There are many reasons to celebrate the rapturous reception of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the first being that it has clearly energized critiques of inequality within the study of economics and economic policy. Yet one also hopes it helps mobilize broader discussion of the various forms of capital in capitalism, especially in the disciplines—religious studies, sociology, cultural studies—for which the notion of capital has been especially useful.
Some critiques of the book take issue with Piketty’s definition of capital itself, ranging across claims that it is too homogeneous, too specific, or too obfuscatory, depending on the position one takes on the definition and importance of various qualifiers—“human,” “physical,” “financial,” etc. Defenses of Piketty, in turn, have responded by pointing out how his careful and deliberate definition of capital isolates the factors necessary to his central thesis—that inequality produced by the greater rate of return on capital than the rate of economic growth is a unexceptional feature of capitalism, expressed throughout the book as r(ate of return on capital) > g(rowth). One reviewer claims that Piketty’s notion of “capital” rescues the term from its linguistic “promiscuity” across any conceivable asset—political, cultural, spiritual, erotic—and returns it to a proper economic meaning.
One of the work’s most promising resources is the functional clarity of its approach to capital, which is precisely defined and deployed in a long term historical analysis of return rates on ownership.
For those interested in the more “promiscuous” senses of capital, however, Capital might not reclaim the term for economics so much as it models the stability and variation of a specific capital formation over time. One of the work’s most promising resources is the functional clarity of its approach to capital, which is precisely defined and deployed in a long term historical analysis of return rates on ownership: capital refers to the monetary value of “nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on some market,” distinct from human capital (the skills, abilities, and talents that cannot, with the exception of slavery, be owned themselves as assets) and the specific assets or goods themselves. By specifying financial capital—ownership rights of nonhuman assets—Piketty is able to compare the market values of assets over long periods of time and thus makes historically specific capital gains relative to income from wages and capital output.
The most influential notion of “capital” outside of political economy and economics is doubtless in the work and influence of Pierre Bourdieu, whose notions of non-economic forms of capital have been particularly useful for the study of value circulation, structures, and variables. Bourdieu develops the concept of “symbolic” capital, in fact, in a critique of reductionist accounts of value creation that segregate an economic field of determining factors—self-interest, market price, labor, demand, scarcity—from non-economic fields negatively defined as “symbolic” precisely because they have no effect on or are rather “gratuitous” to the value creation of rational, interest-maximizing agents. Capital can be symbolic, Bourdieu argues, not because it is ineffectual or irrelevant to valuation, but because it marks the relations between different value contexts—specific cultural, social, political, or spiritual systems of investments and exchanges. These are not “metaphorical” economies derived from the structure and functioning of a “literal” one, but discrete formations of goods “worthy of being sought” in specific ways; they may (and do) interrelate, but are not ultimately derivations of a primary valuation of any one form of capital. A Harvard degree may confer a certain amount of cultural capital (in the form of status-conferring practical knowledge) and social capital (in terms of access to resources available to exclusive networks and groups) that yield significant non-material profits, or at least profits irreducible to present or future economic assets.
On the other hand, a Harvard degree has considerable symbolic capital in the implicit value transfer of an asset from one form of capital to another by a certain misrecognition: the social and cultural capital of my Harvard degree may be mistaken for a particular competence or skill (transferable into economic capital). In this sense, symbolic capital is less a distinct form of capital than the ideological function of hidden capital circulation. Qualification for a job or a task, for example, is often a function not of context-specific human capital (having the requisite skills and abilities) but of the transfer of the social capital of group membership or inherited cultural capital from family and educational systems. Thus symbolic capital effectively operates by legitimating existing structures and relations of capital exchange—what Bourdieu, citing Max Weber, terms the “theodicy of its own privilege,” the secular theodicy (or “sociodicy”) that transforms privilege, luck, and inheritance into merited deserts.
Piketty claims that the inequality of r > g is not a necessary law of capitalism, but a “contingent historical proposition” describing the demonstrated tendency of capital ownership to reproduce at a greater rate than economic growth.
Many reviewers have noted that Capital’s sociohistorical scope and concern invoke (in more than its title) the political economy of Smith, Ricardo, and Marx rather than the professional and academic discipline of economics with its focus on marginal maximization. Yet in its historical focus the promise of Piketty’s Capital for broader discussions of the forms of capital is not so much to re-define capital itself, nor even, pace Bourdieu, to open up a dispersed field of social practices “without distinction” between the economic and non-economic. Rather it is an expert historical analysis of a capital formation (private property) that reveals how its value is self-preserved over time.
Thus Piketty claims that the inequality of r > g is not a necessary law of capitalism, but a “contingent historical proposition” describing the demonstrated tendency of capital ownership to reproduce at a greater rate than economic growth (in terms of output and wages). The “central contradiction of capitalism,” Piketty argues, is that capital acquired in the past is more valuable than present work. Understanding this not as a logical necessity of capitalism, but as a historically specific description of patrimonial capital—the particular way in which a form of capital has reproduced its value—positions Piketty’s work in a broader interdisciplinary discussion of capital reproduction as symbolic transfer (through patrimony, inheritance, heritage, social access or cultural knowledge, etc.) and the concomitant questions of desert, justice, and value over time. The response to Piketty’s book suggests a readiness for this work among those who are familiar with such questions and, encouragingly, among those who perhaps are not.
Julia Reed is a doctoral candidate in the study of religion at Harvard University. She is particularly interested in roles and modes of practice in early modern theology and philosophy.
Image of Harvard’s Memorial Hall from Flickr via NKCPhoto