Category Archives: Thoughts

The Opening of Divinity in the Opening of Arms: A Cruciform Phenomenology of the Humanity and Divinity of Christ

Before I joined this blog as a contributor, the final post on my previous blog–Theopoetry–was shared as a guest post on this blog. I have decided to republish it with a few minorPostmodern Christ edits here.

Open arms are a gesture of the body reaching for the other. They are a sign of discontent with my own self-enclosed identity and a code of desire for the other. I do not want to be myself only; I want the other to be part of who I am and I want to be part of the other.” –Miroslav Volf

For two thousand years Christians have debated over how to intelligibly conceptualize and reconcile two descriptive categories of Jesus in the canonical Gospel traditions on philosophical grounds. One category meets us in the immanent and ordinary dimension of existence: the humanity of Jesus, a life-trajectory that begins with birth in a feeding trough and terminates in a bloody death on a wooden cross, complete with all of the sorrow and joy of life in between. The other category meets us in mythical transcendence: the divinity of Christ that arrives to us in the power and impact of Jesus, whose life-trajectory discloses through enacted parable the character of God, exploding through Resurrection as the transformative consciousness of an expanding community named by Saint Paul the ‘Body of Christ.’

Several councils met throughout the first five centuries to accomplish a reconciliation between Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Two schools emerged–one in Antioch and one in Alexandria–one emphasizing humanity over divinity and the other emphasizing divinity over humanity. The Antiochene School taught the sublation and truncation of divinity under a totalization of human essence, positing that Jesus was a human person uniquely created and empowered by God to reveal God’s wisdom and intentions through the indwelling of God’s Spirit. Conversely, the Alexandrian School posited that the divine Creator took on fleshly form/appearance so as to accomplish our salvation through transforming human flesh, thus truncating and sublating Jesus’ humanity beneath and within a divine totality. The ongoing tension between Antioch and Alexandria terminated in compromise with the acceptance of an unresolvable paradox at the Council of Nicaea: Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.

But what if this paradox only manifests itself within an outdated metaphysical framework? In both the Platonic and Aristotelian paradigms of the early church age–the former grounding Alexandrian Christology and the latter grounding Antiochene Christology–incarnation was a major philosophical problem. The divine essence was seen as completely distinct from human essence and thus incapable of being mixed with it. But we now know, by way of quantum physics, that all ‘matter’ is composed of energetic relationships where the Higgs Field cools down. The old problem of incarnation is how two essences can occupy the same space. But from the contemporary scientific perspective, incarnation is ubiquitous if God is understood as “light” (a mythic archetype for divinity), which in physics amounts to pure energy: the very basis of matter. God then must be incarnate in all being as its very ground and future. The new question then is not how God’s incarnation in Jesus is possible, but how it is unique.

If we thereby presuppose that incarnation is a universal reality, the incarnation of Jesus would have to be different by degree, not kind. What then is this degree? My own position is that it is Jesus’ ecstatic unity with the divine through the wisdom of agape that makes him fully human, and it is his full humanity that makes him fully divine. In this way Jesus becomes triumphant over the multifarious forms of alienation in human life. Jesus is not other than human but more deeply human. [Side note: One may ask, does this mean that only a human person can be fully divine? My answer is no, because the realization of divinity is simply the realization of the full positive potential of any given genus in its respective habitat. What follows is simply my thoughts on the divine in human form.]

Unlike the Antiochene Jesus who becomes superhuman by making a special claim on the being of God that you and I cannot, and unlike the Alexandrian Jesus who is the God-in-flesh who makes a special claim on human being that we cannot, the real and actual and weak Jesus opens his arms toward both poles of being as a meeting space. With one arm reached toward divinity and one toward humanity, he simply makes himself a space of near-nonbeing—an open convergence between the divine and the human. He becomes not a demigod but a space between being itself–an opening of emptiness that is simultaneously a fullness.

The symbol of Jesus spreading out his arms is found on the cross itself. On a hill called Golgotha–the ‘place of the skull’–a cursed ‘outside’ where tribal identities no longer persist, Jesus becomes subject to nonbeing and otherness. In this place of self-emptying, he opens his arms toward the other, welcoming the other into a cruciform way of life where identities are crucified and transformed so that each person may embrace the other in authenticity and love.

Through the self-forgetful embrace of the other, self-alienation is dissolved into holistic self-completion. It is here that one may become fully human. And it is only as one becomes fully human that she may become fully divine, for the divine is disclosed for us in the space of nonbeing where being leaves itself to join with the other toward the creation of fuller Being. It is the sacred and ecological space of emerging wholeness wherein alienation is traded for loving embrace, and it is finally the sacred, differentiated unity of beings in love as a collective manifestation of the divine Life.

