Thomas Piketty on Communism: Implications for Theory and Practice

“I’m not trying to [tear down the Western economic system and replace it with socialist redistribution of wealth]. You know, I turned 18 when the Berlin wall fell, so I have never had any temptation with communism, I am just trying to see how we can ensure that everyone benefits from globalization.” –Thomas Piketty on The Colbert Report

Despite the various theoretical problems with Piketty’s work (see Harvey’s critique for example), we still have to discuss the significant practical issues, associated with the tactics and strategies of our struggle. Piketty’s overall solution to our problems is nothing but the contemporary social democratic response of trying to better manage capitalism; to humanize capitalism, as the picture bellow illustrates:

Regulated Capitalism Monster Comic

For a more detailed discussion on the contemporary debates regarding tactics and strategies between anarchists, revolutionary socialists, and social democrats, see this article; but it is useful to briefly go over something economist Paul Sweezy has been arguing since 1942, which basically foresaw the failure of what was to become the social democratic project.

Sweezy argued in his Theory of Capitalist Development (1942: 349), “the state in capitalist society has always been first and foremost the guarantor of capitalist property relations” and has unmistakably been “the instrument of capitalist class rule.” Sweezy concludes that for it to be possible to use the state to manage capitalism, and/or impose higher, more substantial taxes on capital, as Piketty suggests, a certain combination of requirements must be met. The political actor must be a mass party that 1) is strictly free of capitalist interest, 2) has acquired state power and eliminated capitalists and their representatives from key positions, and 3) establishes a firm position so it would be overwhelmingly plain that any resistance by capitalists would be futile. If experience shows that these are the necessary conditions for such a project to work, “it also indicates no less clearly the impossibility of their fulfillment” (350-1). While it is conceivable in the abstract, in reality “capital holds the strategic positions.” “Money, social prestige, the bureaucracy and the armed forces of the state, the channels of public communications,” are all controlled by capital and “will continue to be used to the utmost to maintain the position of capital.” Sweezy concludes it is a law of capitalist politics that the outcome of these strategies will merely be the bankruptcy of reform (351-2).

In fact, Sweezy (351) also argues that this liberal reform, due to these requirements, is no less a task than a gradual transition into socialism. Thus, we may ask ourselves, if we ever actually have sufficient political power to truly manage capitalism, why not transcend it? If we ever have the political will and power to impose Piketty’s global tax on capital, we will most likely have the will and power to engage on a transition into a new economic system, superior in every way. We will most likely have the means to build a new system, where a return to our current predicament is not as simple as eliminating Piketty’s tax and re-allowing capital free reign.

If/when we finally have the means to slay the beast, why put a smiley face on it?

 

 

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David Harvey Reviews Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

Afterthoughts on Piketty’s Capital

By David Harvey

Retrieved 05/17/14 from http://davidharvey.org/2014/05/afterthoughts-pikettys-capital/

Thomas Piketty has written a book called Capital that has caused quite a stir. He advocates progressive taxation and a global wealth tax as the only way to counter the trend towards the creation of a “patrimonial” form of capitalism marked by what he dubs “terrifying” inequalities of wealth and income. He also documents in excruciating and hard to rebut detail how social inequality of both wealth and income has evolved over the last two centuries, with particular emphasis on the role of wealth. He demolishes the widely-held view that free market capitalism spreads the wealth around and that it is the great bulwark for the defense of individual liberties and freedoms. Free-market capitalism, in the absence of any major redistributive interventions on the part of the state, Piketty shows, produces anti-democratic oligarchies. This demonstration has given sustenance to liberal outrage as it drives the Wall Street Journal apoplectic.

The book has often been presented as a twenty-first century substitute for Karl Marx’s nineteenth century work of the same title. Piketty actually denies this was his intention, which is just as well since his is not a book about capital at all. It does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure. It does not help us understand why growth is currently so sluggish in the US as opposed to China and why Europe is locked down in a politics of austerity and an economy of stagnation. What Piketty does show statistically (and we should be indebted to him and his colleagues for this) is that capital has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality. This is, for many of us, hardly news. It was, moreover, exactly Marx’s theoretical conclusion in Volume One of his version of Capital. Piketty fails to note this, which is not surprising since he has since claimed, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, not to have read Marx’s Capital.

Piketty assembles a lot of data to support his arguments. His account of the differences between income and wealth is persuasive and helpful. And he gives a thoughtful defense of inheritance taxes, progressive taxation and a global wealth tax as possible (though almost certainly not politically viable) antidotes to the further concentration of wealth and power.

But why does this trend towards greater inequality over time occur? From his data (spiced up with some neat literary allusions to Jane Austen and Balzac) he derives a mathematical law to explain what happens: the ever-increasing accumulation of wealth on the part of the famous one percent (a term popularized thanks of course to the “Occupy” movement) is due to the simple fact that the rate of return on capital (r) always exceeds the rate of growth of income (g). This, says Piketty, is and always has been “the central contradiction” of capital.

