Category Archives: Reviews

Top Ten Reads from 2014

Spending the semester teaching my first class, and focusing a bit more on articles than book-length texts, this year’s reading list was a little light. Nonetheless, there were some real gems this year, here are the top 10.

10.) Jose Miranda: Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression
Given its title, it is surprising how much more Miranda’s Marx and the Bible is of “the Bible” than “Marx.” In fact, at its core, this text is essentially a large-scale commentary on the whole of the Christian scriptures. Emphasizing the key liberative portions of the bible (the exodus, the prophets, the gospels, and the epistles), Miranda suggests that the consistent stream that runs through the center of the all Christian scripture is a fundamental call to justice for the oppressed (the widow, stranger, and orphan). This call, Miranda will ultimately suggest, is not inconsistent with the liberatory call of marxist socialism. Rather, he will argue, within the Latin American context, the two must be held together.

9.) Alain Badiou: Paul: The Foundation of Universalism
In this short text, Badiou summarizes his philosophy of the event through a reading of Paul’s epistles. For Badiou, a staunch atheist, Paul’s subjective appropriation of the event (the resurrection of Christ) can be abstracted from its mythical ground (the resurrection as a literal event) and recognized as a clear exemplar of the proper form by which the subject responds to the revolutionary event. The text has a few obvious faults vis-avis Pauline scholarship, e.g. demphasis upon the communal character of Paul’s thought. Nonetheless, it is an insightful reading of Paul and likely the clearest presentation of Badiou’s philosophy.

8.) Slavoj Zizek: The Fragile Absolute
Zizek here presents — in his typically idiosyncratic and schizophrenic way — a fascinating defence of Christianity, particularly the protestant notion of “love” (caritas) as distinct from law. Christianity, in Zizek’s mind, is uniquely situated to offer a space to think beyond the strictures of the ruling capitalist ideology.

7.) Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century
A bit of a sensation throughout the summer, Piketty’s Capital is intricately researched, and strongly argued. Central to his text is the argument that the average growth of capitalist economies is generally less than the standard rate of profit (his infamous r>g inequality). Thus, overtime, unrestricted capitalist economies always tend toward radical inequality. For a more intricate look into the argument, be sure to check out my (slowly moving) chapter-by-chapter analysis here.

6.) Gustavo Gutierrez: A Theology of Liberation
The foundation of liberation theology, now a classic of theology, is unexpectedly fresh even after all of these years. A truly remarkable text, Gutierrez succeeds in rethinking Catholic theology through engagements — not only with Marxist thought as generally noted — but also phenomenology, critical theory, and contemporary theology.

5.) John D. Caputo: The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps
The functional sequel to The Weakness of God, Caputo’s most recent publication situates his theological vision of a “weak theology” within the context of a number of key philosophical and theological trends including: the radical theology of Slavoj Zizek, the radical orthodoxy of John Milbank, and the speculative realists.

4.) Thomas J.J. Alitizer: The New Gospel of Christian Atheism
Rethinking his unique vision, years after the publication of the first “Gospel of Christian Atheism,” Altizer presents a startling vision of an apocalyptic Christianity. A religion of the “absolute Novum” turned against any vision of a primordial return, Altizer’s Christianity pursues a radically Hegelian vision of an inbreaking of the authentically new.

3.) H.P. Lovecraft: Waking Up ScreamingThe Watchers Out of Time
Technically two books, I have recently reentered the world of fiction through H.P. Lovecrafts exquisitely written short stories. Absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in the history of science fiction or horror; Lovecraft has also been entering the philosophical domain, having been appropriated by the new materialists. Great fun, though there are certain problematic racist undertones, particularly in his early work, that most be recognized as Lovecraft’s unfortunate inability to think beyond the bounds of the racist early 20th century New England society in which he was raised.

2.) Karl Marx: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I
Given its infamy, history, and declaration as “the bible of the proletariat,” it seems absurd to offer a meager praise of Marx’s Capital. That being said, the coherence and rigor of Marx’s magnum opus, is remarkable. Avoiding hasty generalizations, it both draws upon and critiques the preceding bourgeois economic tradition (particularly Smith and Ricardo), offering helpful correctives and laying out a profoundly nuanced labor-theory of value, theory of surplus value, and explanation of exploitation. Notoriously varied in rhetorical style, Marx seamlessly transitions between rigid economic prose, literary flourish (vampires and werewolves abound), and journalistic investigation.

1.) Hadewijch: Complete Works
A brilliant combination of love poetry, mystical theology, and theosophical reflections; the work of Hadewijch has been (rightfully) seeing a resurgence among medievalists and theologians alike. Its deeply embodied and sexually intricate theological vision is enlightening and inspiring. Truly Profound.

Capital in the 21st Century: Chapter 10

Following upon his analysis of the inequality of income, the tenth chapter of Piketty’s Capital tackles the analogous–even, more strongly defined–disparity in capital ownership. This inequality, Piketty argues, is central, as it is precisely the radical gap in capital ownership that defined the dangerously unequal society of early 20th century Europe, and it is precisely this level of capital inequality that is beginning to reemerge today.

