Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Clash of Spontaneisms: Howard Kunstler on Thomas Piketty

Howard Kunstler has joined a handful of critics on the left of Thomas Piketty's otherwise left-lauded surprise best-selling sensation, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In the immediate aftermath of Occupy's indispensable figuration and re-invigoration of the politics of "the 99% versus the 1%," Piketty's painstaking documentary theorizing of the intransigence of income inequality in plutocratic societies -- very much including market orders that fancy themselves liberal/libertarian meritocracies like our own -- has struck a chord, to say the least. But a few critics who have long criticized contemporary plutocracy from a perspective lodged in more radical environmental and labor politics wonder if Piketty's formulations dig deep enough to bear the weight of the emancipatory aspirations with which the book is being freighted by many of its champions.

"Piketty’s new book," writes Kunstler, is "a product of failed mental models, historical blindness, hubris, and wishful thinking." He goes on to describe a part of Piketty’s thesis reasonably well, if schematically: "wealth will continue to accumulate and concentrate among individual rich families at ever-greater rates and therefore... nation-states should take a number of steps to prevent that from happening or at least attempt to correct it." The hubris and wishful thinking here I would note is not in Piketty's demonstration that, contra market ideologues, there are in fact neither "market forces" nor is there any "natural tendency" toward general empowerment we can hope for or count on in liberal societies. "Piketty is certainly right that [wealth] will tend to remain concentrated" -- I daresay Kunstler regards the point as obvious, if anything -- but it isn't a bad idea to note that a key result in Piketty, and frankly the very result that is generating most of the excitement about the book, is something Kunstler doesn't disapprove as far as it goes.

More specifically, what Kunstler finds ridiculous is that
Piketty and his fans assume that the industrial orgy will continue one way or another, in other words that some mysterious “they” will “come up with innovative new technologies” to obviate the need for fossil fuels and that the volume of wealth generated will more or less continue to increase. This notion is childish, idiotic, and wrong.
As it happens, I agree with Kunstler (and Bill McKibben) that there is a very real way in which the global postwar economy has mostly been a matter of bubble-blowing within a petrochemical meta-bubble misconstrued as Modernity. From such a perspective the Keynesian productivism of the New Deal and the first post-war quarter-century of Bretton Woods and UN internationalism (think of the basic premise of Keynes's Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren), no less than the deregulatory and privatizing unraveling, via libertopian Hayekian-Friendmanian spontaneisms, of the post-Reagan quarter-century of neoliberal financialization, indebtedness, and planetary precarization, BOTH rely for their intelligibility and force on the disavowal of the planetary limits to growth and of the terrible suffering of exploited labor at the margins of North Atlantic corporate-military hegemony.

Definitely -- obviously! -- I agree when Kunstler calls out those reactionary rationalizers of elite-incumbency, the techno-transcendentalizing gizmo-fetishizing retro-futurological consumer-fandoms of futurism as he does in this bit of righteous ranting:
The techno-narcissist Jeremy Rifkins and Ray Kurzweils among us propound magical something-for-nothing workarounds for our predicament, but they are just blowing smoke up the collective fundament of a credulous ruling plutocracy. In fact, we’re faced with an unprecedented contraction of wealth, and a shocking loss of ability to produce new wealth. That‘s the real “game-changer,” not the delusions about shale oil and the robotic “industrial renaissance” and all the related fantasies circulating among a leadership that checked its brains at the Microsoft window.
One cannot repeat often enough or insistently enough on the perfect continuity of the techno-utopian ideology rationalizing the digital networks that facilitated global financial fraud, targeted marketing harassment, corporate-military surveillance and Big Data framing, on the one hand, and the techno-utopian ideology encouraging fantasies of geo-engineering schemes to mitigate and reverse climate catastrophe to the profit of the corporate-military interests who cause and amplify that climate catastrophe, on the other hand.

Another left critic of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Marvin Brown has made something like Kunstler's point when he declares that "Piketty... remains within the story of an economics of property" when earlier economists offering similar criticisms of plutocratic inequity like Henry George and Karl Polanyi provided re-figurations and re-narrativizations of the status quo that could enable more radical interventions into its terms. Brown's reference to Polanyi is one with which I am especially sympathetic, as when he writes: "Karl Polanyi [in] 1940 claim[ed] that labor, land, and money are not properties. Labor is a human activity, land is a biotic community, money is a social relation." I think this is an enormously useful reminder as we contemplate more radical refusals of libertarian and meritocratic rationalizations for elite-incumbency. The way I would put the point is to say that any critique of the inequity or unsustainability of elite incumbent politics that fails to attend to Polanyi's axiom -- or a comparable formulation that does much the same work -- that acceptance of the commodification of labor, land, or money fatally distorts economic models, will render them vulnerable to assimilation by elite incumbent interests, whatever the worth and earnestness of the critique. I would add, just to make the connection of Brown's critique with Kunstler's more palpable, that Polanyi's repudiation of the commodification of "land" has as much to do with Aldo Leopold's environmentalist Land Ethic as Henry George's economic populism.