Christ hangs at the intersection of two lines: one is vertical divinity, and the other is horizontal humanity. As such, the cross is the place of intersection, staked into the very ground of nonbeing and nonidentity. The cross crosses out tribal identity insofar as it honors the human as human, allowing us to flourish as more fully human and thus become more fully divine.

For it is in the cruciform embrace of the other that divinity and humanity converge as one voice whereby the earthly and sacred are inseparable and mutually completing.

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The Naked Offense of the Cross

celtic cross

I. Introduction

I want to put forth the argument here that the Christian cross, understood radically, constitutes a strange and unusual offense. This offense is not merely an offense to a particular culture or subculture of humanity. The offense is offensive to culture as such, reflected in the image of a naked body on a naked cross on Golgotha (or ‘place of the skull’), a place symbolically naked of all cultural identities, marking the radical apriority of the nakedness of being anterior to the entire socio-cultural technology of human existence. That naked cross and naked crucifixion as an abyss of human meaning and fullness of darkness paradoxically signifies the nonbeing that haunts the being of God—a nonbeing that is the difference always-already within the life of God, and a Life whose structure is the trinitarian ground of being. Thus the trinitarian God appears in the cross as the primordial One (1) whose Life is always-already a Multiplicity (2) in Excess (3) of itself (to use Badiou’s terminology). Hence the structuring of God as a One whose eternal self-emptying is a multiplicity always in excess of itself constitutes a more deeply abstract and ontological elucidation of the trinitarian technology of divine spirit. I will return to this trinitarian structuring shortly, but first I want to elaborate this offense of the cross where it appears 2,000 years ago as well as where it appears now.

II. The Gospel of Christ-Crucified

Saint Paul sought to preach ‘nothing but Christ crucified’—strange terminology for what he called his ‘gospel’ or ‘good news.’ What is so good about God’s divine and messianic representative being crucified? Yet for Paul, the crucifixion of Christ is absolutely imperative for any positive meaning to resurrection (but not in the sense of dialectical necessity, for conversely, it images the very anti-dialectical foundation of what is called ‘grace’). For Paul, as noted above, the cross was the place where every former identity perishes—the entire self and ego. A new identity is born ‘in Christ,’ where one is now self-identified as a member of the ‘body of Christ,’ which is the incarnate body of God that appears as an abyss to every contingent meaning. One (as both oneself and Primordial One) is self-realized in the incarnate body of God when the divisive illusions of culture are thrown off, which is how Paul images Christ as the naked divine hanging from a cross—a cross which the Gospel traditions place on Golgotha, bordering the valley of Hinnom (translated by modern Bibles as ‘hell’) where—in Jewish consciousness—human identity is placed under a Curse and forgotten. For Paul, Christ enters this darkness of forgotten-ness, abandonment, oppression, and erasure in order to open up a new subjectivity indistinguishable from the naked spirit of God itself manifest in humanity. Thus Paul’s offense is the naked immediacy of God in its unconditional access to all beings (and, in Paul’s radical terminology, nonbeings!), an immediacy constituted by the radical self-abandonment and self-emptying (kenosis) of God in the absolute self-outpouring of divine spirit into the world.

III. A Stumbling Block and Broken Word

This offense offended both Jews and Greeks, which in Paul’s cultural consciousness are symbols for the religious and the philosophers. The religious are offended because they look for signs and wonders—magic and power—traumatically encountering in the cruciform image of God an impotent and defeated God unable to intervene to rescue us from existential vicissitude. The philosophers are offended because they seek wisdom, and a wisdom that can center all existence in an unbroken (and thus un-crucified) Absolute whose Oneness remains intact and whose static Logos maintains harmony and balance in the world. But Paul’s God is the crucified One whose divine elements are scattered and emptied throughout existence, a divine multiplicity always-already in excess of itself, always-already exceeding every identity and rule with novelty and evolution. New things are perpetually conceived and born from the divine Womb, which is why Paul loves baptism. For Paul, this image of new birth is what the cross is actually about, where Resurrection—as a surprising, unconditional, and graceful appearing—is the novel creation that arises from the floodwaters of catastrophic history and spaces of nonbeing, opening new worlds through the naked divine itself that trickles through open cracks and continually forms new essences.

