Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Misguided Resurgence of Marxist Collectivism

Last October, far-left columnist Michelle Goldberg published a paean to the current Marxist renaissance at the Tablet: "A Generation of Intellectuals Shaped by 2008 Crash Rescues Marx From History’s Dustbin."

I don't think it was the crash of '08 so much as eight years of George W. Bush that gave rise to a new generation of Marxist intellectuals and their shock-troop communist wannabes on the hardline left. And more than anything, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 --- the most radical president in American history --- provided the left with an American leader so steeped in hard-left ideology as to lift the spirits of even the most crestfallen Trotskyite revolutionary.

But that was over five years ago, and the promise of a new emancipatory progressivism --- if not the full realization of a renascent Marxian socio-economic state apparatus ---  appears to be fading amid the self-inflicting overreach of the Democrat Party, not to mention the return to earth of the "lightworker" and the attendant hopes for the Utopian collectivist transformation.

But leftists are nothing if not persistent.

Enter Ross Douthat and his extremely perceptive piece, at the New York Times, "Marx Rises Again" (via Memeorandum). Read it all at the link. Douthat's largely commenting on the lengthy essay at the Nation, from historian Timothy Shenk, "Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality." (It's probably over 6,000 words long, although I waded through to the end in any case. Shenk's an overly sympathetic correspondent, for he's clearly excited at the prospect of decisive machinations against the evils of inequality, particularly against the reviled capitalists of the ostensibly rapacious and unjust top 1 percent.)

All the hubbub here is over the new book from the French scholar Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It turns out Piketty's currently on a book tour stateside, and the New York Times has a gushing report, "Economist Receives Rock Star Treatment." And here's what's raising the hopes of the next generation of revolutionaries:
At the book’s center is Mr. Piketty’s contention — contrary to the influential theory developed by Simon Kuznets in the 1950s and ’60s — that mature capitalist economies do not inevitably evolve toward greater economic equality. Instead, Mr. Piketty contends, the data reveals a deeper historical tendency for the rate of return on capital to outstrip the overall rate of economic growth, leading to greater and greater concentrations of wealth at the very top.

Despite this inevitable-seeming drift toward “patrimonial capitalism” that his charts seemed to show, Mr. Piketty rejected any economic determinism. “It all depends on what the political system decides,” he said.

Such statements, along with Mr. Piketty’s proposal for a progressive wealth tax and income tax rates up to 80 percent, have aroused strong interest among those eager to recapture the momentum of the Occupy movement. The Nation ran a nearly 10,000-word cover article placing his book within a rising tide of neo-Marxist thought, while National Review Online dismissed it as confirmation of the left’s “dearest ‘Das Kapital’ fantasies.”
Here's the National Review piece, from James Pethokoukis, "The New Marxism, Part Two." (Also, "The New Marxism.")

Needless to say, Piketty's rising star rests on the obvious fact that he's given the badly ailing intellectual left new legs to stand on, so to speak. If the inequality of capitalism is not in fact a temporal phenomenon, but is instead a condition inherent and ineradicable to the long-term development of the capitalist order, then enemies of free markets can rekindle their centuries-long leveling campaign against the despised capitalist ruling classes. It's no surprise that prominent collectivists such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman have taken to harumphing Piketty's far-left bona fides (see Krugman's review at the New York Review, "Why We’re in a New Gilded Age"). Indeed, the academic radicals at Crooked Timber are positively giddy at the publication of Piketty's tome:
We’re hoping to have a proper book event on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in due course. That’s hard for those of us who have read it, because the book is so stimulating, so bursting with surprising facts and ideas [!!!], that there’s a lot to talk about.
The obvious problem, of which Douthat only partly addresses, is that as much as Piketty distances himself from orthodox Marxism and the practical program of state collectivism of the Soviet Union under Marxism-Leninism (apparently Piketty rejects the Marxist label, in favor of the more sober sounding title of "political economist"), the left's statist model has been tried many times before. No matter how you slice it, the various iterations of collectivist command economies do not outperform economies organized more toward the free movement of goods, capital, and people. The heavier the state's hand on the economy, the less economic dynamism of the state over time. Indeed, Sweden --- the classic example of the Scandinavian model of heavy taxation in furtherance of a robust, cradle-to-grave social safety net --- has relinquished much state power in favor of free market mechanisms and private-sector solutions. And don't even get me going about France, where Socialist President François Hollande's proposal for a 75 percent tax on the wealthy has Frenchmen "fleeing the country in despair."

But high taxes and wealth confiscation are the exact policy proposals offered in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. No matter. Leftists are persistent, if anything. Who cares if confiscatory policies have been tried even of late and failed? Forward to full communism!

So to summarize, Piketty's book, for all it's purported pathbreaking research and data-aggregation, just recycles tired old tropes of Marxist and socialist collectivism dating back hundreds of years. Frankly, scholars like this, and their eager-beaver acolytes and hangers-on, are the cross the rest of us have to bear. Leftists can invent new names and repackage old ideological paradigms, but the dead hand of Old Man Marx offers little for the real problems of inequality facing the advanced countries today. Real reform, indeed, must begin not at the level of the nation state but at the level of communities. The American welfare state today is shackling generations of the poor and putting out of reach the very economic mobility that has been the central promise of the American dream. Leftists only want to continue to destroy that dream. Piketty's work is just the latest weapon to be raised by the proletarian mobs against the reviled owners and producers of wealth and (inevitably) broadly shared prosperity.