Is There A Gradual Path to Socialism?
A review of Thomas Piketty's new book
By Eric Blanc
Review of Time for Socialism: Dispatches From a World on Fire, 2016–2021 by Thomas Piketty (Yale University Press, 2021)
It’s a sign of the times that one of the world’s most prominent intellectuals has just published a book of essays titled Time for Socialism. As Thomas Piketty explains in the volume’s long introduction, “If someone had told me in 1990 that I would publish a collection of articles in 2020 entitled Vivement le socialisme! in French, I would have thought it was a bad joke.”
Yet for Piketty, like countless others across the world, the past three decades of what he calls “hypercapitalism” pushed him to question accepted truths about the prevailing economic system. And while the author still shied away from advocating socialism at the time of the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, his 2013 best-selling magnum opus on inequality, he’s now come to embrace the term — arguing that despite the baggage of its connotations of Stalinism, “It remains the most appropriate term to describe the idea of an alternative economic system to capitalism.”
There’s more to this than terminology. As Piketty explains, his embrace of socialism reflects his newfound conviction that “one cannot just be ‘against’ capitalism or neoliberalism: one must also and above all be ‘for’ something else, which requires precisely designating the ideal economic system that one wishes to set up.” Faced with rampant inequality and looming climate catastrophe, anger with capitalism is already widespread. What’s now needed above all, in his view, is a compelling and “clearly explained alternative.”
A New Socialism
Piketty summarizes his case for “a new form of socialism” as one that is “participative and decentralized, federal and democratic, ecological, multiracial, and feminist.” The vision he puts forward is decidedly in the democratic socialist tradition, which seeks to deepen and expand the representative institutions and political freedoms codified in today’s capitalist democracies. Far from projecting an insurrectionary uprising, Piketty argues that “it is quite possible to move gradually toward participatory socialism by changing the legal, fiscal, and social system.”
In his view, this transition has already begun: “If we take a long-term perspective, then the long march toward equality and participatory socialism is already well under way.” Though progress stalled out in the neoliberal era, he notes that the big story in capitalist countries since the nineteenth century is the “sharp reduction” in inequalities and the dramatic growth of the welfare state.
In Western Europe — the geographic focus of his book — total public expenditure in the early twentieth century was only 10 percent of the national income. But it has now reached 40-50 percent, overwhelmingly dedicated to funding services such as education, health care, and pensions. According to Piketty, this progress was the result of popular pressure as codified in governmental policy — it was neither a ruling-class maneuver to forestall radical change, nor was it an inevitable by-product of capitalist development left to its own devices.
Though he argues that the further expansion of public services — including, crucially, measures to make higher education accessible to all is — is essential for moving toward socialism, Piketty’s vision is not reducible to rebuilding robust welfare states. For true equality, we need to rethink the “whole range of relationships of power and domination.” At the core of his conception of the transition to socialism is radical redistribution of wealth combined with an extension of employee influence within private firms.
One of the more innovative proposals in Time for Socialism is to dramatically scale up progressive taxation to provide a “minimum inheritance for all” of roughly $180,000 for everybody when they turn twenty-five years old. Through this policy, Piketty envisions building a society in which “everyone would own a few hundred thousand euros, where a few people would perhaps own a few million, but where the higher holdings . . . would only be temporary and would quickly be brought down by the tax system to more rational and socially more useful levels.”
Providing a generous financial cushion to all would, among its many benefits, free workers from being compelled by material necessity to accept bad working conditions, low pay, and workplace despotism. A sweeping top-to-bottom redistribution of wealth, in short, would “help to redefine the whole set of relations of power and social domination.”
To deepen this power shift, Piketty also proposes that all countries adopt workers’ comanagement, in which elected employee representatives constitute half of the boards of directors in all large enterprises. This proposal, he notes, has already been implemented in countries such as Sweden and Germany, resulting in “a considerable transformation of the classic shareholder logic.”
He nevertheless cautions against idealizing this comanagement system as it has been implemented in the past, arguing that more ambitious versions of it are possible. Piketty concludes his case by stressing his proposals’ provisional nature: the specific policies he puts forward “aim to open the debate, never to close it” because “the participatory socialism I’m calling for will not come from the top.”