“In all known societies, at all times,” Piketty begins his analysis, “the least wealthy half of the population own virtually nothing (generally little more than 5 percent of total wealth)” (336). The real distinction between a radically unequal society and a (relatively) equal society, therefore, is the relation between the top decile and the next fourty percent, or even more so, the top centile and the next fourty-nine percent. In French patrimonial society, Piketty shows, “the top centile alone owned 45-50 percent of the nation’s wealth in 1800-1810; its share surpassed 50 percent in 1850-1860 and reached 60 percent in 1900-1910” (339). This growth can be attributed to the rise of industrial society, and would only decline following the shocks of the two World Wars, and the subsequent dismantling of the rentier class. A decline in capital inequality, as seen in the mid 20th century necessitates a radical reformulation of society (such as that triggered by the world wars). In fact, Piketty argues, the French Revolution, even with its rhetoric of equality, barely put a dent in rentier wealth (particularly given the “emigre billion,” the payment of 1 billion francs to the wealthiest French citizens after the revolution as compensation for the confiscation of land during the preceding century). This trajectory, Piketty’s data shows, can be largely reiterated in Britain and Sweden, and therefore cannot be conceived as a uniquely French phenomenon (343-345).

The United States, on the other hand, once again charted its own unique economic course. Most importantly, and for reasons already marked in earlier chapters (rapid demographic growth, etc.), America began on a relatively equal economic footing (roughly equivalent to Sweden in 1970 [347]). Most shocking, for the modern American, is that not only was the economic reality inverted (the US considerably more equal than Europe), but also the rhetoric was largely inverted. Rather than the myth of meritocracy common in the present political landscape, the great fear in early 20th century America was that it would turn into Europe, that is to say, into a radically unequal society (348). Yet, this relatively equal (that is, relative to the radically unequal Europe) distribution was not the only unique feature of the American 20th century economy. Most importantly, and once again the causes of this difference have been previously marked out, the decline in top incomes during the two World Wars was considerably attenuated. “The deconcentration of wealth in the United States over the course of the twentieth century was fairly limited: the top decile’s share of total wealth dropped from 80-70 percent, whereas in Europe it fell from 90 to 60 percent” (349). This moderation is not particularly surprising, given that the US did not experience the large-scale destruction of capital (through bombings, confiscations, etc.) common to the continent. The result is that contrary to Europe, the 20th century was not a period of radical egalitarianism in the US, on the contrary, we are more unequal now than at the turn of the century.

Returning to his central inequality (r>g), Piketty marks the nature of the dramatic pre-20th century growth in capital inequality to the relatively low level of growth. As it should be remembered, pre-industrializatized societies tended to grow at a miniscule .5-1 percent a year. In such a low growth society, the accumulation of “inherited wealth” becomes inevitable “for strictly mathematical reasons” (351). Of course, as Piketty repeatedly insists, the rate of return on Capital’s higher rate than growth is not logically necessary, but is strictly a historically contingent fact. Nonetheless, there are essentially no 21st century forecasts which predict a rate of growth that will outstrip the rate of return on capital. Thus, it seems, without policy change, excessive growth in inequality is an inevitability. “According to the central scenario discussed in Part One, global growth is likely to be around 1.5 percent a year between 2050 and 2100, roughly the same rate as in the nineteenth century. The gap between r and g would then return to a level comparable to that which existed during the Industrial Revolution” (355).

Given that the rate of profit exceeds growth, the obvious question that Piketty closes the chapter with is “why hasn’t inequality of wealth returned to the levels of the past?”. His answer, is multifaceted. First, the shocks of the 20th century, in particular the wars, effected the highest income levels disproportionately, and they never fully recovered. Said differently, “the reason why wealth today is not as unequally distributed as in the past is simply that not enough time has passed since 1945” (372). Second, he suggests, before the Wars, taxes on capital income were essentially zero. Given the current rate of approx. 30%, this has had a significant effect of slowing the rate of top wealth growth. Third, and lastly, is the introduction of more steeply progressive tax schemes.

Capital in the 21st Century: Chapter 9

In the ninth chapter of Capital, “Inequality of Labor Income,” Piketty expands the discussion of wage developed in the previous chapter and more thoroughly unpacks the central motif introduced in chapter eight, the “supermanager.”

He begins the chapter, as is his style, by dismissing an overly simplistic paradigm that, while not entirely incorrect, fails to grasp the subtlety of the situation. In this case, it is the reduction of wage variance to a war between advancing technology and advancing education. In this paradigm, advances in technology push wages down, while advances in education drive wages up. Said otherwise, this conflict or race feeds the “supply and demand of skills” (305). This paradigm, Piketty wants to insist, is incomplete, and can’t account for certain key factors in inequality, such as the rise of the supermanager. But, it does nevertheless account for certain trends, “all signs are that the Scandanavian countries, where wage inequality is more moderate than elsewhere, owe this result in large part to the fact that their educational system is relatively egalitarian and inclusive” (307).