But a statistical regularity of this sort hardly constitutes an adequate explanation let alone a law. So what forces produce and sustain such a contradiction? Piketty does not say. The law is the law and that is that. Marx would obviously have attributed the existence of such a law to the imbalance of power between capital and labor. And that explanation still holds water. The steady decline in labor’s share of national income since the 1970s derived from the declining political and economic power of labor as capital mobilized technologies, unemployment, off-shoring and anti-labor politics (such as those of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) to crush all opposition. As Alan Budd, an economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher confessed in an unguarded moment, anti-inflation policies of the 1980s turned out to be “a very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes…what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed capitalists to make high profits ever since.” The disparity in remuneration between average workers and CEO’s stood at around thirty to one in 1970. It now is well above three hundred to one and in the case of MacDonalds about 1200 to one.

But in Volume 2 of Marx’s Capital (which Piketty also has not read even as he cheerfully dismisses it) Marx pointed out that capital’s penchant for driving wages down would at some point restrict the capacity of the market to absorb capital’s product. Henry Ford recognized this dilemma long ago when he mandated the $5 eight-hour day for his workers in order, he said, to boost consumer demand. Many thought that lack of effective demand underpinned the Great Depression of the 1930s. This inspired Keynesian expansionary policies after World War Two and resulted in some reductions in inequalities of incomes (though not so much of wealth) in the midst of strong demand led growth. But this solution rested on the relative empowerment of labor and the construction of the “social state” (Piketty’s term) funded by progressive taxation. “All told,” he writes, “over the period 1932-1980, nearly half a century, the top federal income tax in the United States averaged 81 percent.” And this did not in any way dampen growth (another piece of Piketty’s evidence that rebuts right wing beliefs).

By the end of the 1960s it became clear to many capitalists that they needed to do something about the excessive power of labor. Hence the demotion of Keynes from the pantheon of respectable economists, the switch to the supply side thinking of Milton Friedman, the crusade to stabilize if not reduce taxation, to deconstruct the social state and to discipline the forces of labor. After 1980 top tax rates came down and capital gains – a major source of income for the ultra-wealthy – were taxed at a much lower rate in the US, hugely boosting the flow of wealth to the top one percent. But the impact on growth, Piketty shows, was negligible. So “trickle down” of benefits from the rich to the rest (another right wing favorite belief) does not work. None of this was dictated by any mathematical law. It was all about politics.

But then the wheel turned full circle and the more pressing question became: where is the demand? Piketty systematically ignores this question. The 1990s fudged the answer by a vast expansion of credit, including the extension of mortgage finance into sub-prime markets. But the resultant asset bubble was bound to go pop as it did in 2007-8 bringing down Lehman Brothers and the credit system with it. However, profit rates and the further concentration of private wealth recovered very quickly after 2009 while everything and everyone else did badly. Profit rates of businesses are now as high as they have ever been in the US. Businesses are sitting on oodles of cash and refuse to spend it because market conditions are not robust.

Piketty’s formulation of the mathematical law disguises more than it reveals about the class politics involved. As Warren Buffett has noted, “sure there is class war, and it is my class, the rich, who are making it and we are winning.” One key measure of their victory is the growing disparities in wealth and income of the top one percent relative to everyone else.

There is, however, a central difficulty with Piketty’s argument. It rests on a mistaken definition of capital. Capital is a process not a thing. It is a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money often, but not exclusively through the exploitation of labor power. Piketty defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being used or not. This includes land, real estate and intellectual property rights as well as my art and jewelry collection. How to determine the value of all of these things is a difficult technical problem that has no agreed upon solution. In order to calculate a meaningful rate of return, r, we have to have some way of valuing the initial capital. Unfortunately there is no way to value it independently of the value of the goods and services it is used to produce or how much it can be sold for in the market. The whole of neo-classical economic thought (which is the basis of Piketty’s thinking) is founded on a tautology. The rate of return on capital depends crucially on the rate of growth because capital is valued by way of that which it produces and not by what went into its production. Its value is heavily influenced by speculative conditions and can be seriously warped by the famous “irrational exuberance” that Greenspan spotted as characteristic of stock and housing markets. If we subtract housing and real estate – to say nothing of the value of the art collections of the hedge funders – from the definition of capital (and the rationale for their inclusion is rather weak) then Piketty’s explanation for increasing disparities in wealth and income would fall flat on its face, though his descriptions of the state of past and present inequalities would still stand.

Money, land, real estate and plant and equipment that are not being used productively are not capital. If the rate of return on the capital that is being used is high then this is because a part of capital is withdrawn from circulation and in effect goes on strike. Restricting the supply of capital to new investment (a phenomena we are now witnessing) ensures a high rate of return on that capital which is in circulation. The creation of such artificial scarcity is not only what the oil companies do to ensure their high rate of return: it is what all capital does when given the chance. This is what underpins the tendency for the rate of return on capital (no matter how it is defined and measured) to always exceed the rate of growth of income. This is how capital ensures its own reproduction, no matter how uncomfortable the consequences are for the rest of us. And this is how the capitalist class lives.

