Review: Thomas Piketty’s ‘Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire’

Nobody comes out of the womb a socialist, and Thomas Piketty, like the rest of us, was not born a socialist.  Socialists are made through life experiences, and the experiences that create socialists are unique to each of us even if there may be some common themes. 

In 2014, Piketty published an 800-page book, Capital in the 21st Century. Despite its length and the fact that it was written by an economist, the book became a global best seller. It contained many ideas and proposals that socialists support, but Piketty did not define himself as a socialist.

Now he does. And his socialism is not dissimilar to that of many DSA members: it is opposed to hierarchies of domination based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc. It is a socialism that compels us to “change the economic system” by reducing inequalities and providing equal access to “education, employment and property, including a minimum inheritance for all, regardless of their origins” (p. 25). 

I think what made Piketty (and myself) a socialist is a long-time concern with inequality, especially wealth inequality and how to counter the overwhelming global power and planetary destructiveness of this concentration of wealth.  Let me be clear: Piketty does argue that wealth is less concentrated than perhaps it was in the “gilded age” of the late nineteenth century. But I believe – and I think he would agree – that the global concentration of wealth in the hands of no more than 2,500 people, a group – dare we say a global ruling class – that collectively holds more wealth than the global underclass of 4.6 billion, poses an existential challenge to humanity, and one that socialists must take on if we can have any hopes of “chang[ing] the economic system.”  

Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century had wealth inequality and its growth as its central concern, manifest in his famous r>g that described the tendency of wealth to accumulate faster than the growth of the economies in which the very wealthy reside (when they’re not off on their vanity  space flights). 

Now the entirety of Time for Socialism is not all about wealth. Piketty’s essays range from the French Right to the COVID  debt and much in between. But excessive wealth and its detrimental impact are woven into the tapestry of the book. There are essays on inequality in France, China and the United States (among others). Although the book was written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the billionaire kleptocrats who dominate the Russian economy are a prime example of overweening wealth concentration: their collective holdings amount to 35% or more of the Russian Gross Domestic Product. (The United States is a piker with billionaire wealth less than 18% of GDP.) Piketty revisits the importance of a wealth tax, a policy proposal that he helped Elizabeth Warren’s campaign put forward during the 2020 primaries, and attacks Emmanuel Macron’s decision to repeal the tax in France. 

But most important, Piketty understands that there is no major social or economic problem that is not made worse – often much worse – by the concentration of global wealth. To take one, perhaps not always obvious, example: human activity and climate change. All of us contribute to carbon emissions, but some of us contribute much more than the rest of us. Upper income households contribute more to global warming than the global average per person, emitting four times their “share” of carbon  – a carbon emission intensity of 4:1. But the global top 1% carbon emission intensity is 15:1, and the top 0.1% carbon emission intensity is more than 70:1. On a country by country basis, China is the largest emitter of carbon, about twice the amount that comes from the U.S.  But, China’s population is more than four times that of the U.S. so China’s carbon emissions intensity per capita is less than 50% of the U. S. 

Of course, wealth is not just Russian-owned yachts, the non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that are trendy among millennial wealthy, or the traditional wealthy collections of fine art or jewelry. Most of the wealth of the very wealthy is financial: for example  ownership claims on property, intellectual or real, that is the core of capitalist production and growth – and also the source of power in the workplace over the vast majority of the global workforce. And I haven’t even mentioned politics, although Piketty does. 

As Piketty sums it up, “we will not be able to resolve environmental challenges unless we make the reduction of inequality central to political action” (p. 274). The solution to the impending climate catastrophe as well as the possibility of a humane world in the future requires an all-out assault on wealth inequality, especially, as Piketty argues in some detail, through a revamped tax system that taxes not only income but also wealth (p. 244). The importance of taxing the latter should be clear from the foregoing, but here is one last statistic from Piketty that drives home the point: In the 1970s, global private wealth equaled about 300% of global national income; today it is more than 600% of global national income. 

I remain puzzled that this obscene concentration of wealth is not a source of widespread outrage, beyond the followers of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and, more important, why socialists and environmentalists more generally in the United States are not making this a centerpiece of our politics.

(Also check out DL’s 2020 interview with Piketty, Ideology Matters.Ed.)