Hegel Contra Biblical Literalism

“For the theologians say that we ought to hold exclusively to the Bible. […] Theologians, however, they are not; such an attitude has nothing of a scientific, theological character. But just as soon as religion is no longer simply the reading and repetition of passages, as soon as what is called explanation or interpretation begins, as soon as an attempt is made by inference and exegesis to find out the meaning of the words in the Bible, then we embark upon the process of reasoning, reflection, thinking; and the question then becomes how we should exercise this process of thinking, and whether our thinking is correct or not. It helps not at all to say that one’s thoughts are based on the Bible.”

-Hegel, The 1827 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion

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.

#Blacklivesmatter

I have been pretty busy lately (with the end of the semester grading, preparations for Advent, protests, etc.) and haven’t had the chance to post about the tragedies in Ferguson, Ohio, and New York. But I just want to publicly support the protestors, activists, and community organizors who are raising their voices against injustice in cities all across the country. My heart goes out to the families of the victims; and I strongly urge any of my readers to consider joinging and supporting their local public actions. #blacklivesmatter

Image source: Shirin Barghi – http://voiceproject.org/post_news/last-words/

The Battle in Philosophy: Time, Substance, and the Void – Slavoj Zizek vs. Graham Harman

Very interesting discussion over at “dark ecologies,” check it out.

Techno Occulture

In my pursuit to understand poetry and philosophy in our time I’ve found that “time” is the key: there is a great battle that has up till now been perpetrated under the auspices of subtantialist versus process philosophers – as in the recent battle over Graham Harman and Object Oriented Philosophy (a reversion to a substantive formalism, although non-Aristotelian in intent), and the Process philosophers who seem to come out of Whitehead and others. Part of the wars of speculative realism…

In Harman the object is split between a sensual (phenomenal) appendage and a real (noumenal) withdrawn core, etc. For him this real can never be described, or even known directly, but must be teased out or allured from its “volcanic” hiding place, etc. While for those like Zizek there is nothing there, even less than nothing: a void that is the negation of negation: a self-reflecting nothingness. No core…

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Check out the Pittsburgh Continental Philosophy Network Videos

Unfortunately, the comps process does not lend itself to very consistent updating of a long-form blog. So I apologize for the increasing irregularity of my posts. That being said, I have been anything but un-busy for the past few months. To see one of the projects that has been taking up some of my non-blogging thought and effort, check out the videos from a few of the public lectures that my organization — The Pittsburgh Continental Philosophy Network — has released. Topics include: the phenomenology of poverty, the post-anthropocene, and passion. Be sure to stay tuned for two other videos in-process (to be released asap): one on the failure of phenomenological realism, and one on the non-phenomenological side of Merleau-Ponty.

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 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.