If they had told me in 1990 that in 2020 I was going to publish a collection of chronicles entitled Long live socialism! I would have thought it was a bad joke. At the age of 18, I had just spent the fall of 1989 following on the radio the collapse of communist dictatorships and “real socialism” in Eastern Europe. In February 1990 I participated in a French student trip in support of the Romanian youth, who had just disposed of the Ceausescu regime. We arrived at the Bucharest airport in the middle of the night and then went by bus to the sad and snowy city of Brasov, nestled in the arc of the Carpathians. Romanian youths proudly showed us bullet holes in the walls, testimonies of their revolution. In March 1992 I would make my first trip to Moscow, where I saw the same empty stores and the same gray avenues. I had managed to infiltrate the baggage of a Franco-Russian colloquium entitled Psychoanalysis and social sciences, and with a group of somewhat lost French academics I was able to visit Lenin’s mausoleum and Red Square, where the Russian flag had just replaced the Soviet one.
Other articles by Thomas Piketty
Born in 1971, I belong to a generation that did not have time to be seduced by communism and that became an adult noting the absolute failure of Sovietism. Like many, in the 1990s I was more liberal than socialist, proud as a peacock of my judicious observations, distrustful of my elders and the nostalgic, and did not bear with those who resolutely refused to see that the market economy and private property was part of the solution.
Lo and behold, thirty years later, in 2020, hypercapitalism has gone too far. Now I am convinced that we must think about overcoming capitalism, in a new form of socialism, participatory and decentralized, federal and democratic, ecological, mestizo and feminist.
History will decide if the word “socialism” is definitely dead and should be replaced. In my opinion, it can be saved, and in fact it is still the most appropriate term to designate the idea of an alternative economic system to capitalism. In any case, one cannot be content with being “against” capitalism or neoliberalism: one must also and above all be “in favor of” something else, which requires being able to precisely define the ideal economic system that one wants. I would like to put into practice the just society that one has in mind, whatever name you finally decide to give it. It has become commonplace to say that the current capitalist system has no future, as it deepens inequalities and depletes the planet. This is not false, but, in the absence of a concrete alternative, the current system still has many days to go.
As a professor and researcher in the social sciences, I have specialized in the study of the history of inequalities and the relationship between economic development, wealth distribution and political conflict, which has led me to publish several voluminous works. I have also contributed to the creation of the World Inequality Database (WID), a vast collective and participatory project aimed at providing greater transparency on the evolution of income and wealth inequalities in the different societies of the planet.
On the basis of what I have learned in these historical investigations, as well as my experience as a citizen-observer from the period 1990-2020, I have tried to propose in my last book some “elements for a participatory socialism” (…). I must clarify that these “elements” constitute only a starting point among other possible ones, a tiny contribution to an enormous process of collective elaboration, contradictory discussion and social and political experimentation, a long-term process that must be done with all humility and tenacity. (…)
Let’s start with a statement that some may find surprising. From a long-term perspective, the long march towards equality and participatory socialism is well under way. Nothing technically prevents us from continuing to advance along the path already open, unless all of us get down to work. History shows that inequality is essentially ideological and political, not economic or technological. This optimistic view may seem paradoxical in these dark times. However, it corresponds to reality. Inequalities have been reduced considerably from a long-term perspective, thanks mainly to the new social and fiscal policies put in place during the 20th century. Much remains to be done, but the truth is that we can go a long way by drawing on the lessons of history. Take, for example, the evolution of the concentration of property in the last two centuries. In the first place, it is found that the part of total property (total real estate, financial and professional assets, net of debts) in the hands of the richest 1% of the population remained at an astronomical level throughout the nineteenth century and until the beginning of the 20th century – which shows, by the way, that the promise of equality of the French Revolution was more theoretical than real, at least when it came to the redistribution of property. Second, it is observed that the share of total property held by the richest 1% fell sharply during the 20th century: it was around 55% on the eve of the First World War, compared to about 25% today. Note, however, that this share is still about five times higher than that of the poorest 50% of the population, which currently owns just over 5% of the total wealth (despite the fact that they are, by definition, fifty times as many as the richest 1%). The icing on the cake is that this low share of total wealth has been declining since the 1980s and 1990s, a trend that can be seen in the United States, Germany and the rest of Europe as well as in India, Russia and China. In short: the concentration of property (and therefore economic power) has decreased significantly over the last century, but it remains extremely strong. The reduction in wealth inequality has benefited above all the “wealthy middle class” (40% of the population between the richest 10% and the bottom 50% of the distribution), but it has benefited very little in the middle poorest of the population.
Thomas Piketty is director of research at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, professor at the École d’Economiques de Paris, and co-director of the World Inequality Database. His book ‘Capital in the 21st century’ was a best seller. This excerpt is a preview of ‘Long live socialism!’ (Deusto), which will be published on April 7. The publishing house Grup62 publishes it on the same date in Catalan. Here you can read the excerpt from ‘Una altra forma de socialisme’.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.