Taking notes 37: Meritocracy, repression and Piketty’s apocalyptic asymptote

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This unabashed aspiration to study good and evil, about which every citizen is an expert, may make some readers smile…Everyone is political in his or her own way. The world is not divided between a political elite on one side and, on the other, an army of commentators and spectators whose only responsibility is to drop a ballot in a ballot box once every four or five years. It is illusory…to think that the scholar and the citizen live in separate moral universes, the former concerned with means and the latter with the ends. Although comprehensible, this view ultimately strikes me as dangerous. — Thomas Piketty, Capital in the twenty-first century

A hit, a very palpable hit.– Shakespeare, Hamlet

by Sanjay Perera

Much has been said about Thomas Piketty’s important and much talked about book. But not enough has been said about his nuanced wit and jibes at a system of meritocratic capitalism that is starting to merge with the hereditary accumulation and growth of wealth termed as patrimonial capitalism.[1] But then it can also get quite serious.

The two broad definitions of meritocracy that Piketty seems to engage in involves first, what supporters of it think as a just system of distribution based on talent and merit leading to success and wealth accumulation; and second, that those who have seen through its disingenuousness recognize it as institutionalizing all that is unjust and harmful in democratic societies.

Piketty says early on what his book is based on so that “which is the heart of the book…the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal[s] powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence and divergence. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.” (Piketty 21)

Interestingly, Piketty engages in a hybrid discourse of political economy and the language of neoclassical economists (which he tries to step out of as well), but the reader does get a fair share of analysis coming from the marginalist school of economics. So in the quote above he criticizes the bizarre notion of some form of economic equilibrium that is non-existent in reality but also states that there is the tendency towards destabilization in economic systems — and these are the things we can rely on as such as they define our world.

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Piketty also says that there could be forces pushing for greater equality such as production technologies and greater skills which could lead to a rise in labour’s income. So that “[i]nequalities would thus become more meritocratic and less static (though not necessarily smaller): economic rationality would then in some sense automatically give rise to democratic rationality” (Piketty 21). Here we are informed again of the positive spin given to meritocracy as some kind of leveller when it is quite the opposite. We are further told that “meritocratic values and principles of social justice [are] fundamental to modern democratic societies.” (Piketty 26)

There is the conflation, as is usually the case in the minds of meritocratic-technocratic believers in the capitalist system (meritocrats), of ideas that imply rationality as espoused by economic instrumentalism and utility as being the basis for democratic rationality, in that the capitalist core of most economic theory is the rationalizing virus that has infected what we term ‘democracy;’ but we also take this to be normal and even regard it as a scientific expression of socio-politico-economic matters.

But as Capital in the twenty-first century progresses, we see the accurate turn towards discussing meritocracy for what it is — “The fact that the return on capital is unpredictable and arbitrary, so that wealth can be enhanced in a variety of ways, also poses a challenge to the meritocratic model” (Piketty 26-27). So that the meritocrat’s conviction has grounds to be undermined when we learn that capital and its returns throughout the years successfully debunk the belief that there is any egalitarian streak in his ideology.

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Piketty treads a fine line between using and keeping a distance from Marxian notions but the influence from the left is difficult to deny (or reject) as it tends to contextualize Piketty’s comments and analysis of socio-economic inequality. In a manner reflecting key ideas of our time on socio-political control in the information age but clearly framed by Marxian ideas, Piketty says —

Indeed, whether such extreme inequality is or is not sustainable depends not only on the effectiveness of the repressive apparatus but also, and perhaps primarily, on the effectiveness of the apparatus of justification. If inequalities are seen as justified, say because they seem to be a consequence of a choice by the rich to work harder or more efficiently than the poor, or because preventing the rich from earning more would inevitably harm the worst-off members of society, then it is perfectly possible for the concentration of income to set new historical records. (Piketty 264)

These remarks are made in Piketty’s lead into what he terms a “hyperpatrimonial society” of extreme wealth accumulation (that is by the top centiles in society or the 1%) in contrast to everyone else. And references to the state apparatus and media largely justifying the meritocrats’ ideology — through socio-political propagandistic repression of society — have been discussed openly by public intellectuals of our time notably by the likes of Noam Chomsky. These ideas are hardly new to many of our ears.

The ‘soft’ repression used by the media and educational institutions (particularly higher education and the curricula of economic and business schools) complements the ‘harder’ variety as used politically by the state apparatus.

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In justifying and defending the status quo in our age of economic decline, increasing national and public indebtedness, austerity and social unrest even in the so-called democratic societies (not always given publicity by the mainstream media) we see the repressive nature of meritocracy at work: the inequality of society is explained as not only inevitable, but a sign of egalitarianism and proper recognition of talent at work. Any welfare measures that buck this simply rock the boat of equality of opportunity and are a way of suppressing talent. In other words, if things get worse for most of us, it is still okay for that is how it is meant to be and it is a good thing in the end.

