Thomas Piketty: 'Time for socialism'

February 22, 2022
Time for Socialism by Thomas Picketty

Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a world on fire, 2016–2021
by Thomas Piketty
Yale University Press, 2021.
346pp. $34.95.

“If someone had told me in 1990 that I would publish a collection of articles in 2020 entitled Vivement le socialism! in French, I would have thought it was a bad joke," said Thomas Piketty.

Having witnessed the collapse of the Eastern European regimes and the Soviet Union, which claimed to represent “Real Socialism”, Piketty, a French economist, Le Monde correspondent and author of the 2014 book Capital and the 21st Century, called himself a pro-capitalist liberal.

However, Piketty’s politics has shifted to the point where he argues for his vision of socialism in his latest book: Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016‒2021.

Starting in reaction to the 2008–09 Global Financial Crisis, Piketty became more and more disillusioned with what he calls “hyper capitalism”. By 2020, he described himself as a “democratic socialist”, advocating for a new way to move beyond capitalism, through winning elections to implement progressive taxation to combat the wealth gap and the climate crisis.

These essays come at a time when when we have witnessed the rise of the far right, the Brexit referendum, the election of leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, the ascendency of Emanuel Macron to the French presidency, the continued climate crisis and the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Although supportive of the welfare state and educational equality, Piketty sees this as not being enough to address the inequalities that have plagued the world in the past 40 years or more. Piketty advocates measures such as shifting power relationships, beginning with greater worker representation in the governance and wealth sharing of corporations.

This is essentially the social democracy of the post-World War II era, where social democratic parties in coalition with trade unions forced significant concessions on the ruling class and came to power to implement policies that ensured full employment and extensive welfare benefits.

In the United States, the legacy of the Great Depression and the New Deal also meant post-war policies that left capitalists with less power and wealth than before. As a result, between 1945 and 1973, Europe, the US and elsewhere in the West became less economically unequal.

However, this inequality never completely went away and the power of the capitalist class remained. From 1973 onwards, corporations and the capitalist class started to take these concessions back. More importantly, in the context of the Cold War, the decline of the Soviet Union meant Western governments felt less need to give concessions to workers, with even social democratic parties moving rightward in the 1980s.

Piketty believes in the need to turn our backs on what he calls the ideology of “absolute free trade”, in favour of “a model of development based on explicit and verifiable principles of economic, fiscal and environmental justice”, made possible through left-wing parties winning power through the ballot box.

Ultimately, even during the immediate post-war decades, there are countless examples of US and British imperialism backing right-wing coups against reformist governments they saw as threatening their interests, such as Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973).

Furthermore, in more recent times when left-wing leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders gained or challenged for leadership in their respective centre-left parties, they found themselves subject to all sorts of sabotage from without (and within) by the capitalist class and party bureaucrats hostile to their visions for change.

Ultimately, while Time for Socialism addresses many of the problems facing our world and proposes some decent solutions, Piketty’s reformism fails to address the fact that unless we break the power of the capitalist class and the structures that prop it up, we are never going to truly overcome continued economic inequality, climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of the far right.

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