Frédéric Lordon mounts a robust attack on Thomas Piketty and his Capital in the Twenty-First Century


Two years after the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, this international best-seller is still the object of a great deal of discussion and criticism. While its author is now listed among Time magazine’s 100 most influential figures, the economist Frédéric Lordon ,author of Willing Slaves of Capital has written a robust attack on Piketty’s book for this month’s Le Monde diplomatique. Its title – ‘Thomas Piketty, no danger to capital in the twenty-first century’ gives some idea of the kind of critique he is making.

Frédéric Lordon’s article sticks out like a sore thumb from the media consensus praising the quality and political depth of Piketty’s book; and well-aware of his both insightful and iconoclastic views on major contemporary debates, Frédéric Taddei invited Lordon onto his programme Ce Soir (ou jamais!), together with Piketty. The question that the two men debated was ‘Should we put capitalism straight?’

“In vain would we search for social struggles in this book…’

While recognising ‘the enormous volume and quality of statistical work’ that has gone into Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Frédéric Lordon is far from convinced by Piketty’s analysis or by his conclusions, which he thinks have wrongly been considered subversive in nature.  His disagreement on this score is grounded in their definition of capital itself: if Piketty sees capital in terms of holdings or assets, Lordon instead characterises it ‘as a social relation of domination’; and it is on this basis that he seeks to ‘interrogate and challenge capitalism at its very heart’.

In substance, the iconoclastic economist – the sworn enemy of the Nouveaux chiens de garde [‘The new guard-dogs’] in Gilles Balbastre’s documentary of the same name – reproaches Piketty for his silence on the factors shaping inequality in each specific period. He explains that reading Piketty’s book ‘in vain would we search for social struggles, general strikes, the tug of war between capital and labour, and their institutional consequences, amidst the bombs and the takeover of colonies […] but it is precisely the outcome of these conflicts that determines what fork in the road capitalism takes’, he writes in Le Monde diplomatique, from his Marxist perspective.

‘Marx, but clean-shaven…’

As well as noting these historical impasses – which allow us to understand the present state of capitalism – Lordon stresses that Piketty’s final chapter on ‘Regulating Capital’ is short in political ambition. ‘Here, [Piketty] portrays fiscal policy as the only remaining lever that we have, while abandoning any possibility of affecting anything else’, adding that ‘it’s hard to see what taxation policy could substitute for the sweeping changes we need to make in order to overhaul the structures of liberalised finance’. In sum, for Lordon the supposed ‘Marx in the Twenty-First Century’ is clean-shaven: ‘Really, there’s not the slightest stubble’. The author concerned also had the opportunity to defend himself, in a high-quality debate.

Translated by David Broder.

See the original article here.