Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Literature, Epistemic Democracy, and the Punky Piketty

Instead of Austen and Balzac, the professor [Piketty] ought to read "Animal Farm" and "Darkness at Noon."
--The Wall Street Journal 

Any reading of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has to come to terms with the conditions of possibility for its popularity. Why has Thomas Piketty become a “rock star”? In part, Piketty’s text concretizes left-liberal consensus around contemporary capitalism, and does so in a way amenable to the technocratic, social-managerial orientations of left-liberalism: with data, lots of it, stretched over a long enough period to induce a kind of bleak fatalist belief in capitalism’s sempiternality. Like the political scientists about whom I last blogged, Piketty’s work in part repackages the commonly known as the expertly known. But—and here’s the other part, and one that distinguishes his work from that of those whom I critiqued—he does so in a way that validates historically common ways of knowing the economic. Every review has remarked upon the prominence of the cultural within Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The problem has been one of determining the relationship between the cultural object and the economic analysis. For Piketty’s WSJ reviewer cited above, the cultural seems to provide, maximally, a kind of overarching attunement to the phenomena discussed; minimally, a kind of shorthand for the bundling of norms and facts presented in the text. For others, Piketty’s fun with Austen, Balzac, and Don Draper are pedagogically useful, sure, but somewhat ornamental, even superfluous. The reviewer in The Nation writes

“Discussions of Balzac and Jane Austen are mildly helpful as demonstrations of the attitudes toward capital in the nineteenth century, but they offer rapidly diminishing returns and do little to substantiate Piketty’s strange contention that novelists have lost interest in the details of money, a claim plausible only to someone who has never heard of Tom Wolfe or Martin Amis. Other references—Mad MenDjango Unchained, Damages and, repeatedly, Titanic—add even less.”

Culture as attitude, culture as exemplum—ultimately, culture as superfluous.

But that’s not quite right. For Piketty isn’t simply staging the “attitudes” of European bourgeoisies to capitalism in the early nineteenth century. Rather, he is staging the adequacy of their representations of it. (In that, he’s riding the rails laid down by a gang of Marxist literary scholars.) Conversely, I take Piketty’s claim (which struck me as bizarre at first, too) that novelists don’t talk about money anymore to mark less an empirical fact than an epistemological disadequation. That is, cultural objects might represent the economic today, but they cannot know it in a referentially meaningful way. If Tom Wolfe is talking about money, he might as well not be. It’s intriguing, in this regard, that the contemporary aesthetic objects that Piketty is drawn toward tend to be historical fictions (Mad MenDjango Unchained, Titanic), as if art can know economic pasts but can’t get a grip on its present.

With his literary “demonstrations,” I am suggesting, Piketty forces readers to reckon with the constitutive break between the literary and economic epistemologies and forms of representation. Another way of putting this: The novel used to be able to know the economic in a referentially adequate way. It no longer can. What each citation of Austen recalls was a harmonious time in which literary and economic epistemologies weren’t so different, when literary and economic genres of writing could blend together, a time before the literary and the economic were made to part ways. (Defoe would probably be a better example, but Austen was writing through a point of takeoff. On the general relationship between literary and economic writing in the Anglosphere, read this.) It’s a subdued point of the book, but it’s there: the material inequalities associated with capitalism’s takeoff had their parallel in an induced epistemological inequality. Literature became ornamental, literary works mere “demonstrations” illustrative of more robust economic concepts (a la Harriet Martineau’s gawdawful Illustrations of Political Economy [1834]), as a gaggle of political economists reconstituted economic inquiry as an epistemologically and generically autonomous field, a field ruled by experts. In a certain way, then, Piketty’s account of the accumulation of inequality is equally an account—vague, to be sure—of why it takes an economist to tell you that this is the case. Just as capital maldistributes wealth, so too does it maldistribute knowledge. His literary “demonstrations” put us in a position to experience the cognitive disembedding of the economic from the phenomenologies of the everyday, phenomenologies that can be accessed in literature and film.

Of course, questions of epistemology and genres of representation are not Piketty’s primary concern, but he can’t not touch upon them. For two reasons. Piketty is concerned to set off a struggle over method in economics departments, which he sees as too mathematized, too abstract, too ahistorical—in a phrase, too much of all the things that make it impenetrable to lay people. At the same time, Piketty’s own handling of his massive sets of data, his mode of interpreting and his form of representing it, requires that his readers take a relaxed approach to statistical precision. Precision and referential adequacy take a back seat to the omnipresent U curve. Limitations on data, as well as decisions over how to establish and arrange variables, make all figures figural. No matter how dense the data, economists have to play fast and loose with figures all the time—which is why, yes, it might matter whether one is reading Austen or Orwell.