In order to nuance this model, Piketty then turns to the role of governmental institutions in the maintenance or compression of wage inequality. A key example of this phenomenon, Piketty suggests, is the dramatic reduction of inequality during the two World Wars. As Piketty writes, “the compression of wage inequalities that occurred in both France and the United States during World Wars I and II was the result of negotiations over wage scales in both the public and private sectors, in which specific institutions such as the National War Labor Board (created expressly for the purpose) played a central role” (308). A second key source of institutional influence is in minimum wage regulation. Yet, the minimum wage can only serve to compress wage inequality when it keeps up with inflation. But, as Piketty shows, for the United States, the minimum wage peaked in 1969 at $1.60 ($10.10, in 2013 dollars), before crashing under Reagan and Bush senior to less than $6.00 (in 2013 dollars) in 1990, and raising only marginally to $7.25 now. This reduction in minimum wage buying power for the lowest income levels can be seen as a key factor in the increase in inequality since the 1980’s. Weighing into contemporary debates, Piketty goes so far as to suggest that the current US minimum wage has fallen far enough that “it seems likely that the increase in the minimum wage of nearly 25 percent (from $7.25 to $9 an hour) currently envisaged by the Obama administration will have little or no effect on the number of jobs” (313).

In the second half of the chapter, Piketty turns to the rise of the supermanager in order to explain the dramatic rise of US inequality since 1980. It is here that he suggests the failure of the education/technology model fails most conspicuously. For, “when we look at the changes in the skill levels of different groups in the income distribution, it is hard to see any discontinuity between “the 9 percent” and “the 1 percent,” regardless of what criteria we use: years of education, selectivity of educational institution, or professional experience” (314). Simply put, the top 1%, the “supermanager” (yearly salary from 350,000-1.5 million or more), appears no better qualified than the next 9 percent (salary: 108,000-350,000) of doctors, lawyers, etc. This unexpected rise in superhigh salaries is central, because it disproportionately accounts for the rise in income inequality: “in all the English-speaking countries, the primary reason for increased income inequality in recent decades is the rise of the supermanager in both the financial and nonfinancial sectors” (315). Moreover, while this phenomenon can be seen in a number of countries–the UK, France, Britain, etc.–it is primarily a distinctly American phenomenon; even looking solely at the anglophone nations, “the upper centile’s share in the United States increased roughly twice as much as in Britain and Canada and about three times as much as in Australia and New Zealand” (316).

Supermanager

This phenomenon of American inequality is historically new. In general, the rapid population and economic growth of the US has shielded it from massive inequality. Yet, as Piketty shows, “if we calculate (somewhat abusively) an average for Europe based on these four countries [Britain, Sweden, Germany, France], we can make a very clear international comparison: the United States was less inegalitarian than Europe in 1900-1910, slightly more inegalitarian in 1950-1960, and much more inegalitarian in 2000-2010 (see Figure 9.8)” (324). More disconcerting still, is the fact that the top decile in the US now retains a higher share of national income than the average top decile in Europe during the Belle Epoque (roughly 48 percent today, versus Europe’s 46 percent in 1900).

The substantial portion of the chapter closes with a brief examination of emerging economies (specifically: India, Indonesia, China, South Africa, Argentina, and Columbia), from which Piketty derives a few key insights. “First, the most striking result is probably that the upper centile’s share of national income in poor and emerging countires is roughly the same as in rich countires” (326). Second, that Chinese inequality has risen steadily since the “liberalization” of their economy in the 1980s. Beginning roughly at Scandanavian levels, the top centile’s share of national income has more than doubled, though this still puts them below the level of inequality in other emerging nations.

Capital in the 21st Century: Chapter 8

In the eight chapter of Capital, “Two Worlds,” Piketty contrasts two major classes of the “rich.” Whereas most economic analyses depend upon the 10% as the principle category of analysis, Piketty attempts to nuance those figures, with a recognition that the 1% live radically different lives (and earn radically different incomes) than the next 9%. In fact, he will even become more specific, distinguishing the .1% (the super-rich), the small subset who still live off of income from capital.

 notes, first and foremost, a decisive un-arguable decline of income inequality in France since the Belle Epoque–a period defined by massive inherited wealth–“income inequality has greatly diminished in France since the Belle Epoque: the upper decile’s share of national income decreased from 45-50 percent on the eve of World War I to 20-35 percent today” (271). Of course, he is quick to note, this should not be taken to indicate a relative equality in the present system, but quite to the contrary, to simply highlight the startling inequality of the Belle Epoque. More interestingly, this dramatic decrease in income inequality over the 20th century can be attributed almost entirely to the loss of income from capital (the destruction of the rentier class); “if we ignore income from capital and concentrate on wage inequality, we find that the distribution remained quite stable over the long run” (272-273). Or said more directly:

“the reduction of inequality in France during the twentieth century is largely explained by the fall of the rentier and the collapse of very high incomes from capital. No generalized structural process of inequality compression (and particularly wage inequality compression) seems to have operated over the long run” (274).

This decline of the rentier has led to a compression of the composition of top incomes in the highest decile (see figures 8.3 and 8.4). Whereas in the early 20th century, much of the 1% earned a majority of its income from capital, this has now largely been reduced to the upper 1000th (the .1%). Piketty controversially describes this as the rise of a society of “super-managers” in place of the society of the rentiers. Since I have been using this series to highlight prominent critiques of Piketty, particularly those of Andrew Kliman, I should here point you to a recent article concerning this designation: “Were Top Corporate Executives Really Hogging Worker’s Wages.” This distinction in income composition leads Piketty to posit “two worlds” of the top decile: “‘the 9 percent,’ in which income from labor clearly predominates, and ‘the 1 percent,’ in which income from capital becomes progressively more important” (280). Whereas the top centile is dominated by “super-managers” and the financial sector, within the next 9% “we also find doctors, lawyers, merchants, restauranteurs, and other self-employed entrepreneurs” (280). This distinction becomes particularly important when one begins to examine the decrease in income inequality. “‘The 1 percent’ by itself accounts for roughly three-quarters of the decrease in inequality between 1914 and 1945, while ‘the 9 percent’ explains roughly one-quarter” (284).

