Savage Inequalities and Global Capitalism:
Beyond the Piketty Hype
William I. Robinson
University of California at Santa Barbara
Why has Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, sparked such a firestorm of debate on global inequalities in the world media, academic and policy circles? While discussion of social inequality is welcome, we sociologists would do well to take a critical approach to the hype around Piketty and the mainstream discourse on social inequalities that it reflects.
Global inequalities are truly savage. The development NGO Oxfam reported in 2015 that the richest one percent of humanity would own more than the rest of the world in 2016, up from 44 percent in 2010 and 48 percent in 2014. Beyond this “1%” now made famous by Occupy Wall Street and the US presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, the next 52 percent of global wealth is owned by the richest 20 percent, while 80 percent of humanity has to make do with just 5.5 percent of global wealth.
I do not think however, that outrage over these inequalities explains the attention that Piketty’s study has received. After all, Piketty is far from the first to draw attention to such expanding inequalities in recent years and his proposed remedies – a global tax on capital and redistribution through progressive tax reform – are welcome yet hardly novel.
But that is precisely the rub. Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been so well received by the academic, media, and political establishment precisely because it converges with the reformist agenda of a rising number of transnational elites and intelligentsia. These elites have become increasingly concerned that the social conflicts and political turmoil sparked by such egregious inequalities may destabilize global capitalism and threaten their control.
They are also alarmed that extreme levels of inequality will undermine the prospects for growth and profit making. The OECD, for instance, warned in a 2015 report that the “global inequality gap” has “reached a turning point.” The report did not have much to say about the social injustice that such inequality represents, nor about the mass suffering it brings about. It did, however, highlight that “high inequality drags down growth.”
In the view of Piketty and the reformers it is not the capitalist system itself but its particular institutional organization that is to blame. Yet escalating inequalities coincide with capitalist globalization from the 1970s and on. As Marx analyzed in Capital, there is something going on intrinsic to the capitalist system that generates inequalities. Simply put, capitalists own the means of producing wealth and therefore appropriate as profits as much as possible of the wealth that society collectively produces.
But such inequalities end up undermining the stability of the system since the mass of working people cannot purchase the wealth that pours out of the capitalist economy to the extent that capitalists and the well-off retain more and more of total income relative to that which goes to labor. Left unchecked, expanding social polarization results in crisis – in recessions and depressions, such as the 1930s Great Depression or the 2008 Great Recession. Worse still, it engenders great social upheavals, political conflicts, wars and even revolutions – precisely the kinds of conflicts and chaos we are witnessing in the world today.
As global capitalism enters a period of stagnation that has also seen renewed mass social struggle and a turn to political radicalism, I am reminded here that public discourse with regard to “social problems” is often at the core of how masses of people perceive these problems and what types of solutions are placed on the agenda – as well as what potential solutions remain off that agenda. Intellectual labor, I believe, is always organic; it is always for or against one or another historical project and subjective standpoint vis-a-vis antagonistic social forces and interests.
The Piketty hype can be positively correlated with the agenda of reformist elements among the transnational elite. This agenda does not involve control over capital but rather the capturing small amounts of its accumulated surplus. However important such capture may be, this reform agenda is considerably milder, in fact, than controls over capital that states imposed in the past or what many around the world are now demanding. It does not call for restraining the free movement of transnational capital across borders, for social governance over investment decisions, for nationalizing banks, or for rebuilding public sectors.
At a time when we face a “crisis of humanity” we social scientists must advance a systemic critique of global capitalism and strive to influence, from this vantage point, the discourse and the practice of movements for a more just distribution of wealth and power. Our survival may depend on it.
William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global studies, and Latin American studies, at the University of California at Santa Barbara (USA). Among his recent books are: Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (2014), Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Globalization Perspective (2008), A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class and State in a Transnational World (2004), Transnational Conflicts: Central America, Social Change and Globalization (2003; Spanish edition: Conflictos Transnacionales: Centroamerica, Cambio Social, y Globalizacion, 2011). More information can be found at his website: https://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/robinson/index.shtml.
Banner Image: “Struggle against Contractualization, Fight for Decent Work” by William I. Robinson (copyright 2008; partial image, reproduced here by courtesy of the author). The photo shows a march of protesting workers through metro Manila on 26 January 2008, the Global Day of Action, as declared by the World Social Forum. “Contract” (casualized, flexibilized, “Walmartized”, etc.) labor relations have replaced more stable labor relations in the Philippines, as around the world, throwing working people into greater poverty and precariousness, as part of capitalist globalization and transnational corporate domination. Here, the Alliance for Progressive Labor (APL) and other Philippine workers groups joined the mobilization.
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