The Piketty puzzle: reproducing inequality in everyday life

Jeff Rudin
Thomas Piketty. Photo: Metropolico.org. Used under license of Creative Commons Legal Code.
Jeff Rudin

While the government earnestly pledges its commitment to reversing inequality, it reproduces inequality in the normal behaviour it expects for itself and the broader elite of South Africa’s political-economy. Two recent and very public events illustrate these opposing positions.

Such is our national concern about inequality that the organisers of the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture invited Thomas Piketty to give its 13th lecture. Piketty, the author of the global bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, is by far the best known contemporary economist.

He begins his book on global inequality with an account of the Marikana massacre. Who better, then, than Piketty to come to South Africa to assist us in reversing our internationally notorious levels of inequality?

At the same time as his Mandela lecture, the International Renewable Energy Conference (IREC) was about to begin its three-day event at the Cape Town International Conference Centre. This event was being held in Africa for the first time – hence, its South African name, SAIREC.

SAIREC was an unconscious-though-consciously contrived celebration of the very inequality Piketty was lecturing against in Johannesburg. I was at SAIREC as it was open to the public privileged to have a computer, access to the internet and transport to the conference. What follows are my reflections on the contradictions that have become so normalised as to occasion no stir. Indeed, any disquiet as might arise from this piece could just as easily be in reaction only to my bad manners in questioning the respect ‘naturally’ given to our leaders. My intention is not to moralise by accusations of hypocrisy directed at individual leaders but rather to draw attention to the daily outrages we no longer see because they have been standardised into everyday life.

Economics professor Piketty seems to be unaware of the psycho-social dimension without which the economy – any economy – could not function; a dimension that both directly reflects the economy and reflects back on the economy in diffuse ways.

The psycho-social dimension, specific to the current worldwide market economy, reflects the needs of an economy driven by profit maximisation rather than meeting basic human needs. The economy, in which inequality is a natural by-product, as Piketty demonstrates, leaves a huge – and increasingly growing – amount of money in a constantly shrinking pool of the Super Rich. They – the ‘one per centers’ – set the ultimate expectations for the economy heavily dependent on ‘consumers’ driven by status and constantly changing fashion to create the demand without which there would be no production, no growth measured as gross domestic product (GDP). Just think, for example, of the huge ‘off-roaders’ on urban roads, or the annual ‘new’ car models or of the cell-phones that are virtually obsolete by the time one gets to buy them. Ultimately, our self-esteem comes to depend on the material symbols of our status. We end up being extensions of our status symbols. Relinquishing these symbols evokes understandable fear and anxiety.

We need to have this psycho-social dimension of our economy constantly in mind lest, like Piketty, we find it hard to understand why our inequality continues to get worse and why his modest proposals about a wealth tax and minimum statutory pay are much more than just economic challenges to the rich.

And, now, back to SAIREC. Nkandla finds its echo at SAIREC. Spending R246 million on a rural house is an extraordinarily large amount. The government which sees nothing untoward spending this amount, not on building a new home from scratch, but merely on specific ‘security upgrades’, wouldn’t blink an eye at the security measures – or the costs – at SAIREC. After all, it is only ordinary people who have to confront the rampant violent crime engendered by our record-breaking inequality.

To cocoon the important people at SAIREC from any exposure to harm, the following took place: it would seem that the entire conference centre was temporarily surrounded by steel fences; all ‘ordinary’ people who went to the centre’s main entrance to register were taken by taxi to a far corner of the centre where an elaborate registration process took place, including the photographing of each individual delegate; x-ray booths, like the ones available at airports, had made their way into the centre, with all the ordinaries and our luggage having to go through them. A large number of police appeared to be on permanent duty at each of the centre’s access/exit points and within the centre itself.

One person, designated unimportant, took exception to the consequent indignity of having to stand in a queue and, via his lackey, came to the front of the line and announced that he was a deputy mayor from somewhere or other and therefore expected preferential treatment (with me being next in the line to witness this).

Given the connection between the need for visible status within an economy that naturally produces inequality, it is to be expected that the ordinary will not be allowed to remain ordinary for long. Sooner or later aspects of the everyday will be inflated with new importance. Hence, for instance, the ordinary ‘summary’ has long been turned into a much more important sounding ‘executive summary’.

The same process has now overtaken meetings. There are ordinary meetings and the ‘high-level meetings’. There is no agreed standard of how important the participants have to be in order to be elevated to ‘high level’, but SAIREC’s status was secured by having its own quota of ‘high level’ meetings at which very important people were present.

Eating is a social activity that readily lends itself to a plethora of class, race and status distinctions. Unlike their latter day comrades, the early South African communists practiced their egalitarianism; they were known in Zulu with the English translation of ‘the people who eat together’. None of this fraternisation took place at SAIREC. The mass of plebs ate together standing up in a very large room. We ate good food and in more than sufficient quantity. The people deemed to be Very Important had their own VIP eating facility. Such is the logic of the desperation to be recognised as important in an unequal society that it is only a matter of time before being a VIP is no longer important enough for eating purposes. The new pinnacle of self-importance is already to be a VVIP, a Very, Very Important Person. Not even someone like Woody Allen would have dreamed this up.

In a setting that makes a virtue of ‘high-level’ meetings and VIP exclusive eating areas, the absence of workers amongst the speakers should cause no surprise. Still, it should be noted, that there were 161 invited speakers as per the programme. Not one of them represented a trade union.

The other very notable absence was climate change. Climate change was mentioned only four times in the 29-page programme and then only because four of the speakers had climate change connections. The programme had 105 prepared questions to assist delegates in deciding which particular session to attend. Not one of them mentions climate change. This isn’t surprising. Although the conference was about renewable energy, its primary focus was not climate change or meeting the energy and employment needs of those disadvantaged by South African inequality. The conference was unashamedly about renewable energy as a most lucrative business opportunity made especially propitious by the Eskom disaster and generalised environmental concerns.

Expecting a market economy to make the poor the beneficiaries of renewable energy is the same as expecting the economy not to reproduce inequality. Piketty’s self-confessed puzzle about the nature of South Africa’s inequality extends to Piketty himself. His crude economic determinism not only excludes the role of people with distinctive multi-dimensional class interests – which leaves him scratching his head over why his rational economic prescriptions to overcome inequality are ignored in all the countries in which he is celebrated – but his economics has little room for climate change. This is a somewhat large omission given that the poor of the world are climate change’s first victims.

Rudin is with the AIDC (Alternative Information and Development Centre).Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp or the AIDC.

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