In France, these distinctions were amplified by the historical circumstances of the two world wars, the depression, and the “chaotic” interwar period. “In each war,” for example, “the scenario was the same: in wartime, economic activity decreases, inflation increases, and real wages and purchasing power begin to fall. Wages at the bottom of the wage scale generally rise, however, and are somewhat more generously protected from inflation than those at the top” (287). This push toward equality would reemerge in May ’68, following the student and social unrest. For the next (roughly) 15 years, the minimum wage would boost, almost yearly, until the 1982-83 “turn toward austerity” (289).

The United States, Piketty suggests, presents a “more complex case” (291).

“The most striking fact is that the United States has become noticeably more inegalitarian than France (and Europe as a whole) from the turn of the twentieth century until now, even though the United States was more egalitarian at the beginning of this period… US inequality is [now] quantitatively as extreme as in old Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century.” (292-293).

To a certain extent, the final portion of the chapter is an attempt to explain this development. Most importantly, Piketty wants to connect the rise of inequality in the US to the rise of the super-managers (a class who is only now beginning to take hold in Europe). The initial (relative) “equality” at the beginning of the century can be easily understood by the limited number and power of the rentier class in the United States. This (relative) equality would continue until the neoliberal revolution of the early 1980s (and thus correspond to the “turn toward austerity” in France). Offering a tacit justification of Occupy’s rhetoric, Piketty largely attributes this rise in inequality to the 1%; “the bulk of the growth of inequality can from ‘the 1 percent,’ whose share of national income rose from 9 percent in the 1970s to about 20 percent in 2000-2010” (296).

This, then, begs the question: “is it possible that the increase of inequality in the United States helped to trigger the financial crisis of 2008?” (297). To this central question, Piketty gives a definitive… “kinda.” For Piketty, it is undeniable that considerable gaps in the social sphere due to inequality would have an economic destabilizing effect. But, he does remain somewhat modest in his claim, cautioning that “it would be altogether too much to claim that the increase of inequality in the United States was the sole or even primary cause of the financial crisis of 2008” (298).

Capital in the 21st Century: Chapter 7

The seventh chapter of Piketty’s Capital, entitled “Inequality and Concentration: Preliminary Bearings” introduces the third major division of the work: “The Structure of Inequality.” Whereas the previous section was primarily directed toward the macro-phenomenon of the capital/income split, Piketty will here shift to the “individual level” (237), and examine the role of the World Wars and subsequent Neoliberal revolution upon inequality among individual members of a nation.

The chapter begins with an obvious distinction between income from labor and inherited wealth. In another turn to literature, Piketty shows that, for the upper class of the 18th and 19th century, labor played essentially no factor in the maintenance of wealth. Rather, through rent and the like, inherited wealth bred further wealth. The promise of equality manifest in the classic image of America emerges precisely from the ostensibly meritocratic character of income from labor, rather than income from (inherited) wealth. Of course, as Piketty rightly notes, one should not overly simplify the situation and suggest that a rejection of inherited wealth would immediately result in a meritocratic/equal society. But the power of inherited wealth does mark a certain threshold of inequality paradigmatic of the pre-20th century Western world.

Dividing his analysis, Piketty attempts to separate out the modern form of this labor/inheritance distinction, the difference between income from labor and wealth (capital). As he will subsequently show, “inequality with respect to capital is always greater than inequality with respect to labor” (244). This phenomenon can be shown in the present disparity between income inequality and wealth inequality. “The upper 10 percent of the labor income distribution generally receives 25-30 percent of total labor income, whereas the top 10 percent of the capital income distribution always owns more than 50 percent of all wealth” (244). The present US income gap, for example, is roughly 35% for the upper decile and 25 percent for the lowest five deciles (lowest half of the population), while wealth distribution is 70% for the upper decile and 5% for the lowest half. As a point of comparison, relatively “equal” wealth distribution, as for example Scandinavia in the 1970’s, was approx. 30% for the top decile and 25% for the bottom half.

Of course, this distinction is not meant to undermine the concrete inequality of income. In fact, as Piketty notes, in the United States in the early 2010’s, “income from labor is about as unequally distributed as has ever been observed anywhere” (256). A frightening thought, coming from a study which includes an analysis of the French Ancien Régime. Wealth inequality, on the other hand, saw a historical decrease with the rise of the “patrimonial middle class” (260). “To go back a century in time,” Piketty writes, “to the decade 1900-1910: in all the countries of Europe, the concentration of capital was then much more extreme than it is today” (261). Nevertheless, as his data shows, the 21st century appears situated to quickly move into levels of inequality on par with pre-war levels.

Piketty marks two primary methods by which radical inequality can emerge. The first, which he titles “hyperpatrimonial society” is the classic method of wealth accumulation and transmission: inheritance. This structure dominated classically unequal societies such as the Belle Époque and the Ancien Régime in France and Britain, periods of record-breaking inequality. The second method of hyperaccumulation which Piketty marks, is the so-called “hypermeritocratic society” (although Piketty questions the truly “meritocratic” nature of such a society and wonders if “society of the supermanagers” might be more appropriate). In this second form of society, which is only recently emerged (principally in the US), “the peak of the income hierarchy is dominated by very high incomes from labor rather than by inherited wealth” (265). This form of hyperaccumulation is distinctive of the wall-street ethos, where excessive wealth is no longer tied to industrial or commercial enterprise, but more often than not, the highest income is generated within the financial sector.

