A General Theory for Our Times: On Piketty

in Historical Materialism
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Thomas Piketty has offered, and many have desperately snatched at, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money of our epoch. Piketty’s affinity with John Maynard Keynes and his groundbreaking 1936 landmark is largely unreflexive. But the ties that bind him to Keynes are powerful, and manifest themselves at many levels in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The epistemology, the political stance, the methodological commitments, and the politics resonate in imperfect but remarkable harmony. This is no accident, because the world in which Piketty’s book appeared is saturated with the specifically capitalist form of anxiety that Keynes sought to diagnose, and fix, the last time it made the richest economies in the world tremble.

A General Theory for Our Times: On Piketty

in Historical Materialism

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References

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2

Summers 2014.

5

Piketty 2013pp. 215 348 365.

6

Keynes 1971–90c p. 326 [Keynes 1971–90c is Essays in Persuasion of 1931].

7

Keynes 1971–90c p. 331.

8

Keynes 1971–90e pp. 124–33.

9

Keynes 1971–90k p. 34.

10

Negri 1988p. 24.

14

Piketty 2013pp. 16 28 368.

15

Piketty 2013p. 65. Keynes’s use of the term ‘bliss’ is a reference to a much admired 1928 paper by his student and friend Frank Ramsey.

16

E.g. Keynes 1971–90b pp. 13 19 24 n. 3 [Keynes 1971–90b is The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money].

17

These are in fact the words of Read 1898p. 272. Keynes’s variation (Keynes 1971–90b p. 371) is considerably less succinct. He said it is better ‘to see the truth obscurely and imperfectly rather than to maintain error reached indeed with clearness and consistency and by easy logic on hypotheses inappropriate to the facts’.

19

De Angelis 2000.

20

E.g. Mattick 1969; Hayek 1972. For a detailed explanation of this mischaracterisation see Mann 2015.

21

Keynes 1971–90a p. 65; Keynes 1971–90c p. 75 [Keynes 1971–90a is A Tract on Monetary Reform of 1924].

22

Keynes 1971–90b p. 159.

25

Keynes 1971–90a p. 24. Alternatively as he wrote in ‘The End of Laissez-Faire’ ‘capitalism wisely managed can probably be made more efficient for attaining economic ends than any alternative yet in sight but that in itself it is in many ways extremely objectionable’ (Keynes 1971–90c p. 294).

26

Keynes 1971–90d pp. 446–7 [1971–90d is Essays in Biography of 1933].

29

Keynes 1971–90k p. 61.

30

Backhouse and Bateman 2011pp. 88–93; Clarke 1988 p. 75.

32

Keynes 1971–90e p. 114.

35

Keynes 1971–90b p. 381.

36

Keynes 1971–90j pp. 33–48.

38

Keynes 1971–90c p. 126.

40

Keynes 1971–90b p. 31. The reasoning is as follows: the marginal propensity to consume is weaker in wealthy communities and the inducement to invest is lower because the community already has a lot of capital so interest rates have to adjust (‘fall rapidly’) to make the marginal efficiency of capital closer to r and encourage productive capital-asset investment as opposed to debt purchase or speculation (not that they are always separate).

41

Keynes 1971–90b pp. 30 215 217. In other words scarce enough to produce a rabble; the rabble is a product of the fallacy of composition inherent in competitive (a.k.a. ‘individualistic’) capitalism and the condition in which it coalesces is the same conditions necessary for profit. The rabble is the ‘unintended’ consequence of the organisation of life by the rule of value.

42

Piketty 2013p. 336.

43

Keynes 1971–90b p. 212.

44

Keynes 1971–90b pp. 375–7.

45

E.g. Piketty 2013pp. 266 288 319 568 769.

46

Piketty 2013p. 47; cf. pp. 114 145 159 272 674 772.

47

E.g. Piketty 2013pp. 156 63 103 583 769 863.

48

Piketty 2013p. 55.

49

Piketty 2013p. 879.

50

Keynes 1971–90f p. 132.

52

Keynes 1971–90b p. 207.

53

Keynes 1971–90e p. 206.

54

Piketty 2013pp. 82 85 84.

55

Keynes 1971–90b p. 212.

56

Keynes 1971–90b p. 213.

57

Piketty 2013p. 672; Keynes 1971–90i p. 846.

59

Piketty 2013p. 187.

60

Piketty 2013p. 942.

61

Keynes 1971–90b p. 376.

62

Piketty 2013pp. 565 675.

63

Piketty 2013p. 215.

64

Keynes 1971–90b p. 294. The means to this end are: (1) skilled management of the rate of interest which determines for all intents and purposes the terms upon which present investment opportunities must compete with those in the future; (2) when necessary state spending to maintain a stable or steadily increasing level of aggregate demand; and (3) as low inflation as is practically possible without too much disruption of the labour market since it lowers the value of real wages discourages investment and can lead to vicious inflationary spirals.

66

Keynes 1971–90i p. 841; Keynes 1971–90h p. 72.

67

Piketty 2013pp. 840 600.

68

Piketty 2013pp. 56 391.

69

Piketty 2013p. 23.

70

Keynes 1971–90b p. 374; Piketty 2013p. 44: ‘Inequality is not necessarily inherently evil: the central question is to know if it is justified if it has sufficient reasons’.

73

Keynes 1971–90k p. 28.

75

Piketty 2013p. 566; cf. p. 414.

76

Piketty 2013pp. 671 673.

77

Keynes 1971–90b p. 308.

78

Piketty 2013p. 709.

79

Piketty 2013p. 752.

80

Piketty 2013pp. 842 840. For an account of a recent attempt to impose such a tax at the local scale see Harding 2014.

81

Piketty 2013p. 843.

82

Keynes 1971–90b p. 378; Piketty 2013p. 850.

83

Piketty 2013pp. 857 n. 1 856.

84

Piketty 2013p. 848.

85

Piketty 2013p. 415.

86

Piketty 2013pp. 63 672.

88

Schmitt 1999; Arrighi 2007.

90

Eatwell and Milgate 2011.

91

Marx and Engels 2010p. 94. See Arendt on the ‘communistic fiction’ at the heart of ‘liberal economics’ (Arendt 1958 pp. 43–4 44 n. 36; cf. Myrdal 1953).

92

Frank 2004; Halimi 2004.

94

Hegel 1991§303.

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