There is much that is valuable in Piketty’s data sets. But his explanation as to why the inequalities and oligarchic tendencies arise is seriously flawed. His proposals as to the remedies for the inequalities are naïve if not utopian. And he has certainly not produced a working model for capital of the twenty-first century. For that we still need Marx or his modern-day equivalent.


David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, published by Profile Press in London and Oxford University Press in New York.

What’s going on in Venezuela? Media Manipulation and Economic War

By Ricardo Fuentes-Ramírez

Retrieved from http://www.populareconomics.org

A burning street barricade (Roberto Gil)

A burning street barricade (Roberto Gil)

The violent opposition protests that erupted during February 2014 in Venezuela are difficult to comprehend relying only on the mainstream media. One of the main sources of this difficulty is the significant number of exaggerated, manipulated, or uncorroborated social media postings. These postings are best exemplified by the number of images from police brutality from other countries that are shared claiming they are from Venezuela in order to discredit the current government. Steve Ellner’s article on Green Left and Pablo Vivanco’s article on BASICS News are recommended in order to give some context on these protests and their aftermath. However, another complicated subject is the economic problems that are mentioned as the causes of these protests, specifically inflation and basic good shortages. Therefore, it is useful to go over some articles that discuss these issues in more depth.

Inflation has always been a problem in Venezuela. As Gregory Wilpert explains, during the 1990s, annual inflation rates averaged around 50%. However, under the Chávez government the trend was finally turned around, with inflation going down to an average 22% per year. Nevertheless, it has continued being a problem. The main cause of inflation is having an oil-based economy. Wilpert explains, “Venezuela receives an influx of petrodollars that basically come into the economy and raise the level of wages and raise the level of prices in a way that heats up inflation.” What the media fails to mention, as Tamara Pearson has emphasized, is that “the government regularly (once or twice a year) increases the minimum wage to match inflation levels, or higher than them, and the informal sector increases its prices to match inflation as well,” so “people’s purchasing power has actually increased significantly under the current government.” In other words, even though there is inflation, Venezuelans’ purchasing power is actually increasing, not decreasing.

The other issue mentioned is shortages of basic goods. Many news sources have tried to give the impression Venezuelans are close to starving. However, as discussed by Ryan Mallet-Outtrim,  “food consumption increased by 80% between 1999 and 2011,” while the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization “awarded Venezuela for halving hunger within its territory between 1990-1992 and 2010-2012.” Similarly, Oliver Levingston notes “Venezuela’s average caloric intake has gone from 91% of recommended levels in 1998 to 101.6%” so “the average Venezuelan went from being under-fed to exceeding their recommended calorie intake within the space of decade.” Nonetheless, it is true that basic goods like corn flour, milk, and toilet paper are in and out of stock at unpredictable rates. So while Venezuelans aren’t going to be out of flour for more than a few days, you can’t plan to bake a cake next week because maybe there won’t be any (See Pearson’s The Scarcity Diaries).

So what’s behind this occasional scarcity? Is it just bad government policy? Not exactly. In fact, scarcity is mostly fueled by deliberate actions taken by wealthy Venezuelans, which as the government has denounced, are nothing less than an economic war waged against the people. As Levingston explains, private food producers and importers deliberately hoard and engage in investment strikes in order to undermine support for government policy. As evidence of this practice, Levingston mentions some of the numerous cases of government inspectors discovering tons of hoarded food. In early 2008, 13,000 tons of hoarded food were found in two weeks of state inspections. In March 2009, the government nationalized a rice-processing plant after it found 18,000 tons of rice hoarded in warehouses. He adds further evidence lies in the fact that scarcity moves so closely with the electoral calendar, it is difficult to argue it is not, at least in part, by political design. As an example, he mentions one of the periods of greatest shortages were the months prior to the December 2007 referendum. Similarly, “in the lead-up to April 2013 elections, scarcity and disinvestment skyrocketed,” and between the two general elections from November 2012 and June 2013, more than 40,000 tons of hoarded food were uncovered.

In terms of wealthy Venezuelan importers, these usually take advantage of the government’s currency controls in order to acquire US dollars at low rates with the pretense of importing goods for consumption in Venezuela, but instead sell these dollars in the black market. Of what they actually import, as Wilpert explains, between 30% to 40% is smuggled out of Venezuela. Furthermore, what they do offer in stores for consumption in Venezuela is overpriced at black market exchange rates, instead of the exchange rate at which they actually imported it. Tamara Pearson gives the actual example of what she calls one of her few vice foods: Pringles. At the rate at which importers acquire dollars from the government, Pringles should cost close to $2.20. However, they mark up the price according to the rate at which they are selling dollars in the black market, so they actually sell for $15.70! Thus, these wealthy Venezuelans fuel both inflation and shortages in the country.

