What we at r3.0 are reading (8)
By Bill Baue
At first glance, Marjorie Kelly’s and Peter Turchin’s latest books, Wealth Supremacy and End Times (respectively) are about the same thing — the systemic dysfunctionality of wealth inequality — so it’s tempting to think you could just read one or the other. You’d be depriving yourself if you do, however, as these two recent works take radically different tacks on their common topic, painting a vastly more vivid picture read in tandem — in dialogue with one another, if you will — than either provides in isolation (though they each do stand on their own).
The fact that these two studies of wealth inequality appeared within months of each other is a testament to their timeliness — they both capture an emerging zeitgeist. The fact that the topic affords these radically different perspectives is a testament to its complexity. Let’s take a look at each book on its own terms to begin with, then explore their synergies.
Wealth Supremacy: (Mono)Capital Bias?
One need look no further than the title to discern one of the key strategies of Wealth Supremacy (1): naming. Kelly writes:
“Naming is ‘a culture’s way of fixing what will actually count as reality,’ observed Deborah Cameron, a feminist scholar of linguistics.”
“We cannot fix a problem we cannot name. The hidden force driving many of the crises of our day is wealth supremacy — the bias that institutionalizes infinite extraction of wealth for the wealthy, even as this means stagnation or losses for many. Wealth supremacy in operation is capital bias — the root bias at the heart of the system of capitalism… Naming the problem is a place to begin. As more people today challenge the system’s norms, we claim our power and erode the foundation on which bias stands: its cultural legitimacy.”
Kelly’s first strategy of naming the problem bridges here to the second element of her Theory of System Change — namely, delegitimizing bias. She does so by unveiling seven myths of Wealth Supremacy:
- The Myth of Maximizing
- The Myth of Fiduciary Duty
- The Myth of Corporate Governance
- The Myth of the Income Statement
- The Myth of Materiality (where she cites r3.0’s concept of “Sociopathic Materiality”)
- The Myth of the Free Market
- The Myth of Takings.
Kelly applies her journalistic acumen (as publisher of Business Ethics magazine for two decades, she leveraged this skill to greatly improve several articles I wrote for her in the early 2000s) to advance a brilliant, concise deconstruction in each of these instances; her analysis pulls together disparate threads of critique that, taken together, weave a whole cloth that is stronger of-a-piece than the single strands. What emerges is not only a coherent systemic critique, but one that is readily understandable to readers unfamiliar with the underlying arcana. This crystallization itself is worth the price of the book, and establishes it as a significant contribution to current dialogue.
As much as I support her Theory of System Change (regular readers of this What We’re Reading feature know I’m a big proponent of triggering positive tipping points in social norms), Kelly’s theory of change is not without its challenges. Kelly asserts:
“The real power we the people possess — the ultimate power — is legitimacy.”
Here, Kelly invokes the core of social tipping point theory: that by delegitimizing adverse social norms, and legitimizing beneficial social norms, we can trigger tipping points in social norms to create paradigm shifts toward more beneficial outcomes. The Achilles heel of this strategy is that proponents of status quo wealth supremacy understand the vulnerability of the illegitimacy of their stances, and have thus launched a coordinated attack to delegitimize standard notions of legitimacy. As a result, we live in a “post-truth” world that saps some of the power from a theory of change predicated on delegitimization. That said, I’m also a big believer that “truth outs” — that the long arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, as MLK said.
This brings us back to Kelly’s first strategy of naming, as the first strand in a double helix Achilles Heel. Kelly herself acknowledges this first strand of these dual vulnerabilities:
“Cognitive scientist George Lakoff put the problem this way: when we invoke the frame, we reinforce the frame.”
Despite revealing her understanding of this dynamic, Kelly invokes — and thereby reinforces — the problematic frame in her book’s title: Wealth Supremacy. In the contest between naming and framing, Kelly prioritizes the former — the power of naming the problem (as quoted above) — over the deeper and more insidious power of framing the problem which ironically reinforces the problem, thereby undermining her own strategy. It’s ironic that she places herself into this double-bind… she could have at least gestured toward unframing this problem by calling the book Upending Wealth Supremacy or something like that. But she didn’t — she focused her framing on the problem itself, and thus risks cementing (instead of overturning) the problem..
