28 March 2022

Time for Socialism

Dispatches from a World on Fire

Thomas Piketty
2021, Yale University Press, 360 pages,
ISBN 9780300259667

Reviewer: Bridget Rosewell

I found this a difficult book to review.  It is a collection of essays and journalism from a five year period.  Some of it is thoughtful, some of it seems naïve, some of it is based on unsupported assertion.  Here is an example of a frustrating sentence from a piece on the circular economy written in 2019.  “With the differences in wealth that exist at the moment, no ecological ambition is possible.”  That is a strong assertion which requires considerable elucidation.  How does Piketty support it?

A general theme which runs through the book is that ‘hypercapitalism’ is the construct of Reaganomics, Thatcherism etc.  It has produced the rise in inequality and the undoing of the social contract which lies behind social democracy as practised in the West in the aftermath of the Second World War. It is this that needs to be unwound and replaced by better democracy.  I’ll return to that in considering his introduction.

However, his evidence on ecology is missing while insisting on the primacy of his main concern with this version of capitalism.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the acceleration of climate change and of habitat destruction starts in precisely the period which he most admires.  We all became richer but it was based on exploitation of resources which cannot be sustained.  It’s not at all clear to me that the period of which he complains is the most relevant to ecological improvement.

So here is an influential public intellectual who appears to me to be in blinkers in his overwhelming focus.  He admits in the introduction that he is too young to have been attracted to communism and, indeed, that in the 1990s he agreed that the market economy was the way forward.  Now however he thinks that this has gone too far – hypercapitalism – and needs to be replaced by “a new form of socialism, participative and decentralised, federal and democratic, ecological, multiracial and feminist.” Phew.  I am not too young to have been attracted to communism, and an epiphany for me was the moment I realised that its proponents were budding tyrants and autocrats who believed that they knew better than me what I wanted or needed.  I see such people around me all the time and distrust them.  

It’s all very well to prescribe such a socialism, and I fell into this trap at one time, but how to get there or how to resolve different approaches and views is not only much more difficult but is not stated here.  I suspect Piketty believes that a new socialism would produce outcomes of which he approves but I don’t think that is at all guaranteed.  A clue here is that Trump and Brexit are shoved together as similar phenomena representing the attitudes of a class which wrongly viewed itself as under-represented and ignored by the educated and the elites.  From a writer concerned about democracy and equity I would have expected a more nuanced exploration of the very real concerns of voters.  

Piketty has several pieces which decry globalisation and free trade, but which at the same time argue for international bodies and international assemblies.  Yet none of these examine the actual experience and record of the European Parliament except to say that it should be composed of members of national parliaments.  Federal arrangements are hard to create and hard to maintain, as we know in the UK.  Discussion of a route to democracy is frustratingly absent here.

Should you read this book?  Perhaps.  The ideas propounded are influential and represent a stream of thought which has considerable resonance both in Europe and the UK.  Even if it is not well supported by evidence it can still matter.  I do suspect that after thirty years of globalisation and reaping the benefits of trade, that trajectory has peaked and begun to move back.  We are thinking harder about the context in which markets work – and those in which they don’t work.  Social mores are just as important as price signals and don’t always translate well across cultures.  If economists are to be useful it is crucial to understand those contexts and be responsive to them.  The world will never be like the standard model and God forbid that it should.