After Piketty mentions the amassing of inherited wealth via a “hyperpatrimonial society” he soon brings in another way of achieving high inequality as shown by the US in recent decades. This he says is a

‘hypermeritocratic society’… [which] is a very inegalitarian society, but one in which the peak of the income hierarchy is dominated by very high incomes from labor rather than by inherited wealth. I want to be clear that at this stage I am not making a judgment about whether a society of this kind really deserves to be characterized as ‘hypermeritocratic.’ It is hardly surprising that the winners in such a society would wish to describe social hierarchy in this way, and sometimes they succeed in convincing some of the losers. (Piketty 265)

So here we have the zero-sum equation that is the centre of the meritocrat’s dream: a society of winners and losers and the latter need to understand why there are losers and in fact, why there must be losers so that society can function appropriately with the hierarchical structure of the winners at the top and the losers at the bottom. While Piketty tries to stay clear of any apocalyptic scenario that his work seems to converge into (for he quickly diverges from it by many qualifiers) the logic of his discourse drives him towards such statements where he cannot but combine the dangerous possibility of ‘hyperpatrimony’ with ‘hypermeritocracy’: “It is therefore essential to understand the conditions under which each of these two logics could develop, while keeping in mind that they may complement each other in the century ahead and combine their effects. If this happens, the future could hold in store a new world of inequality more extreme than any that preceded it.” (Piketty 265)

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In this, Piketty reluctantly but honestly states what more of us are beginning to understand, that if capitalism is not failing as such then it is morphing into something even worse and we have seen the early signs of it in a society that is burgeoning into greater technological fascism with heightened societal surveillance, and constant reminders that the only way to maintain a society that is falling apart slowly but surely is (paradoxically) to maintain and justify inequality.[2]

Not quite apocalyptic yet but getting close (he reaches one of his asymptotic points of inequality which is a clear indicator of the need for sharp change in society), Piketty warns that

It is also possible that the explosion of top incomes can be explained as a form of ‘meritocratic extremism,’ by which I mean the apparent need of modern societies, and especially US society, to designate certain individuals as ‘winners’ and to reward them all the more generously if they seem to have been selected on the basis of their intrinsic merits rather than birth or background…

In any case, the extremely generous rewards meted out to top managers can be a powerful force for divergence of wealth distribution: if the best paid individuals set their own salaries…the result may be greater and greater inequality. (Piketty 334)

The greater the divergence in society, income distribution and wealth, the greater the convergence towards some form of destabilization, or pockets of it as we are seeing today; Piketty should be credited for not sugarcoating the realities of our time but he also cannot deny — while trying not to immerse his research with tropes from the left — that he is not saying anything particularly new either. He also pursues, ironically, a dialectic in which he casts perhaps at times unwittingly Marxian ideas against neoclassical economic concepts into a synthesis of his own political-economic notions on inequality and its implications (e.g. the capital/income ratio). This approach is of value but the conclusions tend to converge with the disturbing visions of the great dystopian thinkers we are familiar with already, but this time with sheaves of data to boot.

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And just as Piketty is well-versed in literature and makes references to films (which make his book accessible to a wider audience), he is undoubtedly painting a potentially devastating picture of where we could head; indeed, he tells a cautionary tale in economic lexicon that should be of crucial interest to not only the general reader, but manifestly for the well-informed one and the so-called specialist.

In a memorable, prescient and incisive passage Piketty sounds the tocsin:

It is interesting, moreover, to note that the most ardent meritocratic beliefs are often invoked to justify very large wage inequalities, which are said to be more justified than inequalities due to inheritance…

The worrisome aspect of this defense of meritocracy is that one finds the same type of argument in the wealthiest societies…In the United States in recent years, one frequently has heard this type of justification for the stratospheric pay of supermanagers (50-100 times average income, if not more). Proponents of such high pay argued that without it, only the heirs of large fortunes would be able to achieve true wealth, which would be unfair. In the end, therefore, the millions or tens of millions of dollars a year paid to supermanagers contribute to greater social justice. This kind of argument could well lay the groundwork for greater and more violent inequality in the future. The world to come may well combine the worst of two past worlds: both very large inequality of inherited wealth and very high wage inequalities justified in terms of merit and productivity (claims with very little factual basis, as noted). Meritocratic extremism can thus lead to a race between supermanagers and rentiers, to the detriment of those who are neither.

