Instead of Austen and Balzac, the professor [Piketty] ought to read "Animal Farm" and "Darkness at Noon."--The Wall Street Journal
Any reading of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has to come to terms with the conditions of possibility for its popularity. Why has Thomas Piketty become a “rock star”? In part, Piketty’s text concretizes left-liberal consensus around contemporary capitalism, and does so in a way amenable to the technocratic, social-managerial orientations of left-liberalism: with data, lots of it, stretched over a long enough period to induce a kind of bleak fatalist belief in capitalism’s sempiternality. Like the political scientists about whom I last blogged, Piketty’s work in part repackages the commonly known as the expertly known. But—and here’s the other part, and one that distinguishes his work from that of those whom I critiqued—he does so in a way that validates historically common ways of knowing the economic. Every review has remarked upon the prominence of the cultural within Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The problem has been one of determining the relationship between the cultural object and the economic analysis. For Piketty’s WSJ reviewer cited above, the cultural seems to provide, maximally, a kind of overarching attunement to the phenomena discussed; minimally, a kind of shorthand for the bundling of norms and facts presented in the text. For others, Piketty’s fun with Austen, Balzac, and Don Draper are pedagogically useful, sure, but somewhat ornamental, even superfluous. The reviewer in The Nation writes
“Discussions of Balzac and Jane Austen are mildly helpful as demonstrations of the attitudes toward capital in the nineteenth century, but they offer rapidly diminishing returns and do little to substantiate Piketty’s strange contention that novelists have lost interest in the details of money, a claim plausible only to someone who has never heard of Tom Wolfe or Martin Amis. Other references—Mad Men, Django Unchained, Damages and, repeatedly, Titanic—add even less.”
Culture as attitude, culture as exemplum—ultimately, culture as superfluous.
But that’s not quite right. For Piketty isn’t simply staging the “attitudes” of European bourgeoisies to capitalism in the early nineteenth century. Rather, he is staging the adequacy of their representations of it. (In that, he’s riding the rails laid down by a gang of Marxist literary scholars.) Conversely, I take Piketty’s claim (which struck me as bizarre at first, too) that novelists don’t talk about money anymore to mark less an empirical fact than an epistemological disadequation. That is, cultural objects might represent the economic today, but they cannot know it in a referentially meaningful way. If Tom Wolfe is talking about money, he might as well not be. It’s intriguing, in this regard, that the contemporary aesthetic objects that Piketty is drawn toward tend to be historical fictions (Mad Men, Django Unchained, Titanic), as if art can know economic pasts but can’t get a grip on its present.
With his literary “demonstrations,” I am suggesting, Piketty forces readers to reckon with the constitutive break between the literary and economic epistemologies and forms of representation. Another way of putting this: The novel used to be able to know the economic in a referentially adequate way. It no longer can. What each citation of Austen recalls was a harmonious time in which literary and economic epistemologies weren’t so different, when literary and economic genres of writing could blend together, a time before the literary and the economic were made to part ways. (Defoe would probably be a better example, but Austen was writing through a point of takeoff. On the general relationship between literary and economic writing in the Anglosphere, read this.) It’s a subdued point of the book, but it’s there: the material inequalities associated with capitalism’s takeoff had their parallel in an induced epistemological inequality. Literature became ornamental, literary works mere “demonstrations” illustrative of more robust economic concepts (a la Harriet Martineau’s gawdawful Illustrations of Political Economy ), as a gaggle of political economists reconstituted economic inquiry as an epistemologically and generically autonomous field, a field ruled by experts. In a certain way, then, Piketty’s account of the accumulation of inequality is equally an account—vague, to be sure—of why it takes an economist to tell you that this is the case. Just as capital maldistributes wealth, so too does it maldistribute knowledge. His literary “demonstrations” put us in a position to experience the cognitive disembedding of the economic from the phenomenologies of the everyday, phenomenologies that can be accessed in literature and film.
Of course, questions of epistemology and genres of representation are not Piketty’s primary concern, but he can’t not touch upon them. For two reasons. Piketty is concerned to set off a struggle over method in economics departments, which he sees as too mathematized, too abstract, too ahistorical—in a phrase, too much of all the things that make it impenetrable to lay people. At the same time, Piketty’s own handling of his massive sets of data, his mode of interpreting and his form of representing it, requires that his readers take a relaxed approach to statistical precision. Precision and referential adequacy take a back seat to the omnipresent U curve. Limitations on data, as well as decisions over how to establish and arrange variables, make all figures figural. No matter how dense the data, economists have to play fast and loose with figures all the time—which is why, yes, it might matter whether one is reading Austen or Orwell.
So, if Piketty is a “rock star,” maybe it’s because there’s something a little punky, a little DIY, a little put-together-on-the-run at work in his text. And that’s what I want to hold on to from a book I really truly hated. It’s been depressing to me that people are reading Piketty’s book as if they’re learning something substantive about the world through economics when, as I understand it, Piketty’s work makes legible the primitive accumulation of economic knowledge, the enclosure of a proper sphere of economic knowledge that cut into spaces of the commonly known. Indeed, the last book on economic history to inspire an analogous, but lower-key, kind of pop frenzy—Graeber’s Debt—worked precisely to re-embed economic thinking in the space of the social, to common economic thinking by turning to the genre of the anecdote, the ethnography. Alas, it was written off by a certain socialist publication—“We need more grand histories, but 5,000 years of anecdotes is no substitute for real political economy,” as the banner runs—which, alongside many left-lite publications, is going (to go) gaga for Tommy P. But to posit the non-substitutability of genres of the ordinary for those of the expert is to inscribe managerialism as a guiding principle of our radicalism. It’s also to subordinate one’s epistemic autonomy to experts, thereby foregoing the radical work of developing ways of knowing in common. The enthusiasm over Piketty, in other words, is premised on a refusal of epistemic autonomy, of the work of epistemic communization. Let me be clear: I simply cannot imagine that the US left has learned anything useful or meaningful from Piketty’s book, so I can only understand the book’s enthused reception in those quarters as a ritualization of epistemic lack. Let’s call it the socialist’s Daddy-Mommy-Me: the economist, his data, and the good little boy just so pleased that ma and pa have validated his sense of the real.
Let’s hold on to the punky Piketty, then, the one in the midst of an oedipal revolt against the discipline. The one who insists that “the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers,” who insists that “[d]emocracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts.” The literary appears in Capital in the Twenty-First Century as one enactment of this epistemic democracy—a lost democracy, to be sure, one that was never really democratic anyhow, but one that persists as a sign of alternative epistemological ecologies. To read with the punky Piketty—and against the feted prof who insists several times that “[i]nequality is not necessarily bad in itself”—is to continue the work of democratizing economic knowledge. To see in a novel, in an ethnographic anecdote, or in the performative scene of submission conjured on payday the knowledges we need to know. And what we know, in the form of knowledge generated in these encounters, is that economics is ultimately defective for democracy: to democratize economic knowledge is to destroy it.