Why are rich Venezuelans sabotaging their own country? Since the election of Hugo Chavez, and continuing with the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, government policy has been designed to democratize not only the political structures of the country, but the economy as well. The poor Venezuelan masses, for the first time in history, have benefited from the country’s vast resources; they have had substantial access to education and health care, and they have been politically empowered, both through traditional political structures as well as new ones, such as the innovative Communes. As the poor working masses have been empowered, the rich have been proportionately disempowered. Thus, wealthy Venezuelans have engaged in political and economic war, through the media and through their resources, to avoid further democratization of Venezuelan society. In a nutshell, that is what’s going on Venezuela.

Atheism and Human Development: The Political Economy of Secularization

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez 

Figure 1Introduction 

With “Political Economy of Secularization,” we refer to the analysis of the underlying economic processes embedded in the tendency of religiosity to decline across the world. The building blocks for this analysis are mainly found in Karl Marx’s understanding of religion. While contemporary secularization theory mainly rests upon Weber and Durkheim’s ideas on this subject, we argue that in Marx’s writings on the subject we also find important insights. The objective of this paper is to sketch a theory of secularization within a Marxian Political Economy framework, and support it with the most recent data on development and religiosity across the world. We argue this approach fills important theoretical voids in traditional secularization theory and contributes toward responding to the challenge of explaining the rise in religiosity in the world as a whole.

Religion as Human Estrangement

One of Marx’s earliest remarks on religion is found in a letter to Arnold Ruge, a German writer with whom he briefly co-edited a journal titled “The German-French Yearbooks.” In 1842, when he was 24 years old, Marx wrote that “religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself” (1975). In this brief statement, we find Marx’s central thesis on religion and secularization. Religion is but the reflection of a distorted reality, or as he later on develops, of a society where humanity is alienated, or estranged.  With the transition to a society free of alienation, religion will eventually collapse. In 1843, he continued expanding on this idea in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. There he argued that religion is “the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has lost himself again” (2008, p. 41) At this point, he writes one of his most memorable quotes on religion:

 

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions” (2008, p. 42).

“Real suffering,” may be of a mainly physiological nature, or a mainly psychological nature. Physiologically, human beings may suffer from hunger, disease, inadequate shelter or clothing, natural disasters, etc.; which all may lead to religious attitudes as explanatory or coping mechanisms. This is similar to Norris and Inglehart’s (2011) “existential security theory.” These authors sustain that “as societies transition from agrarian to industrial economies, and then develop into postindustrial societies, the conditions of growing security that usually accompany this process tend to reduce the importance of religious values. The main reason, [they] believe, is that the need for religious reassurance becomes less pressing under conditions of greater security” (2011, p. 18). On the other hand, Norris and Inglehart recognize that economic development, or greater “existential security,” do not necessarily ensure lower religiosity. We wish to stress this point even further, as it is crucial in Marx’s understanding of religiosity. As a result of what Marx called human estrangement, even people that are not living in the poorest conditions within their countries, and truly live in conditions of human security, might still find themselves in conditions that require sources of illusionary happiness. Therefore, to understand Marx’s theory of secularization, it is crucial to understand what he means with human estrangement, or the alienation of human labor. The objective in this section is not to provide a comprehensive analysis of the concept, but a brief introduction focusing on what is most pertinent to the subject of secularization. According to Marx, the source of alienation is found in the development of private property; that is, the transition from ancient communal modes of production toward modes characterized by private property over the means of production and the exploitation of human labor. Therefore, his concept of alienation is fundamentally related to the act of labor. As Erich Fromm (1992, p. 47) explained, work is “the active relatedness of man to nature, the creation of a new world, including the creation of man himself.” To illustrate Marx’s concept of alienation, it is best to juxtapose human labor in ancient communal modes of production, with labor within capitalism. In the first case, work was the expression of men and women’s power. The product of human labor, although primitive, was fundamentally linked to those who directly produced it, always based on their will and planning. In capitalism, workers are degraded into mere appendages of machines, destroying, as Marx described in Capital, every remnant of charm in work, and turning it into a hated toil. Aptly describing the work conditions of most laborers around the world today, Marx concluded that workers under capitalism find their work unfulfilling, miserable, and physically and mentally exhausting. Therefore, their work is experienced as something alien, and the worker becomes alienated from his or herself as a worker, as well as from the product of his or her work. For Marx, capitalism is the highest expression of alienated work since the origins of private property. Thus, alienated society fuels religion by creating diverse forms of suffering, ranging from physically brutal working conditions to menial and degrading work.