This points to the deeper, subtler second strand of the double helix of vulnerability — Kelly’s framing of capital bias, which she defines as “the bias toward the maximum increase of capital — maximum benefit to wealth holders — that operates inside the processes and institutions through which capital deploys functional power.” The first-strand vulnerability discussed above also applies here as well: by focusing on capital bias, Kelly reinforces capital bias. She acknowledges as much in a mea culpa over her promoting the business case for sustainability (2) earlier in her career.
“When we whisper into executive and investor ears that capital income will only be enhanced [by sustainability enhancements], we deliver a message fatal to change: capital must come first… the system subsume[s] change efforts into itself.”
The second strand of the double helix Achilles heel is Kelly’s monolithic definition of capital: she uncritically embraces the definition of capital as exclusively financial. In this sense, she invokes the frame of what we call monocapitalism. This terminology suggests the alternative framing of multicapitalism, which embeds in its very linguistic structure (ie its pluralism) an inherent critique of defining capital in exclusively financial terms.
As we at r3.0 pointed out in the “Capital: Singular or Plural?” chapter of our Multicapitalism White Paper, the term “capital” has, for centuries, carried a multiplicitous meaning beyond the mere financial. From the chapter:
“While common consciousness conflates capital with cash, the term applies more broadly, as we can see by tracing back to its origins. Double-entry bookkeeping, which dates back to Roman and Egyptian antiquity, was first codified in Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli’s 1494 treatise, Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalità. In Jan Ympyn Christoffels’ first English translation of this seminal text a half-century later, he proposed that the term ‘capital’ could be considered synonymous with ‘stock’:
‘The other worde, the Italians call the Capitall, that is to saie, the Stocke or principall that the Marchant began with all…. And it is at your pleasure whether ye will use this worde Stocke in Englishe, or Capitale.’
This etymology has important implications, as the term ‘stock’ carries very broad denotations and connotations, stemming from the Old English notion of the ‘trunk’ (of a tree) and developed in late Middle English from the notion of ‘growth from a central stem.’ The fundamental point is that the term ‘capital’ has never carried a singular, exclusively financial denotation, but has always carried much wider application associated with the ‘firm foundation’ of ‘stock’ from which growth flows.”
Over the past century in particular, this extra-financial definition, encompassing natural, social, and human capital, among many others, has solidified. As Kenneth Boulding writes in his seminal 1966 essay on the Spaceship Economy:
“The essential measure of the success of the economy is not production and consumption at all, but the nature, extent, quality, and complexity of the total capital stock, including in this the state of human bodies and minds included in the system.”
Or as Mark McElroy and Jo van Engelen put it more succinctly a decade ago, “Vital capital is a stock of anything that yields a flow of valuable goods or services important to human well-being.” Acknowledging and embracing the existence of multiple forms of vital capital inherently unbinds the stranglehold of financial capital bias, as the commensurate prioritization of nurturing of other forms of capital precludes perpetual maximization of a single (financial) capital, by requiring the dynamic balancing of vitality across the multiple capitals.
Stated simply, Kelly could solve the capital bias problem by rejecting the (mono)capital bias frame in favor of a multicapital frame, which structurally transcends bias dynamics.
Is this a fatal flaw? I don’t necessarily think so. First of all, the strength of her naming of the problems is so well structured and articulated as to eclipse these shortcomings, which are ultimately quite nuanced. General readers — her primary audience — will benefit more from her analysis and synthesis of the problem, than they will suffer from this double helix Achilles heel. And secondly, Kelly ends the book with chapters on Imagination, Demonstration, and Pathways that provide ample material oriented toward solutions.
End Times: Idiosyncratic or Systemic?
In contrast to Kelly’s journalistic, advocacy-based approach to exploring wealth inequality, Peter Turchin takes a strictly scientific, evidence-based, empirical approach to wealth inequality in End Times — though he makes his “best effort to explain this model in accessible, which is to say nonmathematical, terms.” Toward that end, he commences key chapters with fictionalized stories to ground his scientific explorations in relatable, historical contexts.
