OPINION: Thomas Pikkety, over breakfast
I was introduced to Thomas Pikkety's _Capital _over eggs, fresh bread and a cup of coffee as I handed over some of my middle-income capital to the waiter serving us at a popular café.
The brief introduction was given by someone with a deep understanding of economics, structural inequality, governance and Pikkety's work, who had just attended the lecture the night before. The famed French economist, who specialises in understanding income inequality, was recently in Johannesburg to deliver the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture, and a cacophony of voices are weighing in on its relevance.
There are numerous critique's of Pikkety's Capital in the 21st Century that populated our timelines, newsfeeds and printed pages lastweek. Economists, academics, commentators and business professionals offered opinions that ranged from arguing that he considers the Marikana massacre from afar and numerous limitations to his theory, to pointing out that capital needs an intersectional approach that considers race and gender in its analyses because 'capital always intersects with the bodies that produce the labour', or stating that inequality won't be fixed with Pikkety's 'posturing and distorted data'.
Social media critics also weighed in on the lectures, with many stating that Pikkety was telling us things we already knew, about things like land reform and redistribution and capitalism's inevitably negative affect, and that he is gaining traction and popularity because of the privilege of his being a white, European man.
Over breakfast and a brief introduction to Pikkety's thinking and how economics functions as a discipline and in practice, I began to be able to make limited sense of it. Limited, because without encountering the text first-hand, I could not meaningfully weigh in on its meaning, or grapple with the nuances. Any discord, distrust, agreement or confusion was only at the level of gut feeling, or against the backdrop of a humanities education - which is not perfectly transferable.
What I learned in those short hours broke down complex arguments to the basics: Pikkety's desire to get to the heart of 'who owns what in South Africa' and create transparency about wealth through a wealth tax with a very low rate; how he argues that 'economic inequality is a feature of capitalism', created by its own hand; and that inequality is an inherited feature of a system that will not fix itself. Many argue that what makes Pikkety's work both meaningful and important is the data, and how it supports, proves and enhances the things that we might intuitively know, or have proven in other fields - 'subtly but with relentless logic'.
But they also acknowledge that his theories need further work across disciplines. They require other support studies to understand, challenge and enhance our interpretation of Capital, as it can never present us with a complete, perfect picture of the world and capital's influence. This is a shortcoming that is not simply particular to Pikkety; there are very few, if any, theories that are able to be universal, can be applied to all contexts and give a complete understanding, by themselves.
Furthermore, the arguments that he makes in the almost 700 page tome do not neatly translate into sound bites or 140 character tweets. There is much that gets lost in translation, and requires more work from us to find out about his claims.
There were aspects of things that I had learned, whether at university or outside it, that linked to, underscored, contradicted or connected to Pikkety's argument. One of the greatest privileges that education gives you is the opportunity to have the tools to begin to understand the world around you, the way it is structured, and your place in it. It can give you the language to articulate what you intuitively know, that others figure out through different means outside ivory towers, or open up the world to you in different ways. But this is with its limits.
The different tools used to make sense of the world, from the humanities to finance and science, are not always perfectly transferable across disciplines, and need connections that show their links, networks and ways of communicating across presumed divides. But they also have aspects that are exclusive to the kind of work they try to do. They can lend and borrow from each other, but some parts will always remain their own. We cannot always elegantly 'cut and paste' the way we have been taught to think onto a different discipline, or critique in the same mode that we are comfortable in without knowing the demands, format and rules that govern the disciplines that are more foreign to us.
This is not to argue for what Lewis Gordon describes as 'disciplinary decadence', where disciplines wall themselves in and are ossified, not transforming over time.
Trying to understand Pikkety across disciplines, I was struck by the following critique: "The problem of inequality is structured by both racist divisions of labour and culture, and patriarchal constructs of violence and exploitation", which are 'piecemeal' and 'protected' when viewed singularly. Zillah Eisenstein argues that we should look for what is 'invisible' or 'hidden' through certain theories, which is incredibly important.
But I am also starting to think about what is 'unspeakable', or inevitably muted given the limits of certain disciplines, like economics, which perhaps cannot give us the complexity that we both desire and require by themselves. This, from my limited introduction to the discipline, is an intuition that needs to be tested against research, where knowledge about this field is primarily second- and third-hand.
Social commentary, beyond the things that we intuitively know and the value of lived experience and personal politics, needs to interact with the very thing it critiques - as we encounter these ideas first-hand, and not through loose translations alone. In this instance, it means being committed to reading and engaging Pikkety's Capital and the vast range of secondary material around it, before deciding its endgame limitations or quick comments on it being valueless or simply something stated before.
No theory is watertight, they all have holes that need to be identified and revealed - but we have to know their form and dimensions before pointing these out in their entirety or firing off statements on social media about the text without knowledge of its contents. This also helps in identifying where we can always build on them, as Pikkety's "theories certainly need to be subjected to careful testing in SA's context, as does his research".
Some things outside of what we are familiar with are both terrifying, intriguing and intimidating. But when wanting to comment on these, we have a responsibility to engage with the texts, thoughts and ideas which will only enhance our intuitive disagreements, but can also obliterate them.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler
Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.