Mike Savage on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

Mike Savage has posted a thoughtful essay on the Stratification & Culture Research Network blog reflecting on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. There’s a lot of interest here but the element that really intrigued me was the discussion of Piketty’s methodology and how it relates to current trends within sociology:

Methodologically, Piketty is conducting a fundamental critique of the repertoires used in much of what currently passes as social science.  This is nowhere marked more strikingly than the way he invokes literary figures ranging from Jane Austen, Honore de Balzac, and Orhan Pamuk more than Simon Kuznets, Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes to explore the nature of wealth accumulation and inheritance in the 19thcentury. From an economist, this is brilliant chutzpah. Perhaps he might be accused of using these novelists as illustrating (his) history, but arguably his thinking about wealthm inheritance and accumulation draws directly on these literary models.Furthermore, at its heart, Piketty’s book is fundamentally descriptive. Rather than the typical social scientific insistence on causality as the holy grail, the book’s ample figures and graphs present only uni and bi-variate distributions. There are no complex causal multi-variate models, no ‘variable centred’ attempts to distil the relative significance of various bundles of independent variables and the like. There is no league table of causal variables which pop out at the end of the book. Instead, Piketty relies on descriptive figures showing trends over time with no attempt to explain the trends through introducing independent causal variables.

This has left me wanting to go back to a book I only managed 60 pages of before losing interest – perhaps I consumed far too much of the meta-commentary before reading it? Savage argues that the book can be seen “as a model of descriptive social science that might be able to explore the relationship between past and present”. It facilitates an exploration of the way in which the “past will always exceed the present” in a manner that tends to be precluded by the dominant mode of theorising social change within contemporary social theory, with its tendency towards dichotomisation and hyperactive invocations of epochal change:

The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.In these suffocating conditions, Piketty offers not so much a breath of fresh air but rather a vital infusion of oxygen. His work is a powerful and extended critique of the conceit that our present time has somehow left behind history behind. Actually, is Jane Austen’s world so different from ours[6]? Have we really left behind the elitism and pervasive inequality characteristic of aristocratic society and the Belle Epoque? Don’t the strategies for wealth accumulation developed by Bill Gates and other billionaires share some common characteristics with the very wealthy of previous centuries? Page after page of Piketty refuses the glib temptations of ‘presentism’ and insists on the need for careful historical study.

He draws particular attention to Piketty’s concern with the middle decades of the 20th century and sociology’s tendency to overlook them, subsuming the intensity of social and economic change under the stability deriving from the consolidation of industrial capitalism. In contrast, the contemporary focus upon the intensification of social change tends to occlude “a remarkable and enduring regularity which needs to be placed at the forefront of our understanding of contemporary – as much as classical – capitalism”. Sociological theorising about social change is a mess and Savage suggests that Piketty’s work offers us an interesting basis upon which we could begin to reorientate our understanding of the long term development of capitalism: there has been a “striking persistence in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and that we are now returning towards the Belle Epoque of the early 20th century after a brief blip in the middle decades of the 20th century linked to the two World Wars and inflation”. As well as having implications for how we conceptualise social change, it also raises crucial questions about the reconstitution of social class – ones addressed by Roger Burrows (here and here) in a project that both he and Savage are involved in:

The fundamental point which Piketty’s class analysis leads to, therefore, is the need to focus on the very wealthy, and how far this group might indeed by crystallising as a class. Rather than the traditional sociological obsession with the boundaries between middle and working class, and so the dividing lines in the middle reaches of society, we instead need to turn our gaze much higher up the social distribution in order to focus on the very wealthy and a broader elite class. And here his references to the world of Austen and Balzac are very pertinent. Given that he argues that economically we are returning to a period of wealth stability such as they wrote about, are we also likely to see the resumption of the kind of status based, kinship and inheritance dominated, and ritualistic society that they delineate? And if so, what kinds of rituals and symbolic life is characteristic of the super wealthy and the broader elite? What is the role of elite education, of residential and consumption patterns, of friendship and social networks amongst these groups? This is arguably the fundamental sociological question of our age, in exploring the kinds of closure and social and cultural elitism which might now characterise the very highest levels of the social structure. What kind of kinship alliances, elite rituals, and institutional powers do we see around us in 2014?

The thought occurred when reading this that these issues could be productively addressed through social fiction – using what we do know to explore these forms of life and how they might change over the coming decades, as well as the potential implications of these changes. As someone who is instinctively drawn to “the banal epochal theorising of sociologists such as by Bauman, Beck and Castells”, despite being intensely critical of it, I found this essay challenging but plausible. Read the full thing rather than my notes!

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