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Thomas Piketty's "Capitalism"; a review

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Thomas Piketty's tome, "Capitalism," contrary to the one star evaluations given by most Amazon reviewers, who mindlessly think it somehow is a "pro-Communist tract," is instead a serious academic work. It is not a polemic or attack on capitalism per se, but quite the contrary: It is an unsubtle "defense" of Capitalism as the last-standing viable economic/political system in the world. A view I have no trouble agreeing with.

The author uses as his data base, the evolutionary experience of the most successful capitalist countries since the capitalist experiment began with the post-medieval industrial revolution. The thoroughness of his analysis will surely set the terms of future debates about both the meaning, continued viability, and possible future evolutionary developments of capitalism as a successful world-changing economic engine.

While one could quibble about his unique collection of data as being an unrepresentative sample population for a theoretical analysis, since among other things it does not include any of the failed examples of capitalism or its competing alternatives (failed or otherwise). Thus the mere fact that such alternatives did not evolve to a successful endpoint is not in themselves definitive theoretical evidence that they are any less viable than modern examples of capitalism. After all, today, survival of a system is not its only viable measuring stick, we now have theoretical tools like computer simulation to apply to even non-existent alternatives that can be "played-out" in the laboratory, and used with almost as much or greater degrees of confidence than real world experience. Yet, I do not hold this against the author's analysis or believe that this is its fatal flaw.

That singular honor, in my humble non-economically trained-estimation goes to the author's rosy acceptance in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that future capitalisms will somehow metaphysically mimic the self-correcting capitalisms of old, and thus will also prove (as the old ones did) to be self-correcting in the future? This in my view is not only a draconian mostly metaphysically hidden assumption, but a fatal one as well.

The author's refusal to even consider the possibility that there have been systemic and fundamentally game-changing practices during the more recent evolutionary development of capitalism, changes that may have forever rendered the old model profoundly resistant to self-corrective actions, and thus has rendered it obsolete as a model for the new ever-adaptive global capitalism, effectively reduces the author's otherwise fine analysis to little more that a kind of "fairy-dust" "special-pleading:" a "wish full-filling side show" for a new kind of non-existent metaphysical belief in the powers of capitalism, powers that seriously run counter to what we see in capitalisms across the new global economy and that even his own data does not tend to support or confirm.

This inexplicably rosy picture (which, sadly is a "faith" shared by other economists on all sides of the political spectrum) is one that purports (again as a hidden assumption) that the capitalisms of the future will magically somehow veer away from their present non self-correcting suicidally greedy courses and will magically return to the theoretical trajectory and sociologically saner capitalisms of the past?

I say loudly and clearly: show me the evidence? At least in the past, we had as many oligarchs guilty about the wrongness of what they were doing as those who gave it no moral consideration at all. Today, we only have Bill, Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet.

All we can see today, as far as the eye can see is that the oligarchs are getting meaner, greedier, acquiring much more power, both obvious and subtle, and are increasingly thumbing their noses at the rest of humanity -- at least those that cannot be bought like 14th street whores and who remain resistant to being corrupted by money? Today, this group includes all of our politicians, most military contractors, all of our intelligences agencies and their operatives, anyone who works on Wall Street, and even the clergy of our mega-churches. They too want nothing more than to become trillionaires too!

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Thus the evidence in our contemporary experience shows quite a different picture than that of the data in the past. It is true that the oligarchs of past eras were no less mean-spirited and pathologically greedy, but they were much less well-organized as a group, had less lethal tools to support their aggressively psychopathic tendencies, and found it infinitely more difficult to buy-off adversaries and challengers. Today, everyone in or out of government are "on the make," that is to say, are just waiting to have their souls bought by the highest bidder.

Just taking the U.S. as a "best case in point," the oligarchs have effectively neutered our democracy. It is a shell for a four-year Kabuki dance. But the real shots are being called in the back rooms by the oligarchs and their intelligence agencies, and the hedge-fund managers. The rest is a carefully scripted Potemkin village, called the "old US of A."

I believe that this shows that we have unaccountably passed a new system-changing rubicon that will make it infinitely more difficult to control the insanely wealthy in the future: That genie can no longer be put back in the box, I don't care what Mr. Piketty says. The fact that capitalism is now global and stateless, run mostly by secretive intelligence agencies, and militaries at the behest of "big money Oligarchs" is no longer just a scary "Big Brother" sci-fi scenario, but an ongoing reality -- as much in the U.S. as in Russia or Communist China.

Which simply means that free-floating mega billionaire oligarchs no longer have a need for a state, or, are the least concerned with the idea of a common good, the immorality of their pathological greed, or saving humanity or the globe, etc. -- let alone a need for state control or supervision of their always mindless accumulation of wealth that can never be spent either by themselves or the next ten generations of their progenies.

Couple this with the fact that democratic systems, (the end of the political evolutionary track, at least according to Francis Fukuyama) are as flawed as every other political system when it comes to being easily manipulated by fascistic monied interests, by corruption and ignorance, and it is difficult to build a case for the author's suggestion of a revived, saner, less greedy form of capitalism, one that will evolve in time to save the mad capitalist oligarchs from themselves? Seven hundred and fifty pages have not convinced me otherwise. One can still see the flaws glaring beneath all the neo-"capitalist sweet talk."

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As profoundly "pro-capitalist" myself, I simply see no logical way out: no way to wean the greedy billionaire oligarchs off the tit of accumulating more than they will ever need in the next 100 life times? This book gives me little or no comfort.



viable economic/political system in the world. A view I have no trouble agreeing with.

The author uses as his data base, the evolutionary experience of the most successful capitalist countries since the capitalist experiment began with the post-medieval industrial revolution. The thoroughness of his analysis will surely set the terms of future debates about both the meaning, continued viability, and possible future evolutionary developments of capitalism as a successful world-changing economic engine.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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It is interesting to note, because a system surviv... by Ken Wertz on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 at 3:03:48 PM