One could consider this single volume as two distinct but intertwining books: one book summarizing cliodynamics, or the study of history as a science, though big data assessment and modeling), that Turchin co-initiated in the early 2000s, encapsulated in the 3-chapter Appendix; and another book applying cliodynamics to our current crises of emerging political / state collapse in the United States (“I must write about what I know best … based on my more than four decades of studying American society from the inside”) by way of historical analysis of prior boom / bust dynamics and integration / disintegration oscillations, encompassing the primary text. The focus of the book — social power in the broadest formulation (“the central question of the book is about social power”), wealth inequality more specifically, and the wealth pump (which “takes from the workers and gives to the ‘bosses’” and also “transfers wealth from the developing [sic] world to rich regions”) even more specifically — essentially serves as the bridge between these two “books” within the book.
“From the beginning, my colleagues and I in this new field [of cliodynamics] focused on cycles of political integration and disintegration, particularly on state formation and collapse. This is the area where our field’s findings are arguably the most robust — and arguably the most disturbing. It became clear to us through quantitative historical analysis that complex societies everywhere are affected by recurrent and, to a certain degree, predictable waves of political instability, brought about by the same basic set of forces, operating across the thousands of years of human history. It dawned on me some years ago that, assuming the pattern held, we were heading into the teeth of another storm.”
In more specific terms, Turchin identifies the key collapse variables in the general cliodynamics model thus:
“when a state, such as the United States, has stagnating or declining real wages (wages in inflation-adjusted dollars), a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, declining public trust, and exploding public debt, these seemingly disparate social indicators are actually related to each other dynamically. Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of looming political instability.”
Given that “the central question of the book is about social power,” Turchin defines social power as “the ability to influence others people,” and he defines “power holders” as “elites.” He also defines several different forms (or sources) of power: wealth-based power (which is closely correlated with political power); bureaucratic or administrative power; ideological power; and coercive (militant) power.
Distilled to its essence, Turchin focuses primarily on the twin dynamics (two sides of the same coin) of popular immiseration (increasing misery of common folk, which is directly caused by the wealth pump siphoning resources from commoners to concentrate it amongst elites) and elite overproduction (leading to intraelite conflicts when the number of elite aspirants eclipses the available seats of power — like a game of musical chairs) that “gradually undermine[s] our civic cohesiveness, the sense of national cooperation without which states quickly rot from within.”
This is certainly illuminating to me, and I imagine to you too, as it isn’t an immediately obvious or already-well-trodden analysis; the fact that it is underpinned by a robust body of empirical historical data makes it all the more compelling. Perhaps the most fascinating aspects are the historical analyses of, for example, the Civil War (which was fueled less by moral abhorrence to slavery, and more by pecuniary anxiety over what Turchin calls “slavocracy,” or the socioeconomic system predicated on slavery) and the New Deal (which created incredible stability primarily by flattening the wealth divide in ways the benefitted those on both sides of the wealth divide.)
While I find this unexpected explanation of the primary causal factors of pre-collapse crisis fascinating, what I find more fascinating is how Turchin handles (or doesn’t handle, as the case may be) other, seemingly significant explanations for collapse factors. At the risk of exhibiting the tendency of what Turchin labels “amateur armchair theorists” (who fall prey to cherry picking and what Turchin calls the Bed of Procrustes — “stretching a little here, cutting off a bit there”), I’m going to challenge Turchin on two intertwining factors of collapse: climate change, and its role in the aggregation of systemic risk into existential risk.
While Kelly doesn’t play this connection out in depth, she does acknowledge the interrelationship between climate change and wealth supremacy:
“While ecological overshoot is one root cause of the polycrisis, equally implicated is financial overshoot: the accumulation of too much financial wealth, even as the system remains intent on limitless more…the world is awash in far too much financial capital, just as the atmosphere is awash in too much carbon.”
Turchin handles the issue thus:
“Correlating societal collapse with climatic perturbations is a favorite pastime of collapsologists. But drawing a direct causal arrow from worsening climate to social breakdown doesn’t work very well… In my view, external forcing due to climatic fluctuations is not a direct cause of social breakdown. Its effect is more subtle … [its] role is to synchronize cyclic tendencies, not to cause cycles themselves, which are driven by mechanisms internal to each empire.”
