Time for Socialism: The World We Made, The World We’ll Govern, is Thomas Piketty’s most damning, and the most expensive, indictment of capitalism. It is written in the form of a 12-point manifesto, and its original import was to forecast future catastrophic economic decline, as inflation destroys the value of stock and capital, growth has more or less permanently reversed, and the modern country itself collapses. That an essay such as this should warrant a book price of $148 says much about a staggering, seemingly unstoppable decline of the West, but it also illuminates the rising power of globalism; and as such, his book leaves the reader with powerful, if overwhelming, questions.
Among those are not the obvious ones, such as, “How can anyone employ the word ‘socialism’ now?” Certainly not the kind of force necessary to overwhelm what Piketty calls “the economic competition of the” in a “natural, energetic” market economy. At the level of the language, Piketty invokes commas and semicolons; the news media mostly leaves space for short sentences. He and the mainstream of the left leave no room for private property or property ownership, except the state’s (including home ownership). This may be how a traditionally individualistic world now competes with the global, advanced, statist model. But in economics, private property is not just a personal possession, but a person’s most important service. According to Piketty, capital is only to be used to form companies that generate profit for investors; the citizenry’s personal home should be sold off; public education should be privatized. This poses the obvious, but difficult, question of how the liberty of the individual may disappear in the moral decrepitude of the community.
“Time for Socialism” ends on a hopeful note, perhaps due to the lengths Piketty goes to describe the socio-economic gravity at work in the West. This doesn’t stop the “explosive combination of profound structural changes” to which he refers, however, nor does it explain why Piketty is on the wrong side of these changes. And his biggest problem is that his evident insight into where the arrow of history is pointing is overwhelmed by total illiteracy on the part of the reader.
Piketty’s quixotic, sometimes dangerous-sounding remedies are worth a read. Particularly, it is worthwhile to read the analysis on how a new set of governments at the national, regional, and global level might adopt more-progressive policies that would become part of a new system of living together. However, he fails to demonstrate that this new system of living is likely to follow his model. He argues not for creating a politics of empathy, but for replacing political and economic incentives that hinder genuine intergenerational mobility. While this is indeed one of the great failing of the U.S. political system, it is not clear whether or how such a shift could be achieved with one of the world’s most powerful and successful political parties and one of the world’s most powerful (and not yet Communist) financial powerbrokers. If it were, it is certainly not at the level of an entire nation, nor is it likely.
Certainly, the beginnings of a successful movement to recover from the present ills, ecological, social, and financial, are already underway. The solutions to our social and political problems are now not those that Piketty advocates, but those led by individuals rather than broad nation-state delegations. And what does he propose? Incremental tweaking, to turn most liberal-democratic policies into neofascist ones.
Or perhaps it is just that political liberty becomes harder to maintain as we move closer to a system in which countries replicate one another.