So, if Piketty is a “rock star,” maybe it’s because there’s something a little punky, a little DIY, a little put-together-on-the-run at work in his text. And that’s what I want to hold on to from a book I really truly hated. It’s been depressing to me that people are reading Piketty’s book as if they’re learning something substantive about the world through economics when, as I understand it, Piketty’s work makes legible the primitive accumulation of economic knowledge, the enclosure of a proper sphere of economic knowledge that cut into spaces of the commonly known. Indeed, the last book on economic history to inspire an analogous, but lower-key, kind of pop frenzy—Graeber’s Debt—worked precisely to re-embed economic thinking in the space of the social, to common economic thinking by turning to the genre of the anecdote, the ethnography. Alas, it was written off by a certain socialist publication—“We need more grand histories, but 5,000 years of anecdotes is no substitute for real political economy,” as the banner runs—which, alongside many left-lite publications, is going (to go) gaga for Tommy P. But to posit the non-substitutability of genres of the ordinary for those of the expert is to inscribe managerialism as a guiding principle of our radicalism. It’s also to subordinate one’s epistemic autonomy to experts, thereby foregoing the radical work of developing ways of knowing in common. The enthusiasm over Piketty, in other words, is premised on a refusal of epistemic autonomy, of the work of epistemic communization. Let me be clear: I simply cannot imagine that the US left has learned anything useful or meaningful from Piketty’s book, so I can only understand the book’s enthused reception in those quarters as a ritualization of epistemic lack. Let’s call it the socialist’s Daddy-Mommy-Me: the economist, his data, and the good little boy just so pleased that ma and pa have validated his sense of the real.

Let’s hold on to the punky Piketty, then, the one in the midst of an oedipal revolt against the discipline. The one who insists that “the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers,” who insists that “[d]emocracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts.” The literary appears in Capital in the Twenty-First Century as one enactment of this epistemic democracy—a lost democracy, to be sure, one that was never really democratic anyhow, but one that persists as a sign of alternative epistemological ecologies. To read with the punky Piketty—and against the feted prof who insists several times that “[i]nequality is not necessarily bad in itself”—is to continue the work of democratizing economic knowledge. To see in a novel, in an ethnographic anecdote, or in the performative scene of submission conjured on payday the knowledges we need to know. And what we know, in the form of knowledge generated in these encounters, is that economics is ultimately defective for democracy: to democratize economic knowledge is to destroy it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ideas Whose Time Has (Belatedly) Come: Or, Political Science

Rich people rule!” Didja know? Of course you did. But, according to Larry Bartels, political scientists just proved it. Business Insider has just reported on the same study, one that proves that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Sorry for blowing your minds, comrades. But you can’t silence an idea whose time has come, remember.

When I first read Bartels’ piece, I kind of just wrote it off as just another piece in the extensive pundit-class discourse of Liberal Eye-Opening. But then I re-read it. The problem, I realized, isn’t simply that Bartels is telling me what I already know. The piece isn’t useless; indeed, it has multiple effects, precisely to the extent that it tells me what I assumed as given. In telling me something I already know, Bartels’ piece is actually telling me that I never really knew what I thought. At stake in the piece, in other words, is a redistribution of the epistemic in which the kinds of knowledge I possess turn out to be non-knowledges. The real thesis of this piece—which thinks it’s telling us that economic elites have corrupted democratic governance—is that the demos isn’t equipped to know democracy’s destruction.

Let’s begin with the recognition of a simple fact. By grasping that the rich rule in Anno Domini 2014, it’s taken U.S. poli.sci departments a real long time to accord truth-value to something that pretty much every human being knows. Sure, people figure and operationalize this common knowledge in diverse, antagonistic ways; plenty of people are pretty okay with class rule. But anyone who has been conscious for an election cycle, say, or worked at a job—that is, depended on someone else for subsistence, submitted one’s bodily and cognitive dispositions to the commands of another—or realized that they’ll never golf with Barry knows that rich people rule. Almost everyone: political scientists, apparently, constitute the one exception. Luckily, though, due to a new “stunningly documented” study by Bartels’ friends, what everybody knows now counts as knowledge. Knowledge, friends. Shit you can cite.

By “documented,” of course, we’re talking about a translation of commonsense into data. To be sure, as Bartels recognizes, any freshman in any Intro to Theory course—from literary theory to anthropology to sociology to (maybe?) poli.sci—would know, through Hegel, Marx, or even ole Adam Smith, that “economic power” (I’ll get to this fine euphemism) is political power, functionally if not normatively. But the form of knowing set to work in this theory is not the way poli.sci knows now: “Qualitative studies of the political role of economic elites have mostly been relegated to the margins of the field.” It’s astonishing: the very belatedness of positivist methodologies to accede to the level of what-everyone-ever-already-knows doesn’t impel Bartels to reconsider the epistemic configuration of his field. Indeed, even as Bartels notes the belatedness of poli.sci to what-everyone-knows, he asserts the epistemic superiority of poli-sci’s methods: “political scientists are belatedly turning more systematic attention to the political impact of wealth, and their findings should reshape how we think about American democracy.” They are tardy to the party, sure, but quantitative political scientists have brought the dope dope—a capacity for “rigorous (meaning quantitative) scientific investigation.” (Hegel could barely count to three before it turned into one again; Poor Adam, meanwhile, didn’t give a fig for political arithmetic; and everyone from Engels on knows that Karl was just rubbish with his maths.)