Piketty recommends that nation-states might intervene -- in a planetary alliance in some instances -- to redress the strong social tendencies toward anti-democratizing and public-dysfunctionalizing wealth concentration through more progressive taxation, not only steeply progressive income taxes, which he does also approve (as do I), but especially by increasing estate taxes that facilitate wealth concentration through inheritance and levying taxes on global investment and financial circulation that facilitate wealth concentration through flight from national regulations. Although one would have to be a fool to deny that the education, agitation, organization, and legislation in support of these recommendations would be incredibly difficult, it seems to me it is a different sort of fool who would deny that efforts in support of comparable regulation have indeed succeeded in the past. Kunstler's critique is lodged in his belief that any recourse to the agency of equitable law embedded in a state-formation is ultimately delusive and reactionary. Again, I am far from denying the difficulty of accomplishing and then long maintaining more equitable and sustainable ends through stakeholder politics in the context of state-formations, but whenever the recognition of these difficulties yields privileged pinings after anarchy, I fear a reactionary anti-politics amounting to complacent acquiescence or eager martyrdom has once again been mistaken for political radicalism. Anarchism is radical only in the sense that it disdains the political as such and right at the root, it fails even to arrive at the point of departure for the political, properly so-called, lodging itself in spontaneist fancies disavowing the ineradicable diversity of stakeholders to the present world as it is and as it will come to be, from this-present/ce onto next-present/ce.

This helps to explain why Kunstler remains so unimpressed with Piketty despite his agreement with the conclusion for which Piketty is being celebrated in other left precincts: Piketty's repudiation of spontaneist fables of "natural" "market" forces delivering equality of opportunity and liberty is less important to Kunstler, it would seem, than his own spontaneist fables of peak oil and resource descent as a State-Smashing deus ex machina returning some of us (guess who?) to a Golden Age. I remind readers how Kunstler concluded his delineation of the horrors of peak oil and water wars in earlier pieces on what he called The Long Emergency with warm wistful arias to more local anarchic folkways:
These are daunting and even dreadful prospects. The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope -- that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom. Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts.
In this connection, recall that even sympathetic critics of his post-peak oil trilogy of World Made By Hand novels have often noted the curious satisfaction of the books with the sexism, racism, feudalism, and superstition to which majorities are subjected in his imagined "apocalyptic" world.

I detect a comparable acquiescence in Kunstler's "radical" rejection of Piketty's recommendations, when he writes,
I’d take the less popular view that the Deep State will choke to death on the diminishing returns of technology and that nation-states in general will first degenerate into impotence and then break up into smaller units. What’s more, I’d propose that the whole world is apt to be going medieval, so to speak, as we contend with our energy predicament and its effects on wealth generation, banking, and all the other operations of modern capital.
Now, it seems to me that there are plenty of precincts across the left where such formulations are plenty popular -- among those who seem to me the most self-congratulatory about their radicalism and the most aggressive in their incapacity to distinguish Democrats from Republicans, or better outcomes from worse outcomes. I have already pointed out that there is ample historical evidence of political struggle in the service of recommendations as ambitious as Piketty's proposals, and it should be noted that a large portion of Piketty's book (but not Kunstler's critique of it) is devoted to his demonstration that the historical catastrophes of the Great Depression and World War two created the specific conditions under which state-formations instituted regulations and supports that resisted, mitigated, and compensated for a time the tendencies to wealth concentration he and we all deplore and to which we have lately returned. I have also already commented on the mistaken identification of every possible state-form with corporate-militarism rather than with democratizing struggles for sustainable equity-in-diversity -- even if I obviously disapprove of the particular pathologies Bill Moyers famously described as the Deep State, I believe that democracy is a Deeper State, and I believe the denial of this in theory or in practice is usually to acquiesce in fact to the very corporate-military forces Moyers rightly decries.

All this matters not least because another way for environmentalists in particular to read Piketty is to treat ongoing and upcoming climate catastrophe (not only global warming caused by the private-profiteering carbon pollution of the public good of a breathable atmospheric commons, but also resource depletion caused by the private appropriation of public goods like freshwater commons and topsoil commons and forest commons and diverse species commons) as an analogue to what Piketty described as the "shocks of war" as an anomalous circumstance that might -- and, by the way, must -- enable state-interventions countervailing wealth-concentrating tendencies otherwise. The very forces that Kunstler admonishes Piketty for ignoring may be the forces that make it possible for Piketty's recommendations to gain the purchase Kunstler despairs of finding in the political resources actually at hand.


Anonymous said...

If I may be so bold, it seems like you're essentially saying that there's a difference between your (and those of similar ilk) and Kunstler's (more or less) "political" philosophy, but it seems to me like Kunstler has a much deeper disagreement. He doesn't see a modernity with it's many ills and entrenched inequalities, the partial result of a petrochemical bubble with externalities unaccounted for by the private profiteers, the various resulting issues on a similar footing; but it seems to me like he sees the petrochemical bubble as the only thing. Ultimately the only thing that matters is the change of barrels of crude produced from month to month, the world crude output curve is the entire narrative, and attempts to change things politically or through whatever social institutions are ultimately just re-arranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship, because they don't address the underlying issue at all. The misuse and depletion of the crude stock is not a global crisis on par with the other major urgent issues, but it's the beginning and end of modernity. The peaking of total hydrocarbons in the next few months (once the shale bubble implodes) won't be a shock on the level of the world wars, but it will drive the end of modernity because it is synonymous with modernity, excepting for the possibility of diversifying and managing energy resources intelligently and equitably on an intensive level decades ago, but that time is long passed. That's the sense I get from reading Kunstler for a while, not that I agree with it.

Dale Carrico said...

You may be right about Kunstler here. If you are, I would also agree with you (at least your insinuation) that he is wrong.

It's strange, as you describe his position -- and I hope I am getting your point and not putting words in your mouth -- I find myself thinking he may both be overestimating the role of fossil fuels in the larger narrative of modernity (although I agree it represents a definitive inflection point in that narrative) while at once underestimating the implications of too-looming anthropogenic climate catastrophe, which look to me like ending more than modernity but human society as well, a result bigger by far than even the worst wars so far.