It also bears emphasizing that the role of meritocratic beliefs in justifying inequality in modern societies is evident not only at the top of hierarchy but lower down as well, as an explanation for the disparity between the lower and middle classes…[I]n the United States and France…the ‘educated elite’ placed primary emphasis on their personal merit and moral qualities, which they described using terms such as rigor, patience, work, effort and so on (but also tolerance, kindness, etc.). The heroes and heroines of the novels of [Jane] Austen and Balzac would never have seen the need to compare their personal qualities to those of their servants (who go unmentioned in their texts)[3]. (Piketty 416-418)

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This is a fine take on meritocracy as it is understood and deployed today: the subtle indoctrination we have suffered through the media and modes of education have entrenched the view as Piketty describes of providing hard to detect shades of Orwellian doublespeak that makes the practice of meritocracy the apparent means of fairness when it is quite the opposite. So Piketty shows that the concept of meritocracy is a textbook example of a reductio ad absurdum where the consecration of inequality is the justification of fairness; wherein injustice pretends to underwrite justice while justifying super large incomes and wealth accumulation by the few: giving the impression that this is the only path open to anyone else from the many who want to join the ranks of the elite ‘fairly.’

This is the dilemma of many democratic societies today, when trying to break out of this mould involves either brandishing terms like ‘Marxist’ or ‘socialism’ or simply accepting capitalism as descriptive and prescriptive of reality (post-fall of the Berlin Wall): and this is the aporia Piketty is in as well, the need to move into a new and fairer paradigm using a synthesized language of inequality influenced by Marx and others but expressed in marginalist-political economic terms: so that a mainsteam audience or policymakers will not run away from any ideas of an European economist who may be perceived as peddling ‘soft’ communism (Piketty is at pains to define himself apart from such an image).

But Piketty’s humour is appreciated in a number of cases, as in the effective deployment of Jane Austen and Balzac in particular and the double entendres through his text: which are as entertaining as they are informative and astute. In this description of how many of our contemporaries take on the seemingly non-elitist/aristocratic mien and values of the lower orders or servant class (one way to read the comment), and thereby justify their high income status or wealth via meritocracy, Piketty proves himself as much a social observer as the authors he admires.[4]

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Unsparing of meritocrats and capitalist hangers-on, Piketty adds insightfully:

In the United States, France, and most other countries, talk about the virtues of the national meritocratic model is seldom based on close examination of the facts. Often the purpose is to justify existing inequalities while ignoring the sometimes patent failures of the current system. In 1872, Émile Boutmy created Sciences Po with a clear mission in mind: ‘obliged to submit to the rule of the majority, the classes that call themselves the upper classes can preserve their political hegemony only by invoking the rights of the most capable. As traditional upper-class prerogatives crumble, the wave of democracy will encounter a second rampart, built on eminently useful talents, superiority that commands prestige, and abilities of which society cannot sanely deprive itself.’ If we take this incredible statement seriously, what it clearly means is that the upper classes instinctively abandoned idleness and invented meritocracy lest universal suffrage deprive them of everything they owned…Yet Boutmy’s statement has the virtue of reminding us of an essential truth: defining the meaning of inequality and justifying the position of the winners is a matter of vital importance, and one can expect to see all sorts of misrepresentations of the facts in service of the cause. (Piketty 487)

The twisting and rationalizing of language and concepts for purposes of social control and aptly summed-up here reflect where we are at more than ever before — we are in fact reaching asymptotic points in the linguistic use of ‘inequality’ and ‘fairness’ where the two are often deliberately and inadvertently muddled dangerously: for we must finally be clear that injustice can no longer be used as a means to realize justice (surprising as it may seem). And just as Piketty pays attention to writers and films, his own text is a comment on the subtext of Boutmy, and some of the political and economic literature of the past and present which help bring into relief much of what Piketty says. For in the end, Piketty presents us with two broad readings.

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First, we have a reading of Piketty’s book that provides much data through which he crafts his socio-political economic narrative which may resonate with many. Or, a second reading (a contextual one) of the book can be given as a critique of our era of banking-financial failures-fraud, resurgent austerity and regular protests even throughout the ‘developed’ world — combined with the data-centric economic narrative of the first reading thereby giving us a text of our times.

Who knows if there will be a century from now something entitled “Capital in the twenty-second century” which would presumably be yet another dialogue with Marx, many others and the neoclassical economic tradition plus a post-Piketty economic discourse. But what is clear is that where we are at is such that if the remnant of the democratic tradition is not reinvented with genuine social justice and greater equality of opportunities and a fairer distribution of income and truly useful welfare measures, many societies will be open to the rise of the demagogue and political manipulators yet again.