My problem isn’t with numbers, pie charts, and databases as such. My problem, rather, is with this celebration of a depleted epistemological ecology—not because I love epistemological diversity as such, either, but because I think poli.sci’s ongoing and dead-on impression of an epistemological wasteland functions as a prophylactic against the immediacy, urgent, and (as Bartels would admit) valid claims made in other epistemic registers.

Think of it like this: the takeaway of Bartels’ post is that something like a 1% exists. (It’s actually more like a 10% for the purposes of the study he cites.) I refer back to Occupy’s figuration for two reasons. One, I imagine that Bartels would be rather sympathetic to the liberal-progressivist ends to which this slogan was put, or at least not hostile. Two, it’s a figure that drew upon pop economic knowledge, that attempted to derive from the latter the kind of epistemic aura that numbers hold for Serious People. It would have been utterly natural for Bartels to have referred to this figure, to the social movement that buoyed it, to the knowledges that sustained it. Instead, he directs us to “a flurry of commentary” surrounding McCutcheon v. FEC, a case adjudicated well, well after Occupy. If Occupy was a movement touting an idea whose time had come, Bartels refuses to validate forms of knowing that know too soon, forms of knowing that short circuit the positivist time of coming-to-know with the punctuality of a deeply plebeian “Shit’s fucked up and bullshit!”

But that’s what liberalism is, really: the absorption of the immediacy of a political sense into the studied, slow time of useless intellection, the conflation of taking-time and having-a-(truer-)thought. The bourgeois public sphere, the Parliamentary Blue Book, the parliamentary labyrinth of US congressional procedure, the ballot box, and, sure, contemporary political-scientific methods—all of these liberal forms articulate a slowing of time to a production of thought in the name of optimizing a decision that will never come. Just think about statistical methodologies, the kinds of datasets that would be required to prove that, yes, class power is political power: the study Bartels cites involves 1779 policy outcomes from over a period of twenty years just to make the minimal suggestion that things work out, probably, politically speaking, maybe, for rich folk. (Intriguingly, neither Bartels nor the study incorporate the fact that no one has done such a study into their understanding of class power. The fact that scholars assume, against empirical reality, a liberal-inflected “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy” as their primary analytic framework doesn’t register as an index of the functioning of class rule. Instead, they code the qualitative effectivity of bourgeois ideology as nothing more than a poor analytic frame for marshaling quantitative empirics.) How big of a dataset would be required to suggest that capitalism, class power, and the liberal-democratic state all have something to do with one another? (Of course, Bartels doesn’t’ say capitalism or class power—he speaks of a bland “economic power,” as if plutocrats could be deriving their dough from a super-successful autonomous workers’ collectivity they’re members of just as easily as from heavily financialized capitalist exploitation.)

As a speech act, then, Bartels’ post’s primary effect isn’t simply to affirm plebeian sense, to say, “You guys were right; class power is a thing; sorry for our belatedness.” Rather, its primary effect is to assert the deficiency of plebeian sense even when it is right. You didn’t know what you know until rigorous poli.sci people knew it. The effect is to delaminate political knowledge from the polis, democratic sense from the demos. We’ll only know that democracy is fucked when experts mathematize it. Until the datasets come in, chill out—we don’t know anything yet.

I used to giggle at the scientism of early Marxism—Marx and Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg, Lukacs and Althusser, on and on. But now I’m beginning to think that this scientism wasn’t supposed to achieve any kind of scientific positivity, that Marxism’s valorization of the scientific didn’t intend a valorization of positive knowledges. (Stalin, we might say, wasn’t part of the plan.) What Marx desired in seizing hold of the term “science” was to create and defend a space in which plebeian forms of knowing could be entertained as knowledge—a knowledge that doesn’t require validation from positive or theoretical science, but rather productive transcription into it. This is what Marx does in what have become my favorite paragraphs in volume one of Capital. It’s the “Working Day” chapter, a few pages in. Marx has just exfoliated the capitalist’s sense of work-time. And then, dramatically, the worker enters the scene of knowledge production:

“Suddenly, however, there arises the voice of the worker, which had previously been stifled in the sound and fury of the production process: ‘The commodity I have sold you differs from the ordinary crowd of commodities in that its use creates value, a greater value than it costs…’” (342)

And the worker continues, making fine conceptual distinctions, offering mathematical examples, and generally talking the language of political economy. Lest you think Marx is simply ventriloquizing a worker to ground his theory, he assures us in a footnote, “During the great strike of the London building workers…their committee published a manifesto that contained, to some extent, the plea of our worker” (343). This is knowledge from the streets, as it were, but what Marx is working us toward is a disposition where we can treat it as knowledge, knowledge as such, without reservations.

We need to follow Marx in defending the discursive space in which the plebeian voice “suddenly” appears, to follow Marx in holding onto knowledge charged by forms of urgency that can’t settle themselves into a dataset, a Blue Book, a Parliamentary inquiry. To open space where another’s words can erupt as knowledge is to begin a communization of the epistemic. We need, I think to begin to trust that what we do on picket lines and in occupations, at meetings and in workshops, on Twitter and on blogs, is in fact productive of knowledges we need to have—urgent knowledges, sudden knowledges that can’t wait for positivist transcription. Knowledges whose time has not yet come.