However, religiosity is also linked to our scientific knowledge. Taking this into account, we may conclude religion is a reflection of the relationship between human beings and nature in two distinct forms: how we transform nature and ourselves through labor, and our technical understanding of nature. Marx (2008, p. 36) argued that when the development of the productive power of labor is in a low stage, and the relations of humanity with itself and with nature are correspondingly constricted, this is “reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions.” Similarly, Engels argued that as advances in natural sciences progress, “the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body” (2008, p. 188). Human religiosity therefore has inherent contradictory tendencies. While the development of our understanding and mastery over nature tends to undermine the belief in supernatural beings, the increasing alienation linked with this development enables religion. In contemporary terms, the latter translates into an issue of psychological or mental health. Under capitalism, scientific knowledge has exponentially grown to an extent arguably enough to have completely debunked religion. However, the negative effects on mental health brought upon by capitalism help religion persist.

In sum, Marxian secularization theory argues that religion is immersed in various processes that can both enable and disable it. First, the scientific and technical developments of human society tend to undermine religiosity through two processes: 1) an increasing understanding of nature eliminates the need of religion as an explanatory mechanism, while 2) increasing standards of living eliminate the need of religion as a coping mechanism. There has been a historic tendency of development in science and technology, which therefore translates into a historic tendency towards secularization. However, this same development in science and technology has gone hand in hand with the development of modes of production characterized by exploitation and alienation. This last process tends to serve as fuel for human religiosity. As we will show below, we understand that the most recent statistics on religion and human development support this theory.

We may now see a fundamental difference between the secularization theories of Marx and other 19th century thinkers such as Weber or Durkheim. While the latter argued that capitalism would ultimately destroy religion, Marx was clear that because capitalist industrialization represented a historical peak in human estrangement, it would do nothing of the sort. Humanity would have to transition to a post-capitalist mode of production, where men and women are self-realized and emancipated from alienation, in order for religion to disappear. Nonetheless, various processes could surely counteract alienation even within capitalism. Healthy workers, with access to education, and high living standards within egalitarian societies, will probably have less negative effects from estranged labor than workers with lower standards of living, lack of access to health and education, and living within highly unequal societies.

In other words, alienation is undermined by what recent theorists have termed human development. Human development generally refers to broadening the scope from strictly economic growth, so as to include elements such as education, health, and equality, which more aptly represent the conditions in which a population is living. Most Marxists would argue that although human development might be achieved in certain areas of the world economy, capitalism would ultimately undermine human development in the world as a whole. To discuss if global human development is achievable within capitalism would go beyond the scope of this paper. For our current objectives, it suffices to say that where human development is achieved, we should expect to find higher degrees of secularization, as it serves as a counteracting force to human estrangement. Thus, as Norris and Inglehart (2011, pp. 14-16) have also argued, developed countries should tend to show degrees of religiosity and secularization more proportional to human development rather than mere economic growth.

Lack of Secularization in the Third World

In the case of developing countries, their population growth rates and religious cultures have translated into a net rise in world religiosity that undermine the idea that religion will steadily decline. However, there is a tendency toward secularization, not an iron law of secularization. We argue that with all other things being held constant, religion would disappear as a result of economic and human development. Nonetheless, things are never constant, and sufficiently strong counteracting tendencies may undermine others. Two aspects contribute in explaining higher degrees of religiosity in the Third World: intense and highly exploitative working conditions, as well as problems related with hunger, sickness, and violence. In other words, processes related to alienation as well as low existential security plague developing countries. “Real suffering” in physiological and psychological terms translates into more people yearning for illusionary sources of happiness. As developing countries “catch up” to developed countries, increasing existential security enforces the tendency toward secularization. If their economic development were accompanied with human development, the tendency toward secularization would be reinforced even further. Capitalism tends to develop the forces of production on a global scale. In other words, it should tend to develop the “backward” regions of the world, developing countries should be catching up, and secularization should be rising. However, as stated above, sufficiently strong counteracting forces can nullify this tendency.

Many Marxian economists, such as Andre Gunder Frank (1978) and Samir Amin (1976), have studied why most poor developing countries remained poor during the 20th century. World capitalism took a particular imperialist character, dividing the world into two fundamental groups: core capitalist countries (the First World) and peripheral countries (the Third World). Their relation hampered the development of peripheral countries through a vast array of political and economic institutions and processes. While there is debate on the mechanisms, and the ways they may or may not be undermined, there is agreement on the fact that the relation between core countries and peripheral countries obstructed growth and development in the latter. Even when accounting for the so-called “emerging markets,” it is clear that growth and development are still difficult feats for most developing countries, and in great part because of their past and current relation with advanced developed countries. In other words, the tendency toward global secularization has been undermined by a particular counteracting force: economic imperialism and global inequality. This does not mean secularization theory is fundamentally flawed. On the contrary, with the analytical tools of Marxian Political Economy, we have a clearer understanding on why the tendency toward secularization was hampered, and the steps that may be taken in order to enable it.