He calls this “dynamic entrainment” (or “odd sympathy,” as Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens called it in 1665 when he first observed the phenomenon) illustrated thus: “If you put several metronomes on the same board and start them swinging randomly (out of sync), after a while they will all start swinging together in perfect synchrony.”
While Turchin’s reluctance to focus on “climatic perturbations / fluctuations” as causative of societal collapse makes perfect sense looking through a cliodynamic lens of historical correlation, does this necessarily mean that climate change cannot be playing a causal role in the current context?
Turchin’s rationale seems predicated on the idiosyncratic nature of discrete “empires” (or societies), but what happens when scoping back the level of analysis to the global level? Indeed, the underlying theory of the Anthropocene is that human influence has aggregated to the geologic level of impact, as discrete impacts aggregate to the systemic scale. In the realm of risk, idiosyncratic risk expresses itself at the single institutional level, while systemic risk aggregates across institutions — and can continue to aggregate into existential risk.
So while Turchin is justified in focusing exclusively on social power dynamics (wealth inequality, popular immiseration, elite overproduction, and intraelite conflicts) as the cause of societal collapses from an historical perspective, the question arises whether other dynamics (such as climate change) might play an equal (or larger?) causative influence on societal collapse in the present and foreseeable future — particularly at the global level of analysis.
Or perhaps more interestingly, might wealth inequality intersect with climate change to create intertwining, cascading collapse dynamics? That’s certainly one implication of the Oxfam / Stockholm Environment Institute Climate Equality report issued earlier this week, which found that the richest 10% of the global population was responsible for 50% of consumption-based carbon emissions in 2019, while the poorest 50% are responsible for a mere 8% of emissions. In other words, wealth inequality is directly related to climate destabilization hurtling humanity toward collapse dynamics.
To counteract these systemic and existential risks, the report makes a set of recommendations that echo the points made by both Kelly and Turchin:
1. Rapidly and radically reducing economic inequality to make it possible to bring down emissions and end poverty.
2. Rapidly and substantially reducing carbon emissions, particularly by the richest countries, individuals, and corporations, to keep global warming temperature to the safe limit of 1.5°C. Using taxation of the richest to raise the trillions of dollars needed to fund this transition and to pay for the Loss and Damage already caused.
3. Fundamentally change the goal of our economies to wellbeing for all and planetary flourishing.
Here’s how Turchin ends his book: “Complex human societies need elites — rulers, administrators, thought leaders — to function well. We don’t want to get rid of them; the trick is to constrain them to act for the benefit of all.”
And earlier, he offers this glimmer of hope:
“we should all take heart from the fact that societies have arrived at this same crossroads before, and though sometimes (even most of the time) the road has led to great loss of life and societal breakdown, sometimes it has led to a far happier resolution for most people involved.”
And as I write this, a similar glimmer of hope arrives in my inbox from historian Heather Cox Richardson, reporting on the agreement between the United Auto Workers and the big 3 American automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis) ratifying new contracts that “include wage increases of at least 25% over the next 4.5 years, cost of living increases, union coverage for electric battery plants, and the reopening of a closed plant,” according to Richardson. Union president Shawn Fain told Rachel Maddow of MSNBC:
“It’s a sign of the times…. In the last 40 years…working class people went backwards continually…. There’s this massive chasm between the billionaire class and the working class and…when those things get out of balance, we need to turn it upside down. When 26 billionaires have as much wealth as half of humanity, that’s a crisis….”
Perhaps this represents a much-needed inflection point from concentrated to distributed social power that portends well for softening the embedded collapse dynamics. We can apply active hope that Kelly’s Wealth Supremacy and Turchin’s End Times play a continuing role in fueling the shift toward wealth equality as a means of creating social stability.
(1) “Wealth supremacy can be defined as the cultural and political processes and attitudes by which persons of wealth accumulate and maintain prestige, privileges, and power that others lack.”
(2) We at r3.0 have long advocated for a “sustainability case for business.”