Less than a week ago, Jacobin magazine enumerated a list of nine canned responses criticizing the French neo-Keynesian economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Zachary Levenson gave us the guide for “How to Write a Marxist Critique of Thomas Piketty without Actually Reading the Book.” It ranges between Marx and Piketty’s radically different conceptions of capital to the latter’s conflation of derivatives stemming from finance and industry. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a long book,” Levenson writes, sympathizing with his readers, “and you just don’t have time in your busy schedule to finish it and formulate a materialist critique.” Don’t worry, he urges, “we’ve got you covered.”
No doubt: there’s plenty of truth to such a list, conceived as it is in parody. Many self-proclaimed Marxists are quite eager to dismiss the latest fad in social liberal economic thought, and counterpose the trenchant historical critique offered by Marx to the dry data analysis offered by Piketty. Who hasn’t heard some of these scripted objections bandied about by “radicals” who clearly haven’t read the book?
Yeah, from the blurb on the back it may seem a tired rehashing of Keynesian commonplaces (now almost a century old). Granted, it might appear that Piketty merely “repackages the commonly known as the expertly known,” as one reviewer has put it, by treating observations of inequality under capitalism as if they were earth-shattering discoveries. But does that really justify all the unlettered pedantry of the Marxish commentariat? Shouldn’t people read Capital in the Twenty-First Century before issuing a judgment?
As it turns out, one needn’t read something in order to dismiss it outright — at least, if we’re to follow Piketty’s own example. In an interview Isaac Chotiner conducted with Piketty for The New Republic, a revealing exchange took place:
Isaac Chotiner: Can you talk a little bit about the effect of Marx on your thinking and how you came to start reading him?
Thomas Piketty: Marx? I never managed really to read it. I mean I don’t know if you’ve tried to read it. Have you tried?
Isaac Chotiner: Some of his essays, but not the economics work.
Thomas Piketty: The Communist Manifesto of 1848 is a short and strong piece. Das Kapital, I think, is very difficult to read and for me it was not very influential.
Isaac Chotiner: Because your book, obviously with the title, it seemed like you were tipping your hat to him in some ways.
Thomas Piketty: No — not at all, not at all! The big difference is that my book is a book about the history of capital. In the books of Marx there’s no data.
How strange it is that despite the fact that Piketty “never managed to read [Marx’s works],” aside from the Communist Manifesto (practically required reading for any undergraduate who takes a history course), he could confidently claim that “[i]n the books of Marx there’s no data.” Perhaps he thumbed casually through them? Maybe perused the index? Anyone who has so much as glanced at Marx’s economic manuscripts will know that there’s plenty of “hard” empirical evidence amassed, even if his argument doesn’t end up being crudely empiricist or positivistic. So it’s doubtful that Piketty took much time to acquaint himself with the writings of someone who he’s said collects no data. All those long hours Marx spent holed up in the British Library over the course of a decade were for naught, it would seem.
Of course, it should be patently obvious why Jacobin would want to anticipate and defuse potential criticisms of Piketty’s work. The “magazine of culture and polemic,” now widely-read and distributed, has built a name for itself on the basis of paeans to the welfare state (see the “manifesto for building social democracy” by Peter Frase and Bhaskar Sunkara published in In These Times) and articles extolling the virtues of market socialism (see Seth Ackerman and James Livingston). Little wonder, then, that their elder spokesman Corey Robin would rise to Piketty’s defense by condemning “Intellectual History at the New York Times.” If Marx’s theories or politics were shown to be at odds with the findings of Piketty, whose graphs and flowcharts they’re quite keen to appropriate, the jig would be up. Hence Levenson’s lighthearted sendup, as if there’s no good reason Marxists would object to the argument in Capital in the Twenty-First Century if only they read it.
As for myself, in my naïveté, I’m about a third of the way through Piketty’s massive tome. It’s not vulgar, even if some of its characterizations are a bit simplistic. The division of all hitherto existing accounts of capitalism into “catastrophism” (Malthus, Ricardo, Marx) on the one hand and “fairy tales” (Hayek and the Austrians) on the other can only be granted with extreme reservations, and even then only schematically for the purpose of argument. Probably just wasting my time, though. Krugman has written what will likely be regarded as the definitive review of Piketty’s book for the NYRB, a predictably glowing appraisal, so I could probably skim that and just forget about the remaining 450 pages. Doug Henwood’s review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century was already fairly serviceable, in any case.
The lesson here is a simple one: never read anything. It’ll only cloud your judgment.