Recent Statistics on Secularization

This understanding of secularization may be evidenced using recent statistics on development and secularization. In theory, secularization should not only rise with economic development, but it should rise at a higher rate where it is accompanied by human development. The utility of the proposed framework becomes evident when we focus on the United States. Previous assessments of secularization worldwide categorized the United States as an outlier, as it possessed both a highly religious population as well as high levels of development. However, when taking into account that US citizens have less access to health and education, and live within a more unequal society than most of their European counterparts, we actually expect to find higher degrees of religiosity. This idea is supported with Norris and Inglehart’s (2011, pp. 106-108) analysis of frequency of prayer and economic inequality in advanced capitalist countries. In addition, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has recently introduced a new measure, the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), that, as we will show below, shows that the United States is not an outlier, but actually fits our theory.

Using the 2005-2008 wave of The World Values Survey we may analyze the relation between human development and religiosity. Specifically, we may observe the relationship between the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) and the percentage of people in each country that consider religion is not important in their lives and the percentage of people who declare themselves as not religious or convinced atheist. In Figure 1 we may observe that the relationship between the percentage of convinced atheists in the population and the IHDI is not linear. Instead, we find a polynomial relation where the number of atheists begins to rise most significantly after the IHDI has surpassed a value of approximately 0.6. The UNDP categorizes countries as representing Very High Human Development (0.8<HDI), High Human Development (0.7<HDI<0.8), Medium Human Development (0.535<HDI<0.7), and Low Human Development (HDI<0.535). In other words, when countries enter a stage of Medium Human Development, the number of atheists begins to rise, and the rate at which they rise increases as they continue on to stages of High or Very High Human Development. The only outliers were South Korea, France, Germany, and Sweden. However, they showed percentages of atheists above what was expected, so they do not undermine our main thesis of increasing secularization. Another important aspect is the case of the United States. As previously mentioned, most studies found the United States as an outlier, with unexplainable high levels of religiosity given its stage of development. In our data, the United States is below the trend line, but it is nowhere near of being an outlier that undermines our thesis. Its levels of religiosity are explained with our theory and data as a result of lower human development and higher inequality.

This particular question in the World Values Survey provided three possible answers where those being surveyed should classify themselves: Religious Person, Not a Religious Person, Convinced Atheist. In theory, it is possible for the ‘Not a Religious Person’ group to be decreasing enough as to nullify the increase in atheists, so it is best to add the last two groups. This combined group of people that responded as not religious or atheists may be called the total of irreligious people. In Figure 2, we see the same trend observed in the case of atheists by themselves. As countries enter levels of Medium Human Development, the percentage of irreligious people begins to climb faster, and increasing even more in higher stages of human development. In this case, a new particular outlier stands out: Thailand. Even though this country has a very religious population of the Buddhist tradition, more than 60% of those surveyed answered they are not religious. This is probably a result of translation issues in phrasing the question, particularities of the branch of Buddhism and how it conceives itself as a religion, or a combination of both. In the case of the United States, once again, although below the trend line, it is not an outlier and does not contradict our theory.

Figure 2

Secularization may also be reflected in religion losing its importance in people’s lives, even though they are not necessarily outspokenly labeling themselves as irreligious. Thus, we also analyze the question in the survey where people state how important religious is in their lives (very, rather, not very, or not at all important). As in the previous exercise, first we will focus on those who answered not at all important, and then on the sum of those who answered not very and not at all important. In Figure 3, we find that the relation between the percent of the population that consider religion is not at all important in their lives and the IHDI follows the same trend as in the previous cases. The only outliers reflect higher secularization than expected, and the United States is not a problematic outlier.  Finally, in Figure 4, we do the same exercise but with the sum of those who answered religion was not very and not at all important in their lives, and also find the same pattern.

 Figure 3 Figure 4

What’s probably most interesting of this analysis is that, according to our theory and findings, if the world as a whole were to arrive at a level of human development and equality similar to that of Sweden or Norway, we would expect to find that religion stopped being of importance for more than half of the population, and openly irreligious people would be rapidly approaching becoming half of the population. In Marxian terms, our findings support the idea that as countries develop in terms of science and technology, secularization rises; but it increases most when human development and equality counteract the effects of alienation.

Concluding Remarks

Marx (2008, p. 42) stated “It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” This idea resonates with the discussion on secularization and development in the Third World. If we operate under the assumption that secularization is desirable because it translates into sexual liberalization, women’s equality, LGBT rights, etc.; then achieving economic and human development in the Third World becomes even more of an imperative. The criticism of rising religious extremism today must turn into the criticism of the vast array of political and economic processes that hinder development in the Third World. In other words, the criticism of religion today is fundamentally linked with the criticism of political and economic imperialism and global inequality. For Marx (2008, p. 136), humanity will never fully strip its veil of mysticism and vanquish its religious reflex, until production takes place through the free association of men and women, “it is consciously regulated by them in a settled plan,” and “the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to nature.”  The disappearance of religion is therefore a very long run process. Nonetheless, Marx’s theory provides insight into how we may undermine the negative effects of religiosity in the short and medium run as well.