The problem we face is not so much the tired metaphor of history repeating itself, rather it is that we seem not to have gone much distance since Marx wrote Capital (despite technological development)[5]. Perhaps Beckett summed it up best in the last lines of Waiting for Godot:

Vladmir:
Well? Shall we go?

Estragon:
Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]

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End notes:

[1] Examples of Piketty’s droll statements include the following:

Distribution tables allow us to have a more concrete and visceral understanding of social inequality…By contrast, statistical indices…give an abstract and sterile view of inequality, which makes it difficult for people to grasp their position in the contemporary hierarchy (always a useful exercise, particularly when one belongs to the upper centiles of the distribution and tends to forget it, as is often the case with economists). (Piketty 267)

And: “Among the members of these upper income groups are US academic economists, many of whom believe that the economy of the United States is working fairly well and, in particular, that it rewards talent and merit accurately and precisely. This is a very comprehensible human reaction. But the truth is that the social groups above them did even better…” (Piketty 296)

Then in a note to the quote above (p 296) we have: “This visceral appreciation of the economy is sometimes particularly noticeable among economists teaching in US universities but born in foreign countries (generally poorer than the United States), an appreciation that is again quite comprehensible.” (Piketty 606)

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[2] In his introduction Piketty states, “low growth cannot adequately counterbalance the Marxist principle of infinite accumulation: the resulting equilibrium is not as apocalyptic as the one predicted by Marx but is nevertheless quite disturbing” (Piketty 10). He then adds,

“Turning from the nineteenth-century analyses of Ricardo and Marx to the twentieth-century analyses of Simon Kuznets, we might say that economists’ no doubt overly developed taste for apocalyptic predictions gave way to a similarly excessive fondness for fairy tales, or at any rate happy endings…Kuznets’s position was thus diametrically opposed to the Ricardian and Marxist idea of an inegalitarian spiral and antithetical to the apocalyptic predictions of the nineteenth century.” (Piketty 11)

Notwithstanding, Piketty gives us hints of an apocalyptic scenario of what is increasingly familiar: a possible police state of hypersurveillance and control in a world of regular conflict that would arguably make Orwell blush as it shies away from the latter’s vision of total control but uses propaganda to smoothen its jagged edges in the hope of eventually getting there with least resistance (what modesty). If Piketty conscientiously tries to turn away from Marxian influence he certainly espouses dystopian visions with a possible devastating combo of ‘hyperpatrimonalism’ and ‘hypermeritocracy’ – which is ominous in the least if not potentially apocalyptic given the context of difficult and depressing times many find themselves in, climate change and environmental issues, and knowledge of clear abuse of power by the state apparatus augmented by revelations à la Edward Snowden, etc.. There is an apocalyptic asymptotic point for Piketty despite shunning such visions from the Marxian field as continued and heightened inequality cannot have a happy ending by any stretch of the imagination, so that some form of genuine change for the better must take place when we realize there is no other way left to sustain things.

This piece by Bichler and Nitzan may also be of interest: “The asymptotes of power.”

[3] In his opening pages Piketty says:

Indeed, the novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac paint striking portraits of the distribution of wealth in Britain and France between 1790 and 1830. Both novelists were intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in their respective societies. They grasped the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments. These and other novelists depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match. (Piketty 2)

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[4] What is fascinating is that Piketty’s use of the rationalization of meritocracy as also embodying the values of the non-elite is uncanny in how it represents, for instance, the way meritocracy is justified in ideologically meritocratic states like Singapore. However, there seems to be a little more questioning these days in Singapore about what good meritocracy is doing the city-state (but resistance to this is surfacing clearly from meritocrat types); moreover, insufficient public dialogue on such matters and a non-existent intelligentsia are hampering any political attempts by the ruling party to develop an orientation for the country that is placed roundly in the left.

[5] We learn that:

There is little evidence that labor’s share in national income has increased significantly in a very long time: ‘nonhuman’ capital seems almost as indispensable in the twenty-first century as it was in the eighteenth or nineteenth, and there is no reason why it may not become  even more so. Now as in the past, moreover, inequalities of wealth exist primarily within age cohorts, and inherited wealth comes close to being as decisive at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was in the age of Balzac’s Père Goriot. (Piketty 22)

We are further informed what Piketty believes his book is about: “The sole purpose of the book, which logically speaking should have been entitled “Capital at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century,” is to draw from the past a few modest keys to the future. Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import.” (Piketty 35)

Reference:

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the twenty-first century. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2014.

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The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change.

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[Note: To watch the content of the clip above which has been disabled, please see an online version of Being There: the scene starts from 19 minutes 20 seconds into the film till where it is meant to end at 26 minutes 20 seconds.]

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