Capital in the 21st Century: Chapter 6

In his sixth chapter of his Capital, Piketty investigates the evolution of the “Capital-Labor Split” throughout the 20th century. This ratio is determined by the so-called first law of capitalism–α = r * β–elaborated in the first chapter of the work. Here,  α corresponds to capital’s share of national income, thus conversely, labor’s share of income can be  simply determined by subtracting capital’s share from total income. That is to say, if capital’s share (α) is 35% of national income, than labor’s share of national income is 65%. The first observation that Piketty draws from his analysis of British and French data, is that capital’s share of nation income follows precisely the “U-Shaped” curve of the capital/income ratio (β), though in an attenuated form, “the depth of the U is less pronounced” (200). This attenuation, Piketty suggests, may be a consequence of the rate of return on capital (r), which, he suggests, “seems to have attenuated the evolution of the quantity of capital, β: r is higher in periods when β is lower, and vice versa, which seems natural” (200). Said otherwise–and drawing upon the second law of capitalism (β = s/g)–since growth (g) is inversely proportional to the # of years of capital stock (β), periods of high growth/low savings correspond to periods of high rate of return on capital (i.e. high profit). That is to say, you can’t have your cake [savings] and eat it too [profit].

Of course, at this point it is worth clarifying what is precisely meant by “capital’s share of income” versus labor. In general, Piketty attempts to group together all forms of non-wage income in order to determine capital’s share. In practice, this includes rents, dividends, interest, and other miscellaneous forms of profit. Of course, this figure fails to recognize non-wage labor whose return is entirely in the form of dividends or other non-wage remuneration. Piketty will offer, as an example, the time and effort put into portfolio management by managers in the financial sector. In order to compensate for this time and effort (labor), Piketty has subtracted a set portion of capital’s income to create a “pure rate of return.” “The pure rates of return obtained in this way are generally on the order of one or two percentage points lower than the observed returns” (206).

Having thus adjusted the rate of return, Piketty is able to chart historical trends. The results are startlingly stable. “In both France and Britain, from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, the pure return on capital has oscillated around a central value of 4-5 percent a year, or more generally in an interval from 3-6 percent a year. There has been no pronounced long-term trend either upward or downward” (206). This stability (“or more likely this slight decrease of about one-quarter to one-fifth” [206]) will be central to Piketty’s argument later in the work, as it will constitute one of the key variables of his now famous inequality r > g, or, the rate of return on capital is higher than the rate of growth.

As a final note in this section of the chapter, Piketty next considers capital saturation. Whereas a certain quantity of capital is necessary for a functioning economy: with unlimited growth “saturation is eventually reached” (215). Simply, there is only so much land that can be worked, machinery that can be run, and houses that can be occupied. In such saturation scenarios–as predicted by the inverse relation of the rate of return (r) and capital stock (β) in his formula α = r * β–the rate of return tends to plummet. Conversely, if the rate of return on capital can be maintained during capital stock growth (or at least fall more slowly than capital stock grows) than capital’s share of nation income (α), can nonetheless grow during capital stock growth.

* * *

Untitled

Common notation of the “Cobb-Douglas Production Function”

Shifting focus, Piketty spends much of the remaining chapter situating his theory among previous economic commentators. Most importantly, Piketty takes on the so-called “Cobb-Douglas production function.” This function supposed that capital maintained a constant share of national income (α). Piketty suggests that the popularity of this formulation may have been as ideological as it was scientific, as stability in capital’s share of income would suggest a certain level of social/class harmony. Yet, as Piketty notes, “the stability of capital’s share of income […] in no way guarantees harmony: it is compatible with extreme and untenable inequality of the ownership of capital and distribution of income” (218). Without moving through Piketty’s analysis of the various positions vis-a-vis this function, it is safe to say that his basic outlook is that economists from both side (liberal and Marxist) have failed to view capital’s share of income from a properly broad frame of reference (the consistent refrain of Piketty’s Capital).

Following Cobb and Douglas, Piketty next situates his analysis of the Capital/Labor split in relation to Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit. Contrary to many leftist reviews of Capital, Piketty here offers a rather generous reading of this central Marxist notion. In particular, he recognizes that, for 19th century Britain, the notion of indefinite growth was unfathomable. Thus, it was only natural for Marx to posit a point when growth would flatline. Were such a flatline to occur, then Piketty’s formula–β=s/g— would predict infinite growth of capital stock–and a correlate crash in rate of return (r)–precisely the sort of apocalyptic failure that Marx predicted. But unfortunately for Marx–and fortunately for the capitalists–permanent structural growth now appears to be a very real possibility. Thus, while Marx’s thesis is mathematically sound, it nevertheless fails to account for the seemingly infinite growth potential of capitalist production. It is my hope to soon delve into Andrew Kliman’s (who you might remember from a few posts back) thoughts in this regard, who’s Reclaiming Marx’s Capital includes, among other things, a defence of Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit. (For application to the recent economic crisis, see: The Persistent Fall in Profitability Underlying the Current Crisis: New Temporalist Evidence)

Setting up his next major section (which we will begin tackling in the next post), Piketty ends with the recognition that the West appears to be moving towards very low growth, “particularly zero or even negative demographic growth” (233). Thus, by his formulation, capital will continue to make a “comeback” in the upcoming years, easily achieving or even surpassing the capital/income ratio of 700-800%, common in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Modern growth,” he concludes, “has made it possible to avoid the apocalypse predicted by Marx and to balance the process of capital accumulation. But it has not altered the deep structures of capital–or at any rate has not truly reduced the macroeconomic importance of capital relative to labor” (234).