References

Amin, S. (1976). Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Engels, F. (2008). Dialectics of Nature. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 152-193). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Frank, A. G. (1978). Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fromm, E. (1992). Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum Publications.

Marx, K. (1975). Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge In Dresden. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works V.1 (pp. 393-395). New York: International Publishers.

Marx, K. (2008). Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 41-58). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Marx, K. (2008). Capital (Extracts). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 135-141). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

World Values Survey Association. (2013). World Values Survey 2005-2008. Retrieved from http://www.wvsevsdb.com/wvs

United Nations Development Program. (2013). 2013 Human Development Report.

Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2013/

Imposed Beauty and Capitalism: Images of Protests Against Miss Venezuela 2013

Retrieved from venezuelanalysis.com

Days before this year’s Miss Venezuela competition, the collectives Faldas en Revolución (Skirts in Revolution) and the Movimiento Revolucionario de Ciclismo Urbano (Revolutionary Urban Cycling Movement, MRCU) issued public statements calling for a boycott of the pageant, criticising it for promoting “capitalism”, “patriarchy” and “consumerism”.

Earlier this week, Maria Eugenia from the MRCU told Venezuelan media that the country needs to rethink how it views beauty.

“[Miss Venezuela contestants] are slaves of beauty standards that thousands of girls want to fit into year after year,” Eugenia stated.

In Venezuela, beauty and capitalism go hand in hand. Venezuela has won more major international beauty competitions than any other country, and Venezuelans spend millions of dollars each year on beauty products. On average, Venezuelan women spend around 20% of their salaries on beauty products, making the country’s beauty industry among the most profitable per capita.

Venezuela’s obsession with beauty has a long history, and remains strong today. However, opposition to events like Miss Venezuela is growing.

The placard reads &quot;don't exchange your dignity for the crown&quot;. (Pacha Catalina)

The placard reads “don’t exchange your dignity for the crown”. (Pacha Catalina)

&quot;Miss Plastic Surgery&quot; (Pacha Catalina)

“Miss Plastic Surgery” (Pacha Catalina)

&quot;Imposed beauty is a weapon that only serves self mutilation.&quot; (Pacha Catalina)

“Imposed beauty is a weapon that only serves self mutilation.” (Pacha Catalina)

(Pacha Catalina)

(Pacha Catalina)

&quot;Free and fighting woman without a sash and crown&quot;(Pacha Catalina)

“Free and fighting woman without a sash and crown”(Pacha Catalina)

&quot;A woman who respects herself doesn't need approval for her actions.&quot;(Pacha Catalina)

“A woman who respects herself doesn’t need approval for her actions.”(Pacha Catalina)

[Could also be translated as “A woman who respects herself doesn’t need approval of her measurements” -thepointistochangeit]

(Pacha Catalina)

“Enough of the construction of bodies submitted to Capital” (translation by thepointistochangeit)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON OCT 11TH 2013 AT 5.24PM IN VENEZUELANALYSIS.COM

Selected Readings from José Carlos Mariátegui

In this pdf, you will find the readings Prologue to Tempest in the Andes, The Indigenous Question in Latin America, The Latin American Socialist Revolution, and The Anti-Imperialist Point of View by José Carlos Mariátegui. They were retrieved from an anthology titled Marxism in Latin America 1909 to the Present edited by Michael Lowy. Click here to download the pdf file

José Carlos Mariátegui La Chira (14 June 1894 – 16 April 1930) was a Peruvian journalist, political philosopher, and activist. A prolific writer before his early death at age 35, he is considered one of the most influential Latin American socialists of the 20th century. Mariátegui’s most famous work, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928), is still widely read in South America. An avowed, self-taught Marxist, he insisted that a socialist revolution should evolve organically in Latin America on the basis of local conditions and practices, not the result of mechanically applying a European formula.” (Wikipedia)

Read a full biographical note on Mariátegui here. 

A Review of Dan Brown’s Inferno: Neo-Malthusian Reactionary Discourse in Popular Fiction

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez

Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno is definitely a page-turner. You will not drop it until your done. Like all of Robert Langdon’s adventures, there are various recurring themes and elements. However, this does not make the book repetitive or unoriginal respect to Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, or The Lost Symbol. On the contrary, there are sufficient new elements that make the book wonderful in its own right. The recurring elements from his previous books just give it the flare and addictive nature of all of Langdon’s adventures. The only element I found problematic was a certain twist of events at the end of the book. Twist and turns are part of Brown’s style, but in Inferno, two of our characters (Langdon and Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey) develop a strong disdain toward one particular character (Bertrand Zobrist), only for it to be unrealistically switched to understanding and even a bit of admiration at the end. The shift was so sudden that it was borderline plain bad story telling. Other than that, the book is all we have learned to love of Brown’s work.  His previous books definitely had implications on current debates (the best example being the complex and ever changing relationship between science and religion), but they were always focused on particular historical elements that captured the reader’s interest, such as the Illuminati or the Holy Grail/Mary Magdalene story. In this case, the historical element isn’t a secret organization or a bible conspiracy theory, it’s Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, especially the canticle on Hell: Inferno. Personally, I found Dan Brown’s historical “did you knows” or “fun facts” less mind boggling compared to previous books. To be fair, readers more interested in world literature, instead of secret organizations or conspiracy theories, might enjoy Inferno more than the previous Robert Langdon books. In terms of the implications on the current debates, the issue is overpopulation and sustainability. Here is where Dan Brown really messes up, and becomes an advocate of a Neo-Malthusian, bourgeois, reactionary understanding of a whole array of topics. The novel has implicit views on population growth as the fundamental cause behind economic and environmental sustainability issues. The book’s tone supports conservative arguments that criminalize and attack the “poor and overpopulating masses” as the culprits, while ignoring the role of large corporations with truly unsustainable production techniques. I personally don’t think he intended to do so, but he definitely did, so it is worthwhile discussing this vision.