IV. The Trinitarian Ground of Being

Here I return to the trinitarian ground of being as the orthodox symbol that harbors a secret heterodoxy against the omnipotent One who reigns atop the hierarchy of Orthodoxy. The radically trinitarian God—understood as the Primordial Being who is simultaneously Multiple and One—is structurally the same as Paul’s crucified God. That is, Paul’s crucified God is the crucified One whose kenosis splits it into 2, then 3, ad infinitum. In the trinitarian hermeneutic, Father [or Mother] is Primordial Being. The second element, Son [or Daughter], signifies the doubling of the divine One through incarnation (spirit<–(-/+)–>flesh/matter). The third element, Holy Spirit, is the Multiple that dynamically exceeds all static identities by always exceeding what was via ongoing evolutive novelty.

V. The Naked Offense
Unfortunately, today’s most deeply conservative philosophical theologians—entrenched in a Calvinism that continues to dominate a large portion of American religion—still define the offense of the cross according to the cross’s mediation of the disapproval and condemnation of sin by a ‘Big Other,’ which in psychoanalytic terminology means the authoritarian phantom of cultural ideology that remains in the aftermath of childhood parenting (and more specifically, distorted family systems). Such theologians claim that the cross is the place where a controlling Father (dwelling in a separate abode of existence) murders His innocent Son so as to both testify and satisfy his Wrath against us, boldly proclaiming that the logical and ethical paradoxes inherent in this image constitute the true scandal and offense of the cross. Is it possible that the offense is on them—a nonjudgmental offense that simply unveils their inability or unwillingness to accept the cross in its absolute nakedness, darkness, and trauma? Or more specifically, is their authoritarian monotheism offended by an unpolished cross where the transcendent One of judgment and imperial legitimation unexpectedly transfigures into a broken Absolute, and a broken One whose divine elements are incarnately spilled and disseminated in the birthing of new Life? Such an evolutive portrait of reality, structured by a trinitarian and kenotic ground, cannot legitimate a static view of existence or life. Rather the dynamic paradigm of trinitarian and evolutive divinity suggests that any good posture toward Life is one of openness and self-transformation. The good news—as seen in the cross and its evolutive outpouring of Life—is that the naked event of new birth remains a possibility within our grasp yesterday, today, and tomorrow, constitutive of an Unconditioned Real that cannot be cornered, owned, or defeated, always luring things forward into creative self-transcendence without end. Consequently, the naked offense neither caters to the image of Christ as merely an apocalyptic prophet nor a traditional mystic/sage. Rather this Christ proclaims an immediate and eternal apocalypse that perpetually contaminates all Presence, destabilizing and exceeding every order that it births through its own chaordic ground of eternal flux and creativity.

Queer Diaspora

The Jewish people have been in diaspora since the destruction of the Temple. This is why blood sacrifices do not happen modern Judaism. But Paul writes: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” I quote this not to say “See the Jewish people are foolish! They need to be more Christian!!”‘ In fact, I deeply sympathize with the experience of diaspora, albeit in a different manner. Insofar as Christians have destroyed queer and trans bodies, they have destroyed the temples of God and forced us into a state of diaspora.

In this case, also, returning to God’s promised land–indeed, we are only promised ourselves–involves rebuilding the temples, or reclaiming them. But this will also inform how we do theology. The Christians who are in diaspora do Christian theology much differently than those Christians who are not in diaspora. The working class/poor are alienated from their labor and from themselves, African-American bodies were stolen (so their labor could be exploited), and so many more examples could be draw. These are modes of diaspora.

Might we, then, be able to learn much more from the Jewish people (not to be conflated with the modern state of Israel) than Christians have thought since the Reformation? In a word, I find a deep, yet overlooked, value in the polydoxy of Jewish tradition. Diasporic Christians have likely already taken hold of this revelation of plurality, but perhaps those who have a temple could make a blood sacrifice of their orthodoxy upon their own altars.

Transdivinity

There must be a great sort of dissonance when you are convinced of some inner reality when others believe the exact opposite of you. Imagine being Jesus: maybe he was born with the knowledge of or experience of his own divinity (as coupled with his humanity), maybe he grew to discover it. But I suppose that neither of those axioms would really matter to you, oh Jesus.

You grow up, proclaiming things like “The Father and I are One” and insinuating that you–yes you!–are the divine one. You are the transcendent one. You–who was born of a woman, healed on the Sabbath, forgave sins, touched the unclean, cast out demons, and was crucified–are the one that the prophets spoke of???? And yet the tradition contradicts all these things! How dare you forgive someone’s sins! Touching the unclean? Go perform a cleansing ritual!! Atone for your sin of violating the Sabbath! Even the Muslims know that the Messiah of Israel cannot be crucified!! You blasphemer! Repent of your sin immediately! How dare you claim to transcend our clearly demarcated boundaries!!!!