Preaching Apocalypse: Christopher Rodkey’s “Too Good to be True”

 

Too Good to be True: Radical Christian Preaching, Year A
by Christopher D. Rodkey
Christian Alternative, 217 pp., $22.95

* * *

Overall Rating: 8/10

Christopher Rodkey’s Too Good to be True finds itself precariously situated at the border between the all-to-academic discourse of philosophical theology — particularly the radical theologies of Thomas J.J. Altizer, Mary Daly, and Gabriel Vahanian — and the world of the conventional homily: a position whose precarious nature appears to be fully recognized by Rodkey. Nonetheless, the work holds together well, perhaps even to thrive under this dual strain.

Having appeared as actual sermons in his various congregations, the main texts of this anthology tend to avoid the nuanced debates internal to radical theology, as well as its often obtuse jargon. Rather, this more technical work, as well as more thorough philosophical/theological citations, are reserved for the preface, the only site where Rodkey seems to flex his academic chops. Nevertheless, the sermons themselves are far from banal, rather they tend to draw out a few key themes of radical theology, most importantly: apocalypse. This choice is profound, as radical theology is primarily known, above all else, for its theology of God. This theology of God is famously recognized by Hegel, proclaimed by Nietzsche, and reaffirmed by Altizer as “God is Dead.” Yet, one would search in vain for a theology of death in this work. Rather, while a kenotic theology of the cross remains just around the corner, Too Good to be True is primarily a theology of affirmation; affirmation of life, and more importantly, affirmation of something more. This turn to the apocalyptic possibility of the in-breaking of something radically new or radically other may smack of theological conservativism (as some reviews have suggested) — and in their defense, it was of course the conservative Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth which proclaimed the incommensurability of revelation with the existing world more strongly than (nearly) any other 20th century theology — but Rodkey’s work is anything but conservative. The absolute new that Rodkey gestures toward is not the eternal paradise of evangelicalism or fundamentalism, but an immanent apocalypse. For Rodkey, and this is no clearer than in his reflections on the season of Advent, the Christian message, the message that is “too good to be true,” is that a new social-political-economic-religious order is possible. Nevertheless, in defense of the aforementioned reviewers, it is worth noting that Rodkey’s ambiguous terminology may often be read as either “traditional” or “radical” depending upon what underlying theological structure is suspected. Radical Christians, well versed in the uncompromising rhetoric of a Nietzsche or an Altizer may find claims — such as “the resurrection is too good to be true, and it’s too good to be false” (119) — to be mere repetition of a conservative agnostic-cum-fideistic logic. But it is important to situate Rodkey’s work within its appropriate context: where such theological motifs as the resurrection are employed theo-poetically, rather than naively or “literally.”

The forward by Peter Rollins and afterward by Thomas Altizer leave something to be desired. Both texts are disappointingly short and tend to rely heavily upon their respective author’s strengths (as interestign as those strengths may be), missing out on the opportunity to more fully or directly engage with Rodkey’s project (though Rollins does a better job in this regard than Altizer).

Overall, this text offers hope and inspiration to the radical theologian who finds herself within an often alien church, but who hasn’t given up hope on a new kind of Christianity. In particular, because of its avoidance of terminology specific to radical theology, this text may, most of all, benefit radical Christians working within traditional — even conservative — churches and denominations, who are seeking the types of speech that might permit them to speak a radical Christian message in a language that is comprehensible to their congregation or peers.

 

David Harvey on: Capital in the 21st Century

In honor of my current project working through Piketty’s tome, here is an interesting critique of the work by the prominent Marxian economist, David Harvey. Harvey, with greater vigor than I have mustered, challenges the work from the position of Marx’s Capital, and accuses it off failing to offer a coherent notion of capital, and thus, a coherent account of the underlying reality which generates the “law” r>g.

Taking on ‘Capital’ Without Marx

What Thomas Piketty misses in his critique of capitalism.

[ Edit: if the above link doesn’t work, here is the full address: http://inthesetimes.com/article/16722/taking_on_capital_without_marx ]

 

Review: Stephen Meyer’s “Darwin’s Doubt”

Overall Rating: 6/10

Stephen Meyer

I initially became interested in reading Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and The Case for Intelligent Design after listening to a podcast interview with its author, Stephen Meyer. I immediately found myself at philosophical odds with a variety of Meyers theses, but nonetheless reluctant to employ the reactionary Neo-Darwinian critiques of his project. Thus, I decided to take the time to work through his text before offering comments (as interviews and podcasts seldom permit a full account or nuance of a position).