A Welcome Shift
The fact that a thinker with Piketty’s intellectual influence has embraced socialism is significant in itself, paving the way for greater numbers of people to begin envisioning a world beyond capitalism. But what should we make of his vision of socialist transformation?
Talk of a relatively gradual and already underway shift toward socialism will no doubt raise eyebrows among radicals trained to expect that a break with capitalism will necessarily require some form of revolutionary rupture in the state and economy. Yet this gradualist vision should not be dismissed out of hand.
The truth is that we have no way yet to precisely predict the form that a transition to socialism will take in an advanced capitalist democracy. Piketty’s insistence that the radical reforms he envisions will be won through struggle against (rather than accommodation to) corporate power is likely sufficient as a strategic horizon for the foreseeable future. Though a more rapid and less peaceful revolutionary break may eventually be put on the agenda in the face of minoritarian employer reaction, there’s no need nor any political benefit to project immediate revolution as the only possible path forward.
Some radicals may similarly frown upon Piketty’s insistence that the transition to socialism is already underway, as seen in the growth of the welfare state and related declines in economic inequality. Yet here too the author is onto something: the reforms won by socialists, organized labor, and social movements over the past century have made significant incursions into market relations.
Despite neoliberalism’s ravages, the welfare state has not been dismantled even in places like the United States and the UK — current and future struggles for decommodification are thus being waged on a significantly higher social baseline than they were in, say, the 1930s. As such, the most pertinent criticism of social democrats — one shared by Piketty — is not that they were gradualists, but rather that they eventually proved incapable of being effective gradualists. Instead of continuing to shift power and control toward working people, social democratic parties largely abandoned this project in the face of economic crisis, globalization, and employer resistance from the 1980s onward.
Nor does it make sense to criticize Piketty for omitting calls for the nationalization of the economy’s commanding heights. There’s a strong argument to be made that markets for private goods are fully compatible with (and arguably necessary for) a thriving socialist society — provided that the state radically undermines capitalist power and wealth, that firm-based economic democracy is expanded, and that robust welfare policies provide everybody with the essential services they need to survive. That said, Piketty’s case would have been strengthened had he engaged more with proposals for a complete democratization of firms, as famously envisioned by Sweden’s “Meidner plan.”
No Path Forward Without Labor
A more significant limitation is that Piketty says little in the book about the importance of rebuilding the power of organized labor. This question gets passing mentions in his admonitions to “rethink institutions and policies including public services, and in particular, education, labor law, and organizations and the tax system” and to “stop denigrating the role of trade unions, the minimum wage, and salary scales.” Yet the author’s relative inattention to organized labor today is somewhat surprising given his commendable focus on the urgency of bringing back working-class politics and his consistent acknowledgement of the historical importance of trade unions in reducing inequality.
Perhaps Piketty, with his expertise in leveraging data to identify historical trends and policy solutions, felt that it was best to leave it to others to flesh out the strategic lines of march necessary to win his proposed vision. But without a revitalized labor movement to change the balance of class power, the author’s most ambitious policy solutions are unlikely to pass — and some of his other proposals might not have their intended consequences.
Employee comanagement, for example, generally can serve as a tool for increasing workers’ influence when paired with robust trade unions. But in the absence of the relatively favorable relationship of forces created by strong working-class organization and the credible threat of disruptive workplace action, comanagement plans risk becoming toothless at best and mechanisms of employer control at worst, pushing workers to rubber stamp bosses’ prerogatives.
None of this detracts from the overall importance of Time for Socialism — or the cogency of its vision. Piketty’s effort to sketch out an alternative to capitalism should be the cause for reflection by progressives still skeptical of “the S word.” And his work should be taken no less seriously by radicals, whose political effectiveness in capitalist democracies has all too often been undercut by a doctrinal attachment to formulas articulated for other eras and political contexts. To win a better world, the compellingly open-minded spirit of Time for Socialism may ultimately prove to be of even greater utility than its specific policy proposals.
Originally published in New Labor Forum
Adapted for Jacobin