Now imagine you are a trans woman. Maybe you were born having known or experienced your gender differently than people treated you; maybe you grew to discover it–5 years into life…14 years….21 years….50 years….80 years…. But, again, I suppose that these axioms might not matter all too much to you, oh Queer One.

You grow up and begin proclaiming things like “I am not a boy!!!” or insinuating that you–yes you!–are among those who cannot concede the gender everyone else imposes on them. You are the transcendent one. You–who was born with a specific set of genitalia, played sports, dressed in typical boyish garb, responding to your male name and male pronouns–are the one the tradition warns about. “God created them male and female!” they press. “A woman must not wear men’s clothing,” they insist, “nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this.” So you figure, “hey, maybe I’ll start wearing women’s clothes then!” Your wit does not woo the nay-sayers of life. Do not repent. You need not cleanse yourself. Christ has not atoned for you, for you have not sinned in gender. What nonsense!

Suppose that we were once wrong about Christ–we denied him. Suppose we were wrong about trans people–we denied them as well. And look what happened.

Thank you for transcending boundaries with me.

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).

Life against ethics part ii: natural law and the impulse of Being

boy and tankAs I mentioned in my previous post, Why foundationalist logic fails at life, the true source of moral intuition does not lie in an ideological foundation that roots ethical rules in rational articulation. Rather, true morality springs directly from the heart of being itself. It is an impulse toward loving wholeness that demands the flourishing of all sentient beings in harmony. One feels this impulse. The calculation itself is secondary and contingent.

Western philosophers of the past have attempted to nail down morality by virtue of a given natural order–a transcendental moral law issued by heavenly mandate. Such a law would dictate the boundaries of transgression and permission, what is acceptable to the divine and what is not. But we live in a modern world that thrives after the death of God. We roam in a realm of mystery that recognizes the irrelevance of theistic intervention in light of technology, medicine, and contingent circumstance. It no longer makes sense to imagine the name of God in terms of an external force that issues punishment or reward according to whether sentient beings obey or reject a historically revealed transcendental moral order. In no longer makes sense to imagine the name of God as the name of a transcendent Judge and Law-giver.

The philosopher Saint Paul developed as a Jewish rabbi with a firm and rigorous interpretation of Torah. Upon his encounter of the followers of another rabbi named Jesus, he lashed back in anger and dictated persecution and murder. He was disturbed by this new movement that was predicated upon an interpretation of Torah as love-centered rather than oriented around a priestly cult of specific regulations. Later he had a mystical encounter on his way to persecute more of Jesus’ followers, directing him into a new level of consciousness. Eventually Paul woke up to a realization that true morality lied not in the “letter,” or dictated words of paper, but in “spirit,” meaning the very heart of life itself–the animating spirit of the Torah that also transcends Torah.

The break from natural law as an externally mediated moral order to ethics according to the impulse of being toward love and flourishing life constitutes the historical movement from Judaism to Christian consciousness. This does not mean that Christian consciousness was non-Jewish or anti-Jewish, but simply that it broke open the confines of religion and its legislated moral boundaries. Once the Spirit broke free, it could not be contained or controlled in the rapid expansion of Christ-consciousness, which is grace-consciousness.

The philosopher Jacques Derrida, a French Algerian Jew who knew what it meant to be marginalized and oppressed, entered the European scene to make a Pauline move: the Spirit of Justice and Love harbored by his Torah was to be set free from the constraints of Western philosophy too. Derrida argued that while the law was constructed to ensure and create justice, it had inevitably become the biggest obstacle to justice. One can see something similar in Marx’s critique of private property. While the divisions of property under law and in contract are meant to ensure that one’s property is protected, the originary act of creating property is the first act of theft. In fact, one could argue it is legalized theft. The most obvious example is when America’s European “forefathers” arrived upon these shores and stole the land from the natives already living here. The natives thought they were simply sharing and borrowing it because they did not believe in the concept of “owning land,” which they considered ludicrous.

If the law cannot ensure justice (although we need it), neither can moral calculation ensure morality. Rather morality is a fluid and uncontainable dynamic that keeps its eye on the situation–a very different reality than the blind judge of the Western legal order. It is like King Solomon when two women came before him in a dispute over a baby they both claimed was their own. Rather then applying some blind method of determination, Solomon suggested that the baby be sawn in half so that each mother would be appeased. He knew that the woman who would cry out against it, willingly allowing the other woman to take her baby, would be the true mother.

Derrida was right when he claimed that justice is incalculable. Once one begins to calculate, a violence is done to the moral impulse that is a part of the fluidity of being. Rather a better rule of thumb, if one needs one, can be found in this simple but profound statement from John Shelby Spong: “whatever diminishes life is evil, and whatever enhances life is good.”

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.

* * *

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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).