From the Buyer’s Desk: Histories of the Present from Piketty, Sassen, Harvey
Last night, Book Culture participated in one of the most exciting events of the year, Thomas Piketty’s appearance at the Kraft Center, hosted by the Blinken European Institute and the Maison Française. It’s probably not premature to say that Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap), is the academic title of the 2013, attracting interest from lay readers and scholars across a variety of disciplines. A French economist, classically trained in the United States, Piketty has produced a magisterial study of wealth inequality, with a long historical view more frequently associated with world-systems theorists and Marxists such as Robert Brenner.
Piketty’s thesis is relatively straightforward: The past forty years has seen both a spectacular rise in income inequality as well as a growing gap between the rate of return on capital and the rate of economic growth. That is, high returns on capital are not being plowed back into productive investments, but increasingly hoarded as private assets. As a result, we see the emergence of a new rentier class, comparable to that of late nineteenth century Europe, sustaining itself through inheritance and undermining the meritocratic institutions we value so highly.
While the conclusions reached in Capital in the Twenty-First Century are grounded in years of study and analysis of national tax data and the World Top Incomes Database, Piketty is also a worthy heir to the great tradition of French prose stylists, employing illustrations from Austen, Balzac and American television to enrich his historical account.
If Piketty’s book focuses on the beneficiaries of the new global economy, Columbia sociologist Saskia Sassen’s new book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (also Belknap) examines its casualties. Traditional metrics of prosperity such as GDP, Sassen claims, systematically exclude externalities such as unemployment and environmental degradation. Finance, rather than enabling productive investment, has leveraged crises and disasters for private gain. While earlier economic trends favored the incorporation of people within a system of production and consumption, we are now living under a regime of “expulsion,” in which increasing numbers of people are, on the one hand, excluded from economic and political participation, and, on the other hand, rendered invisible within policy debates.
Radical dissent has been growing in recent years. The financial crisis and Occupy movement have led to a renewed interest in Marxism and leftist publications such as n+1 and Jacobin are widely perceived as avatars of a new zeitgeist. Perhaps the most popular and prolific figure of this efflorescence is CUNY Anthropology Professor David Harvey. Harvey first gained recognition as a geographer and the most persistent theme of his work has been the role of land and urban development as a magnet for investment in periods of over-accumulation. Harvey’s new book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford), is strikingly optimistic. The contradictions of capitalism, as he portrays them, are not necessarily harbingers of disaster, but points of vulnerability that can be used by political movements seeking more popularly constituted forms of power.
Several other recent books on capitalism and inequality are worth noting: Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (W. W. Norton) investigates the underhanded tactics employed by high frequency traders. Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Welfare Gap (Spiegel and Grau), by Rolling Stone Journalist Matt Taibbi, looks at how the justice system is rigged in favor of the rich. Finally, Jeffrey Sachs: The Strange Case of Dr. Shock and Mr. Aid, by Japhy Wilson (Verso) is a polemical look at the humanitarian projects of the influential Columbia professor, most famous for his introduction of free-market “shock-therapy” into Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism.
From the Buyer’s Desk is an ongoing feature of the Book Culture Blog.