Piketty and the Shirky Principle

Giving your opinion is an addiction

In The Life Of Brian, Monty Python´s brilliant parody of the life of Jesus, there is a great scene where the resistance fighters – called The People’s Front of Judea – meet to discuss how to take action against the Roman occupiers. Sudden and acute action appears necessary to free their brother fighter Brian, so the fighters do what they’re best at: they hold a meeting in order to seek consensus around a motion to discuss possible action. What the meeting actually tells us, is that the role of The People’s Front of Judea is not to overthrow the enemy, but to maintain The People’s Front of Judea itself. 30 years later the internet intellectual Clay Shirky coined a term for this, the ¨Shirky Principle¨: ¨Institutions will try to preserve the problem which they are the solution to.¨

The fuss around Thomas Piketty’s visit to The Netherlands reminded me of the Shirky Principle. I love this country very much. But my god, everybody in this country wants to have a point and make it. Every newspaper you open, every commentator on TV bows to Thomas Piketty. Every politician feels the unbearable urge to state their own critical opinion of the book.

Not that they’ve read it. But they have read the opinions of others; completely one-sided, communist, not relevant to The Netherlands, over-hyped, lefty nonsense, dangerous…(delete as applicable).

All those who pronounce judgement only aim to provide themselves with an aura of critical thinking. All these judgements are a show of incredible stupidity. Piketty’s book is not a matter of opinion. It is 700 pages of heavy, well-supported scientific argument. We collectively make up some criticism and decide that our imagination suffices to happily discharge ourselves of the responsibility to listen and take action. As every creative knows: any idea is dead as soon as the client decides to ¨just discuss it internally again¨.

Back to Piketty. Only very rarely does a book appear that produces a large scale reaction in people. But if they do, they have the power to change the direction of history. The (disastrous) impact of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital is not to be overlooked. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has forever shaped the world image of the Neo-Liberal Republicans and given the financial world blind faith in the free market. Just as well as The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida has had a worldwide impact on urban policy.

Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century wants to invite us to save capitalism from the self-destructive direction it has now taken. So sheer commentary for the sake of commentary is not an answer. It even rules out further action. So in this case, the news media are actually very conservative instruments. They create room for critique from the sidelines. And by doing so, they don’t tackle the problem, they serve the market for criticism in order to maintain themselves.Save

So, next time you come across an interesting comment, think of Shirky’s Principle. Most commentators aren’t in for change, they merely serve their market. Not solving the problem, but making it stay while creating a floor for even more criticism. Too bad, because what we really need is to turn our ideas into reality.

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