The upside is that he is nudging readers to reflect and react to the fact that humanity is currently facing a survival threatening sustainability problem. The problem has two elements, fundamentally linked, that of environmental sustainability and that of economic development. Humanity is consuming Earth to its oblivion, while simultaneously goods and resources seem insufficient to satisfy all our needs. The problem with Dan Brown’s rhetoric is that it promotes the idea that the fundamental variable is population growth. Hunger, sickness, pollution, melting ice caps, are all explained with overpopulation. According to this vision, Malthus was right; population grew exponentially while our means of subsistence lagged behind. The vision ignores the fact that science and technology have also been developed exponentially in the last centuries. World population grew more in the last 200 years than it grew in the previous 200,000 years. However, science and technology have also been developed much more in the last 200 years than in the previous 200,000 years. Therefore, we most likely have the technological capacity to satisfy our needs and wants in a sustainable manner even with population growth. This isn’t a novel idea that should have escaped Dan Brown’s preparatory readings. It’s been around as early as merely 10 years after Malthus’ death. In 1844, Engels wrote in his Outline of a Critique of Political Economy:

Yet, so as to deprive the universal fear of overpopulation of any possible basis, let us once more return to the relationship of productive power to population. Malthus establishes a formula on which he bases his entire system: population is said to increase in a geometrical progression – 1+2+4+8+16+32, etc.; the productive power of the land in an arithmetical progression – 1+2+3+4+5+6. The difference is obvious, is terrifying; but is it correct? Where has it been proved that the productivity of the land increases in an arithmetical progression? The extent of land is limited. All right! The labour-power to be employed on this land-surface increases with population. Even if we assume that the increase in yield due to increase in labour does not always rise in proportion to the labour, there still remains a third element which, admittedly, never means anything to the economist – science – whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population. What progress does the agriculture of this century owe to chemistry alone – indeed, to two men alone, Sir Humphry Davy and Justus Liebig! But science increases at least as much as population. The latter increases in proportion to the size of the previous generation, science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions also in a geometrical progression. And what is impossible to science?

Overpopulation (or lack of technology adequate for our growing numbers) is not the issue behind hunger, sickness, pollution, or melting ice caps. The problem lies within our economic system, our mode of production. How can we say that goods and resources are scarce, when we have, simultaneously, hungry people and surplus food being thrown away, empty houses with no tenants and homeless people, and pharmaceuticals stocked in warehouses while there are sick? In assessing the causes of pollution and global warming, how can we reduce it to population growth, without mentioning the millions of tons of waste and contaminants that come from unsustainable industrial production methods? The roots of our problems lie within the unequal distribution of resources and the unplanned character of our economy. With a more sensible distribution of goods and resources, along with replacing market forces and profit seeking behavior with social planning, we just might escape a Dante-like apocalypse. However, as Dan Brown presents the issue, it’s not only ignoring the actual roots of the problem, it’s a borderline (and for some an openly) racist argument. To say we are overpopulated is to say someone shouldn’t be here. Who? Well, population isn’t actually rising in the First World. Every single country with a population growth rate above 1% is a Third World country. In other words, the world’s problems are a result of the uneducated poor who simply cannot stop having babies (according to this Neo-Malthusian discourse). Dan Brown does right by bringing the sustainability issue to focus. If we do not do something, humanity, sooner than later, might actually face a species-threatening crisis. In fact, evidence points to the fact that we already are in this crisis. Where Dan Brown fails is in pointing the reader into actual solutions. We shouldn’t be focusing on population growth. We should be focusing on the system as a whole; on how, what, and for whom we produce goods and services. In other words, capitalism is the problem! The solution: socialism (or if this is a bad word, then economic democracy, participatory economics, or any other euphemism). In the spirit of Dante’s work, the most treacherous beings on Earth are the members of capitalist class, as their existence actually threatens the survival of our species. Therefore, the deepest corners of Hell are saved for them. Our job is to make their Hell on Earth, by making our Paradise on Earth.