Having now completed my reading, I must admit that the basic philosophical problems that I initially felt (to be explored below) still persist. Yet, the text also revealed itself to be clear, well organized, and in large sections quite compelling. I must partially exempt the final three chapters in which Meyer advocates for Intelligent Design from my praise. Of course, my distaste for these sections is unavoidably influenced by my broader distaste for Intelligent Design theories (for reasons, again that will be clarified below), but I also found the writing itself to deteriorate during these passages; Meyer’s tone became defensive, the considerable citations and references to experimental work disappeared, and the arguments lost the clarity exemplified by the earlier sections of the work. One must not take these criticisms too strongly though, as the first sixteen chapters of the work truly are well written and interesting. Meyer presents considerable evidence that Neo-Darwinian theories (evolution by mutation) are insufficient to account for the speed and variety of evolutionary development, particularly during the infamous “Cambrian explosion.” This argument is strengthened by his use of multiple independent strains of evidence, including: fossils, genetics, and mathematical/computational models (among others). While I am not myself experienced in the field in order to fully judge the accuracy of all of his claims, he does offer considerable reference and citation to fully accredited and peer-reviewed scientific work (avoiding the common ID trap of only citing ones supporters). That being said, I would like here to focus upon the final section of his text, his presentation of ID as a possible answer to the dilemma of the Cambrian explosion, and offer two critiques.

* * *

Thomas Kuhn

First, and speaking here of Intelligent Design more broadly, I believe that a Kuhn’esque (see: Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) critique of Meyer’s conception of science may be in order. Specifically, Meyer appears to insufficiently register the “paradigmatic” structure of evolutionary theory. For Meyer, the incapacity of evolutionary theory to account for “everything” constitutes a rebuttal of the very scientific validity of the paradigm as a whole. Yet, as Kuhn rightly recognizes, the value of a paradigm is not its capacity to answer questions (though it certainly must do this with regularity), but more importantly its capacity to open up a space for questioning. A paradigm, while it is correctly functioning, will necessarily include a variety of unanswered questions. But, rather than constituting a failure of the paradigm, it is these gaps that provide the impetus and possibility of growth and discovery. A theory that provided a total picture would be incapable of generating further scientific research.

That being said, it is also worth noting that Kuhn is keenly aware of the importance of the “crisis,” that moment when an unavoidable impasse disorients a paradigm to such an extent that a new paradigm is necessitated. Could Meyer be identifying a crisis in biology, a crisis stimulated by the Cambrian explosion? Perhaps. But, I would also suggest that the answer to this crisis can not be Intelligent Design, again for a Kuhn’ian reason. The fatal flaw of Intelligent Design, I would suggest, rather than a lack of evidence or its factual incorrectness (both of which may very well also be the case), is its incapacity to function as a viable paradigm. Intelligent Design, while it ostensibly provides answers, fails to open up a space of further inquiry. Intelligent Design does not problematize, but rather, stifles problematization. Thus, while I would be wary to unambiguously support the assertion that “Intelligent Design is NOT science” (as this position is largely ideologically driven, and depends upon a clear identification of “science” that is generally either unspoken or insufficient), I would suggest that Intelligent Design is an insufficient paradigm, a scientific dead-end.

* * *

My second critique concerns Meyer more specifically, but also has consequences that extend into biology as a whole. Meyer summarizes his Intelligent Design argument as follows:

“Thus, based upon our present experience of the causal powers of various entities and a careful assessment of the efficacy of various evolutionary mechanisms, we can infer intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of the hierarchically organized layers of information needed to build the animal forms that arose in the Cambrian periods.” (366)

Or, arranged as a syllogism, this argument might be restated:

  1. The natural world, in particular animal life, is structured by a variety of complex forms of information (DNA, RNA, epigenetic information, dGRNs, etc.).
  2. All know forms of information are the product of consciousness or intelligence.
  3. Therefore, animal life is most likely the product of intelligent design. 1

I would like to suggest, perhaps controversially that, given the presuppositions of modern evolutionary theory, that this syllogism may be completely justified. The common critique of Intelligent Design by evolutionary theorists generally involves an attack on the second premise. Natural selection, or some related mechanism, it is argued, permits the arrival of complexity, merely “apparent design.” Thus, it is said, the second premise’s claim that only conscious activity generates information is unjustified. Yet, I believe that Meyer is correct to clearly demarcate between mere complexity and information. Critics, he rightly argues, do not “seem to understand the importance of specified information, as opposed to ‘complicated things,’ as a key indicator of design” (393). Yet, by granting the connection between information and design, one does not therefore have to affirm the consequence of the total syllogism.

Rather, I would like to suggest, the key to dismantling the Intelligent Design argument is to challenge that premise that both Darwinians and ID’ers agree upon, the first premise. As Meyer illustrates throughout the entirety of Darwin’s Doubt, the notion that DNA and epigenetic data are best understood as “information,” is a presumption that saturates the entirety of biology. This appears nowhere more clearly than in computational models, but is also evident across the spectrum of academic biology. Perhaps, it might be suggested, that rather than constituting a radical break with the biological sciences, ID is merely the clearest manifestation of biology’s own flawed axiom.

Gilles Deleuze

In the work of Gilles Deleuze, this sort of misstep is understood as overcoding, the process by which the category of one “strata” of reality is extended across other “strata.” The clearest example of overcoding, for Deleuze, is the “linguistic turn” of 20th century philosophy. Here, the fact that language was able to describe or speak about all strata, was misunderstood as evidence that language constitutes all levels of reality. In 20th century philosophy, the linguistic strata overcoded all other strata.

