The past devours the future.” So writes Piketty in his conclusion to Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Because r>g, wealth accumulates faster than the general welfare of society increases. The rich get richer and richer and richer and richer. Inheritance of the tremendous (and tremendously concentrated) wealth becomes more and more important. Democratic values decline. A plutocracy dominates. It’s a “potentially terrifying” prospect.
I find myself fascinated by the apocalyptic atmosphere of this vision of the future. As I noted in my first posting, it’s partly deliberate hyperbole designed to motivate us to take action in the present. But it’s also sincereand a sign of the times.
There’s a good deal of apocalyptic anxiety going around these days. We see it most clearly in discussion of global warming. Otherwise sober scientists can very nearly foam at the mouth as they describe the coming disasters. It’s also evident on the Right in America. Romney’s notorious comment about the 47 percent reflects a conservative feeling that we’re about to go over the cliff and into the abyss.
In these and other ways our age seems fixed on our all-too-human capacity for self-destruction. We’re destroying the planet. We’re destroying our country. Or as Piketty would have it, we’ve invented an economic machine that will destroy democracy.
I certainly believe we have a terrifying capacity for self-destruction. But we also have a remarkable capacity for invention, adaptation, and renewal. And so I find myself skeptical of “terrifying” trend lines charted by our latter-day prophets.
Better, I think, to see Piketty and others as reflecting our anxious moment in time. His apocalyptic tone gives rhetorical expression to what his charts clearly show. We’re at the end of an erathe post-war era.