middle-class residents, but from comfortable, unimaginative liberals like Vida. Vida criticizes Carol for trying to "work outside" the system with "foreign ideas."
The narrator explains:
Vida was, and always would be, a reformer, a liberal. She believed that things could be excitingly altered, but that things-in-general were comely and kind and immutable. Carol was...a revolutionist, a radical, and therefore possessed of "constructive ideas," which only the destroyer can have, since the reformer believes that all the essential constructing has already been done.
This, according to Lewis, is what separates liberals from radicals. Liberals--as currently embodied by the Democratic Party--prefer to tinker around the edges, while leaving the overarching structures of society (capitalism, corporate power, wealth inequality, class-struggle, etc.) intact.
Indeed, throughout history, it has always been the socialists, anarchists, communists, labor activists, anti-war protesters, radicals and revolutionaries, that have brought about fundamental democratic change in America.
Liberals in power merely adopt, co-opt, and water-down these ideas. Then they implement the second-rate versions and claim all the credit. (See: The Affordable Care Act as substitute for universal health care.) Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, unemployment, the five-day, 40-hour work week, child labor laws, free public education--all of these hallmarks of modern democratic society were born from the radical ranks of the Left. It was only through fierce, bloody, violent struggle that any of them were ever adopted by the power elite.
A popular bumper-sticker, erroneously attributing the development of earned-income benefits to Democrats, has it backwards. It should read: "Got Social Security? Thank a Socialist."
As the late Peter Camejo, Ralph Nader's 2004 vice presidential running-mate observes in the documentary film, An Unreasonable Man,
Every major progressive law in the United States--whether it's the right of women to vote, Social Security, rights of the labor party... Never [did] any of these major proposals come out of the two parties. They always came from the grassroots, from the people. And there were people who led those struggles who were independent and not functioning as agents of these two parties who were always called names and suffered personal abuses...
Which brings me to capitalism's latest liberal apologist, Thomas Piketty.
Piketty's bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a rarity in the publishing industry. A tome of economic theory, replete with intricately designed graphs, and nearly 100 pages of footnotes, it is, suffice to say, not the sort of book Americans are typically clamoring to read--especially in the summertime. Yet the book has spent 12 weeks on the New York Times's bestseller list.
Clearly, the book's success illustrates Americans' increasing impatience with the sour economy, their lack of faith in so-called "free-market" economics--perhaps even in the institution of capitalism itself. To wit, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent of young Americans ages 18-29 have a much more favorable view of socialism than older respondents.
Yet the title of Piketty's book--a seeming nod to Karl Marx's similarly lengthy 1867 treatise, Capital or Das Kapital in its original German--presents a bit of false advertising. Not only does Piketty's book have precious little in common with its titular forebear (the book actually has nothing to do with the nature and social role of capital; its primary focus is income inequality), Piketty himself claims to have never read Marx's work.
Here is the takeaway: Piketty takes 577 pages to arrive at the conclusion that, contrary to the claims of both conservatives and liberals, "free-market" capitalism does not evenly spread the wealth around. There is no "trickle-down" effect where the massive wealth of the exalted "job creators" magically flows down to the middle and working classes.
But this is hardly news to most of us on the Left. In fact, I think it is safe to assume anyone who is reading this blog long ago arrived at the same conclusion. Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, and Paul Krugman have been saying more or less the same thing for the last decade or more.
And therein lies the difference between Marx, Piketty, and the aforementioned economists. Marx's writings were driven by an urge to fundamentally change society by abolishing capitalism in favor of a more equitable system--Communism, specifically. Piketty, on the other hand, merely wants to "fix" capitalism's unequal distribution--to make it "work for everyone," so to speak.
Yet, as Marx correctly observes in Capital, capitalism's unequal distribution of wealth is not something that can be fixed. It is not a flaw in the system. It is, rather, the inevitable result of an inherently exploitative, unequal system that favors the wealthy owner-class over the working-class.
"The philosophers of our time have merely interpreted the world," Marx wrote. "The goal, however, is to change it."
This is not to say there is no value in Piketty's Capital. The writing is fairly straightforward and accessible, and he deserves credit for his persuasive research. But throughout the book Piketty remains the stereotypical "objective" academic, going to pains to give equal weight to "both sides" of the income inequality debate.
This bogus concept that professors and journalists should not have their own beliefs and opinions on what they write about is the great disease of both professions. It has rendered the universities and the press incapable of taking moral stands, of pointing out society's ills, and giving voice to the disenfranchised. Howard Zinn was correct: You cannot be neutral on a moving train.
We cannot afford to tinker around the edges of the corporate state. We need a complete system overhaul. And liberal reformists will not help us achieve it.
Like what you read here on Guerrilla Press? Consider making a donation via the "Donate" button on the right. Any amount is greatly appreciated and helps me update the blog more often(!) It's a better deal than that Nation subscription you got last Christmas.