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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Theorems, Theories, and Limits


Theorems, Theories, and Limits

From time to time, a French thinker writes a work that has everyday use for Americans.  Voltaire’s Candide, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and Camus’ The Stranger come to mind. Add to that list Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Distracting rhetoric from Democrats and Republicans about the widening gap between poverty and wealth in our country makes listening to what Paul Krugman calls a “sweeping meditation on inequality” a rather sobering exercise.

Piketty goes beyond the American boundaries of Robert B. Reich’s The Work of Nations, which alludes to Adam Smith’s class The Wealth of Nations. He provokes liberal signifying on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. None of this is surprising.  What does take us aback is the equation of Piketty with a “rock star,” in certain sectors of mass media, as if his serious inquiry about inequality is as disposable as transnational noise.  It is not.

Piketty deserves to be critiqued seriously for what he exposes about economics as a “contingent” science and about the limits of explanation. Lacking the finite certitude of pure mathematics, economics is culture-bound, determined by human choices and the amoral activities of Nature, activities oblivious to the needs and desires of people, lesser animals, and other life forms. Oddly, the efforts to trivialize the real value of Piketty’s work only highlight why his theorems and reasoning are not “universal.”

Based on statistical analysis of megadata from France, the United States, and Britain, Capital neither address nor provides a model for addressing “universal” issues in the global tragicomedy of capital. It is a Western tool that smashes complacent thought about inequality in the United States; the tool simply breaks when it strikes the economic walls of Asia and Africa. Alternative tools are needed.

Take Nigeria as a target for analysis of inequality in the context of rampant neo-colonialism. Understanding of Nigerian inequality (and perhaps that of other countries impacted by Islamic fervor) requires such an instrument as Adetoro Rasheed Adenrele’s “Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria as a symptom of poverty and political alienation,” Journal of Humanities and Social Science 3.5 (2012): 21-26.

Adenrele’s article lacks the Western elegance and rigor of Piketty’s book, but it has the indigenous eloquence and specificity necessary for dealing with inequality in such contemporary African societies as Mali, Egypt, Senegal, and Libya.  What it models can possibly be expanded and adapted by Asian economists to deal with the Asian giants China and India.  Adenrele’s use of fundamentalist theory, poverty theory, and corruption theory is not sufficiently cold, but it inches toward solid explanation of capital and human collapse. However divergent the work of Adenrele and Piketty might be, the primal lesson to be learned from both thinkers is the inevitable recognition of the limits of critical reasoning, the restriction of cognitive capacity explored in David Faust’s The Limits of Scientific Reasoning. Both thinkers raise crucial, non-universal questions about inequality and apocalyptic journeys in history.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 20, 2014

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