I’m afraid we can tolerate much more inequality, Mr Piketty

Veröffentlicht am Veröffentlicht in Kapitalismuskritik

I can’t believe I managed to read Piketty’s „Capital in the 21st century“. (It’s not Piketty’s fault that the last blog entry was posted in May – blame it on day care viruses and heavy, heavy workload.) The core result (don’t call it a thesis as it is well documented with data) is that we’re almost back to levels of wealth inequality last seen in France before the French revolution, in the „Gilded Age“ of Rockefeller & Morgan. And of course, when you hear that you ask yourself: okay, Mr. Piketty – „how long ‚til the next revolution?“ von occupyhelp (http://www.clker.com/clipart-185238.html) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

What makes Piketty’s tome such a masterpiece is how tangible he made it – he frequently links his data with Austen, Balzac, „Dr House“ or „Mad Men“ to give the reader a deeper understanding of what his abstract numbers really mean. For me, the most enlightening passage was when Piketty explains how those living with the 50 or 60fold of the average national income felt like in the 1780s in France or in the 1830s in Britain: not that glamourous actually (p552 in the German edition of his book). For a lot of creature comforts had not yet been invented – so much of the money was spent on feeding horses, employing and housing servants (that didn’t do much more than buy and prepare food, as fridges were still unknown) or on buying clothes, which even in their most modest forms – H&M and Uniqlo still nowhere to be seen – literally cost a fortune. Actually, with just the 20 or 30fold of the average income, you could have a hard time inviting and entertaining guests on a regular basis.

But no pity for the upper class please: at least they did not have to work and mostly got their income from land and real estate ownership, whereas just earning the average national income with your own hands day in, day out condemned you to a brutal, frugal and joyless life. What struck me most was for how long these kind of obvious inequalities can be accepted socially, if only grudgingly, before things change. Sometimes you get the impression that without World War I and II, societies in the developed world would have never had the glorious episode of equality and social mobility of the 50s, 60s and 70s – revolutions are the exception, not the norm. Though I hate to quote (cynical and right-wing) Sloterdijk („Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals“), he might have a point when he says that humans (in capitalist / first world societies) live inside a crystal palace with a „comfort installation“ as the main attraction – meaning, there’s at least some equality when it comes to „creature comforts“ in the broadest sense, meaning you don’t have to die at 30 because of tuberculosis, there’s a roof over your head, you won’t starve or be stabbed in the streets and mass media & internet even enable you to participate in some sort of societal discourse.

So back to the main question – when’s the next revolution, or the next war? I think we are nowhere near a revolutionary mood, at least not in Europe – the main reason is that comfort makes people less belligerent, even if wealth inequality is so obviously de-legitimized nowadays (I know this is a surprisingly pessimistic view of people for a sociologist, but what can I do). It becomes increasingly clear that effort, intelligence and „merits“ will never make you as wealthy as a nice inheritance does, so the foundation of meritocratic society becomes more brittle every day, but I think people can „tolerate“ much more before they actually take political action of any kind. But let’s be clear: this is the main threat for democracy in the 21st century – a growing number of cynical lower and middle class people feeling left behind and not knowing what to do against it – that’s fertile ground for all kinds of social prejudice and misdirected foolishness (for instance, expect more Germans to take to the streets and protest against accommodating refugees from Syria, because of course that’s the main problem, just like „the Jews“, „the Muslims“, the „New World Order“ or whatever conspiracy theory you favor.)

I’m curious if once again, the US will be the trend setter here: gigantic levels of inequality combined with a weak social welfare system, where the life expectancy of poor people actually drops; gigantic levels of inequality that can no longer be justified by pointing at individual merits – I think the US is actually the most „revolutionary“ nation on the globe today. Let’s see how 2015 unfolds – there’s always another economic crisis brewing that can accelerate things a bit.