Is it possible that the attribution of the category “information” (a definitively human, intelligent strata) to decidedly non-human, pre-intellectual strata is just such an overcoding? It is worth noting that while Deleuze’s “10,000 B.C.: A Geology of Morals” in A Thousand Plateus speaks at length of genetics, it resists throughout the notion of DNA as a language or as information. “That is why,” Deleuze insists:

“[Francois] Jacob is reluctant to compare the genetic code to a language; in fact, the genetic code has neither emitter, receiver, comprehension, nor translation, only redundancies and surplus values. […] This property of overcoding and superlinearity explains why, in language, not only is expression independent of content, but form of expression is independent of substance: translation is possible because the same form can pass from one substance to another, which is not the case for the genetic code, for example, between RNA and DNA chains.”

Perhaps, then, the moral of Darwin’s Doubt, and the Intelligent Design movement as a whole is the necessity of thinking genetics as such, no longer under the all-too-human categories of information, categories which cannot help but bear the baggage of intelligence and design. But the form that such an alternate conception of genetics might take is beyond this author, or at least beyond this post.

What are your thoughts, should genetics move beyond the language of information?

(Please, if you comment, avoid vitriolic anti-ID or anti-Evolution rants, I couldn’t be less interested in either)

______________

1. The use of “most likely” is intentional, as it is the distinguishing factor of “abduction” (as distinguished from deduction and induction in the work of Charles Pierce, who remains influential not only upon Meyer, but upon the scientific tradition as a whole) and allows its arguments to be distinguished from the fallacy of “affirming the consequent.”

Micro-Reviews #10 Jean-Luc Marion’s “God without Being” (Second Edition)

Overall Rating: 7/10

I should begin with the confession that I entered God Without Being with a bit of trepidation. On the one hand, the text is somewhat foundational for my own field (phenomenological theology), on the other, I find myself consistently disappointed by Marion’s explicitly theological texts (he makes a better philosopher than theologian, I would suggest). On top of this, I also had the strong suspicion that, having been so foundational to phenomenological theology in the 90’s and 00’s, that this text would say nothing that I hadn’t already heard. All that being said, I was nonetheless pleased with the reading, and though at times it tends to bog down in the very dense specifics of Marion’s reading of Heidegger, I would still suggest that it is a significantly valuable text, specifically the second edition, for reasons that I will explain below.

The main focus of God without Being is Marion’s attempt to theologically sidestep the Heideggerian critique of ontotheology. By ontotheology Heidegger intends, primarily, the theological or philosophical move wherein a greatest being or super-being (i.e. God, the Good, the One, etc.) is posited as the foundation of all other beings. Without going into considerable detail, I will leave that for Marion, Heidegger contends that this move fails to recognize the fundamental nature of ontological difference (the difference between beings and Being). Simply, for Heidegger, the foundation of all beings must be ontologically dissimilar to the beings it grounds (beings can’t pull themselves up by there own ontological boot-straps). Or again, the absolute foundation of all reality must be of a completely different nature from the reality it is said to found.

To his credit, Marion does not begin by attacking this notion of ontotheology, but rather, fully embraces it, re-articulating it under his notion of idolatry. For Marion, to think God as a being among beings is, not only to fall victim to ontotheology, but to furthermore commit the crime of idolatry. This redoubling of Heidegger’s critique culminates in his notion of “conceptual idolatry.” For Marion, any attempt to delimit God under the guise of a concept, is already to subsume God under the reign of Being, and therefore ontotheology; the “true” God, the God without Being, must also be a God beyond conceptuality.

In order to make the case that Christian theology can bypass this critique, Marion attempts to articulate his notion of a God which is “beyond Being,” that is to say, is completely dissimilar to created beings. For this task, he draws upon a variety of sources, most notably the Neoplatonic tradition of Christian theology inaugurated by Pseudo-Dionysius. For these mystical thinkers, God surpassed, not only all beings, but also Being-itself, even, they would add, Nonbeing. God, for Marion and these mystics, cannot be rendered as an object, either physical or conceptual, but instead surpasses all objectivity, all beings, even being itself. God, in this thought, is radically transcendent.

The obvious critique of this position is built upon the question of evidence. If God is beyond both Being and conceptuality, than how can this God be known, experienced, or verified? Marion’s creative solution to this problem, one which points to his latter work in Being Given, is to think God, not principally as a being, but as a giving (and as charity). God, for Marion, is defined by self-revelation. His principal case study in this notion is the Eucharist which, he argues, permits the presence of the absolute Otherness of God to manifest as the ultimate gift. More strongly, and revealing an indebtedness to the work of Michel Henry, he argues that this gift of presence is also the gift of the present, that the eucharistic presence of God cuts through the negative irreality of the past and future and offers the only true access to the present now.

The great addition to the second edition of this text is the inclusion of an additional essay “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-Theology.” In some ways more interesting than the primary text itself, Marion here pits Aquinas against Thomistic theology, arguing that while the latter falls victim to ontotheology, that this turn is only prepared by a misreading of Aquinas himself, who never subjugates God under the categories of Being.

Overall, I would recommend this text to anyone interested in the relationship between continental philosophy and theology, scholastic thought, or ontology, but would caution casual theologians or those who do not already possess a background in Heidegger as they may find themselves lost in his extended engagement with Heideggerian phenomenology.